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No One Lost Their Jewish Last Name at Ellis Island. But We Gained a Safe Haven.

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Shortly before he died, my dad gave me a trove of family documents, some dating to the 19th century. For the first time I had confirmation of what our family name was before a great-uncle changed it to Carroll when he and his brothers immigrated to America.

My father’s parents moved from Russia to Paris before coming to the United States. Among the papers is a yellowed French immigration document signed by my grandfather on March 13, 1913; there he spells his last name Karoltchouk. On my grandmother’s “Permis de sejour a un etranger,” issued in Paris in 1914, it’s spelled Karolchouk. A cursory web search locates Jews with variations like Korolczuk and Karolchuk, which I am told is a common Polish surname.

My father was always ambivalent about his last name. His uncle was probably right that a deracinated name like Carroll made it easier for a family of Polish Jewish immigrants trying to gain a foothold in America (although my dad’s parents didn’t quite get the memo in naming my father Irving). On the other hand, Dad always felt the name suggested that he was trying to hide something or pretend to be something he was not.

The dilemmas of Jewish name-changing form a powerful chapter in novelist Dara Horn’s new collection of essays. “People Love Dead Jews” is an examination – deeply reported, at times brilliant and often bitter – on the persistent hatred aimed at Jews, even in their absence. A recurring theme of the book is the way antisemites, philosemites and Jews themselves rewrite and distort the past, and how Jewish identity is “defined and determined by the opinions and projections of others.”

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Our last names are a case in point. Horn explodes the old myth that Jews’ names were changed at Ellis Island by clerks too lazy or malevolent........

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