Last names (surnames) as we know them are a relatively new phenomenon among Ashkenazim (East European) Jews.  Among Sephardic Jews surnames were common.  We are a people whose calendar is nearly 6,000 years old, but surnames were established for some of us only in the 19th century; less than two hundred years ago.

In the Russian Pale of Settlement[1], Jews were required to take surnames at various times in different countries.  Czar Alexander I unsuccessfully mandated that Jews adopt surnames in 1804.  However, it was not until 1836 that all Russian Jews had surnames.  By 1844, they were compelled to enter their names in a public register.

My great grandfather, Dov Berel, was born circa 1848; 4 years after Jews were required to register.  His name must be in some public document.  I do not know if his father, Mordechai Yitzhak and mother (name unknown) had surnames at birth.  The same applies for my great grandmother, Elka and her parents.

Eastern European Jews rarely used surnames.  Until the end of the 19th century, the use of a family name was left to the discretion of the individual Jew.  Most Ashkenazi Jews still followed the custom of using only a given name and the patronymic (---son of---).  People were known by their given name and their father’s given name. Example--Azriel (ben) Dov.

Jews used their family names only when they had to; when they had some official business with a government institution (which was seldom), or when a letter was sent to them by government post.  Most surnames evolved informally.


At the start of my research, I made the classic beginner's mistake.  I assumed that the family name was spelled the way I spell it, despite warnings to the contrary.  That error prolonged my breakthrough to information regarding my family in Europe.  Had I employed other spellings of the family name, I would never have guessed that it was spelled AJZENBERG.  I would still be trying names beginning with Ais, Is, Eiz, etc.  It just never occurred to me to discover how the name was spelled in Polish or Russian.  Even after seeing the spelling Ajzenberg in a ship's manifest, I did not realize, at the time, that it was the Polish spelling.  I thought it was a misspelling.

In 1990, while visiting family in Israel I was shown my grandmother Minka's passport. I was puzzled.  There was that spelling again; the one I had seen on the two ship manifests and could not understand why.  I asked my Uncle Yitzhak and he matter-of-factly told me that is how the name is spelled in Polish.  Indeed, he and all the other family members in Israel spell their name Eisenberg, as I do.

That the family name is Ajzenberg there can be no doubt; for not only was my great grandfather an Ajzenberg but his wife, my great grandmother Elka, was also named Ajzenberg.   AJZENBERG is an uncommon spelling of a common Jewish name.  My early research did not unearth a reference to this particular spelling.  A 1992 Manhattan telephone directory listed no Ajzenbergs.  The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust made no reference to Ajzenberg.  A 1992 computer phone search of a database of 92 million households found one Ajzenberg.  He was living in Miami, Florida and has not responded to my letters.

The spelling E-i-s-e-n-b-e-r-g does not reflect the source of the name. That spelling is neither Polish nor Russian.  It is German. Land that today is Poland and part of Belarus was at the end of the 18th century territories of Prussia and Austria, where the official language was German.

That the family name is Ajzenberg can be documented from a number of different sources.  1. Two 1921 passenger lists I retrieved in 1987, containing the names of Dov Berel and Mowsza (my father) aboard the SS Gothland, and Elka and Leja on the SS Finland, use the above spelling.  Passenger manifests were written in English before the ships sailed to the United States.  In this case both passenger lists originated in Antwerp, Belgium.  The spelling of the family name was changed to Eisenberg after arrival at Ellis Island.  2. My grandmother, Minka’s Polish passport, which she used to immigrate to Palestine in 1936, employs the spelling, Ajzenberg.  3. In 1995 when I received copies of immigration material of Motol (Max/Morris) Eizenberg and his family from the Australian Archives.  His given names are referred to as “formerly Morduch or Norduch, Icho,” but his last name is consistently spelled Ajzenberg.  4. Lastly, a branch of the family that settled in Brazil also uses the Polish spelling of the name. 

According to Alexander Beirer[2] the name Ajzenberg is considered to be an Artificial Compound Surname, which is different from other types of surnames in that the name has nothing to do with either the origin or personal characteristics of their first bearers.  Most European Jews received their surnames by decree.  The process was artificial. Names were often imposed by bureaucrats or thought up by the bearers themselves.  Common names sprang up in many non-related families throughout Eastern Europe.  

According to Beirer, artificial compound surnames have a standard structure.  The first part comes from various groupings such as precious metals/gems, adjectives designating beauty/colors/flora, words related to the heavens, size, etc.  In my family’s case the reference is to a material AJZEN that means iron.  The second part of the name falls into two groups: words related to plants or topographical references.   BERG or Barg (Yiddish) means mountain.

My family name, like many others, sprung up simultaneously in many places in Eastern Europe among many unrelated families.  I never imagined there could be so many different spellings to the name Ajzenberg.  Here, if you are curious, is the listing I found in Beirers dictionary.  Next to the name is the town or district where the particular spelling was most common.

Ajzenberg                               Rovno, Starkonst, Berdichev-in Ukraine
Eisenberg (German)
Ayznbarg (Yiddish)

Ajzinberg                                 Pinsk, Belarus

Ajzinbarg                                 Vinnitsa, Ukraine

Ajzinberkh                               Skvira, Ukraine

Azenberg                                 Khotin, Ukraine

Auzenbezrg                              Kovno/Kaunas, Lithuania

Azinberg                                  Elisavetgrad, Ukraine

Ejzenberg                                 Khar'Kov, Ukraine

Gajzenberg                             Gazenberg

Vajzenberg                             Elisavetgrad, Ukraine

Aiz.                                          Petersburg

Ajs.                                          Chernigov gubernia, Ukraine

Interestingly enough the following spellings are not listed:   
Eisenberg       Eizenberg      Ejsenberg        Aisenberg

Considering the preponderance of the name, in all it's permutations, associated with Ukrainian cities, there is reason to believe that my family may have originated from that area of the Pale of Settlement.  Telechan is in southern Belarus just north of the Ukraine border.

Today all descendants of Dov Berel and Elka in the United States and Israel spell the name Eisenberg.  The Australia branch uses Eizenberg

Having gone to great length to research the above material, it is important to understand that spelling did not play an important role in the 19th century.  “Spelling is irrelevant. The consistent spelling of names is a 20th century invention and obsession.  Names were almost never spelled in a standard fashion in earlier records.”[3]  Most people with the same surname are not related; and most people who are related do not have the same surname.  Ultimately, the meaning of any name cannot be understood out of context.

[1] That area in the western provinces of Czarist Russia in which were confined to live.

[2]Alexander Beirer, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire, Avotaynu Inc, 1993

[3] Warren Blatt

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