As we delve into research for our new exhibits at 103 Orchard Street, we’re learning more about the building’s past residents. If you explore our photo archive, you might come across these two former tenants: Ida and Lilly, Eastern European Jewish immigrants who shared an apartment with their four siblings and parents. Their family was closely-knit enough to help each other immigrate to the United States, one by one, as money allowed. But after several years in America, they no longer shared a name.
Ida and Lilly
Ida and Lilly were born to Marcus and Sarah Begecher–but that’s just one version of their surname. According to Allen Kurtz, whose wife is the granddaughter of Ida, there have been at least 7 different spellings of the family’s last name:
Buchesser (Ida’s marriage certificate and U.S. Census, 1910)
Bechacher (U.S. Census, 1920)
Betchesser (Tombstones of Marcus and Sarah, 1923 & 1924)
The evolution of the family’s names didn’t stop there. Here are the six children’s birth and chosen names:
Ruchel: Rose Begecher
Schema: Sam Begecher
Chaya: Ida Begecher
Liebe: Lilly Schesser
Mendel: Max Schesser
Schnerza: Jack Schwartz
It’s not uncommon for immigrants to change their names upon arrival in the U.S., but why the significant differences between surnames chosen by family members? By the time Marcus and Sarah died in the 1920’s, their death certificates listed their last name as “Schesser” (though their tombstone carried another misspelling of Begecher), so perhaps they officially adopted this change later in life. It’s possible that this second revision of the family name, which is arguably easier for English speakers to pronounce, was never taken on by the older children who were already making lives for themselves as “Begechers”. But another question remains: why did Schnerza [later known as Jack] adopt ‘Schwartz’ as his surname?
Noting that the name Schwarz derives from a Germanic word for “dark”, Allen says “As for Jack Schwartz, nobody knows. My wife has suggested, half-jokingly and half serious, the it may (emphasis on may) have been because he was of slightly darker and more swarthy skin and when teased, embraced the name as his own.”
We’ll never know the real reason, but Allen muses that immigrants in those days “…were less wedded to their names than we are, living as we do in an age where identity is important. The correct spelling of a name seems less important than it does today. Names were malleable.”
Lots of fascinating food for thought, all from one family! As we discover more, we’ll share further stories about the history of 103 Orchard Street.