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Surnames in Austrian Galicia

The Teitelbaums and the Shapiras, the Halberstams and the Rokachs

In the German republics, surnames were a commonplace feature in Jewish communities, going back to the times of the Rishonim.  Some contend, in fact, that the surnames “HaCohen” and “HaLevi” go back even further, originating over three millennia ago.

This wasn’t the case in Central Europe, however, where surnames were neither common nor coveted.  Individuals who due to their Germanic origin did have surnames, however, continued using them.  Some surnames of Germanic origin that had a recognized familial-chain include Luria, Katzenellenbogen, Horowitz, and Teomim.

But people who didn’t have any surname continued to use the traditional method of identification, with names being given to an individual based mainly on family-connections or features.

Some examples of ‘traditional-style’ surnames:

  • The Remah was called R’ Moshe Isserles, after his father R’ Isserl of Cracow.
  • R’ Yaakov Temerl’s was called so after his mother Temerl.
  • The Masores Hashas, was called R’ Shmiel R’ Chaim Yeshaya’s, after his father-in-law R’ Chaim Yeshaya.
  • The Maharsha was called R’ Shmuel Eidels after his mother-in-law, Eidel of Poznan.
  • The Hoicher R’ Leib of Cracow was called so due to his tall stature.
  • R’ Hirsch Hinker was called so due to his limp.
  • R’ Mendel Heikerl from Lublin was called so because he had a hunchback.
  • “Di Shvartse Beile” daughter of R’ Itzikel Hamburger, was called so due to her deep-black hair.

The Polish Jews were quite comfortable with their use of names for identification, but times changed, and that affected the development of surnames in Poland.

What were the changes that took place?

Poland Divided

The golden era of Poland ended with the death of King John Sobieski.1For more about him, see “Sobieski’s Court Jews,” Kankan issue 8.  With his passing, the reign of a stable monarchy ended and the economy in general, and position of the Jews in particular, began to disintegrate.  Gradually, Poland lost its former glory, descending to a low mark in its history.  For the Jewish community, of course, the nadir was reached during the Gezeiros Tach v’Tat – the massacres in 1648-1649 led by Chmielnicki and his Cossack hordes, yimach shemam.

In the years following those massacres, Poland was split three times, and with the last of those schisms, it completely disappeared from the map of Eastern Europe.

The First Polish Partition – East Galicia for Austria

The first split occurred in the times of the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski.  Poland was then run by its parliament, known as the Sejm, where each member had harbored his own political opinions and private calculations.

Poland’s neighbors also had a big impact on decisions made at the Sejm.

Shortly before the turn of the nineteenth century, Russia emerged victorious from its conflict with the powerful Ottoman Empire.  The Russian victory frightened the Austrians, who decided to go to war against the Russians to weaken them.  France, which was on good terms with both sides, tried to create peace by dividing up the weakened, war-torn portions of Polish territory between the Russians and Austrians.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes how Poland was partitioned:2“Partitions of Poland,” Encyclopedia Britannica,; accessed, August 10, 2020.

The First Partition occurred after Russia became involved in a war against the Ottoman Turks (1768) and won such impressive victories, particularly in the Danubian principalities, that Austria became alarmed and threatened to enter the war against Russia.  Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, however, to avoid an escalation of the Russo-Turkish War, determined to calm Austro-Russian relations by shifting the direction of Russia’s expansion from the Turkish provinces to Poland, which not only had a structurally weak government but also, since 1768, had been devastated by a civil war and by Russian intervention and was, therefore, incapable of resisting territorial seizures.

On August 5, 1772, Russia, Prussia, and Austria signed a treaty that partitioned Poland.

Ratified by the Polish Sejm (legislature) on September 30, 1773, the agreement deprived Poland of approximately half of its population and almost one-third (about 81,500 square miles [211,000 square km]) of its land area.  Russia received all the Polish territory east of the line formed roughly by the Dvina and Dnieper rivers. 

Prussia gained the economically valuable province of Royal Prussia, excluding the cities of Gdańsk (Danzig) and Toruń, and also gained the northern portion of the region of Great Poland (Wielkopolska). 

Austria acquired the regions of Little Poland (Małopolska) south of the Vistula River, Western Podolia, and the area that subsequently became known as Galicia.

The entire area that we know as East Galicia, including big cities such as Lemberg [Lwow] and Brody, at that point became part of the Austrian Empire.

Kingdom of Galicia and Ludmir

The official name for the newly-formed territory was, ‘The Kingdom of Galicia and Ludmir.’ In the adjoining picture, one can see the first printed edition of the sefer Noam Elimelech.  Notice the description of where the sefer was printed.

The new governing body for this territory enacted new rules and laws, known as the Josephinian Reforms.

One of these laws, although not well-known, caused quite a controversy within the Jewish community of the time.  This was the establishment of a new office, that of the Landsrabbiner–Rav Hamedina, (what we are familiar with as a Chief Rabbi) for the Kingdom of Galicia and Ludmir.  At the outset, the office seemed to be very prestigious, and we find that there were three candidates who sought to receive the position:

  1. Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the Noda BeYehuda, then rav of Prague, Bohemia.
  2. Rabbi Hirsch Berliner, then rav of Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg.
  3. Rabbi Leib Bernstein, then rav of Zbarazh, Podolia.

The first two rabbanim expressed serious interest in the position, but when they realized that Galicia had many prominent gedolei Yisrael, and the idea of a Chief Rabbi, would only be a source of friction, they withdrew their interest, and the position was given to R’ Leib Bernstein.

We find his signature in several places, together with the title of the newly-created office: “Av Beis Din of Medinas Galicia and Ludmir.”

The Chief Rabbi also had a deputy, Rabbi Mordechai Wolf, the rav of Lemberg.  He was the father of the famous brothers, authors of the Yeshu’as Yaakov and the Yam HaTalmud, respectively.

We find the signature of both the Chief Rabbi and his deputy in a siddur of the nusach haAr”i, with R’ Leib signing as ‘Rav Hamedinah’ and R’ Mordecai Wolf affixing his signature as ‘Sheni laAretz.’

As it happens, however, these positions didn’t last that long.  By 1781, they were defunct.3Rabbi Zvi Horowitz, Kisvei haGeonim, Piotrków 1928, page 36.

And You Shall Take Upon Yourselves Surnames

On Thursday, July 23, 1787, a new law came forth from the parliament of Vienna, Austria, under which the Emperor Joseph II decreed that all Jewish people were required to adopt a legal surname, including the Jews living in the formerly Polish territories which now belonged to Austria.  The Jews were to comply with the new law by the beginning of January 1788.

Galician Jews didn’t like this new decree, which gave the government oversight over them.  They would have preferred to stay anonymous.  “What do they want from us?  That our children should go to the army?  That we should pay more taxes?” they wondered, suspicious of the government’s motives.  As a result, the Galician Jews at first refrained from registering with surnames.

But as the deadline approached, they realized they couldn’t simply ignore a mandatory law, and they grudgingly complied, with many of them choosing boring or disparaging surnames.

There were several fascinating stories that circulated at the time.  For instance, some thought that it was necessary to pay in order to receive one of the nicer names and that those who didn’t would be given an embarrassing name.4The source for this is a fiction-article “Namenstudien”, by Karl Emil Franzos (1848–1904). Although this was a myth concocted by a ‘creative’ journalist, somehow it gained credence.

What is certainly true, however, is that some of the names chosen sound quite comical.  However, not all ‘Goldbergs’ were rich, and not every ‘Schmutsman’ was poor.  Why then do we find so many families with these strange names?

When the time came to record the new names, Jews were of two minds on the matter.  Some heads of families chose to cooperate with the officials, and they chose respectable names for themselves, such as Goldberg or Silverman.

There were, however, others who were completely disinterested or ignorant of the details of the law and thought to themselves, “Let the goy call me whatever he wants.  Why do I need to be involved?” The officials in charge of enforcing the law, who had no love lost for Jews, took the opportunity to give them disparaging names – hence the name moniker Schmutsman [dirt man].

This is what actually happened to one of the gedolei Yisrael, who, when he came to transact some official business at an office, was asked for his newly chosen surname.  His uninformed response was, “Write whatever you wish.” When the clerk informed him of the uncomplimentary new name he had chosen for him and for generations to come, the rav responded, “No, please do not give me such a disrespectful name.” But the clerk wouldn’t hear of changing it.  The rav had to travel to the central office, and prove that he actually had a different surname, which he received from his mother, and he thereby succeeded in changing his name to his mother’s maiden name.5As heard from a descendant of that rav.

Poland Becomes a Democracy

Tuesday, May 3, 1791, is the date known in Polish history as the ‘Great Sejm Day,’ when that country followed in the footprints of the then newly-established United States of America, some 15 years earlier and enacted a national constitution, becoming only the second country to do so.  Under this constitution, the Polish monarch was maintained but the king no longer had the power to unilaterally enact laws or make decisions for the country, and Poland’s citizens received rights.

The Polish nobility, of course, did not accept the new system in the country, since the new rights granted to the citizenry deprived the noblemen of their former powerful standing.  Additionally, the ruling classes in surrounding countries didn’t like Poland’s decision, either, which caused them to look upon Poland with disdain and to be concerned for what democracy would mean for their own futures.

Poland’s Second Partition – West Galicia for Austria

Three years earlier, the town of Bär set up a Confederation of the Nobles, with the intention to go against the Polish independence.  Eventually, it led to an uprising.

The Confederation of the Nobles didn’t sit still.  They went out against the Russian encroachment.  Russia saw for themselves that the Polish Empire was trying to get back on its feet.  For this reason, Russia decided to help and support the other countries who opposed democracy, to crush Poland back down.  All those parties went out to war against Poland.  That war was known as the Polish–Russian War of 1792.  It was also known as the War in Defense of the Constitution.

King Stanisław II August realized that he and his soldiers would not make it through the war, so he chose to let the constitution go.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the second partition:

Almost 20 years later Poland, which had made efforts to strengthen itself through internal reforms, adopted a new, liberal constitution (May 3, 1791).  That action, however, resulted in the formation of the conservative Confederation of Targowica (May 14, 1792), which asked Russia to intervene to restore the former Polish constitution.  Not only did Russia accept the confederates’ invitation, but Prussia also sent troops into Poland, and on January 23, 1793, the two powers agreed upon the Second Partition of Poland.  Confirmed in August and September 1793 by the Polish Sejm—surrounded by Russian troops—the Second Partition transferred to Russia the major remnant of Lithuanian Belorussia and western Ukraine, including Podolia and part of Volhynia, and allowed Prussia to absorb the cities of Gdańsk and Toruń as well as Great Poland and part of Mazovia.  The Second Partition accounted for an area of about 115,000 square miles (300,000 square km).

Due to this agreement, Russia and Prussia took areas of Polish land for themselves.

We read in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

In response to the Second Partition, the Polish officer Tadeusz Kościuszko led a national uprising (March–November 1794).  Russia and Prussia intervened to suppress the insurgents, and on October 24, 1795, they concluded an agreement with Austria that divided the remnants of Poland (about 83,000 square miles [215,000 square km]) between themselves.  By the Third Partition of Poland, which was not finally settled until January 26, 1797, Russia incorporated Courland, all Lithuanian territory east of the Neman (Nieman) River, and the rest of the Volhynian Ukraine; Prussia acquired the remainder of Mazovia, including Warsaw, and a section of Lithuania west of the Neman; and Austria took the remaining section of Little Poland, from Kraków northeastward to the arc of the Northern Bug River.

Poland has split up again between her neighbors, Russia, Prussia, and the Austrian Empire.  The name Poland was erased from the world map.  The Polish king abdicated and went to live in the Russian capital city of Petersburg.

Western Galicia, formerly Lesser Poland, was completely subsumed into the Austrian Empire.6This fact is apparent from sefarim such as Malchus Kira”h – which is an acronym for Keiser Yarum Hodo, as the Holy Roman Empire was referred to in sifrei kodesh throughout the years.

Surnames Part One

Title: Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor Artist: Circle of Joseph Hickel (1736–1807)

As previously stated, Emperor Joseph II was the king who signed the decree about surnames in 1787 and it went into effect on January 1, 1788.

The following is an excerpt from this law setting forth its main details:

In order to eliminate uncomfortable situations in politics we have set the following rules;

Jews in all provinces are instructed that every head of the family has to adopt a new surname by the first of January.  An unmarried woman has her father’s name and a married woman should take her husband’s name.  Every person must choose a name, and never change it as long as they live.

Any names used until now if they are from a place of origin, or not, may not be used any longer.

By the end of November 1787, every head of the family must have submitted their name and he will get a certificate of proof from the local council.

Starting from the first of January 1788, every birth, marriage, or death has to be registered in Polish language using the Polish name. 

At the end of the law, penalties were stated for the rabbanim and others if they did not adhere to the new laws:

Description: Emperor Joseph II’s decree

A rabbi who does not adhere to these rules by registering a birth, marriage, or death using the Polish names and language will be fined, the first time fifty zlotys and if caught again, will lose his position and be banned from ever getting it again.

Every person, after the determined day, must use their name forever.  If caught not using it, he will be fined 59 zlotys, and if he doesn’t have the money, he will be sent away from town, yet his debts will remain.

Half of the fine money will go to the Jewish community and the other half to the informant[!]

Signed in the capital Vienna, 28 August 1787


Leopoldus Graf von Kollowrat
Anton Friedrich von Mayern

Surnames Part Two

Title: Emperor Franz II. of Austria (1768–1835) wearing the Austrians imperial robes
Author: Friedrich von Amerling (1803–1887)
Date: 1832
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, February 21, 1805, some 10 years after the third split of the Polish Empire, the future Emperor Francis II proclaimed the same decree regarding Jewish surnames.  At that point, the Austrian Empire also included the new territory known as Western Galicia.  The details were the same as those of the previous law, except that an additional paragraph was added.

Not one Jew may adopt a name of a noble family or any other important family, and if one already has such a name then it is un-authorized and they must change it.  This should also happen if anyone complains that a Jewish family has adopted their name.’

What was the purpose of the new paragraph? There were people in the aristocratic class who learned that there were Jews who had taken their ‘noble name’.  They complained, and the response was this law prohibiting Jews from taking such names.

Once the decree went into effect, the level of strict enforcement of the law varied, depending on which officials were in charge in a given place.

To review what we’ve learned thus far:

  • In 1648, Poland was the most powerful country in Europe.
  • In 1773, the first separation took place, with the eastern portion of Galicia becoming part of Austria.
  • In 1778, the decree about surnames was issued.
  • In 1793, the second Polish split occurred.
  • In 1797, Poland disappeared completely, with the west portion of Galicia becoming part of Austria.
  • In 1805, a new paragraph was added, prohibiting Jews from adopting surnames of the nobility.

The period of adopting surnames can be split into three.

  1. Those who died before the first decree, they had, mostly, no surname.
  2. Those who lived before the second decree mostly had an acquired surname.  However, it was some time until this decree was fully enacted, therefore, many people still died without a surname.
  3. Those who lived after the second decree.  Somehow, they were all registered with surnames.

If we look at the surnames of the Galician gedolei Yisroel, most of whom were chassidish rebbes, we encounter an interesting phenomenon, in which children objected to the surnames of their parents, had adopted and changed them to other names.  For example, Rabbi Moshe, author of the sefer Yismach Moshe, took on the surname Teitelbaum, whilst his father was R’ Hirsch Schiff of Przemyśl.  Likewise, Rabbi Hersch Meilech, author of the sefer B’nei Yisaschar, had the surname Shapira, whilst his father was R’ Paisech Langsam.

What prompted these gedolei Yisroel to change their names from Schiff and Langsam, respectively, to Teitelbaum and Shapira?   It took quite some effort to go and change their surname. On the contrary, it makes sense that it was indeed ignorance regarding the decree, which caused the name differences.

The Yismach Moshe was Rav in Sieniawa.  At the time of the decree, he adopted the surname Teitelbaum.  At the very same time his father, R’ Hirsch of Przemysl, adopted the name Schiff.

The B’nei Yisaschar, at the time of the decree, adopted the surname Shapira.  At the very same time his father, R’ Paisech of Jawornik, adopted the name, Langsam.

The lack of interest was dominant, to the point that families didn’t even see a point in making sure that they all chose the same name.

The Halberstams and the Rokachs

We also find rabbinical families that were required to change their names because their former names were those of the non-Jewish nobility.

A classic example is that of the Halberstadt/Halberstam family, which had taken that name because the head of the family, Rabbi Hirschel, was rav in the German town Halberstadt.  But suddenly, at the turn of that century, they all abandoned the Halberstadt name in favor of Halberstam.  This was surely due to the second decree mentioned above prohibiting Jews from using names associated with the noble class.  Perhaps this explains why we find in the sources, that simultaneously, grandfather, father, and son, used both names and changed them the very same time.7See our article, “B’nei Halberstam LeMishpechosam”, Shaarei Tzion, issue 42.

Yet we also find grandparents who passed away many years before the first decree, yet who posthumously received a surname.  One famous family-line began with Rabbi Elazar from Brody, known as the Ma’asei Rokeach.  His descendant Rabbi Shmelke of Brody adopted the name Rokach and in turn, all his ancestors began to be known by the surname “Rokeach”.8See our article, “Toldos Hagaon Baal Ma’asei Rokeach”, Shaarei Tzion, issue 30, pages 64-66.  This name has been considered part of the family lineage of descendants of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, the Rokeach, all based on a surname he never had in his own lifetime.9This interesting topic deserves an article of its own.

Title: Constitution of May 3, 1791
Description: Adoption of the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791. The painting depicts King Stanislaus Augustus together with members of the Grand Sejm and inhabitants of Warsaw entering St John’s Cathedral in order to swear in the new national constitution just after it had been adopted by the Grand Sejm in the Royal Castle visible in the background.
Depicted people: Stanisław August Poniatowski
Date: 1891
Notes: At the bottom right corner, one can see two Jews

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