For a long time, I was having difficulty tracing my German ancestors. I had always known my grandpa’s parents were Frank Erlanger and Agnes Heffernan (who, as her name suggests, was certainly not German, but rather Irish). I was told Frank began his life Jewish, but at some point in life had converted to Catholicism. Agnes’ family had apparently not been too happy with the fact that their good, Irish Catholic daughter was marrying a German Jew; they had disowned her for it (although later I found out that might have had something to do with the fact that she was pregnant with my grandpa before the two were married, but that’s a story for another day). I assumed Frank had converted to Catholicism for his wife, but that is of yet unproven and not really important to the story. The point is, this is more or less what I had to go on in terms of searching for my ancestors. Not a lot of information, but it was something.
Frank and Agnes were easy enough to find in the 1930 census, but everything before that was a complete mystery. Frank Erlanger, for having such a unique name, seemed to vanish when it came to any sort of paper trail before he married his wife. My dad had said they lived in New York their entire lives, but perhaps he had been wrong? I widened my search parameters, but still nothing came up. I was at a loss.
Eventually I became more knowledgeable about this whole genealogy thing and ordered Frank and Agnes’ marriage record. One of the great things about marriage records is they often include parents names, which would be critical in discovering Frank’s whereabouts pre-1930. After a few weeks of waiting, I was rewarded for my patience: Joseph Erlanger and Isabella Tobias. Finally, the mystery could be solved!
Or so I naively thought, anyway.
I began amassing census records for Joseph and Isabella Erlanger: 1920, 1915, 1910… all the way back to 1860 and their own parents, Frank’s grandparents. I now had a bunch of names and dates for family I had spent years wondering about. There was only one problem – no Frank.
Joseph and Isabella had a son, Susmann (named for Joseph’s father), who matched up nicely with Frank, but there was seemingly no way for me to determine whether or not they were the same person. Considering that Joseph and Isabella Erlanger were literally the only Joseph and Isabella in the entire country, though, I was content to believe it might be true. After all, Frank had converted to Catholicism. Couldn’t he have taken a Catholic name to better fit in with his new religion?
Still, the lack of proof nagged on me, and it wasn’t until Ancestry recently indexed the 1925 NY Census that I was able to prove my assumption correct.
In the 1920 Federal Census, Susmann is listed as living with his mother and three brothers, Harry, Edward, and Julius. Next door lived their sister, Evelyn, and her husband.
No new information there. However, in the 1925 NY Census, I was able to locate another sister, Nettie, living with her husband, Timothy Shannon, and their children. Included in their family household are three in-laws: Isabella, Harry, and Frank Erlanger.
I now had proof of Frank Erlanger living with the same brother and mother Susmann Erlanger had lived with 5 years earlier. Same relationships, consistent aging, different name. I was ecstatic. There definitely had been a name change, but it was before marriage and his presumed conversion to Catholicism. So why did Susmann change his name if not to win the approval of his wife’s disapproving family?
The answer I came up with was a sobering one (and purely my own opinion, though I think it’s a good contender for the truth). Susmann changed his name (and his religion) sometime between 1920 and 1925. Or, if we look at it another way, only a few years after the end of World War I. The interwar period. Germany had just lost to the Allies and there were a lot of negative feelings swimming around mainstream American opinion: anti-immigrant, anti-German, anti-Semitic. Though born and raised in the United States to parents who were also born and raised in the United States, Susmann Erlanger couldn’t hide what his unique name so clearly spelled out: He was German, he was Jewish, and at one point or another his family had immigrated here. Perhaps brother Harry could get through life without much hassle, but with a name like Susmann? You’re going to be noticed.
So what do you do about that name? In the days before intense background checks and several forms of ID, you simply wake up one morning and change it.
The interesting part about this is that my Uncle Frank is named for his grandfather Frank, who, it ends up, wasn’t Frank at all. Although I suppose Grandfather Frank did choose that name himself, so that has to count for something.
After all, as Juliet so poignantly put it to Romeo, what’s really in a name, anyway?