Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Mystery from My Past

There's something I've never been able to figure out:  how did my last name get to be Halper?  I understand that it's a common last name for Jews with European ancestry (also seen as Halpern, Helpern, Helperin, Helprin, Halpert, or even Alpert); but where did the name itself come from?  Well, according to some reference books, "Halper" is a name that goes back more than four hundred years-- it originated in Germany, and came from a town named Heilbronn.

Except... I can find no evidence anyone on my father's side (the Halpers) lived in Germany nor even paid that country a visit.  My father's relatives are all from Russia, in the area that is today Belarus.  And the only place we know my paternal grandfather ever traveled was to what was then called Palestine (today Israel).  He emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1906, and his immigration records do not indicate a name change.

If you have ancestors who came here in that massive wave of European immigration during the 1890s-1920s, you may have heard stories about names being changed at Ellis Island.  I certainly heard those stories as a kid; and I was told that's what happened with some of my relatives-- for example, at some point, Beresofsky became Bear, and Drazznin became Dresner.  Perhaps something similar happened to your relatives too, as a longer or difficult to pronounce ethnic name got shortened or Americanized.  But I cannot find out more about the Halper side of the family-- the documents don't show any other name, nor even any other spelling of it.      

Since nearly all of my older relatives are now deceased, there is no-one who might be able to offer a theory.  But I wondered if new technology might provide some additional information.  So, I sent away for my DNA report from  on TV, there are these great commercials where someone suddenly discovers they're related to George Washington (rather unlikely in my case) or they find they have Norwegian relatives they knew nothing about (also unlikely for me).  I figured my DNA would show that my maternal ancestors were from Lithuania (or possibly Poland) and my paternal ancestors were from Russia.  And sure enough, there were no exciting discoveries.

On the other hand, I found two distant cousins I never knew I had-- both on my mother's side of the family.  We've been in communication, and there are a few questions about my mother's relatives we are trying to answer.  But how I came to be a Halper is still a mystery.  And unless one of the readers of my blog is an expert at genealogy, it's a question that may remain unanswered.  As someone who does research for a living, I much prefer questions that do have an answer.  But for now, this one gets filed under "not enough information," a mystery that may not ever be solved.    


  1. I always grew up hearing the assertion that names were changed at Ellis Island too. I took up genealogy twenty years ago and have traced back many of my lines. Most of my ancestors came over in the 19th century slightly before Ellis Island, and settled in West Michigan.

    I took a look at your tree on Ancestry and looked at some of the supporting documentation. I also looked up information on the witness listed on Jacob Halper's naturalization papers... It is transcribed as Abraham Alperl, but I found other records where he is listed as Alpert. What I learned is that Abraham may actually be Jacob's brother. Abraham was born in Russia. On his naturalization record, it says that he was born on June 5, 1869. There is a marriage record for Abraham on Ancestry. He was married in Boston, Massachusetts on November 13, 1910 to Sarah Kniznick. His parents listed on the marriage record are Nathan Alpert and Annie Cohen. That is very close to Nathan Halper and Shena Cohen. Now, I know that Annie is different than Shena, but wouldn't discount that all together. My ancestors were all immigrants and the records differ quite a bit from source to source in terms of name spelling and even the first names. Dutch women had names like Jantje, which became Jennie in the US; Grietje, which usually became Grace, and Anje, which usually became Anna. I don't know a lot about Russian genealogy, but I think that researching Abraham Alpert would be a great next step for you and may hold some answers. I would try to find out when he died and get an obituary and if you haven't already, get a copy of Jacob's obituary as well. Obituaries are often rich sources of biographical information and often list surviving siblings. If you need any help, let me know. I hope that this helps a little.

    Krystal Kelley

  2. One more thing. There is an Abraham Alpert in Meretz cemetery that died on January 27, 1929. I'm not sure it's the same one, but check with the cemetery too. It has been my experience that some cemeteries have some very good records that can yield some interesting information. Funeral home records can too. I have a funeral home record for my great grandmother that actually listed who was in each car of the procession! Good luck in your search.

    Krystal Kelley