Marcus Weisberg or Weissberger or Veiszberger… (d. 1880)

Some people ask me about my last name. “Hey Aharon, where does your last name come from?” etc.[ref]Less polite people ask me about my first name, “Is that your real name?” as if an unfamiliar name is less an ethno-cultural marker than a pretentious affectation. I won’t make life any less tense for individuals passively demanding cultural conformity by changing my name, and I am grateful to live in a multi-cultural and pluralistic civil society in which difference is, at the very least, tolerated, notwithstanding the forces of darkness who seek to undermine this progress.[/ref] It’s a question I’ve long wanted to know myself. I know Varady is a common Hungarian last name and I knew that it was probably something else before it became Varady (or Varadi as some living relatives still spell it).

Well, after some genealogical sleuthing, I’ve determined (as far as can be determined) that four generations ago, our family name was Weisberg. (In official records, the last name of my great-great grandfather Marcus (Majer) can also be found spelled as Weissberg, Weisberger, Weissberger, Veiszberger, and once even as Weinberger.)

Cousins of my father recalled a family legend that the family name was something like Waisbecker or Weisenberg. Both are, so far, unattested in the records I’ve found, although the latter is so very close. And there were certainly Weisenberg’s in the city he lived in — Nagyvárad in the Bihar province of Transylvania, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary, but now part of Romania and called Oradea. (The city would probably still be full of them if it weren’t for the Nazis — most of the 20,000+ residents were rounded up and murdered in Nazi death camps during WWII.)

Our family has no memory of Marcus Weisberg, and I haven’t found a record of where or when he was born, or of any older relatives of which I can be certain. He is, what Dutch genealogists might call, a doodloper — a “dead walker” — a better word I think than a dead end or a brick wall. But I will try to imagine him given the few details I’ve gleaned. In a hypnopompic vision, I imagine him in sepia-tone, resting against a wall or a fence, wearing a top hat, a long dark grey frock coat, and with a face thinner than my great-grandfather’s. He also sports a mustache.

I haven’t been able to determine when exactly Marcus was born, or whether he came to Nagyvárad from somewhere else nearby. I did discover this, however: Marcus was a grocer who died in 1880 around three years after his son, my great-grandfather Josef, was born, and a year after his second son, Avraham, was born. I wasn’t able to find any details of his death outside of the marriage record of my great-great grandmother, Leni Klein, in 1881, which simply states that she was a widow of one Markus Weinberger (but also gives her name as Weissberg née Klein).

KOHN, Samuel (age 43, parents unknown), Groom from Derecske
WEISSBERGER, Leni (age 38, from Nagyvarad Local Gov’t Bihar, parents: SPICZER / KLEIN [see note below])
Bride widowed from Markus Weinberger [ref]”Weinberg” here is probably a transcription error[/ref]
Bride’s mother [Anna] remarried to Aron Spiczer and widowed from Abraham Klein
Romanian Nat’l Archives-Oradea:785 138-05

A sad story begins to resolve in the darkness. A year earlier, on April 1st, 1880, Leni gave birth to twins, both stillborn. Leni was 36 years old. What happened to Marcus? Did he die of grief, of stress, of old age or disease? Perhaps he was working and blamed himself for not being there to help his wife at a crucial time… who knows?

According to a 1918 report on my great-grandfather by the U.S. Bureau of Investigations (the agency later called the FBI), Josef left Nagyvarad for Budapest when he was thirteen, probably sometime in 1890, and began his career as a carpenter’s apprentice. I haven’t been able to learn what ever became of Avraham Weissberger. He Magyarized his name to Varadi in 1898. Josef (soon Joseph) adopted the last name Varadi a couple years later, and a few years after that, emigrated to the United States where he also began to use the variation, Varady. I am keen to note that Joseph made no mention of his previous surname in what must have been a serious and stressful interview with government agents in 1918. I believe this was intentional given his experience as a Hungarian Jew and I.W.W. socialist, navigating the torrid seas of modern nationalist preoccupations and paranoia. (I’ll write more about Joseph Varady [1877-1962] in a future post.)

So, why was there all of this name changing in the first place? Our family legend is that a family member or friend, a clerk working in the national records office, changed the name because of some impending pogrom. This excellent article from YIVO on the Jews of Hungary, however, provides the actual historical context by which Hungarian Jews chose and changed their last names to conform to Hungarian national standards and expectations:

Another measure with far-reaching consequences was the 23 July 1787 decree ordering [Hungarian] Jews to adopt personal and family names. Only personal names had to be German, but most chose German family names as well, though a few elected typical Hungarian ones that became identified as Jewish, such as Farkas. While the intention of the decree was to acculturate and standardize, paradoxically a new ghetto of names came into being. The personal names adopted by Jews soon came to be identified as Jewish no matter how Teutonic in origin and were rapidly abandoned by non-Jews, only to have Jews shift to the new onomastic “neighborhood” in the next generation and repeat the process. Likewise, toward the end of the nineteenth century the peculiar constellation of German family names—colors, animals, occupations—usually identified their bearers as Jews. This transparency was made somewhat opaque by the presence of Calvinists with their share of Old Testament names and of German Schwabs who also had some family names in common with Jews, including Gross or Klein. Even when Jews began to Magyarize their names, a trend (exaggerated by historians) that began in earnest in the 1880s and was brought to a near standstill in Trianon Hungary, there was a tendency to cluster in the choice of names, thus vitiating the assimilatory intent.

Trying to visualize all of this for family members can be overwhelming so here’s a little genealogical chart I’ve made from a screenshots of the tree rendered by (with some light editing).

Here are the relevant records indicating just a few of the plethora of names attached to our family history. (Would love to see actual images of these records!)

27-Aug-1877 Male
Father: Marcus
Mother: Leni KLEIN
record: Nagyvarad / 843-11 Local Gov’t Bihar
City: Nagyvarad
Note: father’s surname spelled WEISBERG; surname changed to VARADI in 1900
Romanian Nat’l Archives–Oradea 762

27-Aug-1877 Male
Father: Markus
Mother: Leni KLEIN
Nagyvarad / 305-169 Local Gov’t. Bihar
City: Nagyvarad
Sandek: Markus WEISSBERGER
Note: Changed surname to VARADI on 02-Aug-1900
Romanian Nat’l Archives – Oradea: 761

VARADI / VEISZBERGER, Abraham / Avraham
31-Mar-1879 M
Father: Majer
Mother: Leni KLEIN
record: Belenyes / 479-08 Belenyes Bihar
City: Cseszora
Witness: SPITZER Izrael.
Note: Surname changed to VARADI in 1898.
Romanian Nat’l Archives – Oradea 106

WEISSBERG, unnamed
01-Apr-1880 F
Nagyvarad / 366-83 Local Gov’t. Bihar
Father grocer. Baby died.
Romanian Nat’l Archives – Oradea: 761

WEISSBERG, Stillborn
01-Apr-1880 M
Nagyvarad / 902-03 Local Gov’t Bihar
Died 01-Apr-1880
Romanian Nat’l Archives – Oradea 764

I am grateful to the thousands of volunteer hours by the contributors to that made this research possible. Thanks also to my cousin Jason B. for his research assistance.

For readers interested in the tools and resources I’ve been using in my genealogical work, here’s how the proverbial vegan sausage is made:

For years now, I’ve noticed that the business model of many genealogical services/resources has sought to keep hold of their users by making their data difficult to export. It’s very important for me to keep hold of this data locally, so that I can import it in other software both offline and online.

So the software I’m using offline is called Ancestral Quest. I use it only to connect to the Internet and download the records that I’m maintaining online so that I can export those records into a standard genealogical file called a GED or GEDCOM file. Inside the GED is the tree data that I can use to render the tree in other software and other websites.

Online, I’m using which is the Church of Latter Day Saint’s free genealogy site for keeping track of the tree data and records. It is a very useful website with linked databases for research of family members once they had emigrated. I did most of my beginning family research there. It also has some nice visualization tools. Not comprehensive but definitely good enough for my needs. The form records for the site has some obvious biases. For one, it maintains a baptism field as a default rather than an option. And looking toward the future, it really doesn’t allow for the possibility of same sex marriages. I hope the church will reconsider their position on this issue.

Finally, I’ve been using for the European research into my Jewish family history and it’s been invaluable. It’s hard for me to imagine how many volunteer transcription hours have gone into the data available there. All of those volunteer hours were donated gratis. The search feature though is fairly basic unless you pay a substantial fee. I was able to do quite a bit of research with the basic search feature. A cousin with the full subscription shared their password and I’ve found a few other choice connections. I hope that there are similar resources available for other ethnic groups because it really is a treasure of my people.

I haven’t tried any of the commercial DNA services yet. I think I’d want my father and mother to choose that service separately while I have them alive to sequence. I do think that DNA sequencing will be or should be part of the standard diagnostic tools for general medicine at some point in our lifetimes, but for now it seems prohibitively expensive (and a privacy hazard) — but I’d definitely go for the most comprehensive matrilineal and patrilineal sequencing before making a child with someone in order to know what dangers might lie ahead. Otherwise, I think I’d be keen for DNA sequencing for myself if medical science progresses to determine dangerous epigenetic markers that need interventions. In 2016, we’re not there yet — but it’s undeniably fascinating.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes. He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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