24 January 2006

How the Government Stole Their Identity

A century ago, Rosa Schneckelwicz bought tickets for passage to America for herself and her two children. The clerk filling out the passenger list spoke the same language she did and wrote her name as Schnecklewisz. Since spelling was a matter of fashion and changed over time, nobody much cared. The clerk wrote down the name and address of the person she was joining in the U.S., her husband, Itzig.

Rosa lands with her children at Ellis Island. She is asked by the official, who speaks only English, what her name is. Rosa thinks he is asking her what she had for lunch. The official hands her a piece of paper that gives her her new name: Weiner.

Rosa's husband comes to meet his family at the immigration station. She is so happy to see her dear Itzig after their long separation. "Don't call me Itzig," he says. "They did not like the name at Ellis Island so they changed it to Isaac." Rosa blinks and shows him the piece of paper with her new name. He is shocked. He had been given the name Shneck when he arrived last year because the official thought Schneckelwicz was too long. They go back to where the husband had been staying with his brother and discuss it with him. (When the brother had arrived three years ago, he had picked up the wrong piece of luggage at Ellis Island and been given the name O'Reilly when the official read the tags.)

But nothing can be done. There is that piece of paper that was given out at Ellis Island with their new names and it cannot be ignored. The husband lives out his life with the name Shneck and the children all grow up with the name Weiner. (The brother's children all go by O'Reilly.)