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Viewpoint

My father’s father's and the surname that changed

“I wonder what’ll become of my name when I go in? I shouldn’t like to lose it at all…”

Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”

If you Google my last name, the first thing that happens is the computer tells you you’ve made a mistake and shows “results for Steinfeld.” All my life people have wanted to eliminate the second “i” from the name, and the Internet does the same thing. The first entry belongs to an actress named “Hailee Steinfeld,” and with one mouse click you can eliminate the “t” and go straight to “Jerry Seinfeld.”

If you persist, however, you can find the name spelled correctly, with the “t” and both “i”s. There’s Charles, a college professor in Michigan, Arlene, a lawyer in Dallas, Paul, a doctor in Philadelphia, and quite a few others. I don’t recognize any of them, and I don’t know where they got my last name. So much for my childhood understanding that we were the only Steinfield family.

There are many stories about how immigrants to America acquired their names. You may have heard the one about the Jewish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island and is so nervous that when the inspector asks his last name he says “Sheyn Fergessen” (Yiddish for “I already forget”). The inspector writes his name on the form – “Sean Ferguson.” There’s another one about the tongue-tied immigrant who could only smile. The inspector wrote down “Smiley.”

My father’s father, for whom I am named, came to this country with his wife, Bertha, and their infant son in 1889 or 1890. They lived in Chelsea, Mass., where my father, Frank, was born in 1891. My grandfather was in the junk business, or to put in a more favorable light, he was a “trader in scrap metal.” He died in an accident in 1911, nearly 30 years before I was born.

My father didn’t tell me too much about his childhood, but I remember hearing about trips with his father by horse and wagon, peddling junk across Massachusetts and into New Hampshire. I assume that is how they stumbled on Claremont.

He also told me that in the Old Country the family’s last name was “Pollak.” When they arrived in this country, a relative met them at the boat and told my grandfather that “Pollak” wasn’t an American enough name. “Take my name,” he told my grandfather, and informed the customs official that these new arrivals were named “Steinfield” (with two “i”s). I always took that story with a grain of salt – somehow it didn’t have the ring of truth – but my father believed it and that’s what he told me.

They moved to Claremont around 1900, the family now including two American-born sons, my father and my Uncle Bill. The Steinfields lived there for five generations.

The Miller family joined them a few years later – Hirsch, Dora, and their five children. In my recent article “My Marx Brothers cousins and Ellery Queen,” I wrote that Dora and my grandmother Bertha were sisters. Where I got that information I have no idea. The youngest Miller child, Bess, was born in Claremont in 1909, and she is the cousin who married Ellery Queen. Actually, she married Manny Lee, who was one-half of the team that wrote as “Ellery Queen.”

Their daughter Jacquelin is my second cousin. We don’t know each other except by some recent correspondence, but in true Ellery Queen fashion she has recently cleared up a mystery I didn’t know existed, which is how our families are related. She sent me a picture of her grandmother Miller and wrote, “Her maiden name was Dora Pollak, and she was an innkeeper’s daughter.”

This is what is known as an “aha moment,” a time of sudden comprehension. Our grandmothers weren’t sisters at all. And our last name really was Pollak. My grandfather changed it, but his sister, Dora, never did, at least until she married Hirsch Miller.

Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner is the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.

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