Whenever someone questioned my father on the origin of our last name of Turner, he would respond that it was never changed. When someone would ask about a famous entertainer or athlete named Turner, who was of course not Jewish, he would have a stock response. “Oh yes” he would say, “we are in fact related. His (or her) grandmother and my grandmother were both old ladies.”
I only have one cousin on my father’s side who happens to live in Nashville, so I don’t get to see him very often. During one visit about ten years ago we were sitting around and he was saying how the Turner name must have been changed at some point. When I would remind him of what my father used to say he was very skeptical.
I said ok let’s settle this and I immediately went to my computer and Googled “Polish Jewish Genealogy” and several links appeared relevant. I went to one called Jewish Records Indexing Poland and started a search. I put in Turner and for “name of town” I used Rohatyn which I remembered because of my father talking about the financier Felix Rohatyn, and that my father’s father came from a town with the same name as the surname of Felix. The site took a while to do the search and then came back with the following record:
TURNER Salomon Henzel 1877 Birth
I was shocked and so excited. Here was the birth record of my grandfather Solomon Herzl who was born in 1877 and his family name was Turner!!! The name had not been changed, although whoever indexed the record had difficulty reading the handwriting thus the first and middle names were spelled incorrectly. It was particularly special seeing this considering both my cousin and I were both named Shlomo Herzl after this grandfather.
I wondered if I was able to find this so easily, what else is out there that would fascinate me? Well the answer to that question, is “a lot!” I wanted to learn more about the Galizian shtetls Rohatyn and Nadworna where my father was born. I found that there is a Google Research Group devoted to Rohatyn. I immediately requested membership to the group and was enthralled by the wealth of information on it’s databases. I joined a site called Geni and started to build my family tree online. I tried to get as much information as possible on Nadworna, but was having difficulty. I always thought that Nadworna and Rohatyn were in Poland but now I learned they are in Ukraine.
I became fascinated by Galizia and wanted to learn everything I could about it. I read Erased by Omer Bartov. I attended a lecture by Dr. Andrew Zalewski and then read his book, Galician Trails. I joined the gorganization Gesher Galizia. It saddened me that my father was not around anymore. He would have enjoyed so much my interest in his roots, but he also would have been a great source of information and help in my yearning to know more. How foolish of me not to have questioned him more when he was alive and to have taken more of an interest in the stories he used to tell.
Recently JRI Poland began to digitize many of it’s records and as a result I was able to find this digitized copy of my grandfather’s birth record: What a treasure! There is Information on my great grandfather Hersch Turner with a copy of his signature in Yiddish affirming that he was the father. This was necessary because most Jews at the time only had religious marriages, not civil. He actually abbreviated his signature Tur (tet vav reish). With the help of Dr. Zalewski, who translated this record, I learned the names of my great-great-grandparents and the amusing tidbit that my grandfather and Dr. Zalewski’s grandmother were delivered by the same midwife. Since Jews in Galizia started using surnames only in the late 1700’s, seeing this record leaves no doubt that my name of Turner was never changed. To some people this is no big deal; but to me, seeing an 1877 signature of my greatgrandfather is pretty cool.
This past summer my wife and I attended the annual International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies convention in Boston. We made many new friends and learned so much, but the most important thing we learned was that there is so much we still don’t know. It’s amazing how many great clues our ancestors left us about their lives and histories and what a fascinating journey it is for us to unearth them.