The Broken Branch of a Family Tree – Unexplained Name Changes

I’ve talked about my issues proving my German citizenship. And I may have figured out a part of the problem. While we know the basic history of my family and their locations, the officials might be struggling to find documents on their end due to a potential name change (not covered in what they actually asked for, which is all I provided).

Here’s the gist.

  • I couldn’t find much information about my great grandfather in Germany. Many of those records from their hometown were destroyed during the War and the family relocated to a new area of the country.
  • Most importantly, I couldn’t find his parent’s names, meaning I was at a brick wall in my genealogy research.
  • But it turned out my great grandfather had a brother, and that brother relocated to the United States.
  • When that brother died, he was entered into our Social Security Death Index so I was able to get his social security number.
  • That meant I could find his parents’ names listed on his original application for a social security number.
  • I applied for that SS-5 form and receive it.
  • I was shocked by what I found.

You see, the name in the social security death index didn’t match the name on his application for a social security number. The numbers matched. And the signatures matched when comparing the first name. But the last name was completely different.

That gave me a new direction in my research. I discovered that this brother served in the U.S. merchant marines under his original name after coming to the U.S. And I discovered that he was a political prisoner in the Dachau camp before his name change as well.

The family knew that Jewish persons sometimes changed their names during this time, but our family wasn’t Jewish. We couldn’t think of any other reason for the name change. Perhaps it was tied to his imprisonment. Perhaps not. We know that he and his brother (my great grandfather) died with the same last name — my last name. But were they both born something else? We still aren’t sure because we can’t figure out exactly when the brother’s name change took place. But it did so in the official records, so it must have been changed legally. Eventually we’ll find those records and we’ll hopefully have something else to go on in researching my great grandfather.

The moral of the story is this. If you run into a dead end on one ancestor, look at their siblings. Somewhere along the lines their histories merged, and records tied to one might answer questions you couldn’t answer when researching the other. The name change is still quite the mystery in my family, and I don’t know if the German government will find the information any more useful than I have so far (but it was forwarded to them just in case). ¬†Hopefully that strategy will help you solve a mystery of your own.

Jenn is a professional writer and publisher, and the founder of Climb Your Family Tree.

She first became interested in genealogy as a teenager. Since that early start, she's spent 28 years putting her personal passion and professional research skills to use in exploring her own family history while assisting others in their genealogical journeys.

In addition to running Climb Your Family Tree, Jenn is a long-time PR, social media, and online marketing specialist and she's been a digital publisher / web developer for over 20 years. She owns a variety of web properties including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, Kiss My Biz, and NakedPR.

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