Sephardim in Eastern Europe
by Alexander Beider

(from A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland)

Another major tendency in the search for the meaning of a family name is that of ameliorating the origin of the name. Evidently, derogatory interpretations are seen as objectionable, hence incorrect. More common, however, is the rather reluctant acceptance of artificial etymologies (it is hard to accept the idea that the first bearer of the surname made no association when adopting it) or the derivation of surnames from the names of small towns and villages in Eastern Europe (such etymologies may be seen as too prosaic). This amelioration is often manifested unconsciously by fitting the etymology to the aspirations that people have about their roots. They may want to find an unusual story concerning their families. These unusual stories often become attached to the surname adoption; the surnames appear to be the oldest elements preserved in the families due to the paucity of available documentation. As a consequence, people can easily accept an exotic etymology that distinguishes their family from others. The story about the French origin is a case in point. Although this tale is fictional, the number of American Jews today whose ancestors lived in the Russian Empire and who believe that their names reveal their Sephardic roots is so significant that it illustrates a special paradigm of genealogical thinking. Generally speaking one deals with phonetic coincidences: Mindes sounds like Mendes; Peretz is close enough to Peres; while Sverdlov is similar to Sephard. The important differences between two names are not obstacles for drawing an inference that the Polish-Jewish name Zeman comes from Ximenes, or even to say that the Sabludowsky (Zabþudowski in Polish) family came from Spain where the name was Sabel (Sherman 1990:18). One modern author tells us that the Russian-Jewish surname Gessen is drawn from the German province of Hessen. He states:
  In the Gessen family, one strange given name of evident non- German and non-Jewish origin was not so unusual: Munish. The linguists suggest that it is a distorted form of the Spanish given name Munes, and, therefore, the first members of that family came to Germany from Spain. [Khejfets 1993:26]  
Sephardic Families in Poland
The great majority of Polish Jews are of Ashkenazic origin. Nevertheless, the presence of a few Sephardic families in Poland is mentioned in historical records. For example, records cite the eminent physician Isaak Hispanus who lived during the first decade of the 16th century in Krakow (Balaban 1912:173). When the Polish king married an Italian princess in the 16th century, the latter came to Poland with her court physician Samuel ben Meshulam, who lived in Poland from 1532 to 1547 (Shatzky 1957:75). Another Sephardic Jewish physician who moved to Krakow during the same century was Salomon Kalahora (also spelled Calaora and Cholchora) (Balaban 1912:177). Though the Kalahora had come to Poland from Italy, his family name was based on the name of the Spanish town of Calahorra. His direct descendants lived in Krakow for several centuries. For example, in the 18th century, Aaron Kalahora and Mendel Kalahora were among the leaders of the Jewish community of Krakow (Balaban 1931:1:154). A descendant of that family was still in Krakow in 1834 under the name of Kolhari (Balaban 1912:178). In the first part of the 20th century, the families Kolchor and Kolchory also were found in Poland (see dictionary portion of this book). In the early 17th century, a court agent in Krakow was Salomon Wþochowicz, also called Szafardi, a Jew who originally came from Italy (Balaban 1931:1:293).

During the 17th century, some Italian-Jewish physicians migrated to southern Poland. One, Chaim Felix Vitalis, a graduate of Padua University (Trunk 1952:56), was possibly a Sephardic Jew. Some Jews from Italy and other Mediterranean countries who lived in Poland undoubtedly were of Ashkenazic origin. For example, in the 17th century, David Morpurgo is found in Krakow (Balaban 1912:182); his name was derived from the German town of Marburg (JE 9:30). Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591-1655), an Ashkenazic scholar from Crete, lived for some years in Lublin. In 1597 in the town of Przeworsk in southern Poland, Abraham Italius was appointed rabbi (Horn 1970 (2):23). Since a Sephardic Jew was unlikely to have become rabbi of an Ashkenazic community, this Jew, whose name clearly indicates his Italian origin, must have been Ashkenazic. Another medical doctor, Moses Montalto, died in Lublin in 1637 (Trunk 1952:21); his name was derived from the town of Montalto in Italy. He was a son of a cousin of the Marrano physician Amatus Lusitanus (1511-68), who originally had come from Portugal (Shatzky 1957:76). Moses Montalto played an important role in the life of Lublin's Jewish community. His son, Eliahu Montalto, was also a prominent doctor. Fortis de Lima was another Sephardic family that became famous in Poland. In Jewish sources, that name appears as qzc (Halperin 1945:277), the Hebrew translation of the Latin
fortis, meaning strong. Isaac Fortis was an important physician in southern Poland during the first part of the 18th century. His son, Majer, was appointed rabbi in Moþciska (EnJ 6:1055, 1056). In some Polish sources, Majer's surname is spelled Fortesz (Horn 1984:1:20).

Some names of important Polish-Jewish merchants who attended international fairs in Europe also seem to be of Sephardic origin. For example, among the visitors at the Leipzig fair was Abraham Comende (in 1728, from Kamieniec Podolski), Abraham Miserachi (in 1735, from Kamieniec Podolski), and Abraham Miserachy (in 1736, from Lwow) (Freudenthal 1928:145,156) (It is possible that the last two persons actually were the same individual.)

The mention of Sephardic Jews in the records of northern Poland is extremely rare. At the beginning of the 17th century, however, a merchant from Hamburg, Alvaro Diniz (also known in German sources as Albertus de Nyes), moved to Lubeck and had business contacts in Gdaþsk and other Polish towns. For some time, Diniz's brother-in-law, Paolo de Millþ (also called Paul Dirichsen in German records) lived in Gdaþsk during the 1610s (Kellenbenz 1954:247,248). Certain other Sephardic names borne by merchants from Hamburg/Altona and Amsterdam were also found in Gdaþsk from the 1620s through the 1640s: Abenjacar, Castiel, Dias Nunes, Dubetent, de Lima, Pallache and few others (Kellenbenz 1958:80,83). During the last two decades of the 17th century, another merchant, Jacob Abensur from Denmark, lived in Gdaþsk and, for a while, in Courland and Riga (Kellenbenz 1958:401-11).

All the Sephardic Jews mentioned above were either eminent physicians or prosperous tradesmen; thus, they represented the wealthiest class of Polish Jewry. There was a period, however, when even members of the Sephardic middle class could establish themselves with some distinction in Poland. This most important page in the history of Sephardic Jews in Poland began with the reign of the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus (1529-72). At that time, one of the most influential statesmen of the Ottoman Empire was Don Joseph Nasi, a Sephardic Jew who died in 1579. The diplomatic and economic contacts between the Polish state and the Ottoman Empire encouraged dozens of Turkish-Jewish families to come to southern Poland. Among the first migrants were Chaim Kohen and Abraham de Mosso Kohen, who moved to Lwow in 1567 (Balaban 1911:12). Historical records cite the names of other Sephardic Jews who lived in southern Poland during the 16th and 17th centuries, mostly in Lwow: Abraham Gambai, Jakob Sydis, Dawid Passy, Samuel Czelebi (a Jew from Constantinople who resided in Lwow during 1621- 35) and Schmaja Skampis (Balaban 1906:39, 462, 468).

In 1588, Polish Chancellor Jan Zamoyski established a special privilege allowing Sephardic Jews to live in his own newly founded private town of Zamosc. (Ashkenazic Jews from neighboring towns were not authorized to settle in Zamosc.) Many advantages were offered to those Sephardic Jews who decided to move there, which prompted a number of Sephardic families to migrate to the town. Toward the end of the 16th century, they included families from the Ottoman Empire (for example, Moses, the brother of the above Abraham de Mosso Kohen, who moved from Lwow and became the first Jewish inhabitant of Zamosc [Shatzky 1957:85]) and Italy (for example, Abram Misrachi and Salomon Marcus from Venice [Balaban 1906:467]). During the first part of the 17th century, new settlers generally came from Italy and Holland, and the documents of that time cite the existence in Zamosc of families named de Campus/ Kampos, Castiell/Kastiel and Sacuto/Zakuto (Morgensztern 1961: 75,76). The records also show the arrival of Samson Manes, a Sephardic Jew from Braunschweig, Germany (Morgensztern 1962:9). After the chancellor's death in 1605, the growth of the Sephardic community in Zamosc stopped, while during the 1620s some Ashkenazic families moved there. Without newcomers from Mediterranean countries, the little Sephardic group rapidly declined. Some of the Sephardic Jews left the area; others intermarried with Ashkenazic Jews (Morgensztern 1962:14). As a result, during the second half of the 17th century, Sephardic names do not appear in the historical documents of both Zamosc and Lwow. The census of 1664 showed only 23 Jews in Zamosc, most of whom were Ashkenazic (Morgensztern 1962:4).

The presence of Sephardic families in the territory of Poland during the 16th to 18th centuries did not influence the surnames used by Polish Jews during the 19th and 20th centuries. The cultural fusion of foreign Sephardic Jews with local Ashkenazic Jews, who had lived in the same area for several centuries and were far more numerous, was rather rapid. The Sephardic Jews lost their language, and their descendants used Yiddish as the vernacular. They dropped their Sephardic names and were named according to local Ashkenazic patterns. Only a few traces of their Sephardic origins could be found in such surnames as Charlap, Frenk, Portugies, Portugal, Sfard and possibly Szpanierman. Abuhow, Alba, Algazy, Azyluj, Bondy, Dylion, Karo, and probably Alfus, Domingo, Elion and Rynaldo are Sephardic as well. The Sephardic surname Abarbanel (Barbanel) was used by Polish Jews during the last two centuries. There is no evidence, however, that that family was of Sephardic origin. It is possible, for example, that at the beginning of the 19th century, its progenitor adopted artificially this Sephardic name, due to the fame attributed in Jewish history to Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508).

Copyright 1996, Alexander Beider