Where Did their Surnames Come From?

Long before the gardener and I ever thought of researching his family history, we would mention the possible etymology or origins of the surname Scheshko (Sheshko). When we were still dating he explained that he had been told it meant sword-maker or metal worker.

Did that turn out to be true or not? And now that we have more surnames, what are their origins?

The expert on Jewish surname etymology is Alexander Beider who was born in Moscow in 1963. According to Wikipedia, “in 1986 he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and in 1989 he received a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the same institution. Since 1990, he lives with his family in Paris, France.”

He is a scholar of Yiddish given names and of the history of Yiddish itself, as well as of Jewish surnames. He co-authored the Beider–Morse Phonetic Name Matching Algorithm with Stephen P. Morse.

Wikipedia lists his main works this way:

  • Beider, A. 2017. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Maghreb, Gibraltar, and Malta. New Haven, CN: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 2015. Origins of Yiddish Dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Beider, A. 2009. Handbook of Ashkenazic Given Names and Their Variants. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. & Morse, S. P. 2008. Beider–Morse Phonetic Matching: An Alternative to Soundex with Fewer False Hits. Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy 24/2: 12-18.
  • Beider, A. 2005. Scientific Approach to Etymology of Surnames. Names: A Journal of Onomastics 53: 79-126.
  • Beider, A. 2004. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 2001. A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation, and Migrations. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 1996. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu.[“Best Judaica Reference Book” award for 1996]
  • Beider, A. 1995. Jewish Surnames from Prague (15th-18th centuries). Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 1993, 2008. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu.

We are most interested in this last text because it lists Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire.

Shimel (Shimen) Scheshko is seated in the center of the photograph. His children are all Scheshkos, of course, and Isidore is standing behind his father.

The mother was born Khaya Brana Pechnik. We learned this from their marriage record.She came from Kupil, which was in the Khmelnitsk province of Western Ukraine. The records in that area that are needed to research Khaya’s family have not survived, but there might be something in the Zhitomir records. Since this is getting closer to the area that the gardener’s mother’s family came from, we will wait and do the search for Khaya’s family at that time as it seems more time-efficient.

We know that Isidore married Celia Goodstein, so we can add that surname to the mix. And now we have information that Celia’s mother’s surname was Suskin. At least that is what Max Goodstein’s death certificate lists as his mother’s maiden name.

This is what Inna reported that Beider wrote about the name Scheshko/Sheshko:

Jews with the Sheshko surname lived in Ukmerge (old name Vilkomir) town that is located in Lithuania, Lida, Belarus, Village Sheshki in Panevėžys district of Lithuania and village Sheshki in Ashmyani district of Belarus. Here are spelling variations of this surname: Shesko, Shesik, Sheshkin(Sheskin, Seskin, Shestkin), Sheshkovich, Sheskovich.

Of course, this means that the name does not mean sword maker or metal worker at all, but is a name derived from a place. On the other hand (because I love to quote Tevye), I asked a Russian friend about it, and she mentioned that there is a type of sword that sounds like Scheshko. It’s called Shashka or Shasqua, and it’s the Cossack sword! When I think of Ukraine, I tend to think Cossacks. What a coincidence . . . . Or not.

Here’s an image from Wikipedia:

Now on to Pechnik. Inna says that according to Beider:

Jews with Pechnik surname lived in Brest, Slonim, and Mogilev. Pechnik in Russian means stove setter. Here are the spelling variations of this surname: Pechnyuk, Pechikov, Pichkar’, Pichkar.

Stoves are metal, so I have to wonder if the idea of the origins of Scheshko came from the name Pechnik. Impossible to know for sure, of course. And it’s still possible, I suppose, that Scheshko has a different meaning.

According to Inna:

According to A. Beider’s Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Russian Empire, Jews with Gutshtejn surname lived in Belostok, Kobrin, Kamenets. The following are spelling variations of the surname: Gutenshtejn; Gitenshhtejn (Gitinshtejn), Gitshtejn  (Gidshtejn). The surname means good stone or hat + stone (Utshtejn)

The Americanized form is Goodstein.

Now take a look at the name Suskin. Wow, isn’t that similar to Seskin, which is one of the versions of Scheshko. This is getting pretty confusing, but there could be an explanation for the name beyond Scheshko.

Beider dictionary has no record of Suskin surname. The closest one would be Sushkin. It was found in Polotsk and Mogilev. This toponymic surname traces back to the village of Sushki. Spelling variations are as follows: Asushkin, Sushkovich (Suskovich, Shushkovich), Sushkevich, Ashushkevich.

The spelling variations are maddening, of course. It’s impossible to know for sure, and the point at which these surnames became “affixed” to a particular family would probably be before records for eastern European/Russian Jews would be available so the place of origin for toponymic names would not be helpful except as a point of interest.

For that reason, the only way to track down where these branches came from is through actual records, such as the Odessa birth records that show where Shimel and Khaya came from before winding up in Odessa and Tiraspol.

On another note, I recently discovered that artist Marc Chagall (one of my favorites) was born Moishe Segal in what is now Belarus, from the same region as some of the gardener’s branches. He was born in Liozna in 1887, the same year Isidore was born.

Chagall’s parents

28 thoughts on “Where Did their Surnames Come From?

  1. Beider’s works are amazing resources. At a recent genealogy workshop, I was a mentor helping a woman who for ten years had been trying to learn her grandfather’s name in Europe (he had Americanized it in the US). We found the answer in Beider’s book of Jewish names in Poland and verified it by finding a birth record for the woman’s uncle on JewishGen. But without Beider, we’d not have had a clue as to how the name had been spelled originally and thus would not have found it on JewishGen. (Needless to say, the woman was thrilled, and it made my day as well!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Amy, that was so nice of you to help her like that. She must have been so grateful!!! Have you done a lot of genealogy workshops and the like? Have you ever taken one online? I noticed that occasionally JewishGen offers them. Now, the question of the day is, how can one get one’s hands on the Beider books without paying $120 per haha? I’d like to have that Russian one, but the cost is prohibitive. Would they have it in Phoenix somewhere, do you think? OK, just did a quick search. WOW. There is a Family History Center 10 minutes from my house! Do you think they would have access to such a thing there? Have you ever used FHC resources for Jewish history?

      Liked by 2 people

      • OK, so many questions! First off, I am so envious that live ten minutes away from a FHC. The closest to me takes an hour to drive to, and so I went only once. I wasn’t well-prepared so it was a waste of time and not worth the drive. However, they might have the Beider book at the one near you.

        I do not generally have access to the books, though others have looked things up for me. This workshop was hosted by the Western MA Jewish Genealogical Society, and they brought the books with them. I sure wish I could afford them also!

        I’d never done anything like this before. The WMJGS had been dormant for years and has recently been revived. One of the members attended my presentation back in November and told me about the group and asked if I was interested. They meet rarely and about 25 miles from where I live, but I said yes. And then they asked if I was interested in being a mentor at the workshop they were running in February. And I said Yes! It was a wonderful experience, and I met some really nice people. I hope they will meet more often and perhaps in a location a bit closer to where I live!

        I’ve never taken an online course through JewishGen or anywhere else in anything! I almost took a course through JewishGen when I first got started, but once I told the instructor what I was looking for and what I’d already done, she kindly told me that the course wouldn’t help me. (I was looking for records of my great-grandparents from Tarnobrzeg, Poland—the infamous Brotmans!)

        Liked by 3 people

      • Look at the FHCs in Arizona: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Category:Arizona_Family_History_Centers
        Versus Massachusetts:
        I’m guessing that the big one in Arizona is probably in Mesa, which is a ways from me. I don’t know if smaller FHCs have much less access or not.
        What a cool group to have near you!
        I think I would do well with an online genealogy course, but I can’t handle what I am doing now. The other thing is that I spend way too much time on genealogy–need to limit it, not add to it hahahahaha.
        You definitely don’t need a course, but I thought maybe you got started with one.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yep—and all of those are in eastern MA or at best central MA. We live in western MA. The one I went to was in CT.

        I am skeptical of online education myself—I tried learning German online and did ok, but now that I am in a real class, I am learning so much more and so much better!


  2. A good question for all genealogists. I have a digital copy of the book on surnames in Luxembourg. It was researched and written by several persons as a university project with a time limit. The (main) author spoke at our genealogy association explaining how they did the study and where the data came from. It was interesting to learn that genealogy databases, as well as the sources (archives, census, etc.) genealogists use, were included in their study.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cathy, how lucky to have such an item available! Now you have me wondering if they have a book like this for Dutch names (my other blog haha). When you say genealogy databases, what do you include in that category? Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

      • They consulted all BMD records for Luxembourg as well as the early census records which have been transcribed into book form by previous scholars. These include the *Fireplace directories* from 1561, 1611, and 1656 and the census of 1880. As many immigrants came to Luxembourg after 1880, this census was used a a filter. Today many of these immigrants’ surnames are common and they did not want them included in the historical study. As civil records are only available to the public up to 1923, they used telephone books for the later years to show which names were disappearing, staying constant, or more used.

        To follow the changes in the spelling of the surnames they used two extensive genealogical databases for Luxembourg. One being the GEDCOM file of Rob Deltgen, president of Luxracines and author of several family books for towns in Luxembourg. The other being the online (pay) site for Luxroots, an organization which promotes only digital databases.

        This is an example of the historical sources they used for the surname GRAAS:
        Fsv: 1561 Grass. Gdb: 1665 Graas. 1719
        Grasges. 1725 Graas => 1759 Gras => 1783 Graas, 1785 Gras.
        Fsv is the fireplace census
        Gdb is the genealogical databases

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for sidetracking me on a little history of the fireplace. Apparently, castles usually had them added in later on because when castles were built fireplaces weren’t used yet as the buildings didn’t really have chimneys. The fire area in the middle of the great hall went out the top of the building, but not through a chimney. blah blah blah So interesting. Of course, new construction in the 17th century would have had fireplaces in mansions, palaces, nice homes, etc. What I’d like to know is maybe the earliest residential structure with over 15 fireplaces, but I couldn’t find that ;). Gee, thanks, Cathy haha.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely fantastic post! I would really like to get a peek at the Beider’s book for many of our family names. It’s now on my to do list. Luanne, I’ll be in touch to ask you how to do it. Loved ‘Chagall’s Parents’ at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • See my reply to Amy’s comment. I would like to, as well haha! I asked Amy if she thinks that the FHC near me in Phoenix would have access to the Beider books! Lets see what she says. And if she doesn’t know, then Amberly (Genealogy Girl) certainly will know! I love that (and all) Chagall(s)! It’s so strange to think of him born the same year as the gardener’s grandfather for some reason.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Read Amy’s comments…we need to get our hands on this book 🙂 It sure is pricey.It would be such a great resource to have or look at. I wonder if the public library has a copy in there genealogy section? I am going to have to check on that. Ill let you know what I find out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I plan to check out the closest Family History Center as soon as I can first to see if I can search it through there, so I’ll be interested to see if you have any luck at the public library!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have just started to research my ancestors and I’m still at the place where I can’t believe how the surname had so many spellings and misspellings (and I’m still on documents available in the US). Researching is both fascinating and a black hole that sucks you in as you keep seeking new angles to find your ancestors. You have been an inspiration to me!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was writing you a comment and WordPress “trashed” your comment. It was the weirdest thing. Have you ever had that happen? Anyway, I restored it! It is so frustrating with all the different spelling and the ones that are totally screwed up. Sometimes I wonder how we ever find anything! It takes a lot of patience, that is for sure. And it IS fascinating, but that fascination leads us into that black hole. I go to look up one lil ole thing and it leads to another and another and another and then I am reading articles and all kinds of stuff. Which reminds me, are you on Facebook? If you are, be sure to join pertinent Facebook groups because they can be very helpful. I am on groups for Jewish family history, Dutch family history, Dutch culture, and Prussian history, as well as Chicago history, Vanished Kalamazoo, etc. Any angle you have, look for a Facebook group. There are others searching some of the same thing and at least once a week every group has something that helps me.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Very interesting post. Could the places have been named for the people, instead of vice versa? Or could the places have been named for the sword? Just some other possibilities to consider.

    As for the books, have you looked in WorldCat to see if you can borrow through Inter-Library Loan?

    Liked by 1 person

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