The Memory Mavens, Part 2: A Case Study at Ellis Island

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by Tim Widowfield

Legends that stick

Some myths have extraordinary staying power. Because modern media causes us to believe we’re witnesses to real events, we often reject good evidence that disproves what we think we saw and heard personally. I grew up thinking that the embarrassing mistakes Kermit Schaefer presented on his record albums were completely authentic. We all rolled on the floor laughing as we listened to cuts from Pardon My Blooper, but what my family and I didn’t know was that if Schaefer couldn’t obtain the actual recordings, he’d pay actors to recreate them.


“Goodnight, little friends, goodnight.”

Lots of people still think they know Uncle Don referred to his audience as “little bastards” over an open microphone. Even after you tell them that Schaefer forged the recording (with no warnings on the record, by the way), and even after you show them evidence that it never happened, they’re just so sure of their memories, they can’t quite believe it.

There’s something about hearing it on the radio or on a recording, or seeing it on television or in a movie that makes us complicit in the social memory of an event. We don’t think of the event as something “out there” in the past, but rather something we’re part of. In a sense, the event is part of us. So, for example, even a fictional story like The Godfather can become part of the fabric of our memory, especially the cultural memories of place and time: namely, the United States in the early 20th century.

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries...
Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries–Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. (Half of a stereo card) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“They changed our name.”

In The Godfather II, we learn that Vito Corleone’s real surname is Andolini, but that the workers processing immigrants at Ellis Island mistook his home town for his last name and made Andolini his middle name. In the public’s mind these sorts of mistakes went on all the time. Sometimes, it turns out, they just bungled the transcription, and people had to live with their new, misspelled names. Worse than that, sometimes, perhaps many times, those faceless bureaucrats would force immigrants who had strange names to change them to something that sounded more “American.”

Yet, despite the widespread belief in such events, it’s all a myth. In fact, in the novel Vito Corleone deliberately changed his own name. And in real life, we know immigrants were not given new names at Ellis Island. The workers who processed immigrants simply took the names from the ship manifests (usually compiled at the port of embarkation) and transcribed them. They had no authority to modify what they found on the manifests, and they would not have had any incentive to do so.

Nor were they confused by the foreign languages of the incoming passengers. Most of them could speak and read those languages (Italian, German, Polish, etc.), or they could rely on translators standing nearby to help them.

Family memories

This social memory of Ellis Island as a place where heartless government administrators arbitrarily Americanized people’s names corresponds to the family memories of many next-generation ethnic Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Czechs, etc., who learned early on that their name in the Old Country was one thing, but upon arrival, “They changed our name.” Sometimes the new name began with the same letter, but was Anglicized. Or sometimes it was simply translated. So, perhaps Wallechinsky became Wallace or Schmidt became Smith.

In the latter half of the previous century people of non-English descent became interested in their heritage and took pride in their recovered, “real” names. Where we once strove for a “melting-pot” society, in which everyone conformed to a bland Anglo-American sameness, we now celebrate a “tossed salad” of diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Or at least we say we do in public. I used to work with a guy named Swanson who, upon visiting his ancestral homeland for the first time, had an epiphany and changed his last name to something very Swedish and (for an Anglo like me) almost unpronounceable.

The real reasons why people changed their names upon entering the U.S. vary from family to family. Many times it was out of a sense of pride in the new country and a deliberate attempt to assimilate into American society. Other times people felt the need to avoid prejudice and racism.

As with Schaefer’s bloopers, despite clear evidence to the contrary, many people still believe in the Ellis Island myth. Partly that’s because they’ve seen it in movies and read it in books, but it’s also because their families tell and retell the myth. This myth is not only robust, but remarkably widespread. (See: “The myth that refuses to die: ‘Ellis Island changed our name’” and “Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was).”)

A fictional collective memory

In American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, Vincent Cannato relates several accounts from tradition, family history, rumors, jokes, popular media, and so on.

Then there is the story of a Jewish orphan who told inspectors he was a yosem, an orphan, and found his new name as Josem. Another immigrant was supposedly told by officials to “Put your mark in this space” and found his name had become Yormark. In the HBO series The Sopranos, a mobster named Phil Leotardo complains at a family gathering that the family’s original name was Leonardo—after Leonardo Da Vinci—but was changed to Leotardo at Ellis Island. When his grandchild asks why, Phil responds: “Because they are stupid, that’s why. And jealous. They disrespected a proud Italian heritage and named us after a ballet costume.

Cannato, Vincent J. (2009-06-03). American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (Kindle Locations 7266-7271). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis mine)

English: Ellis Island Immigration Museum entra...
English: Ellis Island Immigration Museum entrance, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, Cannato explains, these collective and family memories are fiction.

Nearly all of these name-change stories are false. Names were not changed at Ellis Island. The proof is found when one considers that inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants except those manifests. (Cannato, 2009, Kindle Locations 7279-7284)

So, if names were changed, how and where did it happen?

Name changes largely occurred either on the other side of the Atlantic, when steamship officials recorded names in their manifests, or after Ellis Island, when immigrants filled out naturalization papers or other official documents. Often immigrants voluntarily chose to Americanize their names to adapt to their new home. (Cannato, 2009, Kindle Locations 7287-7290)

Elements of collective memory

♦ Re-creation in the present

This memory is not about the history of what really happened but instead about the correction in the present of an ancient injustice. It isn’t about finding facts about the past; it’s about reclaiming an identity that was once lost.

In the previous post, we discussed some of Maurice Halbwachs’ basic concepts of social memory. As you will recall, he argued that things we remember collectively have to fit within present social frameworks. With that in mind, consider the immigrant who changed his name to assimilate into American society as compared to his great-grandson who resolutely reclaims his heritage, thumbing his nose at those idiots on Ellis Island who disrespected his ancestors.

This memory is not about the history of what really happened but instead about the correction in the present of an ancient injustice. It isn’t about finding facts about the past; it’s about reclaiming an identity that was once lost.

Critics of Halbwachs’ supposedly extreme views concerning the emphasis of the present frequently invoke seemingly commonsense arguments about witnesses’ innate desire to be accurate about the past, especially when it comes to life-changing events such as arriving in the U.S. or watching the Romans drag your teacher off to Golgotha. But, ironically, we often find that these sorts of events lead to greater distortion. In his book, On Collective Memory, Halbwachs wrote:

The Gospels reproduce only a portion of the memories that the disciples must have preserved concerning the life of Jesus and the circumstances of his death. In any case, they are the basis of what remained in the collective memory of the Christian group. To the extent that it grew more distant from the events, this group is likely to have burnished, remodeled, and completed the image that it preserved of them. And so it is the case that while under ordinary circumstances people need to inspect an object from nearby in order to verify their own perceptions, they need to establish distance in order to preserve a collective memory. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 196, emphasis mine)

Time and distance cause people to evaluate and re-evaluate what really happened. But more than that, they invite people to reflect upon the significance of what occurred and ask themselves what the event means to the group now. And so you may ask, “Are they inventing the past?” In a sense, they are indeed creating a group history, but Halbwachs would say that’s what we always do. We don’t pull memories out of storage like old newspapers preserved on microfilm; rather, we reconstruct them using the social frameworks of the present.

♦ The corrective pressure of witnesses?

Note that I’m not arguing that witnesses either cannot or will not provide the necessary controls for keeping traditions true or at least reasonably stable, merely that we know that sometimes they don’t.

Common sense would tell us that eye-witnesses should want to preserve important events and be faithful to those memories. Yet in the case of the Ellis Island name-change myth we have literally millions of people who took part. They watched what happened to their fellow passengers, and witnessed the officials read names off the ships’ manifests. So when the stories circulated, why didn’t those witnesses come forward and say, “It didn’t happen that way”?

NT scholars frequently assert that Christians remembered things they deemed important, and that these memories remained stable because of the force of the early eye-witnesses and the natural desire to stay faithful to the original stories. One thinks immediately of Richard Bauckham who, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses wrote:

It is when past history matters in a particular cultural context that historical accounts are preserved with a real intention and effort to insure an important degree of stability and continuity. (Bauckham, 2013, p. 275)

Witnesses and their authoritative influence, he says, would have provided an important means for controlling the “stability and continuity” of the tradition:

The importance of the eyewitnesses in the early Christian movement, which our argument in this book has highlighted, suggests that they may have had an important role in the control of the traditions of the words and deeds of Jesus. (Bauckham, 2013, p. 259)

Perhaps sometimes witnesses do make the tradition more stable and ensure its continuity. However, as we have seen from our Ellis Island example, we know that at least sometimes they have no apparent effect at all. If anything, witnesses remained complicit in the maintenance of the myth, if only by their deafening silence.

Note that I’m not arguing that witnesses either cannot or will not provide the necessary controls for keeping traditions true or at least reasonably stable, merely that we know that sometimes they don’t. Collective memory theory may help explain why they do not provide stability, and it may indicate some possible reasons that myths intrude into a group’s self-narrative.

♦ Not driven by cynicism

The researchers who definitively proved that government workers did not change immigrants’ names did not do it out of some mischievous delight in debunking cherished beliefs. They weren’t driven by what Barry Schwartz calls “sometimes pathological and often paralyzing cynicism.” (Schwartz, 2014, p. 22)

Quite the contrary, for as Aliza Giammetteo so eloquently put it:

People tend to have a short memory when it comes to history and they often end up paying a price for that forgetfulness. If our ancestors’ names were changed, that change in all likelihood came about as a result of the trials and tribulations they suffered as newcomers trying to navigate their way in a new world in a new language—a world where they were not always welcome.

Many immigrants had to swallow their pride and change their names so they could put food on the table. They did it so we could have a chance at a better life. Oftentimes, the story of their struggles, the humiliation they endured, were not passed down to us. They didn’t want to burden us with those stories so they kept them to themselves. The Ellis Island myth thrived for so long, in large part, because we never knew the real story so we substituted the fairy tale for the missing facts.

But we have the facts now. We can tell that story for them, and it’s high time we did. We owe them that. The best way to honor Gildo Fato, or “old faithful”, and all the others like him, is to tell their real stories. So for their sake and ours, the next time you hear someone’s name was changed at Ellis Island, set the record straight.

♦ The importance of external corroboration

We know for a fact that the Ellis Island stories are myths, because we have official records from the period that show conclusively that it didn’t happen. We also have contemporary documentation from the period (newspapers) that never mention name changes.

Unfortunately, we have no external evidence for the events (either legendary or authentic) portrayed in the gospels. Some Memory Mavens do not view this state of affairs as an insurmountable problem. They optimistically talk about recoverable, plausible kernels of truth. For example, in Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Anthony Le Donne poetically describes traditions traveling in spirals, and expresses the hope of finding the origins of stories through “historical triangulation.”

. . . I have described memory refraction as the way in which memories are altered to make them intelligible to the present. I am convinced that by analyzing conflicting interpretations in the gospels, the historian can plausibly suggest the historical memory that shaped these interpretations. (p. 126)

After a few pages of analysis that can most charitably be described as the historical equivalent of psychobabble, he writes:

I also should remind you that memory moves forward in spirals with several turns of interpretation along the way. What are here represented in linear fashion should be thought of as two spiraling memory trajectories. As discussed, memory trajectories are moved forward in certain interpretative patterns. Because of this, historical memories can be plausibly charted. (p. 129)

For Le Donne’s theory to have any hope of working, we must assume that some kernel of the original remains within or just behind the different gospel traditions. Any variation among the accounts will occur, he argues, through a process of refraction. So even if some mythical aspects found their way into the text of the gospels, we can infer from their “spiraling memory trajectories” what they originally looked like.

Memory Refraction Explained

Similarly, Chris Keith in Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee maintains that the gospel stories describing the crowds as amazed by Jesus’ authority, knowledge, and wisdom help to explain two different sorts of “memories” — those that would indicate Jesus could read, understand, and interpret scripture, and those that imply that he could not.

He theorizes:

Since Jesus often engaged in pedagogical activities that raised the issue of his scribal-literate status, and did so before audiences with varying class and scribal-literate backgrounds. I suggest that different members of Jesus’ audience could have perceived and remembered his scribal-literate status in different terms. A completely illiterate farmer in Jerusalem for a festival and a scribe from the temple could have witnessed the exact same interpretive battle between Jesus and Pharisees and walked away with opposite convictions about Jesus. (p. 181)

Memory Mavens seek to understand how traditions got the way they did by imagining what sort of social memory could have spawned them, but more than that, they try to imagine historical situations involving the historical Jesus in which real eye-witnesses observe and interpret what they saw. They process and recall those memories, and then preserve them in oral traditions. But there is a simpler explanation.

Again, both Mark and Luke have narratized a theological belief. They’ve transformed a conception of Jesus into concrete events that demonstrate eternal truths.

Consider, for example, the Gospel of Luke in which the boy Jesus astounds the scribes with his knowledge and wisdom (Luke 2:41-52). This story is pure fiction, but it arises from a theological belief: namely, that Jesus is the Son of God who, naturally, knew the scriptures better than anyone. And further, he did not receive that knowledge and wisdom at the knee of some acne-scarred scribbler from the tainted temple. His knowledge and abilities were nothing short of miraculous, and his deeds fulfilled prophecy.

The legend of Jesus standing up in the synagogue, reading the Torah, and proclaiming “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:21 RSV)” as well as the subsequent verses cribbed from Mark served the same purpose. In Mark, it’s an even stronger statement of astonishment, as his occupation is given. He’s a common craftsman, the people say, so how can he know the scriptures so well and speak with such authority?

Again, both Mark and Luke have narratized a theological belief. They’ve transformed a conception of Jesus into concrete events that demonstrate eternal truths. Can a theological belief be a collective memory? Sure, why not? So, let’s state it that way: The early Christians created legends that historicized their theological collective memories.

A wet blanket

Unfortunately, even if we had access to every family memory — i.e., every version of the Ellis Island myth — we would almost certainly never have guessed the truth. Without corroborating primary evidence, we would have likely concluded, like Schwartz, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” (see Schwartz, 2014, p. 7ff.). Take for example, this children’s book from 1994 called If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis IslandI don’t own this book, but you can read large parts of it at Amazon. Here’s what children were taught.

Did some immigrants change their names when they came to America?

Many people changed their names or had them changed by an official, like a ship’s officer or an Ellis Island inspector. Some immigrants were afraid that they wouldn’t be allowed to enter if they had long or unpronounceable names. One young man who came from Russia in 1905 was concerned about his name. So he shortened it from Katznelson to Nelson. 

As a child, Nathan Levine learned that his name wasn’t really Levine. When his father came lo America, he had a long Russian name. The immigration inspectors, Nathan was told, changed many Jewish names to Levine or Cohen. And so his father, Louis Nochomavsky, became Louis Levine. (p. 75, bold emphasis mine)

As far as the authors knew, the large number of family traditions tended to corroborate one another. Logically, some people probably voluntarily changed their names before leaving Europe, while others changed them upon settling in the new country. But all those stories about arrogant government officials must point to some basis in historical fact, right? Well, clearly not.


The more optimistic Memory Mavens have faith that even without those obsolete, Formgeschichte-tainted, historical criteria, we can find original traditions in the gospels. We just have to imagine what sort of conditions would have produced the collective memories that they embody. Of course, this argument assumes that the gospels actually reflect oral tradition or actual memories of early Christian communities.

However, even if we concede for the moment that the gospels really do represent collective memories, our Ellis Island case study must give us pause. Real historians use external, corroborated sources to determine what probably took place. They don’t use literary or sociological theories to uncover basic facts.

Early Christian communities may have believed, for example, that Jesus had predicted the temple’s destruction. However, even if their belief was a collective memory, we don’t know whether it is as valid as our collective memory of men landing on the moon, or as invalid as our collective memory of immigration inspectors changing people’s names to Levine or Cohen.


If you accept the fact that most people probably changed their own surnames for various personal reasons, you immediately begin to wonder why they didn’t want to tell their children or grandchildren the truth. Did they deliberately lie? Were their memories somehow distorted? Were they embarrassed?

Marian Smith offers this interesting explanation:

Without any record, immigrants and their descendants are left to construct their own explanations of a name change. Often, when asked by grandchildren why they changed their name, old immigrants would say “it was changed at Ellis Island.”

People take this literally, as if the clerk at Ellis Island actually wrote down another name. But one should consider another interpretation of “Ellis Island.” That immigrant is remembering his initial confrontation with American culture. Ellis Island was not only immigrant processing, it was finding one’s way around the city, learning to speak English, getting one’s first job or apartment, going to school, and adjusting one’s name to a new spelling or pronunciation. All these experiences, for the first few years, were the “Ellis Island experience.” When recalling their immigration decades before, many immigrants referred to the entire experience as “Ellis Island.”

That’s actually not a bad explanation, and it fits with Halbwach’s idea of location as a rallying point for memory. We shouldn’t forget that if immigrants couldn’t make their way in the New World within three years, they could be returned to their points of origin. In the terminology of the day, if people were considered “likely to become public charges” (Cannato, 2009, p.2), the government could deport them. Not only, then, was Ellis Island the gate where they entered America, but it remained a sinister presence in their minds as the place through which they could be sent back.

Whatever the ultimate reasons for the creation of the myth, these important points remain:

  • It was and perhaps still is nearly universal.
  • The existence of millions of witnesses had no effect.
  • It feeds into certain cultural archetypes:
    • The arrogant government bureaucrat.
    • The downtrodden, but resilient little guy who fights against all odds.
    • The immigrants’ plucky progeny who struggle to remember the past and remain true to their roots.
  • It resists debunking.

Now, what have learned here that could apply to the study of the New Testament?

Bauckham, Richard

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans, 2006

Cannato, Vincent

American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, Harper, 2009

Halbwachs, Maurice

On Collective Memory, University Of Chicago Press, 1992/1925

Keith, Chris

Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013

Schwartz, Barry

“Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Memory and History,” in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity: A Conversation with Barry Schwartz (Semeia Studies), Thatcher, Tom (et al.), SBL Press, 2014 (p. 7ff.)


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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6 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 2: A Case Study at Ellis Island”

  1. “Eyewitnesses” can be wrong, and their error can become accepted as fact if it fulfills certain collective subconscious impulses. Such impulses are themselves perfectly capable of creating imaginary eyewitnesses to imaginary events.

  2. Tim,

    Thank you for this series. I don’t have much to add, you’ve done a thorough job of demolishing the idea that living eyewitnesses would discredit a false idea, even one that was very important to their social standing within a group. The situation with regard to the historical Jesus though seems to me much worse. Imagine if in the 1980s and 1990s, someone started telling “true stories” about things that happened in the 1940s in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This seems to me the most analogous situation, and it seems like it would be very hard to establish the truth or absence thereof of such stories. If we then add in the elements of the supernatural to those stories and eliminate any mundane content, the balance of investigation would have to favor fiction, even if verifiable historical persons or locations were mentioned in the stories.

  3. This is an excellent example of how memories are reconstructed as much from the present as the past. People simply accepted the Ellis Island Myth and used it to explain their own situation.
    One can find the same thing with the present day torture myth in the United States. It was never the policy of the United States government to use torture on prisoners before the Bush-Cheney administration introduced it in 2002 under the euphemism “Enhanced interrogation Techniques.” Yet, people are claiming that this was nothing new. This has a partial tiny bit of truth to it in that the C.I.A. as part of the Cold War against Communism, did covertly train foreign military and intelligence agencies to use torture in the 1950’s through the 1990’s. However torture of prisoners, as official government policy and practice did not start until 2002.

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