Chapter 4. My Grandfather, Hyman Perlin: Changing Names, Changing Countries

In the year 1876 my grandfather, then an infant baby boy, was brought to a synagogue in or near Slonim, Russia (now Belarus) and given the name Mattis Skorowski. He was a sickly child, and the only boy, who grew up in a house full of girls.

The parents brought the boy to the rabbi and asked what could they do make him healthy. The rabbi suggested they stop calling him Mattis and change his name to Chaim (which means "Life" in Jewish). In time he grew up healthy and became an itinerant carpenter.

When my grandfather was 20 years old he was hired by Bela Levine, a Jewish farmer in Kalona, to build a barn. He built the barn and ended up marrying Bela's daughter, Rachel (Ruchel). My grandfather (as did many other Jews) realized opportunities in the Pale were limited (There had been a series of pogroms and arsons in the area.) He would go to the United States and earn enough money to send for his family. In 1904, he left his pregnant wife and 6-year-old son with the promise that as soon as he had the money for the tickets, she would receive them in the mail.

My grandfather left for Bremen Germany, from where he sailed on the Main to the United States. The boat landed in New York on February 14, 1904. LouisRelkis, an uncle, met him and helped him find a job as a carpenter building apartment houses in Brooklyn. Most of the men were Jewish and he spoke Yiddish with them. The others knew some Yiddish words but couldn't pronounce the words correctly because they could not pronounce the right sounds.

My grandfather soon discovered what every Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jew who ever came to North America had to or was about to find out. That English speaking Americans could not pronounce the letters "CH" as it sounded like "CH" in challah. (See endnote) Usually they would substitute an "H" for the "CH" as in Hanukah. Or they would sound out a word incorrectly by sounding "CH" as in China instead of the correct Jewish sound. In his case, my grandfather became Hymie, which was an American shortened version of Hyman.

In 1910, after living on her father's farm with her children for six years, my grandmother received the letter with the three tickets to America. She and the children left from Liverpool on the Lusitania, arriving in New York on July 15, 1910 after sailing six days. She was met by her husband (my grandfather) who still used the name Chaim Skorowski.

He selected Hyman as his American first name. Years later, I asked him why he had written that the reason he wanted to change his name on the Petition for Naturalization was "I wanted an American name." He told me that Skorowski didn't sound American. I then asked why, of all the names in the world, he selected Perlin. His reason was that Perlin had been the original family name. Either his father or grandfather had been a second son. The oldest son in each family was exempt from conscription in the Russian army. A family named Skorowski had an only son who had died. They allowed their last name to be used by my grandfather's parent or grandparent. And that was how we acquired Skorowski name.

Mattis Skorowski entered this world in 1876. Hyman Perlin left this world in 1952. Different time, different country, same person.


1. David Chininson, (CH as challah) his wife and two young sons arrived from Antwerp in June, 1922 on the S.S. Finland. When they left Ellis Island their name was Kanegson (My wife's maiden name.). Someone had "Americanized" the name. Someone had changed the Ch to K.

The Mongols swept through Kiev in 1240 and left a legacy of death, destruction and descendents with high cheekbones.

When Peter the Great mandated (in 1722) that everyone have a last name, these people were given the name Chininson (meaning son of a Chinese man)

At Ellis Island the substitution of K for CH changed the name to Kanegson which was a derivation from Koenigson (son of a king).

Someone had changed not only the spelling and the pronunciation he, inadvertently, changed the meaning of the name.

2. In 1996, I was teaching American history at a local Catholic college. One student, a Jewish woman recently returned to the United States from Israel with her husband and two teenage sons, was registered for my class. At the first session I called her Chana (with CH as in challah). After class, she came to speak with me. She said she had a problem with the pronunciation of her name. I asked, "Did I pronounce it wrong?" "No," she said, "we are the only ones who pronounce it correctly." No one else could pronounce it. Would I please pronounce her name CHANA (as in China) from now on. She had changed the sound of CH.

3. Haym Salomon was born in Lissa (now Leszno) Poland in 1740 to an Orthodox Jewish family. He most assuredly was given the Jewish name Chaim. The name had meaning in Yiddish. Haym was a secular name. He dropped the CH when he went to work in Western Europe.

All the above changes were made to improve communication between people who could pronounce CH correctly and those who couldn't. You will note that words such as challah, chumetz and Chanukah didn't make it into mainstream American language as well as the bagel.