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What's in a Name?

The problem of name changes in the search for family roots
By Professor Gilbert Herbert, December 2007


According to my South African birth certificate, my name is Gilbert Herbert. At my brit mila, I was later told, I was named Getzel, but discovered years later that my full Hebrew name was Eliakim Getzel. My given name Gilbert was subject to various abbreviations: I was Gilly to my family and later Gus to my friends, while in Israel I became Gil, which has the advantage of being a real word in Hebrew.

My maternal grandmother’s siblings – all born Yerusalimski – variously took such surnames as Nathan, Phillips, and Miller, and it was by this process that the writer Howard Fast’s mother Eta Yerusalimski metamorphosed into Ida Miller in all the biographies of her famous son. I can’t really blame these forebears for changing their names on leaving Eastern Europe. The spelling of “Yerusalimski,” for instance, was a hurdle which Anglo-Saxon clerks found difficult to surmount, hence my grandmother was inscribed as Erisolominski on her London marriage certificate, and Ruralimski on my mother’s birth certificate in Belfast. The name of my wife’s paternal ancestors was Rein in Lithuania, becoming Ryin in England, then Ryan in Ireland; and there is convincing oral and other evidence that my wife’s maternal great-grandfather Joseph Lipschitz (one of his descendants became Lister) and his relative Joshua Brauer were actually brothers.

Some of these changes to given and family names are voluntary, some imposed, some cultural adaptations, and some mistakes when converting from one language to another. If there is no written account of these name changes, what will a future family historian, a hundred years from now, make of our multiple identities? This problem is the central theme of this article. I do not pretend to be an expert on Jewish names and their derivations, leaving these topics to the professionals, the Alexander Beiders and the Jerry Estersons. I deal here with the phenomenon of name changes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the ways in which such changes complicate the task of the amateur genealogist, from a purely personal point of view, and I am focusing on a specific case study: the enigma of the derivation of my family name: HERBERT.


My paternal grandfather died in 1911, long before I was born. From my father, and from grandfather’s tombstone in the old Braamfontein cemetery in Johannesburg, I knew that his name was Simon Herbert, and that in Hebrew he was Haim, the son of Eliezer. I later expanded the Hebrew name of grandfather from Haimto Haim Ze’ev, basing this on the Hebrew inscriptions on the tombstones of my two late uncles, Lazarus/Leyzer [Eliezer] and Jack [Jaakov] Herbert.

As I delved into our family history I learned that Simon had arrived in England from Lithuania in the early 1880s with his wife Minnie (born Paikin). They settled in the East End of London, and it was there, from 1885 onwards, that all but the youngest of their children were born. It soon became apparent that it was unlikely that the original name of an immigrant Jewish family coming from Eastern Europe would have been the very English name of Herbert. If I wished to know more of my paternal ancestry I needed to discover the original name of the Herberts, and find out where they came from. Unfortunately, by the time I became interested in our roots there were hardly any survivors of the older generation of the Herbert family to whom to turn. Not only had my grandparents long since passed away, but also my father, his two brothers and a sister were no longer living.

Luckily, there still remained two surviving sources: my father’s sister Annie and his sister-in-law Sarah, widow of his oldest brother. They individually told parallel stories: that the name of the Herbert family originally was Yarblutchnik or Yapulshnik, and that they identified the town in Lithuania from which the family came as something which I transcribed in my notes as “Valkamia.” In the course of my researches, with some help from the experts, I refined this information, and came to focus my search on the name Yablotchnik (derived from the Russian Yablon), from the town of Vilkomir [Ukmerge]. This latter information was buttressed by my grandfather’s naturalization application, found in the State Archives in Cape Town, which recorded his place of origin as Walkemir, in Govan Geberge. This idiosyncratic rendering of Vilkomir, in Kovno Gubernya, suggests that there was not only a problem with personal names but also with those of place names.

I could now with some confidence assume that my grandfather was Haim Ze’ev Yablotchnik, the son of Eliezer Yablotchnik, of Vilkomir. This was my belief, but for a long time I had no proof, for the only documentation I had been able to retrieve was from England and South Africa, and these documents referred, in one variant or another – as we shall see — to Simon Herbert. However, thanks to the All Lithuania Database, I was to have an extraordinary stroke of good fortune. In the Tax and Voters Lists, this is what I found.

Incredibly, out of the thousands of names in the Database I had located the only Yablotchniks on record, my very own family. Moreover, not only did I now have documentary confirmation of the names of my grandfather Haim Ze’ev [Ze’ev is the Hebrew term for “wolf”] and my great-grandfather Leyzer [Eliezer] Yablotchnik, but I had also traced my great-great-grandfather Haim. As we shall see, this last discovery, thrilling in its own right – as my late brother Harold was also a Haim, this gives us the recurrence of the name Haim in every alternate generation for well over a hundred years – but is also possibly a valuable hint as to the origin of the name Herbert.


In London, Haim Ze’ev Yablotchnik metamorphosed into Simon Herbert. This was a gradual and entirely unofficial process. There was no formal requirement in England at that time to register a change of name, and my grandfather only applied for naturalization after moving to South Africa. The first documentary evidence of a change of name in England comes from the 1885 birth certificate of their eldest child, my uncle Lazarus, when his name, and that of his parents, is listed as Herberd. On my father Benjamin’s birth certificate, in 1889, the family name is Helebert, and on the short version the unclear hand-written name might possibly be Hlerbert. We assume that these are misspellings; it is interesting to note that on my visa to Russia (issued in 1996) my name was spelt by the Russian clerk as “Helbert.” There is also no letter H in Russian (the nearest equivalent being the letter G), and this would also have given rise to difficulties in pronunciation. The 1891 British census and all subsequent official documents, including my grandfather’s naturalization papers, in South Africa in 1899, give grandfather’s name as Simon Herbert.

But how did my grandfather settle on the very English name of Simon Herbert? The Anglicisation of Haim’s first name underwent two transformations: first from Haim to Hyman, and then to Simon. This double transition seems fairly straightforward phonetically. However, the adoption of the new surname is more difficult to account for. According to family tradition, there was a Jewish family known by the name of Herbert already living in London, and it was from this family that Haim and Minnie took the name of Herbert. There are very different theories which might give a clue as to the identity of this English family, who were to play a brief but so significant role in our history. We shall deal with two accounts summarily, before turning to a third, more substantial, hypothesis.

The first account relates to an unknown person (possibly a family member) who had a fishmonger’s shop in or near Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane), where my grandfather, then a man in his late 20s, went to work. That grandfather from his London days followed the trade of a fishmonger was a documented fact, which might have given rise to this supposition. Was there a Jewish fishmonger named Herbert in Whitechapel? Examining the trade directories and censuses I tried to identify such a connection, but without success. There was a John Herbert (wife, Emma) who was listed as a fishmonger at 108 Bakers Road, Whitechapel, in the 1880s and 1890s. It is doubtful, however, if this was a Jewish family, as one of John Herbert’s sons was also named John, which is contrary to Jewish custom, at least for Ashkenazim. There was another John Herbert living in the area, who might have been Jewish (his wife’s name was Leah, and one of his sons was Solomon), but his occupation is listed in the 1891 census as “porter.”

Secondly, there is the enigmatic Irish connection. There are still Jewish Herberts living in Northern Ireland (with connections in London and, at one time, in South Africa). I was attracted to this family when I came across the name of Joseph Herbert, the son of Eliezer, in British naturalization records. I excitedly speculated that Joseph might actually be a brother of my grandfather Haim. I was, however, to be sadly disillusioned. This family descends from the Herzberg family of Tukums, in Kurland. Joseph Herzberg moved to Britain, and eventually settled in Lurgan, a small town not far from Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early 1880s, where he was followed by other members of the family, all of whom adopted the name Herbert, a very simple transformation. My family (ex-Yablotchniks) do not seem to be directly related to these Herberts (ex-Herzbergs). Alas, we have been unable to trace any direct relationship, although I was told by one of the Herberts I met in Belfast that there is a distinct family resemblance. I have no proof whatsoever of any connection, and the likelihood that there is one, while it cannot be rejected out of hand, is remote indeed.


I come now to the hypothesis which seems to me the most promising account of the origin of our surname Herbert. In my youth there was an elderly widow, a Mrs. Herbert (1862-1946), then living in Palace Buildings, Johannesburg, with whom my father remained in contact, and who was an occasional visitor in our home. She had married, in London, into a Jewish Herbert family, and was therefore probably connected to us by marriage. My father certainly considered her to be a relative. I recall her talking of her son in London, Ralph, who was or had been an officer in the British Army, and of her late husband, who had some connection with Trinidad, in the West Indies. When I became immersed in family history I began to speculate that this was a possible origin of our family name.

This exotic source of our Herbert name was intriguing, but alas there was no documentary evidence to support it. However, my enquiries to the London Rabbinate brought to light a marriage certificate of one Meyer Hime [Meir Haim] Herbert (born in Russia, the only son of Reuven Dov), to Amelia Scharfmesser (born in Galicia). I am convinced that this Amelia was the old lady we knew, although she was buried in Johannesburg under the name of Mildred Herbert. Such name transformations frequently took place: my own grandmother Minna is listed on more than one document as Amelia.

Significantly, it was noted on the Rabbinate document that the groom was from Trinidad, West Indies. In their civil marriage certificate the name of Meyer Hime’s father was given as Reuben Woolf Sterren Herbert, then deceased. The couple was married in London on 12 September 1880 by Rev. B. Berliner, the Minister of the St. John’s Wood Synagogue, the ceremony taking place in the home of the bride, 59 Boundary Road, St. John’s Wood, a lodging house run by her widowed mother. In the official registry certificate the occupation of Meyer was given as “Merchant.” This is confirmed by a document I later received from Hans Stecher, of the Jewish community of Port of Spain. This is an extract from The Trinidad Alamanackof 1879, showing a half-page advertisement reading: “M. H. Herbert, General Outfitter, Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ Hosier, Importer of British and Foreign Goods.” This business, entitled “The West End Store,” was situated at the corner of King and Chacon Streets, Port of Spain. In the British marriage register Meyer’s age was given as 41, and his London address as 13 Albany Street, Regents Park.

From a marriage announcement in the Jewish Chronicle further information came to light. Meyer Herbert, of Port of Spain, Trinidad, was “the only surviving son of the late Hon. Reuben Douve Sterren Herbert of Krupyan Castel, Lithuania.” This suggests Reuben’s second name as Dov, rather than Woolf [Ze’ev], as appears in the civil registry. It also raises some questions. I can find no trace of a town called Krupyan Castel. However, there is a place called Kraupenai (a variant is Kroupyani) just over a mile from the town of Baleliai in Lithuania, which is less than 10 miles from Vilkomir, and even closer to Kavarskas. In other words, it is on the Yablotchniks’ home turf. My wife has a theory that Kraupenai was a nobleman’s estate, and that Reuben Herbert was an official of sorts (maybe a castellan) at this minor court. This would explain both the name of "Krupyan Castel" and the appellation "the Hon." attached to Reuben’s name. My Lithuanian sources can give no suggestions as to possible local meanings of this term. No indication is given of the original surname of this family, for it is highly improbable that Herbert was Reuben’s original surname in Lithuania, unless this family was of German origin. There is, of course, the possibility that it derived from the name of his patron.

Put together, these combined circumstances are persuasive. The dates certainly fit what we know of my father’s kinswoman, the old Mrs. Herbert; the Trinidad connection is surely not a coincidence; and the origin of Meyer and Reuben in a town in the vicinity of Vilkomir (the Yablotchniks’ home town) is convincing. The probabilities are great that our family name Herbert derives from this connection, and are strengthened by the traditional repetitive naming patterns. By this argument, Meyer Haim Herbert would have been related to my grandfather Haim. Could it be that Eliezer Yablotchnik and Reuven Dov/Ze’ev (Herbert) were brothers, and as both my grandfather and the man from Trinidad were named Haim that they were perhaps named after a common grandfather, Haim Yablotchnik? If this supposition is correct (but so far, we have been unable to prove this connection) we have the following hypothetical table.









Details of Meyer Haim and Amelia Herbert’s later presence in Trinidad are not clear. On 13 January 1882 the following notice appeared in the Jewish Chronicleof London: “Birth 10.1.1882 the wife of Mr. H. Herbert (nee Amelia Scharfmesser), of Trinidad, W.I., of a son.” At first, I assumed from this notice that the Herberts had returned to Trinidad shortly after their marriage (an assumption supported by the fact that they did not appear in the 1891 British census), and that their son was born there. However, after intensive searches carried out in the Port of Spain records, I could find no record of such a birth. On further consideration, the brief announcement in the Jewish Chroniclecould be read in another way, that while the residence of the Herberts was in Trinidad, the birth had actually taken place in London.

A further search has borne this out, and we now have the British birth certificate, which reads that Reuben Moses Whitfield, son of Meyer Hime Herbert (a merchant) and Amelia Herbert (formerly Scharfmesser), was born on 10 January 1882, at 2 Chiswick Cottages, Chiswick (an outer suburb of London), in the county of Middlesex. The birth was registered by the mother Amelia, who gave her address as Trinidad, West Indies. This new information helps to resolve a dilemma, because if these Trinidad Herberts had in fact been in London in 1882, it then became possible for my grandfather to have made direct contact with them when he arrived in England.

Two further points need to be added. According to an announcement in the Jewish Chronicle of 19 February 1892, it seems that another son was born to the Trinidad Herberts, and their address was then given as Clarendon Villa, Disraeli Road, Baling, WI. Could this have been the son Ralph of whom old Mrs. Herbert had talked? We tried to obtain the birth certificate of a child named Ralph Herbert, born at this time, who may be this second son, but the names of the parents did not match. When we knew Mrs. Herbert, her son Reuben was no longer alive. He had presumably lived in England, for we have a note of the burial in the New Farnley Cemetery of a Reuben Herbert, of the Leeds Jewish Community. His age at death on 15 May 1924 is given as 43, which would not be a bad fit with a January 1882 birth date. From the incomplete burial records of the Leeds community we could further speculate that Reuben married Rachel (b.1878) and that they had at least two children, Harvey (b.1910) and David (b.1915).


It is my belief that Haim Yablotchnik met Meyer Haim Herbert, a kinsman, in London, and adopted his surname. Grandfather Haim became Hyman, then Simon Herbert. I am personally grateful for this step, for it certainly smoothed my path in the English-speaking world where I have lived or spent considerable time. Eliakim Getzel Yablotchnik would probably have had a tougher time in South Africa, Australia, England, or the USA than Gilbert Herbert. As far as Israel goes I’m not so sure. When we settled in Israel some 39 years ago, our bank put into their computer three Hebrew versions of my English name: Herbert Gilbert (a straightforward inversion), Herbert Albert and Herbert Goldberg. In this Israeli culture the name Gilbert Herbert is a mixed blessing.

about the author
Professor Gilbert Herbert

Gilbert Herbert, Professor Emeritus, Technion, Haifa, was born in South Africa in 1924 of British parents and Litvak (Lithuanian and Latvian) antecedents, and grew up, was educated, got married and started a family in Johannesburg. After deciding to leave apartheid South Africa he spent the years 1961-1968 in Adelaide, South Australia, before making aliyah to Israel in 1968.

His serious interest in genealogy began while in Australia, when his wife felt that as they were completely cut off from their extensive family in South Africa it was imperative that their children know who they were, where they belonged, and where they came from. Now, as a three-generation family in Israel, while there is no longer a question for them of Jewish identity, their dedication to family history has remained. For over forty years Prof. Gilbert and his wife have probed the collective family memory, searched the archives and visited the ancestral sites world-wide. While as an architectural historian he has published widely on professional topics, he has also compiled a comprehensive family history, and this, together with two other privately-circulated documents: On My Way: the Memoirs of an Anglo-Saxon Litvak(1995) and Harmonious Relations: the Genealogy of a Musical Family(2006), comprise his genealogy oeuvre.