Avoiding Conscription: Our Story
My grandpa’s father was Joseph Levensohn, b ca 1854 in Kiev or vicinity. Here’s the story the way I remember hearing it:
“Joseph’s father was one of seven brothers, all surnamed HECHT. The family was well off. In order to avoid conscription, each one of the brothers purchased the name from a professional soldier, trading names with him. Joseph’s father purchased the name LEVENSOHN in exchange for HECHT.”
Here is the way my aunt remembered the story, and wrote it down in 1942:
“There was an interesting story connected with how Levensohn became their name. It seems that Morris Levensohn’s grandfather was the richest brewer in Odessa and paid a man named Levensohn $5000 to take his name and adopt the name of Hecht so that he – the rich brewer – might escape military duty. So, from that time on the Hechts were Levensohns and the Levensohns were Hechts.”
Clearly some differences: Kiev vs. Odessa. Seven brothers vs. no mention of brothers. And the details about a brewer and a dollar amount (never mind the conversion from kopeks) are intriguing.
The Odessa/Kiev contradiction is easily dealt with, I think. The only documents I can find list “Kieff” as the Old Country residence of my grandfather and my great-grandfather. Morris’s wife was from Odessa, and I think my aunt was getting the ancestral cities confused.
Living relatives (cousins and siblings) remember the story, but very hazily. We all “know” that a paternal ancestor was named Hecht and then his name became Levensohn; and we all “know” that it had to do with draft dodging.
Stories about our Jewish ancestors in the Russian Empire avoiding conscription are commonplace. My family’s story has the twist of the surname switch; and the possibility of seven men, each with a different surname. How am I supposed to research my family? Are we Levensohn or are we Hecht? What might be the other surnames, if there were seven different trades from Hecht?
Or is the story apocryphal? Well, my research has definitely found at least one link, maybe more, between the Hechts and the Levensohns.
The LEVENSOHN HECHT Connection
Each step along the way to establishing this connection is questionable.
The first questionable connection is this: Max Levensohn, Joseph’s oldest son, married his cousin, who was the daughter of a woman whose last name was Hecht.
Max married Clara, whose maiden name was Belilowski, changed to Bell. That is not in dispute. But were Clara and Max cousins? The evidence is tenuous.
The 1901 manifest shows Schaie [later “Charles”], age 19, and his sister, Clara, arriving in Baltimore and going to their cousin, Max Levensohn, on Western Avenue in Cincinnati. The question here is this: was Max really their cousin? Or was it a lie to enable him to bring his betrothed to the US?
Max and Clara did not wed for more than a year after her arrival. Her surname on the marriage license was BELL.
My working hypothesis is that Max and Clara were, in fact, related in some way. Cousin marriages were common among Jews of their generation.
The 1910 Federal Census shows Max living on Liberty Street in Cincinnati with his wife, Clara; his father, Joseph; his brother-in-law, Charles Bell; and his mother-in-law, Lea Bell. Joseph and Lea were about the same age, in their mid-50s, consistent with being part of the same generation. (I haven’t been able to find Lea’s immigration record.
When Charles Bell married in 1911, the marriage license application lists his mother’s maiden name as Leah HECHT. When Lea/Leah died, in July 1922, her name was listed as “Elizabeth Bell” on the death certificate. Her father’s name was listed as “Pinkus HECHT” from Ruzin, Russia.
The next questionable connection has to do with Ruhzin, near Kiev, the LITWACK family, and several other families from the Ruhzin area that moved to Cincinnati.
That connection is complicated, and would require a separate post. Suffice to say that there are several clues that the Levensohns were related to the Litwacks. The Litwacks were related to the Goldens and to the Mincowskys, all of whom lived in Cincinnati and all of whom came from Ruhzin. And the Mincowskys and Goldens were related to the Billiloves, probably the same family as Clara and Charles Bililofsky.
Autosomal dna evidence connects me to a Litwack descendent, as a “4th to remote” cousin. Another Levensohn relative, my first cousin, connects to the same man as a “3rd to 5th” cousin. At first blush this seems to confirm the paper-trail hints of a relationship. However, we Ashkenazim seem to be all so interrelated that I can’t see that as strong evidence. When I look at the specific places on the specific chromosomes where we match, there is nothing striking that seems to connect the three of us.
None of this helps me to verify the family stories about name changes. And it certainly does confuse my surname research.