When Names Were Changed
"The Tin Photo" is a piece of historical fiction with a heavy basis in truth. Since I base the story on my own family, I have been doing extensive research to get things right. One shaky piece was the fact my family changed their name when they immigrated to the United States from Serbia (currently Croatia) in the early 1900s.
I knew my Great Grandfather changed his name as did his parents. For many years, I bought into the myth that immigrants had their names forcibly changed at Ellis Island. I was wrong. I am a bad history buff and did not do proper research.
I found a different story all together when I dove in to reasons immigrants changed their names. Most immigrants changed their names on their own. There were several reasons for this. Many of them changed the spelling of their name to sound more American. There are copies of letters written to the US Government dated between 1911 and 1916, showing the reasons for some name changes.
Others changed their names to help their chances. In this study on Swedish immigrants, the name changes affected their pay scale. Immigrants who changed their name found better jobs and higher pay.
Fitting in also prompted name changes from some immigrants. While some changed their names completely, others only changed the spelling of the name. Immigrants with a character that did not exist in the English alphabet would drop or change that character to make it seem more American. Or they would change the spelling all together.
I wish I could sit with my Great Grandfather and ask him why he changed his name. I knew my Great Grandmother, and she had a difficult to spell and say maiden name. However, she and her parents both never changed it. As a writer, I have to speculate. Fortunately, I have clues.
His surname was Zdjelar, and they later changed it to Della. I believe they changed the name for reasons of simplicity and possibly to fit in. Considering the fact I know how "Zjdelar" is pronounced, I could see someone try to say the name over and over before setting on something close to "Della." It made sense to me they changed it to fit what others thought the name sounded like.
In my mind, I have created a vision of my family discussing such a thing. There are so many questions I want to ask them! Did it make them sad to change their names? Did they feel like something was being taken from them? Were they happy to do it, thinking future generations would benefit from it? I'll never know the answers to those questions on this earth, but I can do my best to use the research I've gathered and create a story based on what they might have felt.