Crowdsourcing Works!

When I announced that I would be calling on the world at large to help solve the mystery of my name, effectively crowdsourcing the task, I didn’t expect much to come of it. Honestly, it seemed like a way of making a pretty tremendous proposition more manageable and using a catchy web neologism. But, within a day of posting my inquiries, I received some useful replies. In the battle for efficient use of my time, Gmail and Facebook have scored a rare victory.

Via email, my sister Kim sent this:

I don’t have many facts – mostly lots of guesses. The Wegbreits lived in Warsaw. At one point in time, Warsaw was in Germany. Now Warsaw is in Poland.  My thinking was that we got the name from when it was Germany. Jewish people didn’t used to have last names.  Instead, the word “ben” – “son of” was used.  As in David Ben Eliot.  At one point in time, Jews were forced to take last names.  Usually were descriptive of their profession. In our case, “Wegbreit” means “broad street” so my guess is that we lived on a big street. Or maybe our ancestors were street cleaners.


My Uncle Marty sent me this on Facebook:

A little family history.  The ancestry on the Wegbreit side is Polish, near Warsaw.  The name is German and does mean “way-broad” or Broadway.  For a brief period around 1798 – 1802, the Germans occupied that part of Poland and forced the local Jews to have last names, not just “David son of Ben.”  Our ancestors apparently lived by a wide road, hence, Wegbreit.  On the other hand, I have seen the name written as Wejcrecht, perhaps bad handwriting or maybe the real name.  As you say, a mystery.

With these, I have not only some more hope for this venture but a few pieces of important evidence:

  1. We’re from Warsaw or outside Warsaw.
  2. We lived in Poland from around 1798 to 1802.
  3. An alternative spelling of our name “Wejcrecht” or, possibly, evidence that I can blame my half-assed penmanship on genetics.

At a glance, Google and Babylon Polish translation yield nothing with the new name, but so far we have a couple of interesting hypotheses:

  1. We lived on a big street
  2. We are not really Wegbreits, but just have poor hand writing.
  3. We were street cleaners

Over the next week, I’ll reach out to more Wegbreits to see if they have any thoughts to add. I’ll also start following up on the alternative spelling and Warsaw leads and try to study effective crowdsourcing. Any suggestions regarding Warsaw resources? Polish name resources? Crowdsourcing resources?

For now, have courage, and take heart the next time anyone tells you Facebook and email are giant wastes of time.


By Any Other Name

Question: How does a family with little German heritage get a German surname?

Answer: To  be determined.

As family mysteries go, ours is small but puzzling. Our name, Wegbreit, is distinctly German, meaning something like “Broadway” or “wide street,” but we have few ties to Germany.  We did not suffer the indignity of changing our name because we felt ours was ill-fit for the new country, nor were we subject to the dislocation of having our name forcibly changed. Just as there are a handful of Wegbreits in America, there are Wegbraits in Argentina. So, blame cannot lay on Ellis Island.

So far, the best guess anyone has been able to muster is that, though our ancestry is vaguely Eastern European, we lived in Poland, which was then part of Prussia for some time, and … mumble, mumble, mumble. The translation of our name is not immediately revealing, either, suggesting no obvious profession or location.

My familial ignorance is not quite this profound, but, as my hedging above suggests, it is vast and I find the gaps in my knowledge troubling. So, over the next months, with the help of this community, I would like to set about seeing if I can solve this mystery. If you have facts, suggestions, or resources–say, an old professor of Jewish studies or a guide to German etymology–please share.