Surnames or family names were adopted by Jews in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, under dictate from authorities who wanted the information to count, tax, register for military service, and in general have stronger administrative control over their Jewish subjects.
Traditionally, Jews would be known by their given name and by the name of their father or mother, e.g., Solomon bar (or ben) Mayer.
Naming started earliest in Germany and in Czech lands. Polish lands annexed by Prussia and Austria began the process of naming in 1795. In the part of Poland that was taken by Russia and later integrated into the Pale of Settlement, a law passed in 1804 required Jews to take family names.
Naming proceeded in fits and starts. Jewish kahals or recognized communities were usually given responsibility for creating surnames, with some more efficient at the task than others. In some cases, government clerks stepped in and created the names. It wasn’t until 1820 or 1830 that virtually all Jews in Eastern Europe had surnames.
In 2016, Mike and Dr. Beider had an exchange about the surname, which was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Avotaynu, a journal of Jewish genealogy. Read the exchange here. Beider’s conclusion is that the name was one of many assigned by Austrian Christian clerks who set the naming patterns in the province of Bessarabia, where Solomon was registered as a resident. The meaning: “Maiden” + “Mountain”. Beider’s view is at some variance with the explanations given by Joseph and Amnon, which are described below.
Our ancestors lived in the eastern part of Ukraine, in the province of Podolia (“Podolia Guberniya”). This area was part of Poland up to 1793, when it was annexed into the Russian Empire.
See the article, “Podolia and her Jews, a brief history“.
As for the Pale of Settlement, (referenced here) Beider notes that in Podolia German was used to create compound names such as Goldberg (“gold mountain”). He says also that in Podolia and elsewhere in the Pale it was a common practice to create surnames from place names.
All this is consistent with the recollection of Joseph and Amnon, who were asked about the name in the letters.
Here is what Joseph wrote in 1965:
Our family name shows that many years ago our grandfathers lived in the German town of Magdeburg (in some G. dialects-Meidenberg, which means Maiden or Girl’s Town). Then driven by persecutions probably they came to settle themselves with masses of other wandering Jews in Ukraine.
Magdeburg today is part of Germany. In the time of our ancestors it was the capital of the Prussian state of Saxony.
Amnon in 1981:
I know from my father that the ancestors of the Maidenbergs came from the German town of Magdeburg via Poland and settled in Ukraine in the 18th century.
I know from my father that he had come across some documents which proved that the Maidenbergs’ ancestors came to live in Poland from the German town of Magdeburg. Then their progeny left that country and in the 18th century settled in Ukraine.
In 1990 I innocently asked Amnon why the family “left Germany”. His reply:
There is some misunderstanding in this question. I know from my father’s story that we are of German extraction. But this doesn’t mean that Solomon Maidenberg himself came to the Ukraine from Germany. That happened to our ancestors centuries ago.
My father learned from his father that when he (Solomon) was a young man, his great-grandfather told him that his parents (the parents of Solomon’s great-grandfather) had lived in the town of Magdeburg (Germany). But driven by persecutions or hardship they had to leave the country that had been the home of many generations of Maidenbergs.
That could take place at the end of the 16th or at the beginning of the 17th century. I cannot give you more details or precisions on the matter since my father didn’t know them either.
Amnon’s calculation is roughly accurate: the parents of Solomon’s great-grandfather would be six generations back from Amnon. Depending on how many years are allocated to a generation, the departure from Magdeburg would have been around 1650. However, there is an historical problem with this date. The Jews of Magdeburg were expelled in 1492, and according to one account were not allowed to return until the 1700’s. A second account says Jews were readmitted around 1671. And it is possible that some Jews, including our ancestors, remained in and around Magdeburg without any official permission.]
Since the family names of many people derive from the name of the place their forefathers came from, you are right to assume that our last name, Maidenberg, derives from Magdeburg in Germany. Note: Magdeburg means maiden’s castle or maiden’s fortress in German and Maidenberg – maiden’s hill (the hill of maidens). In medieval German the words Magde (plural of Magd) and Maiden were synonymic, they had the same meaning. (In modern German, Magd is used in the sense of maidservant). The word Burg (according to the German spelling all the substantives (including common nouns) must be written with a capital letter) taken separately means a castle or a fortress and Berg is a hill or a height in German.
Since in former times castles and fortresses were usually built on a hill, the people who settled around it might name the place of their habitation at will – with the ending burg or berg. Hence it follows that Magdeburg and Maidenberg mean on and the same place.
Thus the family tradition has our distant ancestors living in Magdeburg, which is some 850 miles to the west of Podolia. It is possible they in fact left there and through the decades migrated eastward into Polish lands, a migratory pattern followed by thousands of Jews.
They could have arrived in Podolia in the 1700’s, and at that time they were in Poland. After 1793 they wouldn’t have had to move to “leave Poland”. They were in Ukraine, and the Russian Empire. The family memory is strong enough, as the letters indicate, to give credence to the Magdeburg, Germany story.
On the other hand, because place name construction was common in Podolia, and because German was used to create compound names, it is possible that the surname Maidenberg/Meidenberg was simply made up, and that the Magdeburg story was fashioned to fit it retrospectively. That Jews had been expelled from Magdeburg also creates doubt. There are other families that carry the Maidenberg surname. Did they all have a connection to Magdeburg, Prussia/Germany?
We probably will never know the exact truth. What we do have is the family legend, which fits with the historic practices of naming, but those practices could have bestowed the name without the legend being true.