I think it is best to begin the history of our family with the Ashkenazi name “Grossman”, an interesting topic in itself. Isaac Goldberg, a scholar of Jewish lore, provides some interesting background on Ashkenazic names in a speech he wrote in September, 1996 for a Jewish Sisterhood meeting. It is entitled “Ashkenazi Family Names: Origin & Development”. Here I cite a large excerpt from his text, now accessible on the Internet:
It is safe to say that throughout Jewish history, until the French Revolution and the ensuing breakdown of the ghetto walls, most Jews had no family name as we know the concept. The Mishnah and Talmud sages were known by their “first name ben father’s name”. So in the Middle Ages, [for example, there lived a] Judah ben Samuel, ha-asid; Baruch ben Samuel, of Mainz, et cetera.
Ashkenaz is the name applied to the Jewish communities of Germany, France and Bohemia. Ashkenazi Jewry also included the Jews of Poland and Russia, most of whom immigrated from Germany. The most outstanding mark of Ashkenazi Jewry was what is known today as Yiddish, a language deriving mostly from Middle High German, and still spoken by some Ashkenazi Jews. In German Ashkenazi documents, few family names occur... [In fact], family names in North European documents are sporadic before the second half of the eighteenth century.
With the new order, governments of duchies, petty kingdoms and other political entities were faced with the problem, financial as well as administrative, of adding these new [Jewish] “citizens” to local tax rolls. This created a serious name problem, for example, how to handle several households where the heads had the same name, Isaac ben Jacob. It is an irony of Jewish history that Austrian Emperor Joseph II, the son of the arch anti-Semite Maria Theresa, a bigoted and fanatic ruler who couldn’t stand Jews, was a very tolerant and liberal ruler. He permitted Jews to study handicrafts, to engage in agriculture and wholesale commerce, and admitted them into the universities and the army. In 1787, he issued an edict ordering the Jews of Galicia and Bukovina to adopt permanent family names, the first such law in Europe. Prussia occupied Warsaw from 1794-1806 and imposed German-sounding names on its Polish Jews. Laws ordering Jews to assume fixed family names were passed also in Frankfurt, Baden, Westphalia and other cities. In 1808, Napoleon decreed a similar requirement for all the Jews within his empire, while in the Russian Empire, Czar Alexander initiated this policy in 1804, finalizing it in 1845. These new regulations were intended to expedite the levying of taxes and the conscription of Jewish soldiers.
For the government officials in charge, the granting and registering of names proved a new way of extorting money from Jews. Fine-sounding names derived from flowers and gems: Rosenthal (valley of roses), Lilienthal (vale of lilies), Edelstein (beautiful stone), Diamant (Diamond), Saphir (Sapphire) came at a high price. Those who could not afford to pay were stuck with names like Schmalz (grease), Singmirwas (sing me something), Eselkopf (donkey’s head) etc. The policy was to “Germanize” the names... In many communities in Hungary the Jews were divided into four groups, and each group was assigned the name Weiss (white), Schwartz (black), Gross (big), and Klein (small) respectively.
Where Jews could manage by some device or other to escape the interference of the authorities and choose their own names, they resorted to several methods... A popular procedure was to draw on their religious caste or function, i.e. Kohen and its various forms such as: Cohen, Katz (from kohen tzedek), Kaplan, Kagan, Kahan, Kahn, Kohnstamm... Occupations were an important source for forming new family names: Fleischer & Fleischmann (butcher); Breuer (brewer); Weber (weaver); etc... The simplest way of choosing a family name was to create a patronymic by adding the suffix -sohn in German, -vitch in Russian, or -ov, -off, -eff, -kin, to denote “descendant of”... Many Jews took their family names from their place of origin, so we find [many derived from] innumerable provinces, cities, villages all over Germany, Austria, western Russia, Hungary and other countries.
Goldberg goes on to explain that many Jewish names are simply acronyms from Hebrew letters. Examples include: Schach, from Shabbetia Kohan; Brann, from Ben Rabbi Nahman; Metz and Matz, from Moreh (Moshe); Wallach, from Veahavta le-reyakha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself)... He continues, “Sometimes the Hebrew first name was translated into the vernacular: The idea of ‘peace’ from Solomon and Shalom was carried over into the name Fried and Friedman; so you’d get: Shalom - Friedman; Gedaliah - Grossman; Itzik - Lachman; Tuviah - Goodman; Shimshon - Starkman (strength); Meir - Lichtman (light).”
I checked the Easton Bible, which includes definitions of many esoteric words. The word Gedaliah is defined as “made great by Jehovah”. In the Biblical text there appear four different Gedaliahs:
1. The son of Jeduthum (1 Chr. 25:3, 9).
2. The grandfather of the prophet Zephaniah, and the father of Cushi (Zeph. 1:1).
3. One of the Jewish nobles who conspired against Jeremiah (Jer. 38:1).
4. The son of Ahikam, and grandson of Shaphan, secretary of king Josiah(Jer.26:24).
It is not difficult to imagine how the concept Gedaliah became the name “Grossman”. In German and Yiddish “gross” and “grois” mean “big” or “great”, while the Hungarian “grosz” means the same thing. In the name “Grossman” the notion of bigness or greatness was not intended as a physical attribute, but as a positive abstract quality drawn directly from ancient Hebrew. This has created some confusion among members of our family, many of whom believe that “Grossman” means “big man” in the physical sense. Although there were and are some very tall people among us, this is not the original meaning of the word.
It is a well known fact that the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service had a hand in changing and Americanizing many European surnames, but this was evidently not the case with our family, whose name was somehow palatable to immigration officials. Unlike many incoming European Jews, we Grossmans were able to retain the name of our forefathers, although the spelling was probably altered slightly. I will later argue that our Yiddish name was in all likelihood “Groisman” or “Groiserman” (“r” silent, as in High German), which to American immigration officials would have sounded exactly like “Grossman”. They simply approximated in English what they heard in Yiddish.