So here’s how the story goes, as told to me by my Uncle Max (long-deceased).
Somewhere in the late 1890s (I could be off by ten years), a man by the name of Tudrus Zlutchin (another branch of the family claims that the surname was Dudek) landed at Ellis Island from Russia with his wife and three (maybe two, maybe four) children. He came from a shtetl just outside of Nizhni Novgorod (now Russia’s third-largest city). Supposedly five other families, all unrelated to each other, also from the same shtetl, were traveling on the same boat…for moral support, I guess.
Tudrus disembarked with his family and belongings and snaked the lines through Immigration until he came to a desk where an official was waiting to check his papers. As the governmental posts were then almost exclusively manned by first- or second-generation Irish-Americans, I shall call him Mr. Patrick James O’Mahony. (Full disclosure: ’tis my wife’s family name.)
P.J. O’Mahony looked at the bedraggled clan in front of him (with the five other Nizhni Novogorodian families huddled miserably just behind) and thought that this would soon deteriorate into another of those mind-numbing days of dealing with ignorant foreigners.
Tudrus, who spoke no English and perhaps less Gaelic, stood respectfully waiting for the uniformed and forbidding Mr. O’Mahony to unbeetle his brow, unsquint his eye, and stamp his papers…and by that sacrament bless him and his family through to Freedom-and-a-New-Life. But after P.J. had done all the required paper sputtering and officializing, he had to Americanize this immigrant’s unpronounceable last name, a “z” preceding an “l” being unknown to proper American tongues. Now P.J., he spoke no Yiddish, no Russian, and a brogued English, but he had a printed card, cleverly supplied to him by the Ellis Island Employees Benevolent Society, that listed transliterated questions one could ask to elicit information necessary to creating new identities.
PJ: (reading transliterated Yiddish) Vee hayst du? [What’s your name?]
TZ: Ich hays Tudrus Zlutchin.
PJ: (to fellow Immigration Officer Francis Xavier Shaughnessy at the table next to him) Francis, m’lad, I’ve got anather goople-de-gack that can’t be written in American.
Francis: Don’t bother me now, Paddy. I’ve got some bearded sheeny over here who claims to be Moses hisself.
PJ: (reading again) Vo vohnst du? [Where do you live?]
(under his breath) If y’spoke English the way the Irish do, there’d be none o’this.
TZ: Nizhni Novgorod.
PJ: Eh? (gesturing wildly for a repeat)
TZ: (frightened) Nizhni Novgorod. Nizhni Novgorod!
PJ: (muttering) Impossible. Can’t wait ‘til I get home. (resignedly reading the last question ) Vas ist dein arbeit? [What is your work?]
TZ: Ich bin ein ketler. [I’m a kettle maker.]
PJ: Ahhh, then y’name’ll be Ted Cotler.
And so Tudrus Zlutchin (maybe Dudek) and his wife and three (maybe four or two) children crossed through the gate to Freedom-and-a-New-Life as the “Ted Cotler” family.
This is not an unusual story; many immigrants got new names this way. But what happened next is the real story.
After Tudrus had made it across the line, the next Nizhni Novgorodian family shambled up to P.J.’s desk. Let’s call the patriarch Shmuel Tsimmismacher.
Having been so successful with the last yid, P.J. tried the questions again.
Question One: Disaster…Tsimmismacher was even worse than Zlutchin.
Remembering the success of Question Three just previously, P.J. decided to skip Question Two and get right to the winner. But here he made a simple error. He thought he was asking what work the man did, but instead he read Question Two and asked where he was from. Expecting to hear something like “I am an edelstein” (jeweler) or “I am a schneider” (tailor), P.J. was surprised and not a little disappointed when Shmuel responded with “Nizhni Novgorod.” Paddy asked again, this time louder…but Shmuel’s response, with a tremor in the voice, was again: “Nizhni Novgorod.” P.J. now lost his composure. Clearly these immigrants were stupider than he thought. Here he was, asking him what he did for a living, and the answer was gibberish.
Thinking Shmuel was perhaps hard of hearing, P.J. asked a third time, this time yelling (and definitely getting the attention of F. X. Shaughnessy and all the immigrants in line as well). Shmuel, frightened that would soon be packed up and sent back to unbeloved Mother Russia, pointed at Tudrus Zlutchin and his brood walking into Freedom-and-a-New-Life and shouted in desperation: “Dee zelbeh vee ihn! [the same as him]” P.J. turned, looked through the gate at Tudrus, and breathed a sigh, “Well why didn’t y’say so. Your name’ll be Sam Cotler.”
Each of the other Nizhni Novgorodian families got the name Cotler in the same way. And to this day, when I find someone who spells Cotler as I do, it is a relative…or someone who came over on that boat.
That’s what I was told. Perhaps some of it is true.