Fair ques­tion.

My father’s fam­i­ly lived in War­saw but they also had roots in oth­er parts of the vast and shift­ing bor­ders of the Russ­ian empire. Osnos is not a Slav­ic name nor rec­og­niz­ably Jew­ish; because it ends in S” it could be Greek, Span­ish, or Lithuan­ian in ori­gin. And yet a fam­i­ly his­to­ri­an and cousin, Elie Van­nier, has traced the name back, unchanged, to Samuel Mendel Osnos in 1740.

My par­ents told me that Osnos was an unusu­al enough sur­name as to regard every­one with it as relat­ed to us. When I vis­it­ed Auschwitz in 2018 there was a mas­ter list of all Jews who had died dur­ing World War II, although not clear where or how. There were nine­teen peo­ple with the Osnos name. My father’s par­ents had died in the 1930s, so they were not there.

I knew that I had one uncle who was among the 22,000 Pol­ish offi­cers exe­cut­ed by the Sovi­ets in the Katyn forests in 1940. Anoth­er uncle had been a Red Army offi­cer exiled to Siberia by Stal­in in 1948. He had changed his name to Osnov. In 1977 I was liv­ing in Moscow and being pub­licly attacked as a spy by the KGB; I took a call in my office from a fel­low who said he was my cousin from Kras­no­yarsk. I sus­pect­ed this was a provo­ca­tion of some kind and said I had no cousin in Kras­no­yarsk. He nev­er called back.

I found anoth­er con­nec­tion in Vyach­eslav Osnos, a Russ­ian chess grand­mas­ter who was coach to Vic­tor Korch­noi (Korch­noi nar­row­ly lost the world cham­pi­onship in 1974 and defect­ed to the West in 1976). Recent­ly I found Vyacheslav’s son liv­ing in Moscow and asked him whether author­i­ties had ever con­tact­ed his fam­i­ly about me when I was (a bit) noto­ri­ous dur­ing that peri­od. I can say noth­ing about that,” was his reply.

There was a large Osnos fam­i­ly based in Detroit. Max, the patri­arch, was own­er of a major depart­ment store. I once met his son, David, a promi­nent lawyer in Wash­ing­ton D.C. but we nev­er explored the fam­i­ly connection.

The ori­gin of Jew­ish sur­names is, itself, a con­sid­er­able schol­ar­ly undertaking.

At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Hil­lel build­ing there is an Osnos” on a plaque ded­i­cat­ed to those who fund­ed the build­ing in 1951. I have met Cor­rine Osnos and Noah Osnos who fund­ed the build­ing, but they do not appear on the fam­i­ly tree devel­oped by Elie Van­nier (and avail­able as a link on An Espe­cial­ly Good View—Vir­tu­al Attic, along with a great deal of oth­er fam­i­ly relat­ed material).

When I embarked on my own fam­i­ly his­to­ry a few years ago, I decid­ed to try and deci­pher the ori­gins of the fam­i­ly name. I had my DNA test­ed and the result was 100 per­cent Ashke­nazi Jew­ish, which means that for cen­turies my Osnos name has been Jewish.

In the begin­ning, my research was essen­tial­ly to join web­sites like Ances​try​.com and search the Osnos name. These cita­tions were not espe­cial­ly help­ful, except that I dis­cov­ered Bap­tismal cer­tifi­cates for an Osnos fam­i­ly in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Nor­way; I also found near match­es, like the Osnes in Nebraska.

I asked my friend Mal­ka Mar­golies to con­nect me with an expert she knew in East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish names; his response began my break­through. He said that there was like­ly a con­nec­tion to Ase­n­ath, who was mar­ried to Joseph and was a minor fig­ure in the Old Tes­ta­ment Book of Gen­e­sis (Joseph him­self was a con­sid­er­able per­son­age in Ancient Egypt). In mod­ern Hebrew, Ase­n­ath is ren­dered as Osnat.

The ori­gin of Jew­ish sur­names is, itself, a con­sid­er­able schol­ar­ly under­tak­ing. Look­ing fur­ther, it turned out that in eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry Europe, Jews who had until then had usu­al­ly been called by a first name and patronymic — such as Joseph Ben (son of) Joseph — were either man­dat­ed or per­mit­ted to take fam­i­ly names. These were cho­sen accord­ing to where they lived or made their liv­ing, includ­ing pur­suits such as herders, tai­lors, mer­chants, or butch­ers. Women took their hus­bands names when they mar­ried. Some names could be pur­chased. And oth­er Jew­ish sur­names remain com­mon through­out the ages: Cohen, Shapiro, Schwartz, and so on. Many Jews in the Unit­ed States have names that were Amer­i­can­ized or hand­ed to them as they passed through Ellis Island.

It was, there­fore, almost cer­tain­ly the case that Samuel Mendel in 1740 took an Old Tes­ta­ment name, Ase­n­ath. On a site iden­ti­fied as Researchers of the Muse­um of the Jew­ish Peo­ple,” I came upon Asnis: derived from the bib­li­cal per­son­al name Ase­n­ath (Asnat/​Osnat) …The fam­i­ly name is com­mon among fam­i­lies orig­i­nat­ed in Letichev, Zhit­o­mir and Kiev. Oth­er relat­ed fam­i­ly names are Osnas and Osnos.”

At last!

That would explain encoun­ter­ing peo­ple whose names were also derived from Ase­n­ath, as in Osnoss or even Ass­ness. And it would also explain why the name turns up in unlike­ly places like Nor­way or the plains states of the Unit­ed States. Old Tes­ta­ment names were hard­ly exclu­sive. My con­clu­sion is that this par­tic­u­lar Old Tes­ta­ment name was car­ried by many oth­ers in a fam­i­ly line stretch­ing back almost 400 years.

As Tevye says to Golde in Fid­dler on the Roof when, after twen­ty-five years of mar­riages, she tells him that she sup­pos­es she loves him: It doesn’t change a thing, but still, it’s nice to know.”

Peter L. W. Osnos was born in Bom­bay (now Mum­bai) India on Octo­ber 13, 1943. He arrived in Los Ange­les by ship with his par­ents and broth­er in Feb­ru­ary 1944. He was raised in New York and attend­ed high school in Con­necti­cut, col­lege at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty in Waltham, Mass­a­chu­setts, and grad­u­ate school at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. He worked as an assis­tant to the jour­nal­ist I.F. Stone and joined the Wash­ing­ton Post in 1966. At the Post, Osnos served as a cor­re­spon­dent in Viet­nam, the Sovi­et Union, and Lon­don. He was also the nation­al and for­eign edi­tor. In 1984, Osnos joined Ran­dom House as a senior edi­tor and lat­er asso­ciate pub­lish­er as well as pub­lish­er of the Times Books imprint. In 1997, he found­ed Pub­li­cAf­fairs in part­ner­ship with the Perseus Books Group and served as pub­lish­er and edi­tor at large until 2020. He was the founder of the Car­a­van Project on the devel­op­ment of dig­i­tal and audio pub­lish­ing, author of a week­ly media col­umn called Plat­form which was host­ed by the Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion and appeared on the​at​lantic​.com and in 2020, launched Plat­form Books LLC with his wife, Susan Sher­er Osnos. The first book will be An Espe­cial­ly Good View: Watch­ing His­to­ry Hap­pen” to be released in June, 2021. It is Osnos’ mem­oir to be dis­trib­uted by Two Rivers/​Ingram. He is the father of two chil­dren, Evan Osnos and Kather­ine San­ford, and grand­fa­ther of five. He and his wife now live in New York City and Lake­side, Michigan.