Prior to the nineteenth century, the Jews of Lithuania had no surnames and were generally known by their Hebrew names. A native Lithuanian Dr. Benjamin Gordon points out in his autobiography Between Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Physician that if there were more than one Jew in a town with the same name, the name of the father, and sometimes grandfather and great-grandfather, were added. A man named Joseph, for example, might be addressed as "Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Reuben, the son of Joseph." Sometimes the man's trade was added to his name, sometimes the name of the street where he lived, the name of his wife or mother, or a nickname.
On December 9, 1804, Czar Alexander I issued "Vysochaishe utverzhdennoe Polozhenie. - O ustroistve Evreev" ["Imperial Statute Concerning the Organization of Jews"]. A partial translation of Article 32 reads: "Every Jew must have or adopt an inherited last name, or nickname, which should be used in all official acts and records without change."
Dr. Alexander Beider, an expert in Russian-Jewish family names, has pointed out that the law was not rigorously observed. On May 31, 1835, Czar Nicholas I issued another "Vysochaishe utverzhdennoe Polozhenie. - O ustroistve Evreev." A translation of Article 16 reads: "Every Jew, in addition to a first name given at a profession of faith or birth, must forever retain, without alteration, a known inherited or legally adopted surname or nickname."
The Jews considered the use of a surname a gentile practice, but bound by dina dimalchuta dina [the law of the land is the law of the Jews], they found one solution by adopting the name of their town. As Dr. Gordon explains, the precedence for such a change was in the Bible: the prophet Samuel was known as the Ramashite, and the prophet Elijah was known as the Tishibite, after the names of the towns in which they lived.
Perhaps the Olschwangers were among the Jews who hailed from the town of Alschwangen in the Courland region of Latvia, and who fled from there during one of the many expulsions of the eighteenth century: The "Courland" entry in Evreiskaia Entsiklopediia [Jewish Encyclopedia] describes the expulsion of 1717 when Christians were prohibited from giving the Jews shelter on threat of fine; Geschichte der Juden in der Provinzen Livland und Kurland [History of the Jews in the Provinces of Livonia and Courland] describes Duke Karl's expulsion of the Jews in 1760 because a Jew had bought goods stolen from the Court; and Toledot Yeshivat ha-Yehudim be-Kurland [History of the Jewish Settlement in Courland] by L. Ovchinski describes approximately fourteen other expulsions.
A partial map of Latvia, dated 1833, shows the town of Alschwangen near the coast of the Baltic Sea. The original map is in the collection of the Latvian History Museum in Riga, Arnis Radins, First Deputy Director.
The following books describe the town of Alschwangen: Baltisches Historisches Ortslexikon, Teil II, Suedlivland und Kurland [Baltic Historical Lexicon of Place Names, Part II, South Livonia and Courland], Das Schoene Kurland [Beautiful Courland], Latviesu Konverschijas Vardinica, Pirmais Sejums, [Latvian Phraseological Dictionary, Volume I], Latvijas Padomju Enciklopedija [Latvian Soviet Encyclopedia], Latvijas PSR vietvardi A-J [Place Names of the Latvian SSR A-J], Lietuviu Parardziu Zodynas A-K [Dictionary of Lithuanian Last Names A-K], Ritters Geographisch-Statistisches Lexikon [Ritters Geographic-Statistical Dictionary], and Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego i Innych Krajow Slowianskich [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavonic Countries], which contains entries for Allschwangen, Alschwangen, and Alszwang.