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 Ancestry.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.”
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 theatlantic.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.