Kaplan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kaplan Surname Meaning

Kaplan in German signifies “chaplain” or “curate.” The same meaning is to be found in the Polish and Hungarian languages. It is a name common among Ashkenazi Jews, usually indicating descent from the priestly lineage (the kohanin). Here the origin is more likely to be Russian or Polish.

Kaplan Surname Resources on The Internet

Kaplan and Caplan Surname Ancestry

  • from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and South Africa

The Kaplan name was to be found in Jewish circles in the Russian empire and Poland during the 19th century. Distinguished bearers of the name included the Polish rabbi and philanthropist Nachum ben Usiel Kaplan and the Latvian-born poet Seeb Wolf Kaplan.

Kaplans continued in these parts into the 20th century until they were crushed by the Nazis. Joseph Kaplan was one of the leaders of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. Chaim Kaplan’s Warsaw diary Scroll of Agony has lived on after he himself perished. David Kaplan, born in Lithuania, survived the Nazi concentration camps and was able to make a new home for himself in El Paso, Texas.

America. Kaplans coming to America were, for the large part, from the Russian empire. The Kaplan immigrants of Jewish origin arriving in New York would receive a “K” spelling (i.e. Kaplan) whereas those arriving in Baltimore would receive a “C” spelling (i.e. Caplan). New York still has the most Kaplans and Baltimore the most Caplans. But Kaplans outnumber Caplans by seven to one.

Kaplans tended to settle in big cities like New York. Two Kaplan families who sought and found places outside were those of Hirsch Kaplan, who came to New York in 1887 and moved to Chesterfield, Connecticut three years later, and of Joseph Kaplan, who arrived in New York in 1904 and bought a farm near Camden, New Jersey eight years later. His family subsequently scattered.

The small town of Kaplan in SW Louisiana was named after Abrom Kaplan who had come to Louisiana from Poland in 1885 and started rice mills there and across the region. His nephew Jack Kaplan settled in Kaplan in 1915.

Some Kaplan sons of immigrants in New York became very successful:

  • Jacob Kaplan who left home at sixteen and spent two decades making money in the molasses trade. But much of his wealth derived from the Welch Grape Juice Company which he reorganized in the 1940’s. His nephew Joel Kaplan attracted national headlines when he escaped from a Mexican jail in 1971.  
  • Stanley Kaplan who graduated from City College and, after tutoring for a while, devised preparation programs to help students pass academic admission tests.  
  • and Gabe Kaplan who made his name in the 1970’s TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter and subsequently became a professional poker player.

Among the Caplan sons was Irwin Caplan, nicknamed Cap, the illustrator and cartoonist best known for his cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post.

South Africa.  Isaac and Jessie Kaplan left their home in Lithuania for Cape Town in the 1920’s.  Their son Mendel, born in 1936, built his steel company Cape Gate into one of the largest privately-owned companies in South Africa.  He has also been called the father of the South African Jewish community.

Kaplan Surname Miscellany

Kaplans in America by Country of Origin

Country Numbers Percent
Russia    706    64
Poland    200    19
German lands    194    17
Total   1,100   100

Hirsch Kaplan and the New England Hebrew Farmers.  Hirsch Kaplan had arrived in New York with his large family in 1887.  A whiskey dealer back in his native Ukraine, he had studied at the famous Bialystok Yeshiva and was considered an unordained rabbi. Once in New York, he began to organize a small group of Russian immigrant Jews under his religious leadership at his home in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn.

Discontent with life in Brooklyn and having heard of inexpensive Yankee farmland in Connecticut, Kaplan and his group made their way to Chesterfield, Connecticut where they purchased farms.  They also established there a cottage garment industry where garment piecework was stitched together and returned to New York clothing manufacturers.

A Jewish fund contributed money for a synagogue and a creamery and the group renamed themselves The New England Hebrew Farmers Creamery Association in 1892. Hirsch’s son John later ran a general store and dance hall for the community. 

Stanley Kaplan and the SAT’s.  Stanley Kaplan was born in New York City in 1919 and grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.  He graduated from City College and started his tutoring business in the basement of his parents’ home.

Rejected from medical school, he believed that students should have access to higher education based on academic merit, rather than on privilege. In the 1940’s he embraced the SAT and other admissions tests as opportunities for students to prove themselves in the admissions process and dedicated his career to helping students excel on these important exams.

By the 1960’s, as admissions tests for graduate schools came into widespread use, he expanded his classes to serve students preparing for law school, business school and medical school.  When he discovered that one of his students was flying from the University of California at Berkeley to attend his classes in New York, he expanded nationally.  By 1975, Mr. Kaplan had opened test preparation centers in 23 cities from coast to coast.

Among his many accomplishments was the recognition that, contrary to test makers’ claims, preparation from companies such as Kaplan could in fact improve students’ scores on the SAT and other admissions tests. The Federal Trade Commission came to such a conclusion in 1975 after a thorough investigation of Kaplan’s business practices.

Joel Kaplan’s Escape.  Joel Kaplan, the nephew of business magnate Jacob Kaplan, had been involved in a number of shady business dealings in Mexico, working with a business partner named Luis Vidal.  Vidal disappeared from a Mexico City hotel in 1961 and was presumed murdered. Joel Kaplan was arrested for his murder and, after a lengthy delay, was tried and convicted.

He spent nine years in the Santa Marta Acatitla prison before his sister tried to get him out through bribery, but to no avail. Then came the daring and brilliantly engineered rescue plan.  On August 18, 1971 Kaplan was plucked from behind the walls of the heavily guarded prison, transferred to a light plane, then flown across the U.S. border to the safety of an unknown hideout.

The wild rescue was the basis for a best-selling book The 10-Second Breakout and the movie Breakout starring John Huston, Robert Duvall and Charles Bronson.

David Kaplan Who Survived the Nazi Death Camps.  Researchers estimate that over that 80 per cent of the Lithuanian Jews were killed prior to January 1942. The remaining Jews were sent off to camps in Stutthof, Dachau, and Auschwitz.  Only about 2-3,000 Lithuanian Jews survived to be liberated from these camps at the end of the war.  David Kaplan was one of the lucky ones.

At the time of the Nazi occupation, David was eleven years old and living upstairs from his father’s tailor shop in Kaunas.  The family was soon moved from this home to a single room lacking water or plumbing in the newly-created Jewish ghetto.  Eventually, the ghetto was eradicated and the survivors were sent to the death camps.

One morning, Kaplan, then 13, was working in the shoe shop when he saw several red buses with white paint covered windows enter the compound.  He watched silently as the children in the barracks were rounded up by the guards and herded onto the buses, kicking, yelling and crying.  Kaplan stayed hidden in the shoe shop and was spared.  The children that were taken were never seen again.

David Kaplan survived four years in the Nazi concentration camps. After Dachau was liberated in April 1945, he was able to reach a resettlement office and received permission to be resettled in St. Charles, Missouri.  However, en route, his destination was changed to El Paso.  The boy who had his family torn from him has now been married for 60 years in El Paso and has a large extended family there.

Reader Feedback – Kaplan in Michigan.  I was orphaned as a baby in 1938 and eventually was adopted from the Michigan orphanage in Ann Arbor. As a Kaplan I can trace my birth family back to Padilskii, just outside of Kiev in Ukraine.  Bob Brownson (bobbrownson@gmail.com).

Kaplan Names

  • Stanley Kaplan was an educationalist who developed America’s largest test preparation company.
  • Mendel Kaplan was a South African industrialist and philanthropist.
  • Isaac Kaplan, a resident of Johannesburg, was a pioneer in laser surgery.

Kaplan Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Kaplan and Like Jewish Surnames

The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, sometimes in the form of Portuguese traders.  They were to make their mark as merchants and financers in London and many families prospered.  There was another larger Jewish influx in the late 1800’s.

In America the early settlement of Sephardic Jews was in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews started to arrive from Germany.  Later came a larger immigration from a wider Jewish diaspora.  Between 1880 and 1910 it is estimated that around two million Yiddish-speaking Jews, escaping discrimination and pogroms, arrived from the Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Some Jewish surnames reflect ancient Biblical names, such as Cohen and Levy.  Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Dreyfus (from Trier), Halpern (from Heilbronn) and Shapiro (from Speyer).  Many more surnames came about when Ashkenazi Jews were compelled by Governments to adopt them in the early 1800’s.  The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein or Goldberg or Rosenthal for example.  Then the name could change on arrival in America at Ellis Island.  And finally anti-Semitism perceived could cause further changes to conceal Jewishness.

Here are the stories of some of the Jewish surnames that you can check out here.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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