Schlesinger Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Schlesinger Surname Meaning

Schlesinger is a Germanic surname to describe someone who came from Silesia (Schliesen in German). Silesia is a region in eastern Europe that has been governed at different times by Prussia and Poland (since 1945 it has been part of Poland).

Schlesinger has been mainly a Jewish name in America. Their origins in Europe have been more widely spread than just the region of Silesia. Alternative spellings of the name have been Schlessinger, Shlesinger, and Slesinger.

Asked how to pronounce his name, the American astronomer Frank Schlesinger said:  “The name is so difficult for those who do not speak German that I am usually called sles’in-jer, to rhyme with ‘messenger.’ It is of course of German origin. In that language the pronunciation is shlayzinger, to rhyme with ‘singer.’

Schlesinger Surname Resources on The Internet

Schlesinger Surname Ancestry

  • from Germany (Silesia) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, England and South Africa

Schlesinger in Europe has been very much a Jewish name.

That was the case with Adolf Schlesinger from Silesia who started a music publishing business in Berlin in 1810, capturing the work of composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Mordecai Max Schlesinger who lived in the 18th century in Vienna was from a Jewish rabbinical family that began in Prague and continued after Vienna in Frankfurt.

Schlesinger emigrants in the 19th century came from Prussia and elsewhere in Germany and Austria-Hungary as well. Then there were Schlesingers fleeing Nazis and Nazi concentration camps in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

America. Schlesingers might have arrived in America as Jews, but some of them hid or turned away from their Jewish faith.

Bernhard Schlesinger was a Jewish merchant from Prussia and his wife Kate an Austrian Catholic. The two joined together in Protestantism after he met her in Xenia, Ohio in 1872. And they produced WASP-type Boston offspring:

  • their son Arthur Schlesinger Sr was a Professor of History at Harvard University from 1924 to 1954.
  • while their grandson Arthur Schlesinger Jr, also a distinguished historian, was close to the Kennedys and served as a special assistant and court historian during the Kennedy Presidency.

James Schlesinger meanwhile, born to a Jewish immigrant family in New York in 1929, was Harvard-educated and converted to Lutheranism in his twenties. Trained as an economist, he served as Secretary of Defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations and Secretary of Energy under Jimmy Carter.  

New York. Many Schlesingers came to New York. New York state in fact accounted for almost 40% of the Schlesingers in America in the 1920 census.

Joseph and Mary Schlesinger were German immigrants who had arrived there in the 1860’s. Their son Frank, educated in New York public schools, became a prominent astronomer at Yale University.

David and Dora Schlesinger came to New York from Berlin with their family in 1884. Their son Fred became an architect and builder in the city and a distinguished one. His first work was the Davidora Court building on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, completed in 1923.

Meyer Schlesinger was born in New York City in 1916. His grand-daughter, born in Brooklyn, is the radio talk show host Dr. Laura, otherwise known as Laura Schlessinger.

Elsewhere.  Leopold Schlesinger arrived in Chicago from Stuttgart in Germany in 1862. Ten years later, just after the Great Fire, he joined forces with David Mayer to start a department store. Schlesinger & Mayer prospered and they commissioned a grand skyscraper for their store. However, by 1904 they were out of business.

Leon Schlesinger, born in Philadelphia in 1884, was the youngest of ten children of Albert and Joselina Schlesinger, Jewish immigrants from Silesia. He started out in show business as a theatre usher and worked his way up to head a company which crafted title cards for silent films. Later he was the man behind the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1930’s and 1940’s, overseeing the creation of characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd.

England. Two Schlesingers came to England in the 1820’s:

  • Michael to London from Prussia
  • and Hermann to Bradford from Hamburg.

Michael was recorded as a commission agent in the 1851 census. Hermann was a rabbi. His son Edward emigrated to New Orleans in the 1840’s and was a school teacher in Louisiana and Texas.

Richard Schlesinger arrived in London from Frankfurt in Germany sometime in the 1890’s. His son Bernard was a pediatrician who worked at various hospitals around London. He and his wife Winifred set up a hostel for children rescued from Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s.

The story of Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger was recounted in Ian Burema’s 2016 book Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War. In 1975 a family history book of the Schlesingers was presented to them to mark their Golden Wedding. By that time their son John, born in 1926, had become a famous film director.

South Africa. Isidor Schlesinger arrived in South Africa from Silesia in the 1860’s, made a fortune in the Kimberley diamond fields and lost it, and ended up running a bar in the town of Klerksdorp. His son Bruno was an early South African mining engineer.

There was another Isadore, better known as I.W. Schlesinger, who was not so wasteful. Born in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, he had come via New York to South Africa in 1894, initially working as a salesman for Pepsin Gum. From there he launched first into theatres and then into the nascent South African film industry.  

“Between 1916 and 1922 I.W. Schlesinger produced 43 feature films with the themes being primarily about Boer and Britons. An astonishing accomplishment was the procuring of 25 000 Zulu warrior extras!”  

During the 1930’s Schlesinger built picture palaces and took bioscope, as it was called, into the far-flung rural areas, thus exposing the magic of cinema to entertainment-hungry audiences. When he died in 1949 his son John inherited the business.

Schlesinger Surname Miscellany

Adolf Schlesinger, German Music Publisher.  Adolf Schlesinger was Jewish and was born Aaron Moses Schlesinger in Silesia.

He began in the book business in Berlin in 1795, operating from his house, and founded a music-publishing house there, the Schlesinger’sche Buchhandlung, in 1810.  The firm expanded over the next decade to include leading composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn.  It also published military music for the Prussian state.

A contemporary description of him ran as follows:

“He was a short, stout, portly gentleman, whose energy, entrepreneurial spirit and business sense one immediately noticed when he fixed one with his single eye (the left one was missing).”

And he was Jewish. Beethoven once characterized him in his correspondence as “a beach-peddler and rag-and-bone Jew.”  Despite these comments, Beethoven was perfectly happy for Schlesinger to publish subsequently his late quartets and sonatas.

He died in 1838 a rich man.  His son Heinrich took over his Berlin business.  Another son Maurice opened successfully a branch in Paris. 

The Schlesinger & Mayer Skyscraper in Chicago.  The dry-goods merchant house was founded in Chicago in 1872 by Leopold Schlesinger and David Mayer, both immigrants from Germany. The company soon opened branches in New York and Europe.

In 1899 the company commissioned architect Louis Sullivan to dramatically redesign its large downtown Chicago department store at State and Madison Streets, where it employed nearly 2,500 people.

However, when the refurbished structure was completed in 1903, Schlesinger & Mayer was no longer financially able to operate there. Rival Carson Pirie Scott moved in immediately, attaching its name to the ornate building that would become an architectural landmark for decades.

Isidor Schlesinger – Back and Forth from Silesia to South Africa.  Isidor Schlesinger left Silesia for South Africa in the 1860’s and made his fortune in the Kimberley diamond fields.  He returned to Silesia and married.  His daughter Leontine later recalled that time.

“Emma’s marriage had been adventurous.  At the age of twenty she made the acquaintance of a handsome and rich young man who had come from the Kimberley diamond fields.  They fell in love and were married.

Silesia was my father’s home country and in the small town of Troppau, where he set up a saw-mill, my parents began their married life.’

But in the years to come my father lost his money in unlucky circumstances. He and mother roamed from one place to another and finally came to Budapest, where I, the youngest, was born, and where the last of the diamond wealth was lost.

Father never liked Europe and the wish to get back to his beloved South Africa grew so strong that he decided to return alone.  When he had retrieved his financial losses, he would come back to us, or we could follow him.”

In 1881 he returned alone to South Africa, leaving Emma and his four children to try to regain his fortune (which they never did.)  When Emma with Valerie, Feodor and Leontine arrived in 1899 Isidor was living in Klerksdorp where he owned and ran the bar at the Freemason Lodge in the new town.  Isidor died in Johannesburg in 1920.

Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger in England.  Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger were devout anglophiles who had assimilated gratefully into the English rituals of roast beef and empire. In their grand north London house in Hampstead they spoke an exceedingly old-fashioned kind of English (“awfully sporting”, “by Jove”), and in many ways were more English than the English.

The trappings of Jewish Orthodoxy – Old Testament beards and sidelocks – were disdained by them because assimilation promised an escape from the sorrows and derision suffered by their Jewish forebears.  Unlike their German Jewish parents, indeed, the Schlesingers were not immigrants and therefore had no need to “seek the security of an émigré milieu.”

Bernard was a pediatrician who worked at various hospitals around London.  During the Hitler terror in the late 1930’s they sheltered twelve Jewish children from Germany.  In old age they tended an idyllic garden in Berkshire.

Arthur Schlesinger and the Kennedys.  By the 1950’s the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr had become part of the powerful circle that surrounded the journalist Joseph Alsop.  It was at an Alsop soiree that he first met John F. Kennedy, then a senator.

On Jan. 9, 1961, President-elect Kennedy dropped by Schlesinger’s house on Irving Street in Cambridge.  He asked the professor to be a special assistant in the White House. Arthur Schlesinger replied: “If you think I can help, I would like to come.”

The notes he took for President John Kennedy, for the president’s use in writing his history, became, after Mr. Kennedy’s assassination, grist for Mr. Schlesinger’s own account, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. It won both the Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1966.  His 1978 book on the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy and His Times, lauded the subject as the most politically creative man of his time.

He worked on both brothers’ presidential campaigns.  Some critics suggested he had trouble separating history from sentiment. Gore Vidal in fact called A Thousand Days a political novel.  Many noted that the book ignored the president’s sexual wanderings.

He always wore a trademark dotted bowtie, showed an acid wit and had a magnificent bounce to his step.  He was a lifelong aficionado of perfectly blended martinis. Between marathons of writing as much as 5,000 words a day, he was a fixture at Georgetown salons when Washington was clubbier and more elitist.  In New York, he was a man about town, whether at Truman Capote’s famous parties or escorting Jacqueline Kennedy to the movies.

Schlesinger Names

  • I.W. Schlesinger, an entrepreneur and impresario, was one of the most influential individuals to become involved in the performing arts industry in South Africa. 
  • Arthur Schlesinger Jr was a distinguished American historian who was close to the Kennedys and served as a special assistant and court historian during the Kennedy Presidency. 
  • John Schlesinger was the English-born film director who won an Oscar for his 1969 film Midnight Cowboy
  • James Schlesinger was an American economist who served as Secretary of Defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations and Secretary of Energy under Jimmy Carter.

Schlesinger Numbers Today

  • 600 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 2,200 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in South Africa)

Schlesinger and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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