E. John Winner talks in a recent post at The Electric Agora about his family surnames. His maternal grandfather (probably Jewish) had lived in various parts of Eastern and Central Europe before coming to America. Here is the story from Winner's essay:
'Nobody knows the name my mother’s father was given at birth. Family legend has it that when he arrived at Ellis Island, the first U.S. official he met could not pronounce his name and left the space on the list blank. The next processing official then wrote down “Joe Blank.” Eventually, by the time he needed to sign a marriage certificate, he was known as “Joe Blanchard.” Now, both “Blank” and “Blanchard,” while not common, can be found as surnames in Eastern Poland. However, there are a couple of problems here. Between Ellis Island and his marriage, he was known as “Blankodoff,” which is not found as a surname anywhere. Further, my grandfather was not Polish. According to the 1925 census, he was Romanian. By the 1930 census, he was Austrian, and in 1940 he was reporting as Russian. To his children, he was Ukrainian, but to his wife he was Hungarian. Since he could speak all of these languages fluently (the only language he had difficulty with was English), there was no linguistic or inflective means of pegging him to any one of these countries. It was generally assumed that he had lived in each of them at some time or other in his youth — a rather shady youth that included some military service, and left him with a pile of money, enough to buy a large farm in Steuben County, New York. (He later lost it all in investments thanks to the Crash of ’29.) We don’t even know exactly when he was born; he was 35 in 1930, by 1940 he was 49. The obituary has him dying at age 79, but my grandmother insisted he was 96. (He had bought her as his bride for 500 acres bottom land, when she was 15, the marriage certificate forged to make her 18.)'
Fascinating stuff. And probably not all that unusual really.