As I mentioned here, included with all the photographs that my cousin Steve scanned and sent to me were a number of letters. I posted the letter written by Gerald Oestreicher to his family during World War II, and I mentioned that there were also letters written by Gerald’s uncle, Francis Oestreicher, when he was serving during World War I. Frank was my father’s second cousin, both being the great-grandchildren of Levi Schoenthal and Henriette Hamberg. Thus, he was my second cousin, once removed:
There were also some letters written to Frank, as he was known after the war. In this post I will share the letters written to Frank. The next post will contain the letters written by Frank during World War I. I’ve transcribed all the letters as close to their original spelling and punctuation as I could, but made some changes just for purposes of readability. No words were deleted or changed; nothing was added, except where I’ve put my own comments in brackets.
What struck me as meaningful about these letters is what they reveal about the close connections among the Schoenthal siblings—the ten children of my great-great-grandparents Levi Schoenthal and Henriette Hamberg. These three letters date from 1907 to 1939, and each one shows that this large and extended family knew and cared about each other.
The oldest letter was a letter written by Frank’s great-aunt Helen Lilienfeld Schoenthal, the wife of my great-great-uncle, Henry Schoenthal. Helen wrote this letter from Washington, Pennsylvania in 1907, to Frank, grandson of her sister-in-law Hannah Schoenthal.
Letter from Helen Lilienfeld Schoenthal dated December 12, 1907 from Washington, PA
My dear Francis,
Years roll by, and children grow up to man and womenhood before we know it. And so it is with you my dear boy. I can hardly realize that you have reached your 14th birthday, and it seems to me only a little while that dear Hilda was our representative at your Bris mihle. With a hearty birthday kiss accompanied by the best wishes I send you many congratulations. May our heavenly Father always protect and bless you, so that with every birthday your young life may be brighter and happier. May the best of health and a long life free of care and worry be yours that your dear parents will have a great deal of pleasure on you. Again I send you a little gift which help a little to swell your Bank account and which I hope will bring you the best luck in business.
Wishing you a very happy birthday with lots of fun. I am
Your affectionate Aunt Helen
Uncle Henry, Hilda and Therese send their congratulations and love to everybody.
There is also a message written by Helen in German along the margin that I could not read, but with the help of my friend Matthias Steinke in transcribing and translating the old German script, I now know what it says:
My dear all! I am sending you this time only the heartiest greetings and kisses because my eyes close already automatically, because this evening I wrote already a couple of letters. In Love, your aunt, Helen
Isn’t it interesting that in 1907 after being in the US for 35 years and clearly fluent in English, Helen reverted to German (and German script) to write to Frank’s parents, Gustav and Sarah Stern Oestreicher? Both Sarah and Gustav were native German speakers, but both also had been in the US for a very long time. I wonder if Frank could read German or was as puzzled as I was by the German script scrawled on the margin of his birthday letter.
The second letter was written a little over ten years later in July, 1918 when Frank had joined the army, but before he was shipped overseas. It is also from his great-aunt Helen, with a short addendum by his great-uncle Henry Schoenthal.
Once again, it is evident that Helen and Henry were closely connected to Frank, a child of their niece Sarah Stern, grandson of Henry’s sister Hannah. I was touched by how much affection there was for this young man, their great-grandnephew. The letter is also interesting because it talks about Henry and Helen’s own children, their daughter Hilda, their son Lee (born Lionel) and his wife Irma, and Henry and Helen’s granddaughter Florence, who was only thirteen when this letter was written. Helen did not use any paragraph breaks, but I’ve added some to make the text more easily read.
Letter from Helen Lilienfeld Schoenthal and Henry Schoenthal dated July 30 1918 written from NYC
My dear Francis,
I was just thinking to write to your dear parents and ask for your address, when we were agreeably surprised on last Sunday, when your dear brother Sidney came to see us, stayed for supper and until late in the evening. And so we are able to write to you, as Sidney was glad to give us your ad: for every soldier likes to get letters from some one, and if it is not from a sweetheart, this letter comes from your old Uncle and Aunt, who always loved you.
I suppose your ears were ringing last Sunday, for Sidney and we talked about you a great deal, and we were glad to hear that you liked soldiers life and also the camp. Are any boys with you from Pittsburg who you know? And how is the weather in your section?
We have terrible hot spell here since over a week, and I feel the heat very much. But I am so thankful that we live on such nice open place near the Hudson and get all the fresh air that is going. There is a good deal of suffering on the East side I know.
Uncle and I are alone since the 19th of July. Irma & Lee went to the Adirondex Mountains to stay two weeks, as Lee had not been feeling well and needed a rest badly. They choose this place so that they could be near Florence who is at a girls camp named camp Woodmere. It is owned by Misses Goldsmith and Kuhn from Philadelphia. They have 54 girls there and it an ideal place. Florence is crazy about and Irma & Lee are also very much taken with the place and how beautiful it is managed. They have all sorts of sports there. Florence is a good swimmer and also can now [?] and take long hikes.
We expect Irma and Lee back next Saturday and the following Saturday Hilda will arrive here and spend her vacation with us. I am looking forward to her coming with great joy, and we will try and make her stay very pleasant. She can take many nice boat trips which she likes so much. Sidney will come up again next week when Irma & Lee is here.
I am making a nice lunch cloth for Helen’s engagement present, but I am taking my time making it as I have to be very careful with my eyes. [I assume Helen was Frank’s sister Helen, who married in 1920.] We also had a long letter from dear Meyer [their younger son] last week.
Now dear Francis, be bright and cheerful and take good care of yourself. Our good God will be with you wherever you are, and He will bring peace to every heart and all the countrys before long.
With loads of love and a hearty and write soon to your affectionate Aunt Helen.
My dear Francis
Your aunt has left me a little space and I gladly add a few words to tell you that we often think and speak of you. I have no doubt that you like the life in the camp, as most of the boys do and that you will make such a fine soldier that all your friends will be proud of you. Should the time come when you have to be on your way for “Over There” we may have a chance to bid you God’s speed in person. God be with you and bless you.
I read this letter as an attempt by his aunt and uncle to give him their blessing before he went off to war without making him too nervous about what he was about to face. Frank’s own letters, as we will see, reflect a similar impulse, only he is reassuring those at home that he is and will be okay.
The last letter for this post was written many years later by Frank’s father, Gustav Oestreicher. It was written in 1939 after Gustav and Sarah had moved to California, as had their daughter Helen. I am not certain whether Frank was living in Minneapolis or just visiting; the letter is addressed to him at a hotel, and from the content of the letter, I can infer that Frank had recently been to Chicago. I assume he was on the road in his capacity as a traveling salesman.
A little background to help identify the people named in the letter: First, Gustav mentions the Good family. He must be referring to Edith Stern and Leo Good and their son Bernard; Edith was Sarah Stern Oestreicher’s younger sister, thus Gustav’s sister-in-law. In 1939, the Good family was living in Chicago.
Gustav then mentions a Lionel and his brothers and sister and another sister Hilda. At first I thought this referred to the children of Henry and Helen Schoenthal, as they had a son named Lionel, a son Meyer, and a daughter Hilda. But after reading through the letter more carefully, I realized that he was referring to Lionel Heymann, the oldest child of Rosalie Schoenthal and Willy Heymann, about whom I wrote here. Rosalie was the youngest Schoenthal sibling, sister of Hannah Schoenthal, who was Gustave’s mother-in-law. So Rosalie was Sarah Stern’s aunt.
Here’s why I think Gustav is talking about Lionel Heymann, not Lionel Schoenthal. For one thing, Henry and Helen Schoenthal’s son Lionel was called Lee at this point, not Lionel. And at the time this letter was written, Lionel Heymann (the photographer) was living in Chicago as were his brothers Walter and Max, so if Frank had seen the Good family, he must have been in Chicago. (I am not sure why Gustav writes that he hoped Frank might see Lionel’s “bros.& sister” since there was no sister at that time living in the US, but perhaps he was referring to Max’s wife Frieda.)
Also, Gustav mentions a sister Hilda who was still in Germany. Henry Schoenthal’s daughter Hilda was not living in Germany, but in Washington, DC, in 1939. But Lionel Heymann had a sister Hilda who was still in Germany in 1939. I have written about what happened to Hilda Heymann as well as her sister Helene, who married Julius Mosbach and had two daughters, Liesel and Gretel. All were killed in the Holocaust. That fact makes Gustav’s comment even more chilling. I put those comments in bold below.
I do not know who the Fannie mentioned towards the end of the letter could be.
Letter from Gustav Oestreicher to his son Frank [edited for readability only]
September 16, 1939 from Los Angeles
My dear Francis,
Although late, [I] will begin my letter extending to you my best wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous new year. [Obviously a reference to Rosh Hashanah, given the September date.] You ought to know you enjoy our good wishes at all times so hope you will pardon the expression of it at a rather late date. As usual we were happy to learn the contents of your recent letter. It pleased us to learn you enjoyed your visit with the Good family as well as that all of them are getting along nicely. You evidently misinformed them about our anniversary as we rec’d a very nice letter from them congratulating us for our golden wedding anniversary which will not be until next year. [Gustav and Sara were married in 1940.]
We regretted very much you could not see Lionel and his Bros. & Sister again. [You] May be aware dear Mother is very much interested in his family that are still in Germany particular so his Sister Hilda. [We] presume the anti-semitism in Germany has somewhat diminished since the war as I noticed in the papers they are eager to get the Jewish Doctors, Engineers and other Professional Man back even promising to restore their property. Conditions regrett to note are not very encouraging for England and France particular so since the uncertain attitude of Russia but let us hope for the best.
You need not fear about me getting into the market further. Am fairly well satisfied with my holdings. Have absolutely no intention to buy anything nor feel inclined at this time to sell any of my stocks with possible exception of Congoleum-Narin and even should I sell that, may apply it to my loan or in other words will not increase my loan if I do not reduce still more. Have not decided whether or not I will sell same.
Fannie is at least a weekly visitor by us. She still has not secured a position but is hopefull some thing will be available before long. As for ourselves have nothing of interest to offer so will leave it to dear Mother to inform you pertaining herself so will conclude for to day with love and best wishes.
Your loving Father
As with the earlier letters from Helen Lilienfeld Schoenthal, this letter reveals the close connections among the many Schoenthal siblings and their children. I’ve often wondered what the family knew about the two siblings who had stayed in Germany: Jakob Schoenthal and Rosalie Schoenthal. From Gustav’s letter it is apparent that the family was in touch at least to some extent with those family members who had not immigrated. They knew that the three Heymann brothers were in Chicago, and they knew that some family members were still in Germany.
Gustav’s hope that anti-Semitism was diminishing in Germany once the war started is so terribly painful to read, knowing what was going to happen not only to Hilda, her sister, and her nieces, but to six million other Jews living in Europe.
Realizing how connected the family was to each other as late as 1939 makes me wonder what happened. Why didn’t my father even know about all his Schoenthal second cousins like Frank and his siblings? Did my grandmother Eva Schoenthal know any of these people? My guess is that because my great-grandparents moved from western Pennsylvania to Denver when my grandmother was just a small child, not even four years old, she did not grow up with the benefit of knowing all those cousins in western Pennsylvania. Perhaps if she had, I would not have had to search to find my Oestreicher cousins. Perhaps we would have always known about each other.