It’s hard to imagine all the losses my great-great-aunt Brendena Katzenstein Schlesinger had already suffered by 1920 when she was 67 years old. She had already lost her parents, one sister and all three of her brothers, her husband, and both of her daughters. Only her sister Hilda and her three sons were still living. She was living with her son Alfred in Philadelphia, and her two other sons, Joe and Sidney, were married and also living in Philadelphia. Brendena had one grandchild, Jane, the daughter of her son Sidney and his wife Nan. Life had not been easy for her, and sadly, she had more heartbreak ahead.
(After reviewing several documents, I concluded that the family’s preferred spelling was Brendena, not Brendina, and have made that adjustment in this post.)
Fortunately, the 1920s did not bring further losses for the family. In fact, 1923 brought two marriages to the family. First, on January 7, 1923, my grandmother Eva Schoenthal, Brendena’s niece, married my grandfather John Cohen and settled in Philadelphia. Eva’s parents were still in Denver at that time, so I would imagine that Eva and Brendena became close to each other as Brendena and her sons were my grandmother’s only maternal relatives in Philadelphia at that time.
Also, in 1923, Alfred Schlesinger married Dorothy D. Steel; he was 44, she was 31. Dorothy was born in Philadelphia on May 16, 1892, the daughter of Clarence Steel and Lurline Oehlschager. Her father, a flour merchant, died from heart failure brought on by typhoid fever in 1899 when Dorothy was only seven. Her mother died seven years later in 1906 from tuberculosis. Dorothy was only fourteen and an orphan. In 1910 she was living with her older married brother Richard and his family and working as a cashier in a department store. Ten years later in 1920 when she was 27, she was a boarder in someone’s home and working as a bookkeeper in an instrument factory.
Then three years later, Dorothy married Alfred Schlesinger. My father remembers Dorothy as a no-nonsense woman who was very independent minded and serious. It’s not surprising, given what her childhood was like. In 1930, Alfred and Dorothy were living in Cheltenham, a suburb of Philadelphia, and Alfred was an advertising executive. My father remembers him as a very successful man who commuted to New York City for work. What he most remembers about Alfred was that he drove a yellow convertible, smoked cigars, and had a gravelly voice. He was also very entertaining.
Alfred’s brother Sidney was also quite successful. In 1930, he was an executive manager for a furniture company. He and his wife Nan and daughter Jane as well as Nan’s mother were living on Ruscomb Street in Philadelphia. My father has no memories of Sidney, who died when my father was a young boy, but from photographs he recalled that Sidney was an elegant dresser and had a waxed mustache. My father knew Nan well; in fact, when my parents got engaged, Nan was the first of my father’s relatives to meet my mother, as Nan was living in New York City at that time as were they. My father described Nan as very perceptive about people and as a very self-possessed and good person. He described her as tall and gracious with classic features.
As for Sidney and Nan’s daughter Jane, my dad distinctly recalls his first impression of her, whom he met when he was quite a young boy. Jane, he said, was stunning—she looked like a model. He even recalls what she was wearing—jodhpurs or horseback riding pants. He promptly told her that she was beautiful, even more beautiful than his mother.Joe, the oldest Schlesinger brother, was living with his wife Marie and his mother Brendena on 19th Street in Philadelphia in 1930. Joe was working in retail furniture sales. My father remembers him as a funny man who liked to tell jokes and Marie as a sweet, gentle, and caring woman with an open face and chiseled features.
Although the 1920s had been a good decade for the Schlesinger family, the 1930s brought further heartbreak. Sidney Schlesinger died on December 19, 1935, of rectal cancer and bronchial pneumonia. He was only a few days short of his 55th birthday. His wife Nan was only 49, and their daughter Jane was 22 when he died, and his mother Brendena had outlived yet another child. Sidney was cremated at the Cheltenham crematorium.
And then, to compound that heartbreak, four months later Brendena lost another son. S. Joseph Schlesinger died on April 22, 1936, when he was 60 years old. He died from Hodgkin’s disease. Joe was buried at Adath Jeshurun cemetery. He was survived by his wife Marie, who was 46 years old when Joe died. They had had no children.
Brendena had thus outlived four of her five children. Only her son Alfred was still alive as well as her daughters-in-law and her granddaughter Jane. It’s really no wonder that my father recalls Brendena as an unapproachable woman who often said she wished she were dead and that her life was miserable. It’s hard to imagine how she kept going.
Fortunately by then, my great-grandparents Hilda (Katzenstein) and Isadore Schoenthal had moved back to the east coast and were living in Montclair, New Jersey. I would imagine that having her younger sister Hilda nearby must have been of some comfort to Brendena.
Brendena continued to live with her daughter-in-law Marie, Joe’s widow. In 1940, they were living together on Erie Street in Philadelphia. Interestingly, the census enumerator recorded Marie not as Brendena’s daughter-in-law but as her daughter. Brendena was the one who provided the information, and although it might have just been that the enumerator didn’t hear her correctly (my father said she was quite hard of hearing and did not wear hearing aids), I’d like to think that that is how Brendena described her—as her daughter.
Alfred and Dorothy were still living in Cheltenham in 1940, and Sidney’s widow Nan continued to live with her mother on Ruscomb Street at that time. Her daughter Jane had married and was living in New York in 1940.
The following year on August 17, 1941, Brendena lost her remaining sibling, my great-grandmother Hilda Katzenstein Schoenthal. As I wrote here, my great-grandmother was 77 years old when she died. Brendena was ten years older and had outlived her youngest sibling. My father recalls that there was a resemblance between the two sisters, although Brendena was a larger woman. Since I don’t have any photographs of Aunt Dean, I am including two of my great-grandmother Hilda:
Brendena, the matriarch who had suffered so many losses, herself died at age 91 on January 21, 1945. She was buried with her husband and three of the children who had predeceased her at Adath Jeshurun cemetery.
Brendena was survived by her one remaining son, Alfred, her granddaughter Jane, and her three daughters-in-law as well as many nieces and nephews. But Alfred did not survive her by many years. He died four years later on March 10, 1949. He was 69 years old and died from multiple myeloma; he also was buried at Adath Jeshurun cemetery.
His wife Dorothy died two years later at age 59 on November 27, 1951. She died of coronary occlusion, and her body was found in her home. Alfred and Dorothy had not had children, so there were no descendants.
Brendena’s two other daughters-in-law lived longer lives. Nan died in New York in July 1975 when she was 89 years old. Marie, who had taken care of her mother-in-law Brendena for nine years after her husband Joe died in 1936, retired to Florida, where she died at age 93 on August 31, 1981.
My great-great-aunt Brendena was the third of six siblings; she outlived them all. She was the mother of five children; she outlived four of them. From those five children, she had one grandchild, her granddaughter Jane. I have just located one of her descendants and am hoping to learn more.