The Blessings and Curses of Old Family Stories

Family stories can often lead you astray, but perhaps more often they can give you clues or corroborate evidence you’ve already uncovered.  In the case of the descendants of Rahel Katzenstein and Jacob Katz, there has been a little of all three.

What I know from the research done by Barbara Greve and David Baron is that Rahel and Jacob had six children: Blumchen, Moses, Meier, Abraham, Sanchen, and Samuel. Abraham and Samuel came to the United States in the years following the Civil War, as I’ve written.  But what about the other four siblings? What could I learn about them?

Fortunately, my cousin Marsha interviewed our mutual cousin Theo Goldenberg in January, 1993, about the family history.  Theo Goldenberg was born and raised in Jesberg; he was the grandson of Meier Katz and came to the US in the 1930s as a young man escaping Nazi Germany. Having grown up in Jesberg with his Katz and Katzenstein relatives, Theo had first-hand knowledge of the family stories and may have been one of the the best people to ask about the siblings of his grandfather Meier.

In his interview with Marsha, Theo named five of the children of Rahel and Jacob: Blumchen, Moses, Meier, Abraham, and Samuel.  He also told Marsha that there had been another daughter who drowned as a small child—presumably that would have been Sanchen, the only other daughter found by Barbara Greve or David Baron. Thus, Theo’s recollection is quite consistent with the list of names I had learned from Barbara Greve and David Baron.

Family lore, however, is that there was another son who came to the United States before Abraham and Samuel and who fought in the Civil War.  The family story is that when Abraham came to the US, he went to New Orleans to look for this brother, but never found him. He was presumed to have been killed in the Civil War.

Theo Goldenberg told Marsha that he was not aware of any other son, and although I have spent a fair amount of time searching, I have found no records that support the existence of this fifth brother (nor did Barbara Greve or David Baron, both of whom have done extensive research on the family).

At first I thought perhaps Moses was this missing brother because I found a Moses Katz who came from the Hesse region and who fought in the Civil War.  He survived the war and settled in Baltimore.  But I could find no tie to the family of Rahel Katzenstein and Jacob Katz, and Marsha’s father Henry pointed out persuasively that if Moses had been in Baltimore, Abraham would have known and easily found him without traveling to New Orleans, especially since Abraham lived in Baltimore when he first came to the US.

Theo Goldenberg, moreover, told Marsha that Moses never left Germany. Although Marsha commented in her notes that this part of her interview with Theo was somewhat confusing, it appears that Theo told her that Moses had died as a young man after being kicked by a cow in the stomach.  He had, however, been married and had had several children.

David Baron also had information about Moses Katz that indicated that Moses had married Amalia Malchen Wetterhahn in Jesberg, Germany on July 3, 1869, and had had six children born in Jesberg.  I owe David a huge thank you for sending me many of the Katz records from Jesberg and also for teaching me how to find others myself.  Here is one he shared with me, a death record for Moses Katz:

Moses Katz death record, Jesberg Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg: Standesamt Jesberg Sterbenebenregister 1898 (HStAMR Best. 920 Nr. 3896) Jesberg 1898, p.32

My FB friend Matthias Steinke once again helped me out and translated the document, and it says nothing about the cause of death, so the “kicked in the stomach” story will have to remain family lore.  Also, Moses Katz died when he was almost sixty—so hardly a “young man.”  Maybe Theo was referring to someone else in the family.

Jesberg, the 9th July 1898
To the below signing registrar came the personally known merchant Markus Katz, residing in Jesberg, house-nr 32/2, and reported, that the merchant Moses Katz, 58 years, 6 month, 11 days, mosaic religion, residing in Jesberg, housenr. 32/2, born in Jesberg, been married to Amalie nee Wetterhan of Jesberg, son of the deceased merchant Jakob Katz and his deceased wife Rael nee Katzenstein of Jesberg, in Jesberg at the 8th July 1898 past midday at 6 o’clock is deceased. The Markus Katz declared, that he knows about the death by his own knowledge. Readed, confirmed and signed Markus Katz – the registrar (signature)

I suppose it’s possible that Moses went to the US, fought in the Civil War, returned to Jesberg after the war and married Amalia in 1869. But that seems unlikely, and wouldn’t Abraham have known that his brother had returned to Jesberg?

Perhaps it was not a brother but a cousin who fought and died in the Civil War? I don’t know.  But at this point I think the evidence does not support the story of this missing brother. However, the story has been passed down through the generations, and I’ve learned that in every family story there is usually some kernel of truth.  I just haven’t found it yet in this story.

Nor can I verify the story about Sanchen’s drowning. If Sanchen died as a young girl, that would have been more than fifty years before Theo’s birth and so perhaps not reliable as a piece of family history (and unfortunately before the earliest Jesberg records that are kept online.)  Yet such a traumatic event might very well have been reliably reported from generation to generation.

As for Blumchen, Theo told Marsha that she had stayed in Germany, married, and had not had any children.  According to David Baron, Blumchen married Heskel Grunenklee of Meimbressen, Germany, and she died on March 9, 1909.  Theo’s story is thus consistent with the research done by David Baron.

Theo had, not surprisingly, the most information about the children of Meier Katz, his grandfather, who died on October 29, 1925, when Theo was eleven.  Unfortunately, there were no insights about Meier in the interview notes.

Meier Katz death record
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Bestand: 920; Laufendenummer: 3916
Year Range : 1925
Source Information Hesse, Germany, Deaths, 1851-1955 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016.
Original data: Sterberegister und Namensverzeichnisse. Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Wiesbaden, Deutschland.

Theo’s grandmother Sprinzchen Jungheim Katz died on June 15, 1917, so Theo would have been only three years old when his grandmother died.

Death record of Sprinz Jungheim Katz 1917
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Bestand: 920; Laufendenummer: 3915

Meier and Sprinzchen had six children: Jacob, Aron, Seligmann, Regina, Karl, and Sol, according to Theo. I have not seen Sol listed anywhere else, and Theo had nothing more to say about him besides his name. However, there was a Salli Katz born to Meier and Sprinzchen on June 14, 1888, who died on January 10, 1892, so I assume that this is the “Sol” referred to by Theo Goldenberg.

Salli Katz birth record
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Collection: Personenstandsregister Geburtsregister; Bestand: 920; Laufende Nummer: 3819
Year Range : 1888
Source Information Hesse, Germany, Births, 1851-1901 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016.
Original data: Geburtenregister und Namensverzeichnisse. Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Wiesbaden, Deutschland.

Salli Katz death record, Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg: Standesamt Jesberg Sterbenebenregister 1892 (HStAMR Best. 920 Nr. 3890)
Jesberg 1892, p.2

As translated by Matthias Steinke:

Jesberg at the 10th January 1892 – To the below signing registrar came today the personally known merchant Moses Katz, residing in Jesberg, House nr. 32 1/2 and reported, that Salli Katz, 2 years 6 month 25 days old, mosaic religion, residing in Jesberg, house nr. 28, born in Jesberg, son of the merchant Meier Katz II and his wife Sprinzchen nee Jungheim of Jesberg, in Jesberg at the ninth January of the year 1892, past midday at four o’clock is deceased. The Moses Katz declared, to know about the death by his own knowledge. Readed, confirmed and signed Moses Katz The registrar Appell

[The death record reports that Salli was two and a half years old, but based on the birth record, he was really three and a half years old.]

The other five children of Meier and Sprinzchen—Jacob, Aron, Isaac, Regina, and Karl—all survived to adulthood and all came to the United States, some as early as the 1880s, others as late as the 1930s.  But fortunately they all survived. More on that in the posts to come.  For now, here is a photograph of Meier and Sprinzchen and those five children:

Meier and Sprinzchen (Jungheim) Katz and children

What I learned from all this is that we all should be doing what Marsha did back in 1993; we should be interviewing the older generations in our family, asking questions and taking notes.  Even if some of the information leads us on a few wild goose chases, the stories we will hear will disappear if they are not recorded.  I am so grateful that Marsha had the wisdom to meet with her cousin Theo and ask him to answer her questions about the family back in 1993.  If only I had done the same with my own older relatives 24 years ago…




33 thoughts on “The Blessings and Curses of Old Family Stories

    • I sure wish I had… And yes, memories are slippery. I find that to be true every time my husband and I argue about something that happened 40 years ago and we have different recollections!


  1. Hi again, Amy!

    Hope all is going well. I’m about to leave for a week w Chicago grandkids & will return again in June for our first family Bar Mitzvah.

    I’m curious: recent post mentions “mosaic religion”……please explain🤓!

    Thanks, Sue Schaefer Baum

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sue—that’s how the Germans referred to someone being Jewish—Mosaic from Moses, not from tiles!

      Have a great time with the grandchildren! We will be off to Germany next week. Let’s be in touch soon. 🙂


  2. I was lucky enough to have both grandmothers to question back in the 1980s, plus an elderly grandaunt and distant cousin in her 90s. All had excellent memories, plus they could identify many unnamed people in old photos. They are all long gone now so I am happy I started this trek back then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You were so smart to do that. The only grandparent I really knew was my maternal grandmother, and she died when I was 23. But she never talked about the past, and I was too clueless to ask.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love chasing down old family stories. To my surprise some have even turned out to be true. I wonder if you have people in your family as I have in mine who will not believe the stories they have heard are not correct and will not accept the new facts. If I have heard “that’s the way (fill in the blank) told it so that’s good enough for me.” However in my family that’s even is not the biggest problem, compared to the family secrets not ever told and or lied about. I also would have liked to record the elders in my family years ago, however I really doubt I would have been given complete or accurate information.

    Oh, I do envy your trip to Germany and look forward to reading about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is always quite an adventure. I am not sure how the family will respond to my conclusions—we shall see! When it’s part of a family’s lore for so long, it must be hard to give it up. And who knows? Maybe there is someone I’ve missed!

      I am excited about the trip! It should be quite an adventure. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Those old family interviews are priceless! My mom did one with her Grandpa. I’ve listened to it several times. It has helped my research and understanding of my family. Plus there are some great stories – like the time he punched a bear in the face to get it to go away. ?! When I was recently visiting my parents it surprised me how frequently my mom was almost remembering something correctly but with one or two big deviations. I would gently suggest a correction. She even said once, “How do you know about that?” To which I responded, “From the interview you did with Grandpa.” Thankfully she’s not too stubborn about things like that with me. But the point I’m trying to make with this big, long ramble, is that 30 years later she is misremembering her own interview and telling things differently than they were told to her. So interviewing is important – but preserving a usable record of that interview is also crucial.

    I hope you are able to enjoy your trip! I’ve been slowly reading you book (lots on my plate) and really enjoying it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Memory is a funny thing. We do rewrite our own memories. I know it’s happened to me. I wish I had done interviews when I was younger, but I was so indifferent to family history until about six years ago. You were smart!

      Thanks for reading the book! And thanks for your good wishes!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We, or at least I, became interested in genealogy too late to ask all the questions. My grandmother told stories of the German occupation of Luxembourg during WWII and I remember most of it but I should have recorded her memories when she was telling them.
    You have found a wonderful friend in Matthias Steinke who is always ready to help you with the translations.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I definitely became interested too late, although I am very fortunate that both my parents are still living. I hope you have now written down all those stories (and/or blogged about them) before you forget!

      Matt is an incredibly generous person. I wish we could meet him while in Germany, but I don’t think we will be anywhere close enough to where he lives. And you, also, have a been a big help. I sure wish I could read that old script. Learning German is a snap compared to deciphering that script!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Amy. You’re right about collecting the family stories while the elders are still with us. As the only person in my family who was very close to my Mom, I’m doing it differently. So many of the details are particular to the time period. Uncle Sammy and I can verify who the people are for the most part but since they are sometimes friends or neighbors we can’t always locate census records. But the little details can be proven by newspaper reports of the time so we use that to give substance for the stories, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. These family stories certainly twist & turn.
    Years ago, my mother, Henry Katz’s sister had a slightly different take on the missing relative during the Civil War.
    She said he’d gone missing, but no mention was made of his being a soldier. She offered that he could have been killed, but, that wasn’t certain.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Ronald, for the additional insight. I wish I could find some evidence of this other brother. Maybe when I am in Jesberg I will be able to find some birth record for another son. Glad you are reading the blog!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I wonder if the “kicked in the stomach” story could be corroborated by a Jesberg newspaper from 1898? Do you know if they still exist and whether they had society pages that would include sordid details that make up much of our family lore?

    It’s fascinating to me how 21st century Americans gripe about the lack of privacy, yet you read the papers from a century ago and sometimes cringe at the detailed information that was reported to the entire community. I think someone killed by a cow kick would be print-worthy by those standards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Michael, but I am not aware of any German newspapers from that time period that are searchable online. Do you? It’s a great suggestion! Jesberg was a small town and probably didn’t have a newspaper, but maybe Kassel, a larger town nearby, did.


  9. I wish I’d interviewed the older generation and now, sadly, I am the oldest generation. I did find some notes that I took when I talked with my dad about this in the early 2000’s and everything he told me I’ve been able to confirm through my research.

    One piece of family lore on my mom’s side was someone (great grandmother? great great grandmother?) having twins three times with one or no twin surviving. I have yet to find anything like that but I’m holding out hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes, thank goodness for that interview. Very lucky you have those notes. We just found out that someone interviewed my grandmother several years before she passed. I had no idea. I don’t yet know the contents, but it’s truly a gem. You seem quite well-connected which has no doubt helped you tremendously in your quest. Did you met all these cousins during your search? Would you have found as much eventually on your own?


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