A Year with the Katzensteins

Hilda Katzenstein Schoenthal, my great-grandmother

When I finish (as much as we ever finish) telling the story of a particular family line, I always have mixed feelings. In some ways I feel a sense of relief—I’ve accomplished my goal. It feels good to know that I’ve covered to the best of my ability the story of my direct ancestors and their descendants in that family as well as the stories of their siblings and their descendants.

But it is also in some ways bittersweet. Each family brings its own color and depth to my family history, and each time I’ve been so fortunate to find living descendants—people who share that history, but know it from a different perspective. As I move away from that story, it feels like leaving a family after a long visit.  You’ve just gotten to know them, and now it’s time to move on. Not that I ever forget, and I always try and stay connected with the cousins I’ve found, but my focus shifts. So it’s a separation, and those are always bittersweet.

I have been studying the Katzenstein family for over a year now, starting with my great-great-grandfather Gerson and his descendants and then on to each of his siblings and their stories. I have found and in some cases met wonderful new cousins—many cousins who descend from Gerson’s sister Rahel and her husband Jacob Katz and who settled in Kentucky and Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Abraham Katz and family c. 1906
courtesy of the Katz family

Jake Katz
Photo found in Stanley Tucker Whitney Houston, Stillwater (Arcadia Publishing 2014), p. 38

There were the descendants of Hannchen Katzenstein Mansbach who lived in West Virginia and Maryland. These are all places where I never imagined I had cousins.

Some of those cousins came as children from Germany with their parents to escape Hitler. Some ended up in the US, others in South America, South Africa, and Israel.

Front row: Eva Baumann, Fred Abrahams, Martin Abrahams, Margot Baumann. Courtesy of Martin Abrahams

Other cousins have roots in the US going back to the Civil War. One cousin fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

H.H. Mansbach
Courtesy of John Fazenbaker at FindAGrave

My cousins were mostly merchants, and some were cattle ranchers.  One of my great-grandmother’s brothers lost his wife and child in the Johnstown Flood. Some cousins lived incredibly long lives; some died far too young. Some were wealthy; some were not. And some never made it out of Germany. Far too many were killed by the Nazis. One was still singing at 93, and one was killed by a terrorist when he was in his 30s.

It has been a fascinating and rewarding year for me. I have learned so much about this family and about my Jesberg roots—the town where my great-great-grandfather Gerson grew up and the town he left as a young man with three children in 1856 to come to Philadelphia. My great-grandmother Hilda never saw Jesberg, the town where her father was born and where three of her siblings were born. But I did. I was able to visit Jesberg in May and see where my Katzenstein family had its roots. It was a moving experience that would not have been nearly as meaningful if I hadn’t already spent seven months learning about all those Katzenstein ancestors who lived there.

So it is bittersweet to move on.

I have now written about all eight of my great-grandparents—-Joseph Brotman, Bessie Brod, Moritz Goldschlager, Ghitla Rosenzweig, Emanuel Cohen, Eva Mae Seligman, Isidor Schoenthal, and Hilda Katzenstein. Those are eight of the family names with which I had the most familiarity before I ever started down this path.[1] The names ahead are less familiar—the names of some of my great-great-grandparents—Jacobs, Hamberg, Dreyfuss, Goldschmidt, Schoenfeld, Bernheim, Bernstein, and so on. Which one comes next?

Stay tuned. But first some posts to catch up on a few other matters.

[1] I did not know the birth names of my great-grandmothers Bessie and Ghitla. And I did know one more name—Nusbaum, my father’s middle name and the birth name of my great-great-grandmother Frances Nusbaum Seligman.

32 thoughts on “A Year with the Katzensteins

  1. I felt some sadness too in reading you had finished telling the stories of these families. For some reason I found myself deeply connected/affected by your Mansbach and Seligman’s. It was a great year of discovery and your trip…how exciting and fun that was reading and viewing all your pictures. Here’s to next years discoveries and cousin connections! Thank you for all the wonderful history lessons and stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I may not remember the names of all the people you wrote about during the year. However, I do remember things you mentioned. I remember when you did West Virginia research. I shouldn’t have been surprised since Pennsylvania shares a border. Your trip to Germany was also a highlight. And the history you taught to many. Looking forward to your moving on.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I love that you’ve focused on one family (I’m too disorganized for that) and the ‘recap’ you’ve done here is great. I’d like nothing more than to come across a photo of my Civil War ancestors – the photo above gives me hope that they’re out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am still dreaming of one of my Brotman great-grandfather…. Thanks, Debi. I tend to be very linear in my thinking and research; I’d be completely overwhelmed trying to do more than one family at a time.


  4. Amy, you have had the dedication and perseverance throughout the year to piece your family
    ancestry together, enhanced by your visit to Germany and the amazing photo’s of the town’s
    and villages you visited. Are you still continuing to learn German as a language?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Shirley! Yes, I am still very much engaged in learning German. In fact, I am now taking a class once a week. It’s great—lots to learn, lots of fun.


  5. Amy, thank you for summing this up so beautifully. You have done important work. From merchants to cattle ranchers, what a variety! I’ve loved following along this year with the Katzensteins and feel that there are posts I’ve missed that I need to go back and look for. Will you be putting the Katzenstein posts into their own book? A tangent: Regarding another conversation we’ve been having, is there a way to set up a blog as a legacy thingie where your kids take over management or it belongs to the family forever or something? Or does it all need to be downloaded?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Amy. I know you are very busy with your research, travels and family but I would like to suggest a way to keep in touch with newly discovered and recently reconnected to cousins.

    It is a rather methodical approach but I find it satisfies everyone. First make up a contact list by family surname and group the descendants onto that particular list. After that plan on emailing everyone about every 2-3 months with a very brief update on yourself. Then inquire on what is up with them.

    You can do it one by one or if everyone knows each other send out a group email.

    This has worked out very well for me. Replies may be brief but it’s the though that counts and the connection does not go flat.

    I have cousins in one branch family who are a hoot and then some. They exchange jokes, quips and the like with me. In turn I send photos from amusing signs I find as I walk around my area. Like today, I sent one from a café that said “Drink Coffee! Do more stupid things faster!”

    Sometimes it’s all on the surface but often those little messages like “Love you cuz! Here’s a hug!” come at the right time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Emily—good suggestion! So far what I’ve done is collect all the email addresses in one “group” on Facebook, and I send out holiday greetings several times a year—Rosh Hashanah, the secular New Year, and Passover. Some people respond, some don’t. I also have many cousins who are now Facebook friends and so I see their posts and vice versa. Some cousins still read the blog and comment now and then. And a few are regular email correspondents. There are now so many that trying to stay in touch one by one would be impossible on a regular basis. But I do my best!

      Liked by 1 person

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