A Review of My Novel, Pacific Street

I am very honored and flattered that Luanne Castle, who writes the wonderful genealogy blog The Family Kalamazoo and is a published poet as well, has chosen to blog about my novel Pacific Street.  I hope you will read her review and consider purchasing a copy of the book.  Thank you, Luanne!



Here is a small excerpt from the review:

The story of Cohen’s grandparents, Isadore and Gussie, is an inspiring coming-to-America tale with all the resonance of actual experience. Cohen has painstakingly documented the early part of her relatives’ lives through historical research using official documents and has incorporated information shared through family stories.

She has researched the settings and cultures described and added her own imagination to infuse the book with appropriate details and descriptions. This is no dry historical telling, but a well-structured adventure full of tragedies and triumphs like a novel, although more accurately, it is creative nonfiction in the historical subgenre. 

As Cohen alternates the narratives of Isadore and Gussie (until their stories merge together near the end), the reader becomes one with the characters. The loneliness of both characters is excruciating, especially since family is so important to both of them.


You can read the rest of Luanne’s review here.  Check out the rest of her blog while you are there; she is a wonderful storyteller and an expert genealogist.

Thank you, Luanne! Your words mean a lot!

Quick Blog Update

I am deep into researching both the Schoenthals and the Hambergs, and I am not sure which way to turn first.  The resources are so rich, and I keep stepping further into both lines, going backwards, forwards, and sideways!  I've been so fascinated with the research that I've not had much time to write about what I am finding, but I will get there.  Right now my biggest question is---do I finish researching the Hambergs or spend time writing about the Schoenthals?  I am not good at being torn in two different directions.  I've got one post ready to go for tomorrow about the Hambergs, but I think after that I will go back to the Schoenthal side.

Anyway, in between digging through German birth, marriage, and death records, I realized that I had neglected to update the family tree pages on the blog.  I’ve now updated the Seligmann family tree page and added a family tree page for the Nusbaum and Dreyfuss lines.  I have also added a Schoenthal page, subject to more updating (as are they all), and eventually I will also add a Hamberg page.  These pages can all be found in the header at the top of the page.

Now back to struggling between more research or some writing….


Moritz James Oppenheimer: The (More) Complete Story

Several weeks ago I received a comment on the blog from Angelika Oppenheimer, the granddaughter of Moritz James Oppenheimer, whose life I wrote about here.  He was the successful businessman who owned the horse breeding farm in Germany that was appropriated by the Nazis.  Moritz Oppenheimer died in 1941, an apparent suicide after being “visited” by the Gestapo.

Angelika found the blog because she was interested in knowing more about her grandfather’s family, and I am grateful because I now have learned more about her grandfather’s life and about the lives of his children and grandchildren.

Angelika Oppenheimer

Angelika Oppenheimer photo courtesy of Angelika

Angelika is my third cousin, once removed.  Here is a chart explaining our relationship:

Angelika to me chart



Moritz James Oppenheimer was born in 1879 in Butzbach, Germany, the youngest child of Maier Oppenheimer and Pauline Seligmann.  As seen above, he was the grandchild of Moritz Seligmann and Babetta Schoenfeld, my three-times great-grandparents.  Here is a photo of him as a young man from Fred Michel’s photo album,

Moritz Oppenheimer

Moritz Oppenheimer Photo courtesy of the Michel family

According to a resume provided to me by Angelika, in 1901 he founded the Mitteldeutsche Papierwarenfabrik situated in the Hanauer Landstraße and the Rheinische Sackfabrik.  Moritz was a member of the board of directors of several companies throughout Germany, including the Kostheimer Cellulose und Papierfabrik (Kostheim-Mainz), the Danziger Verpackungsindustrie at Danzig, the Fabbrica Italiana Sacchi Ercole at Villanovetta, the Mechanische Papiersackfabrik A.G. at Saarbrücken, the Sankt Georg Verlag at Berlin and the Bayrische Reitschule at Munich.

Emma Neuhoff and Moritz James Oppenheimer photo courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

Emma Neuhoff and Moritz James Oppenheimer
photo courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

Sometime before 1902, Moritz married Emma Katherina Neuhoff, who was not Jewish.  According to Angelika, she was a descendant of Theodor Neuhoff, born in Cologne, Germany, who traveled throughout Europe and was at one time the king of Corsica.  According to Wikipedia, “At Genoa, Neuhoff made the acquaintance of some Corsican rebels and exiles, and persuaded them that he could free their country from Genoese tyranny if they made him king of the island. With the help of the Bey of Tunis, he landed in Corsica in March 1736 with military aid. The islanders, whose campaign had not been successful, elected and crowned him king. He assumed the title of King Theodore I, issued edicts, instituted an order of knighthood, and waged war on the Genoese, at first with some success. But in-fighting among the rebels soon led to their defeat.”

Theodore Neuhoff

Theodor Neuhoff

Emma Neuhoff was a gifted musician and an excellent horsewoman, according to her granddaughter Angelika.

Emma Neuhoff Oppenheimer

Emma Neuhoff Oppenheimer  Photo courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

Here are two pages from a German magazine discussing M.J Oppenheimer and his wife Emma.  I think it’s a publication about thoroughbred breeding and racing, but I cannot read the pages.  Perhaps some kind German-speaking reader can help?

Familiengeschiche 2 Familiengeschichte3

(Angelika told me that the drawing of Emma illustrating this article was commissioned by the Historical Museum of Frankfort based on Emma’s reputation as an excellent horsewoman.)

Moritz and Emma had two children: Paula (1902) and Walter (1904), Angelika’s father.  Paula married a Catholic man named Rudolf Spiegler, a doctor, and converted to Catholicism; they had two children, Gabriele and Wolfgang. Paula and her family did not face any persecution during the war.

As for Angelika’s father Walter, he married Suzanne Zier on December 23, 1933.  Walter had been raised and baptized as a Christian, and his wife also was not Jewish, yet Walter faced substantial discrimination during the Nazi era.  In April 1945, as the war in Europe was ending, he wrote the following essay, describing both his own life and what happened to his father Moritz after the Nazis came to power:

27 April 1945

Biographical memorandum

I was born on 10 July 1904, son of the industrialist and thoroughbred horse-breeder Consul M.J. Oppenheimer, in Frankfurt am Main. After three years at preparatory school, I attended the Goethe Gymnasium in that city for nine years; I left school, having obtained my school leaving certificate (Abitur), at Easter 1923. After studying for six terms at Frankfurt University (Law and National Economy), I sat the examination for articled clerk at the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court [Oberlandesgericht]. After a period as an articled clerk at the court in Frankfurt, in 1927 I took my doctorate under Professor de Boor. After a lengthy period of practical training as a fitter in an engineering works, and as a paper-maker in paper-mills, I then joined my father’s paper-products company, the Mitteldeutsche mechanische Papierwarenfabrik, in Frankfurt. From 1931 I was Chief Company Secretary of this company belonging to my father as sole owner. At that time it was the largest company of its kind in Germany, and for a period employed together with its subsidiaries more than 1,000 people. In 1932 I built a major subsidiary factory for my father’s company in Berlin.

My father was arrested in the autumn of 1933, at the instigation of two [NSDAP] party members (August Hartmann and Helmut Vögler) working in collaboration with the NSDAP. His entire assets were put in the hands of the lawyer [Rechtsanwalt] Max-Ernst Cuntz as prospective administrator. A bankruptcy was thus brought about, and the assets liquidated at the lowest rate, the said lawyer Cuntz selling each item at a rate far below its value, for the most part at one twentieth of purchase value. The stud farm and stables, for example (probably the biggest and best of their kind in Germany), were disposed of at a price below the level of profits from racing for the following year. The case was similar in respect of the factories, share portfolios, Hippodrome A (whose director I also was, and all shares in which belonged to my father), etc. I myself was immediately removed without compensation from all my posts by the lawyer Cuntz, on the grounds of my non-Arian status. I was also compelled to surrender my own stables, representing an approximate worth of between 70,000 and 100,000 Reichsmark, without receiving any compensation. My father was also quite illegally disqualified from receiving the stud prize. To satisfy the rules in this latter regard, for years my mother and I continued to hold two mares for my father, so that he could legally be assigned 10% of all racing prizes won by horses bred by him, in accordance with stud rules: except with the proviso that no stud prizes could be paid out to a Jew; the authorities retained this annual sum, comprising up to 100,000 Reichsmark, and finally had it credited either to themselves or to the Union Klub. My father, who was perfectly healthy, became ill owing to ill-treatment during his detention. He was declared unfit for detention in 1934/5, and finally took his own life when he was about to be arrested again in 1941 preparatory to being sent to a camp.

I myself with my mother had founded the company Paverk, Gesellschaft für Papierverarbeitung in December 1933. As I could not appear in person as a holder of shares in a limited company, an Arian uncle of my mother acted for me. Then, in 1937, I transferred this share in trust to my father-in-law Otto Zier, now [April 1945] of Friedberg in Hessen, Dieffenbachstrasse 25, together with a further 20,000 Reichsmark of shares created in settlement of my assets, so that, of the total sum of 40,000 Reichsmark in shares of the above company, 10,000 Reichsmark of my mother’s and 30,000 of mine belonged in trust to my father-in-law. By the beginning of the war, however, with a nominal capital of 40,000 Reichsmark the company had an actual value of some 250,000 to 300,000 Reichsmark, as, thanks to the diligent efforts of my employees, the company had been highly successful under my stewardship.

My wife having died suddenly from pneumonia in April 1935, at the beginning of 1941 my father-in-law saw fit to attempt to misappropriate the shares that had been transferred to him in trust. As, owing to my status as a person of mixed blood, I myself could not appear as a plaintiff, I assigned my claim to my mother, who instituted legal proceedings and won her case, at both first and second instance. The papers relating to the case are still available in their entirety: reference 2/5 2/9 0 30/41. These papers clearly demonstrate how Zier attempted to influence the court using the entire gamut of National-Socialist arguments, with reports against me and the company being sent to all sections of the Party, including district and financial counsellors (Kreis- und Wirtschafts-berater – [advisors to the Gauleiter under National Socialism]) Eckhardt, Degenhardt, and Avieny, the DAF [Deutsche ArbeitsFront – national trades union organisation under the National Socialists], the Gestapo, etc. At last instance, the High Court [Reichsgericht] awarded my mother only 10,000 Reichsmark unconditionally, while presuming improper concealment [unsittliche Tarnung] in respect of the remaining 20,000 Reichsmark. This finding is the subject of a new trial before the District Court [Landgericht] in Frankfurt (2/5 0 36/44), over whose outcome in my mother’s favour there may be little reason to doubt. Quite apart from these machinations on Zier’s part, which caused not only the Paverk company but also my mother and myself endless spiritual and material harm, we had also much else to suffer at the hands of the NSDAP.

When the company was heavily bombed in 1943, and totally bombed out in February 1944, Herr Hermann of the Gauwirtschaftskammer [regional economic organization under National Socialism] prevented the rebuilding of the plant and re-acquisition of machines. In addition, I myself was arrested by the Gestapo in the autumn of 1942, the only charge against me being my engagement to an Arian woman in contravention of the rules. I was not released again until 28 May 1943. My entire household effects to the value of about 70,000 Reichsmark (peacetime value), including art collections etc., had meanwhile been taken, and the Gestapo official Wildhirt installed in my flat. In 1943, my fiancée was conscripted to work at the Mayfahrt company under the harshest of conditions at the direct instigation of the Gestapo. The main initiator in these matters was Zier, who did not, however, proceed in his own name, but employed the services of his friends Fabian-Gramlich (insofar as I have been able to determine up to now), while my furniture was removed by a painter by the name of Baumann, who did work for the police.

I married on 11 April 1945, immediately after the liberation by the Americans. I was allocated a flat at Freiherr vom Stein Strasse 56/1, which I immediately had redecorated and furnished with furniture belonging to my wife, only to have the flat abruptly requisitioned by US soldiers on 26 April 1945.

Initialled “W.O.” at Frankfurt am Main on 27 April 1945

I, David M.B. Richardson MCIoL, certify this to be a true and fair translation of a photocopied document in German provided to me by Frau Angelika Oppenheimer, daughter of Walter Oppenheimer.

Westcliff-on-Sea, 11 August 2015.

Walter’s essay reveals so much about the hate-filled and carefully plotted system used by the Nazis to crush, humiliate, and destroy the Jews.  First, they stripped them of their property, then they stripped them of their dignity, and finally they killed them and stripped them of their lives.  Moritz Oppenheimer, a man of great wealth, was brought to his knees by the Nazis and demoralized to the point that he took his own life rather than be subjected to further humiliation and abuse and ultimately murdered. One aspect of that humiliation and abuse not mentioned in Walter’s essay was the forced annulment of his marriage to Emma Neuhoff because of Moritz’s Jewish background.

Moritz and Emma’s son Walter, a highly educated and successful man in his own right and not even raised as a Jew, was denied his property and his rights and had his own father-in-law betray him and his trust after his first wife died in 1935.  According to Angelika, Walter’s brother-in-law was in the SS.  Only because Walter had a non-Jewish mother who bribed the local Nazi official in Frankfort was he allowed to survive.

As he wrote above, Walter married his second wife, Elsa Lina Wiegandt, in 1945, and they had a daughter, my cousin Angelika.   In 1946, Walter sought the return of the property that had been taken from him by the Gestapo, primarily the books he treasured so much.  Here is the letter he wrote and Angelika’s translation of that letter:

Walter Oppenheimer letter

Dr. Walter Oppenheimer                                  Frankfurt a. M., den 25. Oktober 1946          Niedenau 45

An das Archival Depot

Offenbach am Main

Mainstraße 167

Concerning: stolen books

With polite reference to the notice published the 22nd October under the above mentioned headword in the ‘Frankfurter Rundschau’, I take the liberty of presenting you the following:

I was arrested by the Gestapo the 26th October 1942 for purely political and racial reasons. My apartment was handed over to the Gestapo officer Wildhirt while my furniture was first and foremost transferred by a Gestapo agent to the second principal of the Gestapo here, Mister Grosse. The biggest part of my library was taken away with it. A part of the books was rubber-stamped with my name but the bigger part of it was without the name of the legitimate owner.

If there are any books of mine in your office, I ask you nicely to furnish information to me. Especially the following books mean much to me:

A 17-vlume gilt-edged edition of GOETHE in red morocco leather;

A complete half leather edition of HAUFF with gold ornament on the spine;

A half leather edition of KLEIST’s writings with gold ornament on the spine;

MUTHER: 3 volumes of history of painting, green cloth binding;

SPRINGER: 5 volumes on art history, half cloth binding and cloth binding respectively;

20 – 25 volumes of monographs on artists, partly half leather editions, partly with half cloth binding and cloth binding respectively, red with gold ornament, edition of the Stuttgarter Verlagsanstalt;

A five volume edition of HÖLDERLIN, grey pasteboards.

Many thanks indeed for your efforts in anticipation.

With all due respect to you!

I was impressed by the diversity of subjects in his library and by how much he valued his books. I also was struck by how polite and almost deferential he was in asking for the return of what was already rightfully his own.   At least some of the books were returned and remain today with Angelika.  Here is a photo of her father Walter.

Walter Oppenheimer 1972 courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

Walter Oppenheimer 
courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

Angelika shared this photograph of her family and friends at her Lutheran confirmation celebration taken in about 1961.

Angelika's confirmation Courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

Angelika’s confirmation c. 1961
Courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

From left to right: Paula Oppenheimer Spiegler (paternal aunt) , Emma Neuhoff Oppenheimer (grandmother), Christiane Wiegandt (Angelika’s maternal cousin), Christiane Bott (classmate), Sylvia Berres (classmate), Elsa (nee Wiegandt) Oppenheimer (Angelika’s mother), Angelika,, Walter Oppenheimer (Angelika’s father), Karl Wiegandt (Angelika’s maternal uncle), Karli (Angelika’s maternal cousin), Annie Wiegandt (wife of Karl), Herta Dorner (friend), Gabriele Spiegler (Paula’s daughter), either Wolfgang Spiegler or Gabriele’s husband.

I feel very fortunate that Angelika was able to find me through this blog.  Her family’s story is yet another lesson in the destructive power of prejudice, on the one hand, and the ultimate power that human beings have to survive and overcome those destructive forces, on the other.

Angelika and I have lived very different lives; we grew up with different religious backgrounds, we live in different countries, we speak different languages.  My immediate family lived through World War II in relative safety; hers was scarred forever.  But despite those differences, we know that we share a common history that ties us together as cousins.  Isn’t that remarkable?


Lotte’s Story, Part III: Coming to and Settling into America

In Parts I and II of Lotte’s story, we saw how my cousin Lotte’s idyllic childhood as the daughter of a successful doctor in Mannheim, Germany, was shattered after Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.  By 1937, her sister Doris had left for the US, and a year later, Lotte and her parents Joseph and Anna (Winter) Wiener had moved to Luxembourg, where Anna’s parents, Samuel and Laura (Seligmann) Winter had already relocated.

After visiting her daughter Doris in the US, Anna returned to Luxembourg and convinced Joseph that they also should relocate there.  First, they had to obtain visas to travel to the US.  Lotte wrote:

The nearest American consulate was in Antwerp, Belgium, necessitating a fairly long trip. My grandparents were rather disabled by that time and in no condition to undertake the long journey. Reluctantly, we had to leave them behind when we made the trip. After a long wait we were admitted to the consul’s office where he sat, pipe in the corner of his mouth and feet on his huge executive desk. A most unfriendly man, he asked my parents all the necessary questions. When my turn came up, he quizzed me in some of the simplest arithmetic questions. When he was satisfied that I was not imbecile, he condescended to tell us that we could expect the visas in “six months to one hundred years”. Fortunately it took only a little over six months before we could sail.

While waiting for the visas to come through, Lotte worked at a baby hospital in Luxembourg.  She worked long hours taking care of the infants, and in the end she earned a Red Cross certificate, which proved to be quite valuable when she later applied to nursing school in New York.

The atmosphere in Luxembourg grew increasingly tense.  After the Munich agreement allowed Germany to take over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1938, more and more Jewish refugees were leaving Germany for Luxembourg.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Signing the Munich Agreement
From left to right: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As Lotte described it:

Many Jewish refugees had arrived in Luxembourg, many only with their fur coats and jewelry in assets. Having nothing else to do but to wait for the possibility of a visa, most unlikely on the Austrian and Hungarian quotas, they spent a lot of time in the local cafés. That in turn aroused a certain amount of the latent antisemitism in the population. Or maybe it was not so latent. My roommate at the hospital, a devoutly Catholic young lady who went to mass almost every morning, confided in me that she needed to “confess” to the priest that she was sharing her room with a Jewish girl. She had to admit, however, that I neither had horns nor did anything evil as far as she knew.

It was becoming very clear that there would be a war in Europe, and the events of Kristallnacht in November, 1938, also frightened those who were still in Luxembourg.

Finally, in April 1939, Lotte and her parents received their visas and could leave for the United States.   There was, however, no way to take Lotte’s grandparents, Laura and Samuel, with them.

Tickets for the voyage were booked, and soon my parents and I found ourselves on a train to Le Havre without them. We never were to see them again. As we found out later, Oma died of a heart attack while looking for an apartment, having been evicted when the German army took over Luxembourg in the spring of 1940. Opa was deported to Theresienstadt where he reportedly died “of natural causes”.

When I think about these separations, it tears me apart.  I cannot imagine leaving my parents behind, as Annie Winter Wiener was forced to do.  Anyone who has seen the recent movie “A Woman in Gold” will remember the scene when Maria Altmann leaves her parents behind in Vienna for similar reasons.  It’s a scene that breaks your heart and stays with you long after the movie ends with Maria victorious in her legal battles over the Klimt painting.  Maria was a real person, just as Lotte is a real person.  These are not Hollywood stories written just to wring tears from viewers.  These are the lives and the experiences that thousands and thousands of people endured.

But somehow these people, including Lotte and her parents, survived and found the strength to move on.  Lotte’s description of her sea voyage to America, leaving her grandparents and her homeland forever, reveals that tenacity, the strength, that courage.

Below is the ship manifest listing, on lines 6,7, and 8, Lotte and her parents (her real first name is Leonore) and a photograph of the George Washington, the ship that brought them to the US.

Year: 1939; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 6313; Line: 1; Page Number: 176

Year: 1939; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 6313; Line: 1; Page Number: 176

The George Washington, the ship that Lotte and her parents sailed on to the US in 1939 Ancestry.com. Passenger Ships and Images [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. Original data: Various maritime reference sources.

The George Washington, the ship that Lotte and her parents sailed on to the US in 1939
Ancestry.com. Passenger Ships and Images [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.
Original data: Various maritime reference sources.

Lotte chose to write this section in the third person, which I found interesting and revealing.  Was she distancing herself from that teenaged girl who was herself distancing herself from her past?

It was a grey and rainy day in April of 1939. A wet and blistery wind blew, adding to the girl’s anxiety. The security of her world had been shattered, slowly at first, but then with increasing speed and ferocity. Her best friend had been left behind – without her being able to say a proper good-bye – perhaps they would never have a chance to see each other again. Here she stood at the pier in Le Havre, ready to embark on the longest journey of her young life. Slowly she and her parents stepped on the planks of the ship, the ocean liner which would bring them from a Europe threatened by the certain relentless march toward war to the vast and unknown entity of America which lay before her.

The voyage was stormy and rough. The ship rocked from side to side with the huge waves. Most of the time she felt sick. Staying in the cabin was awful. When she stepped on deck, she felt even worse. Looking at the ominous grey sky above as well as watching the wildly moving waves below made her dizzy. Eating became a nightmare. Keeping any food down was impossible. They suggested broth. That wouldn’t work. Eating a baked potato– who had ever heard of a baked potato before? The English spoken on board did not sound at all like what she had learned in school. The ship’s entertainment was provided by an enormously fat and very jolly man with the incongruous name of “Tiny”. Was everybody crazy?

Finally, during the fifth night, the storm passed, and in the morning the sea was calm and the sun shone brightly. She stepped outside and saw to her right the exhilarating sight she had been told to expect: New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty. Suddenly she felt well. Her excitement grew. Soon she would be able to set foot on the land which would be her new home. She resolved that she would accept whatever there was. She would not compare things with what had been.

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Isl...

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, Manhattan, in New York County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lotte seemed to stay true to those resolutions.  She quickly adapted to life in New York City, working as a babysitter while awaiting acceptance to a nursing program.  She was accepted into Cornell University-New York Hospital’s nursing program for the fall of September, 1939, less than six months after her arrival in New York.  Lotte wrote about some of the culture shock she experienced when she began her nursing studies in New York:

Once I was notified that I had been accepted at the prestigious Cornell University – New York Hospital School of Nursing, it took me exactly one week to purchase the few required items and to pack my suitcase. Actually admissions had been closed quite a while before, but they had made an exception for me. Of course I had lost no time getting all my documents together and to have my credentials translated and notarized. I had taken a six-week crash course at a private school in Manhattan, located on Sixth Avenue behind the Public Library. How I had sweated that summer, taking the Subway from Kew Gardens to Times Square and back, and then to take the Regents exams! The courses, American History, 4th Year English, and Civics, were required in order to obtain a “Nurse Qualifying Certificate”.

So one fine September morning in 1939 my father and I, all of 18 years old, set out to travel from Kew Gardens, Queens, to the nurses’ residence on York Avenue in mid-Manhattan. With two big suitcases we walked to the subway station, went downstairs, took the  train to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, dragged the suitcases back upstairs, walked to the Second or Third Avenue Elevated which was still running at that time, and then walked to the York Avenue address. As we entered, we saw several taxis pulling up, bringing some of my new classmates to the same destination. Only they did it the easy way. It had never occurred to us to take a cab as money was very tight. I said goodbye to my father and went about to register and to get settled in my new quarters.

The schedule of activities for the first day included a four o’clock tea for all the newcomers in the formal and somewhat stuffy library. True to my nature I was there right on time, the first one to appear, to be exact. All the others were still busy taking showers and changing into the kind of clothes you were supposed to wear for an afternoon tea. Little did I know that that was the thing to do. I was still in my travel outfit and felt rather sweaty. Well, I entered the library and found a stunning-looking white-haired woman in a gorgeous red dress seated at the solid oak table, “pouring” tea. I learned that she would be one of my nursing instructors. Soon the other students came, and we began to get acquainted.


During the first six months the emphasis was on academics. Actually one of the entrance requirements had been one year of chemistry. Most of my classmates had two years of college with all the needed requirements behind them, while I had barely obtained my high school equivalent certificate. My European education had been superior in some ways, but badly missing in science. I did not even know how to balance a chemical equation. So here I was supposed to obtain a basic knowledge of inorganic as well as organic chemistry in all of six weeks. It seemed like it was going to be a disaster. But with the help of a fellow student who had dropped out of medical school, and with the kindness and understanding Miss Rynbergen, my teacher, showed to me, I did overcome that hurdle and even managed to get an “A” in the course. None of the other courses presented any problems, at least not academically.


Obviously, Lotte was an extremely gifted student.   She had neither the academic background nor the social benefits of most of her classmates, yet she excelled in her studies, even though English was her second language.  In fact, Lotte did so well that she tried to be admitted to NYU Medical School and met with the dean to discuss her application.  Here is what happened:

I had mustered a lot of courage. After two years of practicing hospital nursing I really wanted to pursue the ambition I had nurtured since childhood – to become a doctor like my father. Thus I marched up the long corridor at my hospital’s medical school and entered the dean’s office. Of course the visit had been properly scheduled ahead of time. The dean, bespectacled, grey-haired, lean and stern-looking, listened to my brief story: that I was dissatisfied with the prospect of my future nursing career, and that I really would like to find out how I could be admitted to the medical school. The man just took one look at me and smiled. “My dear, you are asking for the impossible. First of all, you are a woman. There is quite a limit placed on the number of females at our school. Secondly, you lack the necessary college preparation. It would take several years for you to catch up with our requirements. Thirdly, you are Jewish. Do you know what that means? All kinds of difficulties along the way! You’d better forget about it.”  

Lotte must have been devastated.  She was being discriminated against as a woman and as a Jew.  The fact that she had excelled in the nursing program was not enough to outweigh her limited pre-nursing school education.  She had left Germany to escape anti-Semitism, and here it was, thrown in her face again.

In 1942, as World War II was in full force with the US now itself involved, Lotte graduated from nursing school and began working the night shift in the internal medicine department at New York Hospital.  The family received news of Samuel Winter’s deportation to Theriesenstadt, and the news overall was quite disturbing.  Lotte somehow kept a positive outlook.



My mother was desperate. This war is going to end in a terrible nightmare of defeat, she stated. But I, being young and more optimistic by nature, I just KNEW that good had to prevail over evil, that things would eventually come out all right. I knew that history had its ups and downs. This was a down. Sooner or later there would be an up. I wrote so to my friends. I never gave up hope. In the end, I was right.

How incredible is it for Lotte to have concluded, after all she had experienced and all she would soon learn about her relatives in Europe, “that things would eventually come out all right?”  It truly takes a real strength of character and a positive view of the world to see things that way.  I greatly admire her for that depth of character and strength.

There is much more in Lotte’s memoirs—stories about how she met her husband, their courtship and wedding, and their happy marriage of 58 years.  There are stories about their travels and anecdotes about various events in Lotte’s adult life.  But I will end Lotte’s story with one that I think says so much about her—who she was as a child and who she is today.  It’s a story that brought tears to my eyes.  It has nothing to do with the Holocaust or the war per se; it’s about an incredibly sensitive and generous woman.  I hope you find it as powerful as I did.


There was a piece which was part of me. Ever since I was a teenager it went with me wherever I moved. But it is no longer in my possession. I gave it away. But I do hope that whoever uses it now appreciates what I did and gets as much enjoyment from it as it gave me at one time. It was my violin, my beautiful Italian violin bearing a label, glued to the inside, reading

 “Matteo Albani fecit Bolzano anno 1698″.

How did I receive this beautiful instrument, and why did I dispose of it the way I did? It’s a long story which began in 1937 when my parents began to make preparations for our eventual emigration from Germany to the United States. Since they had been able to put aside a sizable sum of money which could not be legally transferred abroad, they had to find various ways to buy objects of value which might be suitable for a later sale in the U.S. or which might be useful to us. My mother schemed and bought a trousseau for my sister and also for me. They bought two Leica cameras, modern lamps, clothing and many other articles. But my father, who had at one time played the violin, insisted that he wanted to buy me a fine instrument which hopefully would not have to be sold so soon.

That’s why he traveled with me to Stuttgart, a city about two hours away, where, with the help of my violin teacher, he had located an internationally known dealer of fine string instruments, Hamma & Company, which incidentally is still in business at the present time. I did not have much to say in the matter, but between my father and my teacher they found a suitable violin, full size but not too large, for the acceptable  price of DM 3,000.00, bargained down to DM 2,200.00, a substantial sum of money at that time. Proud as a peacock I traveled home with my new possession, my princess, carefully wrapped in a blue silk cloth and placed in a light brown leather case with light blue plush lining.

Now I must describe my pride and joy: It was beautiful to look at with its light orange-brownish varnish. The top was made of spruce with fine, even grain. The back, pleasantly curved for an aesthetic feel of form, was made of two pieces of maple with small, faint flames. The label, mentioned above, was found on the inside, to be seen through the F-shaped openings on the top. Later on I was assured that the label was authentic, and that the violin really was the work of Matteo Albani, a highly respected violin maker, and that it was a fine example of his work.

Yes, it was beautiful to look at, and beautiful to feel. But the most important quality of such an instrument is, of course, its sound. Played by my teacher it sounded magnificent. My own technique left something to be desired, but I had received the impetus to improve, and I worked hard at it. Friends in my chamber-music group admired it, envied me for it. I took good care of it. I treated it like the princess it was, what with the silk wrap and plush lining of the case.

From now on the violin went with me wherever fate took me. In 1938 we left Germany. After one year in Luxembourg we embarked for New York where I ended up living in my hospital’s Nurses’ Residence. I did not have much time to practice or to play, but I did have my own private room where I could do so at various times. I also once participated in a talent show where I played something or other in a miserable performance. My fellow student nurses were not very kind. They made a number of nasty cracks about my playing, but assured me that it was all meant in good humor.

My violin was with me on Pearl Harbor Day. I had been playing some chamber music on a rare, free Sunday afternoon and found myself on the platform of the A-train subway in Washington Heights when the terrible news broke. I will never forget it.

Later on, while raising my family and through most of my married years, I played only sporadically, sometimes in orchestras, sometimes in chamber music groups. At one time I even took some more lessons. But I found that I did not have it in me to work at it the way I needed to in order to really improve. Most of the time my precious fiddle was locked up in a hall closet. Yet I knew it was there.

And then disaster struck. At pretty much the same time I developed arthritis and a great clumsiness in my fingers along with a noticeable loss of hearing. The latter distorted many of the higher frequency sounds, thus making it impossible for me to play with the required accuracy. I grew discouraged and finally gave up. Much as I loved my violin, I knew that it was no longer of service to me. I also knew that it had appreciated greatly in value. Thus I made a very painful decision.

Selling my violin would have been like selling a piece of me. Leaving it to my children might create problems and certainly cause unnecessary difficulties. Yet it was not doing me any good. So I decided that I would give it to someone who would truly appreciate it. I made a number of inquiries and soon learned that there was a place for my intended gift right here in town. The non-profit Colburn Foundation collects instruments for use by aspiring artists, to be loaned and returned when they can afford to buy their own.

The decision was easy, the execution was hard. On one rainy afternoon in 1996 my husband and I traveled to the magnificent Colburn mansion in the Hollywood Hills. We were greeted quite cordially and even received a tour of the estate. That’s where we left my beautiful princess, still wrapped in blue silk and in her blue plush-lined leather case, to be given to someone who really needed it. I never found out to whom it was given, but I do hope he or she is taking good care of it. After all, although the wound has healed, it was a part of me.

For me, that final sentence says it all.  It is not only about her lost violin, but also about every other loss she suffered:  her grandparents, her home, her friends, her school, her country, her language.

An Albani violin

An Albani violin

Perhaps someone reading this will know the fate of Lotte’s beloved violin.  If so, like Lotte, I hope it is being well taken care of and played with all the heart and soul and passion that Lotte herself has demonstrated through her writing and throughout her life.

Thank you, Lotte, for sharing your life story with us.

Does Anybody Really Care about a Fifth Cousin?  Are Collateral Lines Relevant?

y Sg647112c (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

y Sg647112c (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I have been spending many hours recently researching the children, grandchildren and other descendants of the siblings of my three-times great-grandparents.  Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Why am I researching these people?  They are my third cousins twice removed or my fifth cousins or my second cousins four times removed…or whatever.”  Although I’ve had moments of wondering this before, it’s been especially true for the Nusbaum clan, who for the most part flew under the radar and did not have lots of juicy or interesting stories to tell—they were mostly law abiding merchants; they lived their lives quietly and out of the public eye.  They were not politicians or inventors or criminals or performers.  They did not change history.  Sometimes when I learn that a particular relative had no children, I am relieved.  One more line has been completed.

So why do this?  Does anybody really care about such distant relatives? Do I even care? Is it just my general compulsive need for a sense of completion? For being thorough? Or is there something pushing me forward, person by person, line by line?

Some of it is definitely my neurotic need to finish things.  Until recently I would finish any book I started even if I hated it.  Then finally I realized, “Hey, I hate this book.  I do not need to finish it.”  It was tough, but I started realizing no one was grading me if I put the book away.  And it is not just books.  When we moved into our new home five years ago, I stayed up past 3 am just to put away every last dish, fork, pot, and coffee mug in the kitchen.  Craziness.

But I do think that something else impels me to keep researching and writing about all these distant cousins.  First, it gives me the big picture about the lives of my ancestors.  I start to see trends and patterns.  For example, I would not have seen how important the liquor trade became in the family and the country if I had not followed all those Simon and Nusbaum relatives who started selling liquor in the 1870s.  I would not have understood how important the peddler trade was to early German Jewish immigrants if I did not study all the Nusbaum siblings. I would not have sensed the broad impact of the 1870s depression by studying just my direct ancestors.   And as I move into the 20th century, I would perhaps not have seen how suddenly education became a much bigger factor in the lives of these families as both sons and daughters started getting a college education.

So in order to appreciate the larger society in which our ancestors lived, it is important to research not just your direct line but those collateral to it.  But there is more there.  Because I could do all that research and not blog about these people.  I am no fool; I know that it doesn’t make for sexy reading to follow the life of someone who was born, grew up, sold hats, got married, had children, and died.  So why even bother posting on the blog about that ordinary person? Partly because we all live ordinary lives.  Most people are never in the paper for anything “interesting.” Most of us are not politicians or entertainers or criminals.  Most of us are born, grow up, go to work, have families, and die.  Don’t we matter? Won’t our grandchildren want to be able to tell their grandchildren something about their ancestors?  I hope so.

By Citynoise (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Citynoise (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And then there is this other thing.  It hasn’t happened a lot, but it’s happened to me enough that I know it can happen.  Someone googles their great-grandfather’s name, say Simon Nusbaum, for example.  They land on my blog, and they learn something about their great-grandfather that they never knew—for example, that he was Jewish or that he was the son of a once successful merchant in Philadelphia. And they leave a comment on the blog, and I now have a new cousin with whom I share a family history and some smidgeon of DNA.

Isn’t that worth it?  Right now I am searching for the living descendants of my three-times great-grandparents and their many siblings, and I have found a number of them.  They are mostly my fifth cousins with a few fourth cousins mixed in.  Some I have already emailed, others I will today.  I have not heard back from those I emailed, as is often the case.  Maybe they think I am a crazy person.  Maybe they have no interest today.  But maybe in a month or a year they will wonder about their ancestors and find my blog or find me.

And even if just one of them responds to me, it is worth it.  Maybe they will have a picture of John Nusbaum and Jeanette Dreyfuss or one of their children.  Even if they don’t, I will have helped them learn about their family’s history, and that will make all of this worthwhile.


To Reveal or Not: More Thoughts on the Ethics of Genealogy

My post yesterday prompted a lot of comments both here on the blog and also in two genealogy groups I follow on Facebook, Tracing the Tribe, which is a Jewish genealogy group, and the Ancestry.com group.  I am very grateful for all the thoughts and discussion, and I have a better idea of where to draw the line between revealing and not revealing information.   I will try to summarize the viewpoints articulated by those who participated in these discussions.

Generally speaking, there are two different views.  One view is that telling the truth is an important principle in reporting the results of genealogy research.  Genealogy is a form of history, and without all the details, we are distorting history.  If we delete information, we are not giving a full picture of a family’s history.  In fact, we are whitewashing the information and creating a picture that presents people as perfect when in reality people are always flawed, make mistakes, endure hardships, suffer from illnesses, marital problems, financial problems, and so on.  What is the point of history if it is not truthful?

On the other hand, many people argue that there is a need to respect the privacy and feelings of others and thus to keep certain information that may hurt someone or embarrass them from being disclosed, both publicly and to those it might hurt or embarrass.  Several people mentioned the traditional Jewish principles of not doing anything to shame or embarrass another and of  lashon hara—not to say anything about anyone, whether true or false, whether flattering or insulting.  My rabbi and dear friend Rabbi Herbert Schwartz also reminded me that even God did not reveal the truth all the time and that lying is sometimes better than truth-telling when the feelings of others are involved.


IAJGS (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One person pointed me to the website for the IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies)  and its statement of ethical principles for genealogists.  Among the guidelines they espouse is one that suggests that information that is more than 75 years old may be disclosed.  Quoting from the IAJGS website:

Regarding the “right to privacy” versus the “freedom of information” area of potential conflict:

  • Data more than 75 years old should be regarded as sufficiently historical to be available, without restriction.
  • More recent data should be evaluated in the light of sensitivities of the living versus the importance of disseminating information.
  • Generally, a request from an individual that certain information about themselves or close relatives be kept private should be respected.
  • It if is decided not to publish any particular piece of information, there should be a clear statement to that effect so that the reader is not misled by the omission.

Ethics statement approved by the IAJGS Board of Directors 2 November 2002

The website also includes the Ten Commandments in Genealogy written by Rabbi Malcolm Stern.  These include the following:

9. The sensitivities of living people must be respected and the memory of the deceased likewise, but for the latter it is permitted to record the objective facts about them.

All parties seem to agree that anything about a living person should not be disclosed.  I agree whole-heartedly with that point of view, and I only provide information about anyone living if they consent first.  I keep the details of my family tree on password-protected pages for that reason, i.e., that they include living descendants.

So where do I come out on this debate?  As I said, my views are more clear now than they were before, but they are not yet truly defined.  I agree with both views.  I honor the principle of truth.  As someone who loves history and who is educated in the law, I believe that knowing the truth is important to each of us personally and to our society as a whole.  But I also embrace the need to avoid harming another person if at all possible.  I would hate to think that something I write causes pain to another, but I also know that that pain is rooted in the truth I’ve revealed, not simply in the fact that I have revealed it.

For me that means that, as we lawyers like to say, it depends.  It depends on the circumstances.  Here are some of the circumstances I will and do consider before writing about something that might be upsetting to another person:

  1. Are these documented facts or just allegations? If the latter, I must indicate that they are only allegations or perhaps not even report them at all.  If it was information from a newspaper article, I will quote that source; if it is something that I was told by a relative, I would not report it unless I could find sufficient corroboration.
  2. How long ago did these events occur? I like the 75 year rule adopted by the IAJGS, meaning anything before 1940 would be considered generally publishable if documented.  For me, I might even use a 100 year rule, meaning anything before 1914 is publishable if documented.  However, even in those circumstances, I might still hesitate to reveal the information if there is some other reason not to do so.  For example, if a living descendant asks me not to do so (see #4 below) or if the facts are relatively insignificant.
  3. If I do reveal those older facts, I may also take steps to protect the identity of any living descendants of that person.  For example, if someone who lived 120 years ago committed a crime, is it necessary to reveal the names of his or her children or grandchildren in a blog post about that person? By making it less obvious who the descendants are, it will be harder for others to make that connection. If a descendant, say, a great-grandchild, looks hard enough, they might find out that their great-grandparent committed a crime, but if they look that hard, they also likely would have found it the same way I did—from publicly available records.
  4. For information that is more recent than 75 years, I would only reveal that information if I am sure that either there are no living direct descendants or if I am in touch with living descendants and am able to discuss the facts with them and get their permission to write about it on the blog.  I do not generally think it is my role to tell someone something that may upset them; I am not a psychologist and am not able to deal with the reactions I might cause.  But if I know that that person already knows the information, then I am more willing to let them know that I have learned about it from some public source and then to talk to them about it.  If I can’t find the living descendants, then I would not reveal information that is more recent than 1940.
  5. If a descendant asks me not to write about something on the blog, I will not do so.  Yes, that may distort history, but this is personal history, family history—not the kind that changes society or reveals the truth about how political decisions are made.  This is not a cover-up that will affect many people, if any, outside of one particular family.

Do these principles/guidelines make sense? I am still struggling with this, and I know that not everyone will agree.  The truth-seekers will not be happy with me for holding back some information; those who do not believe in revealing upsetting information will not be happy that I will reveal that information in certain circumstances.  I know that my thoughts and my practice will evolve over time, and I know that I will continue to struggle and to seek counsel from all of you.

Thank you to everyone who commented, both here and on Facebook, and for helping me think through this difficult issue.



Genealogy Ethics: What and Who Do You Tell the Things You Learn?


question (Photo credit: cristinacosta)

This past Sunday the New York Times ran an article about a reporter who learned that his great-great-grandfather, a New York City police officer, had killed a man under questionable circumstances, but had never gone to trial.  The reporter tracked down the descendant of the victim and told him the story.  That descendant had never known that his great-grandfather had been killed.  I found this story interesting, but it also raised a number of questions about the ethics of uncovering a family secret.  What lines should I draw when I learn something that might be upsetting to a descendant?

It doesn’t even have to be something involving criminal conduct.  It could be learning about financial troubles, medical issues, family issues—all of which can be discovered in public sources like newspapers, census reports, vital records, wills, court documents, and other records that anyone, whether related or not, can find.  Does the fact that these are publicly available facts make a difference in terms of disclosure and privacy?

Is there some point in time when revealing that information is clearly appropriate?  Is there some point in time when those events are not remote enough in time?  Does it matter whether the family involved never even asked you to do the research versus a situation where they asked but had no knowledge of the troubling information? Are there times you definitely should reveal information? Are there times that you definitely should not?  What about putting things on a publicly accessible source such as a blog? What are the proper lines in that context?

I am seriously interested in these questions and what others think about them.  Whether you are a genealogy person or not, I would really like to know what you think.  Please leave your thoughts here.  I really think this issue merits serious discussion.