Letters to Frank: A Close Family Revealed

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:

Frank Striker to me relationship chart


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.

Aunt Helen--maybe Lilienfeld Schoenthal

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

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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.

Affectionately yours,

Uncle Henry

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]

IMG_1990 IMG_1992 IMG_1993

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.

A Legitimate Part of the Family


In my last post about the Schoenthals, I mentioned that Hannah Schoenthal, my great-grandfather Isidore’s oldest sibling, had had a child out of wedlock in 1865, a daughter she named Sara (later spelled Sarah).

Sara Schoenthal birth record HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 772, S. 12

Sara Schoenthal birth record
HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 772, S. 12

I wondered how such a child would be treated under Jewish law and by society at that time.  According to Jewish law, a child born to an unmarried couple is not treated any differently for religious or marital purposes than one born to a married couple, unless  the mother was married to someone else or there was an incestuous relationship between the parents.   Even if the father was not Jewish, the child would still be considered a legitimate member of the Jewish community.  Although some sources indicated that there was disapproval by the Jewish community of unwed mothers, other sources said that there was no stigma attached to a child born to a single woman.  Sarah’s story indicates that she was fully accepted as part of her mother’s extended family and that there was no stigma.

In 1874, nine years after Sarah was born,  her mother Hannah married a man named Solomon Stern with whom she had three children, Jennie, Edith, and Louis, all born between 1875 and 1879.

Marriage record for Hannah Schoenthal and Solomon Stern HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 839, S. 22

Marriage record for Hannah Schoenthal and Solomon Stern
HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 839, S. 22

Solomon died in February, 1888, and Hannah emigrated from Germany that year, settling in Pittsburgh where several other Schoenthal relatives were living.  Although I could not find with any certainty a ship manifest for Hannah, at the time of the 1900 census she was living with two of her children, Edith and Louis, in Pittsburgh.  Also living with them was Hannah’s 44 year old stepson, Morris Stern. All four said they had arrived in 1888.

Hannah Stern and children 1900 US census Year: 1900; Census Place: Allegheny Ward 6, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1356; Page: 9A; Enumeration District: 0058; FHL microfilm: 1241356

Hannah Stern and children 1900 US census
Year: 1900; Census Place: Allegheny Ward 6, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1356; Page: 9A; Enumeration District: 0058; FHL microfilm: 1241356

As for Jennie, I did find a possible ship manifest dated December 10, 1888, for a sixteen year old named Jenny Stern from Germany; the index on Ancestry said her destination was Pittsburgh, but to be honest, I think that the manifest says that she was destined for New York.  Hannah’s daughter would have been only thirteen, not sixteen like the Jenny Stern on the manifest.  So I am not convinced this was my Jennie Stern. See the last entry below and the column on the far right indicating the destination.

Ship manifest for the Italy with Jenny Stern Year: 1888; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 528; Line: 1; List Number: 1643

Ship manifest for the Italy with Jenny Stern
Year: 1888; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 528; Line: 1; List Number: 1643

Thus, when I didn’t see Jennie on the 1900 census with Hannah, Edith, and Louis, I wasn’t sure that she had immigrated with her family, but then I found Jennie’s death certificate:

Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90

Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
Original data: Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90

This was obviously the right Jennie, given her parents’ names, and now I knew that her husband’s name had been Max Arnold and that she also had been living in Pittsburgh.  I then found Jennie and Max and their family on the 1900 census:

Jennie and Max Arnold 1900 census Year: 1900; Census Place: Allegheny Ward 2, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1354; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0009; FHL microfilm: 1241354

Jennie and Max Arnold 1900 census
Year: 1900; Census Place: Allegheny Ward 2, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1354; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0009; FHL microfilm: 1241354

But what about Hannah’s first child, Sarah? Had she left her illegitimate daughter behind? Had she put her up for adoption after she was born? Or had Sarah died? I had no idea, and I could not find Sarah in any records.

Until I saw that social announcement in the paper about Henry Floersheim’s party for the Schoenthal and Katzenstein families:

The Daily Republican (Monongahela, Pennsylvania) 11 Aug 1887, Thu • Page 4

The Daily Republican
(Monongahela, Pennsylvania)
11 Aug 1887, Thu • Page 4

Who was Sarah Stern, and what was she doing at this party? The dim lightbulb in my head slowly lit up:  Sarah Stern had to be Hannah’s first child, the one she had before marrying Solomon Stern, who must have given her his name when he married Hannah.

But was I right?

The document that helped to answer that question was, surprisingly enough, an entry in the California Death index on Ancestry.com for a Sarah Oestreicher, who died on February 5, 1940, in Los Angeles.  How did I know that this was Hannah’s Schoenthal’s daughter Sarah?  Because the index said her father’s surname was Stern, her mother’s Schoenthal, and that she had been born January 8, 1867, in a foreign country.  Although the birth record I had for Hannah’s daughter Sara recorded her birth date as January 8, 1865, the other facts certainly made it clear to me that Sarah Oestreicher was in fact the daughter of Hannah Schoenthal and that she had just made herself two years younger than she actually was.

Now that I had Sarah’s married name, it was not hard to find other records for her.  I found a Sarah Oestreicher living in Pittsburgh on the 1900 census with her husband Gustav Oestreicher and their three children, Sidney (9), Francis (6), and Helen (4).   Sarah reported her birthdate as January 1865, her birthplace as Germany, and her arrival date as 1884.

Oestreicher family 1900 census Year: 1900; Census Place: Pittsburgh Ward 21, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1362; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 0254; FHL microfilm: 1241362

Oestreicher family 1900 census
Year: 1900; Census Place: Pittsburgh Ward 21, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1362; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 0254; FHL microfilm: 1241362

The 1910 and 1930 census reports also gave an 1884 arrival date for Sarah.  (The 1920 census said she arrived in 1895, but that is obviously not correct, especially since it says she was naturalized in 1894.)  Thus, Sarah had arrived before her stepfather Solomon Stern had died and before her mother Hannah and her half-siblings immigrated in 1888.  It thus makes sense that she, a young woman living without her immediate family, would have been invited along with her two uncles, Henry and Isidore Schoenthal, to the party given by Henry Floersheim in 1887.  Perhaps she was even living with her uncle Henry at that time in Washington, Pennsylvania, or maybe she was living in Pittsburgh with another relative.

According to the 1900 census record, she and Gustav had been married for ten years, meaning they had married in 1890 or 1889.  According to his passport application filed in 1911, Gustav was born in Austria on September 17, 1867, and had arrived in the United States in September, 1884.  He had lived in New York and Cincinnati before settling in Pittsburgh.  In 1900, he was working as an artist, doing painting and photography, according to the census record for that year.

Gustav Oestreicher passport application National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925; Roll #: 141; Volume #: Roll 0141 - Certificates: 55972-56871, 23 Jun 1911-05 Jul 1911

Gustav Oestreicher passport application
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Roll #: 141; Volume #: Roll 0141 – Certificates: 55972-56871, 23 Jun 1911-05 Jul 1911

Sarah and Gustav appear to have been connected to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.  In 1907, both Sidney and Helen participated in the Purim festivities held by the sisterhood of the Rodeph Shalom synagogue.

Purim part 1

Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) 24 Feb 1907, Sun • Page 7

Pittsburgh Daily Post
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
24 Feb 1907, Sun • Page 7

In 1910 Sarah and Gustav and their three children were still living in Pittsburgh, where Gustav was now working as a merchant, apparently having abandoned artistic pursuits. Their two sons, Sidney and Francis, now 18 and 16, respectively, were working as clerks, perhaps in their father’s store.

The oldest Oestreicher child, Sidney, married Esther Siff in 1915. Esther was the daughter of Isaac and Rosa Siff, who were immigrants either from Germany and Austria or from Russia, depending on the census record. Isaac had been a coppersmith, but was working as a traveling salesman in 1920.  Esther was born and raised in Chicago. When Sidney registered for the draft in 1918, they were living in Chicago, and he was working as a traveling salesman for a New York based company.

Sidney Oestreicher WW I draft registration Registration State: Illinois; Registration County: Cook; Roll: 1439758; Draft Board: 13

Sidney Oestreicher WW I draft registration
Registration State: Illinois; Registration County: Cook; Roll: 1439758; Draft Board: 13

Perhaps Sidney had met Esther’s father during their traveling as salesmen?  In 1920 Sidney and Esther were living in Chicago where Sidney was still working as a traveling salesman, selling women’s undergarments.  They had two children by then, Gerald (1916) and Florence Betty (1919).

In 1920, Sarah and Gustav were still living in Pittsburgh with their other two children, Francis and Helen, and Gustav was still a retail merchant. Francis was now a salesman; he had served in the US Army during World War I and had participated in the Meuse Argonne offensive in that war, fighting against the country where his mother had been born.  As described here, it was the major offensive of US troops during World War I:

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the greatest American battle of the First World War. In six weeks the AEF lost 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded. It was a very complex operation involving a majority of the AEF ground forces fighting through rough, hilly terrain the German Army had spent four years fortifying. Its objective was the capture of the railroad hub at Sedan which would break the rail net supporting the German Army in France and Flanders and force the enemy’s withdrawal from the occupied territories.

English: Ruined church at Montfaucon-d'Argonne...

English: Ruined church at Montfaucon-d’Argonne just behind the American Monument. The blocky structure on the left is a German WWI observation post. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to know what impact this had on Francis, though it’s hard to believe it did not have some major effect on him.

On March 3, 1920, Helen Oestreicher married Robert Steel Kann, the son of Myer Kann and Bertha Friendlander of Pittsburgh.  Myer was a Pittsburgh native, the son of a German immigrant father and a Pennsylvania born mother; he had been a steel manufacturer (hence, his son’s middle name) and had died from gall bladder cancer just three months before the wedding.  Robert was also working in the steel industry in 1920.  Tragically, Robert’s life was cut short less than two years after he married Helen.  He died from acute lobar pneumonia when he just 26 years old.

Robert Steel Kann death certificate Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Original data: Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90

Robert Steel Kann death certificate
Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
Original data: Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90

Helen remarried sometime between 1925 and 1929.  Her second husband was named Aaron Mitchel Siegel. He was born in Barre, Vermont, in 1895, the son of Russian (or Polish, depending on the census) immigrants, Harry and Gertrude Siegel.  Harry was a clothing dealer in Vermont in 1900, and the family was still living there in 1910.  Sometime thereafter, the family to Brooklyn, where Aaron was living when he registered for the draft for World War I.  In 1920 Aaron was selling cotton goods and living with his parents, as he was in 1925 as well.  But sometime after that he must have met and married Helen Oestreicher Kann because their daughter Betty was born in about 1929 in New York.  I wish I knew the story of how Helen, a young widow from Pittsburgh, met Aaron, a Vermont-born young man living in Brooklyn.

By 1930 Gustav Oestreicher had retired, and he and Sarah had moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Their son Sidney and his family had returned to Pittsburgh by 1930, for Sidney to take over the store once operated by his father.  Sidney and Esther’s two children, Gerald and Florence Betty (known as Betty) would both graduate from high school in Pittsburgh during the 1930s.  In 1931, Sidney and Esther had another child, Elaine.

The 1930s and the Great Depression were not kind to the Oestreicher’s longstanding Pittsburgh retail store.  In the spring of 1933, Sidney Oestreicher filed for bankruptcy on behalf of himself, his brother, and their store, The People’s Store.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette March 28, 1933 p. 18

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
March 28, 1933 p. 18

During the 1930s, most of the family relocated to Los Angeles.  Gustav and Sarah were living there by 1935, according to the 1940 census.   Helen and Aaron Siegel also relocated there by 1935, and Aaron was working as salesman for a textile company. Francis Oestreicher also moved to LA by 1942, according to his draft registration for World War II.  It appears that Francis was not married, as he listed his sister Helen as his contact person and also indicated that he was living with Helen at that time.

World War II Draft Cards (4th Registration) for the State of California; State Headquarters: California; Microfilm Roll: 603155

World War II Draft Cards (4th Registration) for the State of California; State Headquarters: California; Microfilm Roll: 603155

By this time Francis had changed his surname from Oestreicher to Striker; I am not sure whether that was a change done to make it easier to say and spell or to avoid sounding German or Austrian during World War II or to make it seem less Jewish, but it was a change made by his brother Sidney as well.

In  1940, Sidney was still using Oestreicher, and he and his family were still living in Pittsburgh; Sidney was selling ladies’ lingerie.  But by 1942, Sidney’s draft registration showed some recent changes.  Oestreicher was crossed out and replaced with Striker, the same name being used by his brother Francis.  And the Pittsburgh address was crossed out and replaced with an address in the Bronx, though his mailing address and the address for his wife Esther remained the address in Pittsburgh.  Perhaps Sidney was working out of New York when he registered for the draft.

The National Archives at St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri; World War II draft cards (Fourth Registration) for the State of Pennsylvania; State Headquarters: Pennsylvania; Microfilm Series: M1951; Microfilm Roll: 308

The National Archives at St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri; World War II draft cards (Fourth Registration) for the State of Pennsylvania; State Headquarters: Pennsylvania; Microfilm Series: M1951; Microfilm Roll: 308

Sarah Stern Ostreicher died on February 5, 1940.  She was seventy-five years old.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 7, 1940 p. 24

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 7, 1940 p. 24

Her husband Gustav died ten years later on December 22, 1950.  He was 83.  They are both buried in Los Angeles at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

All three of their children lived very long lives.  Sidney died in 1985; he was 94.  Francis died at 97 in 1990.  Their sister Helen died in 1989; she was 94.  As far as I can tell, Sarah and Gustav’s three granddaughters are all still living, and their grandson Gerald lived to 97.  Those are some fairly amazing genes for longevity.

Sarah may have started life off with the potential disadvantage of being born out of wedlock, but it certainly appears that her mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents fully embraced her as did her stepfather Solomon Stern, whose name she took.  She traveled alone to the US as young woman, settled in Pittsburgh near her extended family, and married a fellow immigrant with whom she raised three children, each of whom lived over 90 years.  She appears to have had a good life surrounded by lots of loving family.

Sarah and Gustav lived many years in Pittsburgh, where Sarah’s mother Hannah and many of her other family members were living, but she and Gustav ended their lives together in Los Angeles.   There is almost something Hollywood-like about their story, so Los Angeles seems quite an appropriate final destination for my cousin Sarah and her husband Gustav.

English: The Hollywood Sign, shot from an airc...

English: The Hollywood Sign, shot from an aircraft at about 1,500′ MSL. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gifts from My Cousin Steve

How very lucky I have been in finding my Seligman cousins.  Starting with my cousin Pete from Santa Fe, then my cousin Wolfgang in Germany, then my cousin Suzanne from Scranton, and now two more cousins: Lotte, a descendant of Hieronymous Seligmann, brother of my great-great-grandfather Bernard, and Steve, a descendant of Marx Seligman, brother of my three-times-great-grandfather Moritz.  I will talk about Lotte in subsequent posts, but for now I will continue the story of Marx Seligman and his descendants.

Steve is a grandson of Sigmund Seligman, the oldest child of Marx and Sarah Seligman, and as I mentioned last time, he has generously shared with me many photographs of his family as well as personal anecdotes about them.  All the photographs in this post are courtesy of Steve.  I am filled with gratitude to him for bringing to life his father Leo, his aunt Mary, and his uncles Max and Albert.

In my earlier post about Marx and his descendants, I wrote that “Sigmund and Charlotte had five children between 1883 and 1896: Mary (1883), Max (1884), Leo (1891), Theresa (1894), and Albert (1896).  Sigmund was employed in the insurance industry.  In 1900, they were living at 304 East 117th Street.”  As posted last time, here is a family photograph of Sigmund and Charlotte and their children from about that time, estimated to be taken in 1901.

Sigmund Seligman and family about 1901. Standing rear: Mary, Max.  Sitting middle row: Sigmund, Albert, Leo, and Charlotte.  In front: Theresa Photo courtesy of Steve Seligman

Sigmund Seligman and family about 1901. Standing rear: Mary, Max. Sitting middle row: Sigmund, Albert, Leo, and Charlotte. In front: Theresa
Photo courtesy of Steve Seligman

Tragedy struck this happy family on September 27, 1902, when eight year old Theresa, the little girl seated in front, died from tubercular meningitis.

Theresa Seligman death certificate

Theresa Seligman death certificate


In 1905, the remaining children were all still living with their parents at 89 East 121st Street; Sigmund was a supervisor in an insurance company, Max was working as a bookkeeper, and the other boys were in school.  Mary was home.

As noted last time, Mary married Joseph Brandenburg (later Brandt) in 1907.  By 1910, her parents and brothers had moved to 275 East 123rd Street.  Sigmund was still working as a supervisor in the insurance company, now identified as Metropolitan Life.  Both Max and Leo were working as clerks for American Pencil Company, and Albert was only fourteen and presumably in school.

In 1915, the family had relocated again to 60 West 129th Street; Sigmund was still in the insurance business.  The census does not report what businesses they were working in, but Max was working as an assistant manager, Leo as a salesman, and Albert as a stock clerk.

Sigmund Seligman and family 1915 NY census New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Population Census Schedules, 1915; Election District: 09; Assembly District: 21; City: New York; County: New York; Page: 35

Sigmund Seligman and family 1915 NY census New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Population Census Schedules, 1915; Election District: 09; Assembly District: 21; City: New York; County: New York; Page: 35

Sigmund and Charlotte’s first grandchild, Jerrold Thurston Brandt, son of Joseph and Mary (Seligman) Brandt, was born on June 15, 1913.

On October 12, 1915, Max married Pauline Hirsch. Pauline’s father Samuel was a German immigrant working as a watchman; her mother had died in 1901. Pauline had been working as a bookkeeper for a clothing company in 1910.  Pauline and Max had a daughter Theresa born August 15, 1916, presumably named for Max’s little sister Theresa, who had died in 1902.

Both Leo and Albert served in World War I.  Leo served stateside near Jacksonville, Florida; Albert was sent overseas where he was gassed on the battlefields of France.  According to his nephew Steve, Albert never fully regained his health, suffering from heart problems and pneumonia all his life.

Leo Seligman World War I courtesy of Steve Seligman

Leo Seligman World War I courtesy of Steve Seligman

Albert Seligman ww1

Albert Seligman World War I photo courtesy of Steve Seligman

By 1920 Sigmund had retired.  He and Charlotte were still living with two of their sons, Leo and Albert, as well as a boarder. Home from the war, Leo was a salesman for a cloak company, and Albert was a merchant in ladies’ clothing.

On April 18, 1920, Leo married Jeanette Freundlich, the daughter of Morris and Martha Freundlich.  Morris was an immigrant from the Austria-Hungary Empire, and according to his passport application, he was born in Krakow.  Morris was a furrier and had his own business.  According to the 1920 census, Jeanette and her brothers Julian and Edwin were all helping their father in his business.  Jeanette and Leo had three children in the 1920s, Joan, my newly-found cousin Steven, and Edward.

Leo Seligman and his family

Leo Seligman and his family

Joan Seligman

Joan Seligman

Edward, Joan and Steven Seligman

Edward, Joan and Steven Seligman


Edward and Steven Seligman about 1938

Joan Seligman, age 13

Joan Seligman, age 13

In 1920 Max was working as the assistant manager in the pencil company, and he and his family were living at 424 East 51st Street.

Albert Seligman married Bella Heftler on November 20, 1921. Bella was the youngest of ten children of Max and Sarah Heftler, who were Hungarian immigrants.  Max Heflter was supporting that large family as a tailor, with his two oldest daughters working in a shirt factory in 1900. By 1920, Max had died, and Bella was working as a bookkeeper, still living with her mother and five of her siblings.  In 1923, Bella and Albert Seligman had a son Maxwell, named presumably for Bella’s father.

Albert Seligman courtesy of Steve Seligman

Albert Seligman courtesy of Steve Seligman

Bella Heftler Seligman

Bella Heftler Seligman courtesy of Steve Seligman

Maxwell Seligman courtesy of Steve Seligman

Maxwell Seligman courtesy of Steve Seligman

Sigmund Seligman died on June 15, 1924.  He was 74 years old.  His wife Charlotte survived him by ten years, dying on July 18, 1934.  She was 75 years old.

Sigmund Seligman and Charlotte Koppel Seligman

Sigmund Seligman and Charlotte Koppel Seligman

As for their children, in 1930 Max was working as the manager of a movie theater and living with his family on West 97th Street.  Leo was living with his family on Cathedral Parkway (110th Street) and working in coat manufacturing.  Albert and his family were living on Jesup Avenue in the Bronx, and Albert was a salesman in the film industry.  Mary and Joe Brandt were living with their son Jerrold at 23 West 73rd Street, and Joe was one of the owners of what was now called Columbia Pictures.

By 1940, all three brothers were somehow connected to the film industry.  Joe Brandt had left Columbia Pictures in 1932 and had died in 1939, but he somehow must have connected his three brothers-in-law to the movie industry.  According to the 1940 census, Max Seligman was working as a purchasing agent for Columbia Pictures.  His draft registration for World War II says that Columbia Pictures was his employer.  Leo reported that he had his own office as a film distributor on the 1940 census, and on his World War II draft registration he said his employer was Max Seligman.  According to Steve, his father distributed foreign films as well as children’s cartoons for a local movie theater.  As for Albert, the 1940 census reports his occupation as a movie theater manager, but on his World War II draft registration he listed his employer as Columbia Pictures.  Steve said that Albert was in the publicity department.  Thus, by 1942 all three brothers appear to have been working in the film business.

Max (front left), Leo (rear on right), and Mary (front right) and two friends playing cards  Courtesy of Steve Seligman

Max (front left), Leo (rear on right), and Mary (front right) and two friends playing cards
Courtesy of Steve Seligman

Mary had also moved back from Hollywood to New York at some point after Joe died, and her nephew Steve remembers that she would often take him and his siblings to the movies.  Steve wrote, “Aunt Mary would march up to the box office and demand to see the manager.  When he came out she would come up with the same pitch.  ‘My husband was President and co-founder of Columbia Pictures and this child and I would like to see this picture.’ I never remember being turned away.”

Mary Seligman Brandt Photo courtesy of Steve Seligman

Mary Seligman Brandt
Photo courtesy of Steve Seligman

About his Uncle Max, Steve wrote, “Uncle Max had a habit of saying almost everything twice.  When I would go and visit him and my Aunt Pauline, Uncle Max would invariably open the door and say, ‘Hello my boy, hello my boy, how are you, how are you.’  Even during conversations it would happen.  I don’t know whether he thought we were hard of hearing or if he just wanted to emphasize what he said.    Not everything was repeated, of course, but enough times for my brother Eddie and my cousin Maxwell to refer to him as Uncle Max, Uncle Max.”

Steve also wrote this loving tribute to his father, Leo Seligman, the middle brother:

One thing you could say about my father was that he was a lousy ballplayer.  He couldn’t throw, he couldn’t catch, he didn’t even follow the baseball teams. When my brother Eddie and I would be in our room listening to a replay of the day’s games, my father would be in the living room reading the paper and surely not the sports page. But in other ways he managed to spend quality time with us. In the summer almost every Sunday we would go up to the roof of our apartment building with bridge chairs and hang out for a couple of hours. He would have contests between Eddie and me testing our spelling, math and memory skills. Eddie would always win the math contest but I managed to hold my own in the other games. I think whoever won would get a nickel, nothing to get crazy over but enough to tide us over in the candy store.  In my early teens on Sundays in the spring he and I would rent bikes and go bike riding in Central Park. It’s amazing but I still remember the store. The owners name was Aug, it was on 81st St. and he charged a quarter an hour. That was fun. What my father lacked in ball playing he made up on a bike. One other thing; he never spanked us. When I misbehaved he would “flick” my ear, hard.  It’s hard to describe what “flicking” an ear is but if you put your forefinger against your thumb and release it strongly, that’s flicking. It really didn’t hurt much but it didn’t matter, we knew we were being punished.

Leo Seligman

Leo Seligman

Leo and Jeanette (Freundlich) Seligman

Leo and Jeanette (Freundlich) Seligman

All three brothers died within five years of each other.  Albert, the youngest, died first on October 6, 1948.  He was only 52 years old and had been plagued with poor health since his service during World War I.  Leo died on January 1, 1952; he was just sixty years old.  Max, the oldest of the three, died the following year on March 9, 1953; he was 68.


Max Seligman NYT Obit

Mary Seligman Brandt, the oldest of the children of Sigmund and Charlotte Koppel Seligman, lived the longest.  She died in February, 1977, at the age of 94.

Thank you once again to my cousin Steve Seligman for sharing his photographs and his stories with me.  I am so pleased that we have found each other.  These new contacts and the pleasure they bring me continue to be the most meaningful benefits I get from doing genealogy and writing this blog.  Here are some additional photographs of Steve’s family:

Steve's brother Eddie Seligman

Steve’s brother Eddie Seligman

Steve's wife Arline

Steve’s wife Arline

Joan Seligman's husband Bennett Pollard

Joan Seligman’s husband Bennett Pollard

Steve and Arline Seligman

Steve and Arline Seligman

Nancy (nee Seligman) and Barry Buzzuro

Nancy (nee Seligman) and Barry Buzzuro

Steve and Arline Seligman and daughter Nancy

Steve and Arline Seligman and daughter Nancy

Jane Brenwasser Jacobs, great-granddaughter of Sigmund Seligman

Jane Brenwasser Jacobs, great-granddaughter of Sigmund Seligman



Death Certificates: Answering Some Unanswered Questions

Over the last few weeks I have received a number of death certificates, most for people about whom I have written, so I will also post them as updates to the relevant posts.  But I also wanted to post about them separately for those who might never go back to those original posts.

Three of these were for relatively young men whose deaths puzzled me.  Why had they died so young?  E.g., Simon L.B. Cohen.  He was only 36 when he died on October 24, 1934, after serving valiantly in World War I.  He was my first cousin, twice removed, the first cousin of my grandfather John Nusbaum Cohen.  Simon had faced the horrors of war, been awarded a Distinguished Service Cross by General Pershing for his service, and had been reported killed in action when he was in fact still alive.  He came home and married, but then died only five years after he married.  I had wondered what might have caused such a young man to die after surviving everything he did during the war.

His death certificate reported that his cause of death was glomerulonephritis, chronic myocarditis, and arterial hypertension.  Glomerulonephritis is a form of kidney disease, sometimes triggered by an infection like strep or some other underlying disease.  Overall, it would appear that Simon was just not a healthy 36 year old.  But that’s not the whole story.  The death certificate also described Simon as an “unemployed disabled veteran.”  Although I do not know in what way he was disabled, obviously Simon paid a huge price for what he endured while serving in the military.

Death certificates_0004_NEW

The second young man whose death puzzled me was Louis Loux.  Louis was the husband of Nellie Simon, daughter of Eliza Wiler and Leman Simon.  Louis was thirteen years younger than Nellie.  They had a daughter Florrie, born in 1910, who died from burns caused by matches.  She was only eight years old when she died in September, 1918.  Then her father Louis died just three months later on December 15, 1918.  He was only 36 years old.  I had wondered whether there was some connection between these two terrible deaths.  I knew from the 1920 census that Nellie and Louis had divorced, but I did not and still do not know whether that was before or after their daughter died.  From the death certificate for Louis, I learned that he died from broncho pneumonia. So it would seem that it was perhaps just a terrible sequence of events and that Louis’ death was not in any directly related to the death of his daughter.

Death certificates_0003_NEW

The next death I had wondered about was that of Mervin Simon, the great-grandson of Mathilde Nusbaum and Isaac Dinkelspiel.  He was only 42 years old when he died on August 27, 1942.  He was the son of Leon Simon, who was the son of Moses Simon and Paulina Dinkelspiel.  Mervin died almost a year to do the day after his father Leon.  According to his death certificate, he also died from broncho pneumonia.  Like Simon Cohen, he had no occupation listed on his death certificate.  Even on the 1940 census, neither Mervin nor his brother William had an occupation listed.

Mervyn Simon death certificate

The last death certificate I received in the last few weeks was for Dorothy Gattman Rosenstein.  Dorothy was the daughter of Cora Frank from her first marriage to Jacques Gattman.  Cora was the daughter of Francis Nusbaum and Henry Frank and the granddaughter of Leopold Nusbaum.  Cora’s husband Jacques had died when Dorothy was just a young child, and Cora had remarried and moved to Dayton, Ohio, with her new husband Joseph Lehman and her daughter Dorothy.  I had had a very hard time tracking down what happened to both Cora and Dorothy, and only with the help from a number of kind people had I learned that Dorothy had married Albert Rosenstein from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  But I wanted the death certificate to corroborate all the other less official evidence I had that this was in fact the same Dorothy Gattman, daughter of Jacques Gattman and Cora Frank.  Her death certificate confirmed that.

Death certificates_0001

Thus, all of these certificates helped put closure on some lingering questions that had bothered me.

Morton Tinslar Seligman:  Naval Hero, Part I

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

The story of Morton Tinslar Seligman is a fascinating one.  Morton, the son of James Leon and Ruth Seligman and my first cousin twice removed, was a decorated Navy hero in World War I and in World War II, but his name is also clouded by accusations that he leaked important classified information to a member of the press after the Battle of the Coral Sea during World War II.

Morton was born on July 1, 1895, in Salt Lake City, but grew up in Santa Fe, attended the University of New Mexico and then the US Naval Academy, from which he graduated in June, 1918, as described earlier.  After he graduated from Annapolis, he was commissioned as an ensign and was assigned to the U.S.S. Manchuria transport service.  By July, 1918, he was overseas engaged in submarine patrol off the coast of England and France.  After the war ended, he was promoted to lieutenant j.g., and from December, 1918, until October, 1919, he was engaged in an operation to clear the North Sea of mines.  He returned to New York in November, 1919, having overseen twenty subchasers in his command. Of those twenty, one was lost at sea due to explosions and fire, one was damaged so severely that it was not safe to sail it back to the US, and one was damaged but did eventually return.  No crew members were lost as a result of these damages, and his mission was completed successfully.

Morton Seligman WW 1 service history page 1

Morton Seligman WW1 service history

New Mexico Commission of Public Records, State Records Center and Archives; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Series Title: Service Reports; Series Number: 18.1.6; Box Number: 10899; Collection Name: New Mexico Adjutant General Records; Collection Number: 1973-019

For his service, Morton was awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service.  (“Servicemen Cheer Hero at Canteen,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 1943, p. 18)  His commendation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. C-272, engaged in the important and hazardous duty of sweeping for and removing the mines of the North Sea Barrage during World War I.


I am not sure where Morton was stationed once he returned to the US, but as of August 19, 1925, he was stationed in Honolulu as part of the aviation corps, according to a wedding announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle.  On that date, Morton married Eleanor Reynolds, the daughter of Ziba Wells Reynolds, who had been a pay director in the Navy; her brother Lieutenant Stewart Reynolds was also serving in the Navy.  The article, reprinted below with a photograph of the bride, reported that Morton was assigned to Honolulu for the next three years.  (Another article stated that his Honolulu assignment was for two years, and that appears to have been more accurate.  “Sail from San Pedro,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 2, 1925, p. 14)

Morton Seligman marriage article 8 19 25

San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 1925, page 14

On August 29, 1925, Morton and Eleanor sailed out of Los Angeles to Hawaii on the SS Calawaii, arriving in Honolulu on September 5, 1925. (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii, compiled 02/13/1900 – 12/30/1953; National Archives Microfilm Publication: A3422; Roll: 083; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004; Record Group Number: RG 85)

Two years later they returned to California on the SS City of Honolulu, departing June 18, 1927, for Wilmington, California, where Morton was assigned to V.F. Squadron 6, a fighter squadron, part of the US Navy Battle Fleet. (Ancestry.com. U.S., Military Registers, 1862-1985[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.)

Although he is listed as residing in San Diego in the 1929 San Diego city directory, he must have been reassigned during that year to Washington, DC, with the Bureau of Aeronautics. (“Mrs. Seligman Leaves for Washington, D.C.,” San Diego Union, September 23, 1929.)

It seems that the marriage did not survive long thereafter because by April 3, 1930, the date of the 1930 census, Morton was divorced, and he was living with a fellow Navy aviator in Washington, DC.  He was still with the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1931, according to the Washington city directory of that year, although he was temporarily attached to the US Marine Corps as part of a special assignment to transport aircraft to Port au Prince, Haiti, in October, 1931. ( Ancestry.com. U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.)  He returned from Haiti on November 2, 1931, giving the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington as his address. (Year: 1931; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 5067; Line: 7; Page Number: 64.)

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

By 1933, Morton was living in San Diego and was remarried to a woman named Adela.  I cannot find a marriage record or any other document that reveals Adela’s birth name, but she is listed with him as his wife on the 1933 San Diego city directory. He was now a Lieutenant Commander with the VF-1-B squadron, according to the U.S. Military Register for the year.  He and Adela were still living in San Diego as of 1939, according to that year’s directory, and Morton was still serving in the US Navy. According to the US Military Register for 1939, Morton was now a commander at the Naval Air Station in San Diego.  The 1940 census also has Morton and Adela living in San Diego, Morton’s occupation still as a naval aviator. By this time, Morton was 44, Adela was 41.   Morton had been serving in the Navy for over 20 years.  (Ancestry.com. U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.)

In October, 1941, Morton risked his life in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue two naval aviators who died when their plane crashed into the bay off the coast of San Diego.  According to the San Diego Union:

“Comdr. Morton T. Seligman, Naval Air station executive officer, made a dramatic attempt to rescue the fliers a few minutes after the crash.  Speeding to the scene of the accident in a crash boat, Cmdr. Seligman discovered that no one aboard was a diver.  Despite the fact that he had never donned a diving helmet in his entire navy career, the officer put on the helmet and diving suit, instructed the crew of the crash boat how to operate the air pumps and then dived overboard. 

“In 25 feet of water, Cmdr. Seligman discovered the bodies of the airmen in the smashed plane.  In trying to extricate them, Cmdr. Seligman suffered severe cuts on his left hand from jagged pieces of metal and wood.”  (“Two Fliers Die As Navy Plane Falls Into Bay,” San Diego Union, October 5, 1941, p. 1)

Two months later, the US would enter World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a place where Morton had once served.  Not long after, Morton was an officer on the USS Lexington, which was destroyed during the Battle of the Coral Sea, which took place from May 4 through May 8, 1942.  The battle was described as follows on the official US Navy website Naval History and Heritage Command:  http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/coralsea/coralsea.htm

“The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and eastward from New Guinea, was the first of the Pacific War's six fights between opposing aircraft carrier forces. Though the Japanese could rightly claim a tactical victory on "points", it was an operational and strategic defeat for them, the first major check on the great offensive they had begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The diversion of Japanese resources represented by the Coral Sea battle would also have immense consequences a month later, at the Battle of Midway.  ….. 

“Preliminary operations on 3-6 May and two days of active carrier combat on 7-8 May cost the United States one aircraft carrier, a destroyer and one of its very valuable fleet oilers, plus damage to the second carrier. However, the Japanese were forced to cancel their Port Moresby seaborne invasion. In the fighting, they lost a light carrier, a destroyer and some smaller ships. Shokaku received serious bomb damage and Zuikaku’s air group was badly depleted. Most importantly, those two carriers were eliminated from the upcoming Midway operation, contributing by their absence to that terrible Japanese defeat.”

English: Battle of the Coral Sea

English: Battle of the Coral Sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The website also notes that “The U.S. Navy [was] tipped off to the enemy plans by superior communications intelligence” that helped them in their fight against the Japanese in this battle.

As for Morton’s role, a US Navy Cruise Book described the battle and the USS Lexington’s role in that battle in great detail.  According to this source, on the morning of May 7, 1942, the aircraft carrier was hit by five torpedoes and numerous bombs.  Although seriously damaged, the ship did not sink, and by 1 pm it was on even keel and only had one fire burning.  Then another major explosion occurred, caused by gasoline vapors igniting below the deck.  Several fires started, and by 5 pm the commanding office of the ship, Admiral Fitch, ordered the crew to abandon ship.  After the admiral and the crew had left, “Captain Sherman and his Executive Office, Commander Morton T. Seligman made a final inspection of their vessel amid flying debris, smoke and flames.  They then slid down a line, with the commanding officer being the last to leave—just as the torpedo head locker exploded, shaking both from the line and into the sea.  All but 26 officers and 190 men were rescued (including seven brothers aboard named Patten), and it is thought that none of these casualties occurred by drowning after abandoning ship.”

(Ancestry.com. U.S. Navy Cruise Books, 1918-2009 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2011. Original data: United States Navy. Various U.S. Navy Cruise Books. Navy Department Library, Washington, D.C.)

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sin...

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. Note planes parked aft, where fires have not yet reached. Removed caption read: Photo # NH 51382 USS Lexington burning during the Battle of Coral Sea, May 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For his service and heroism aboard the Lexington, Seligman was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross.  His citation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross to Commander Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of this profession as Executive Officer of the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. LEXINGTON (CV-2), in action on 7 and 8 May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. During and after that battle Commander Morton directed the damage control and fire fighting parties, inspecting and visiting all critical parts of the ship. He personally assisted in removing all the wounded in many places. His distinguished leadership and timely decisions contributed greatly to the success of our forces and was largely responsible for the small loss of life that occurred when the ship was abandoned. Commander Seligman’s conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Navy of the United States.


Navy Cross

Navy Cross

A month later, Morton Seligman would be caught up in a controversy involving another major Pacific battle, the Battle of Midway.  More on that in Part II.

My Cousin, the Musical Star

ad dec 1 1917 for selma selingerWhen I spoke with my cousin Ellen Kleinfeld last week, she asked me whether I knew that there had been an opera singer in the family.  I said that I had not yet run across any family members who were opera singers.  She thought the cousin’s name was Sylvia, but wasn’t sure.  I told her that I would keep researching and would let her know if I found anyone that might fit that description.  I was skeptical of the claim that we had a singing star in the family, knowing how family myths can grow beyond the basic facts, but I figured I’d keep my eyes open for anyone who might be this musical “Sylvia.”

Well, it did not take long to find her, and it was not because I was looking for her specifically.  The fourth child of Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen after Augusta, Myer, and Jacob was Fannie Cohen.  As written earlier, Fannie married Alfred Selinger, the assumed relative of Julius Selinger, who had married her older sister Augusta.  Fannie and Alfred had one child, a daughter Selma.  Selma was the mysterious singer my cousin Ellen had heard about as Sylvia.

Selma, who was born in 1894, was already performing as a singer at a Fourth of July celebration in Washington, DC, by 1905, when she was only eleven years old, and she is mentioned as a singer in numerous articles in the Washington area newspapers over the next 20 years.[1]

On September 14, 1912, Selma married William Danforth, who was an actor who worked under the stage name Billy L. Wilson, according to his passport application.  Three years later they had a daughter Mildred, but the marriage did not last.  An article from the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader on April 10, 1917, told of a trip that Billy L. Wilson was making to Australia with his vaudeville partner, Joe F. Willard.  The article said that Billy and Joe had been on B.F. Keith‘s vaudeville circuit in the eastern and southern parts of the US.  (This is the same B.F. Keith who had married Ethel Chase, the sister-in-law of Ruth Cohen Chase, Selma’s first cousin, in 1913, six months before he died.  Ethel Chase later married Ruth and Selma’s other cousin, Jerome Selinger.  Perhaps Selma met Billy also through Ruth’s connection to B.F. Keith, or maybe Billy introduced Ethel to B.F. Keith.)

Apparently being on the road was not good for the marriage between Selma and Billy, and by 1920, they were divorced. She and Mildred were living with her parents, Fannie and Alfred. Alfred was working as a tailor, and Selma gave her occupation as a stenographer for a concert business. Throughout this time, however, Selma had continued to perform.[2]  I could only find one photograph of Selma, however, despite all the news coverage, and it is not a very clear photo.

Selma Selinger New York Times 1919

Selma Selinger New York Times 1919

On June 6, 1920, Selma sang at an event where a young man named Earl I. Klein was also performing and at later events he performed as her accompanist.[3]  Earl also had been a musician since an early age, performing as a pianist and a violinist at numerous events since 1907, when he was thirteen.  He had attended the Columbia Conservatory of Music.[4] What may have started as a professional relationship turned romantic, and on July 15, 1921, Selma married Earl Klein, and the two continued to perform together for some time thereafter.  Selma also sang on some radio broadcasts in the early 1920s.

Unfortunately, I could not find any coverage of Selma and Earl’s careers after 1922. By 1930, however, it seemed that both may have ended their musical careers.  On the 1930 census, Earl’s occupation is listed as the manager of a taxi company, and Selma has no occupation listed.  In 1940, Earl was selling insurance, and Selma again had no occupation listed. Selma’s parents, Fannie and Alfred Selinger, were living with them, as was Selma’s daughter Mildred.  (Fannie and Alfred must have also had a place in St. Petersburg, Florida, as they are listed in the city directories for that city in 1924 and 1934.)

Selma lost her mother, Fannie Cohen Selinger, on August 21, 1940, and her father Alfred Selinger died seven years later on October 11, 1947.   Her husband Earl died of a heart attack on June 9, 1957.  Earl was buried in Washington Hebrew Cemetery where Selma’s parents Fannie and Alfred are buried as well as her grandparents Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen.

Selinger FannieSelinger AlfreadEarl Kline

(Photos courtesy of Ira Todd Cohen and Jane and Scott Cohen)

Sometime thereafter Selma remarried a man named Theodore C. Lewis.  Selma died on January 2, 1973, in Silver Spring, MarylandThe Washington Post published the obituary below, describing some of the highlights of her musical career.

The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1973:

The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1973:

Interestingly, Selma was not buried where her long time husband Earl is buried, and I still have not found where she is buried, though I am checking with the cemetery where her third husband is buried, Fort Lincoln.

UPDATE:  I just got confirmation that Selma is buried next to her third husband, Theodore Lewis, at Fort Lincoln cemetery.  Poor Earl–buried with the Cohen family, his in-laws, while his wife is buried elsewhere.

Selma’s daughter Mildred married a musician, Maurice or Maury Hall.  They lived in Las Vegas and then in North Hollywood, California.

Thus, one family “myth” has been validated.  Although Selma did not sing in a traditional opera setting, she was a professional soprano who sang both popular and classical musical works.  In the days before radio and recordings were widespread, hiring musicians for entertainment was much more common.  I can visualize these society gatherings and charitable and patriotic events where my cousin Selma sang to the delight of her audience, sometimes accompanied by her husband Earl.

I leave you with two links to click on to hear two songs that Selma sang (not, however, sung by her in these recordings). Although Selma sang everything from “Madame Butterfly” to Handel’s Oratorio “Judas Maccabeas”  to Kol Nidre at these performances,  I particularly enjoyed searching for these two songs that were popular during World War I, as they reminded me of a time many, many years ago I sat  with my father and a family friend as they discussed World War I songs.  I was probably about thirteen and could not for the life of me figure out why these two men were talking about (and singing) songs written before they were born.  As Mel Brooks said in The 2000 Year Old Man, we mock the things we are to be.

Cover of "The 2000 Year Old Man"

Cover of The 2000 Year Old Man

Roses of Picardy

Keep the Home Fires Burning

[1] For example, for some early performances,  see The Washington Evening Star, July 3, 1905, p. 3; “Dr. Simon Guest of Honor, Washington Evening Star, June 2, 1908, p. 9; “Eastern Star Entertainments,” April 15, 1909, Washington Evening Star, p. 15; Washington Evening Star, May 9, 1909, p. 65; “Have Lively Debate,” Washington Evening Star, April 6, 1910, p. 2; “Casino,”  Washington Evening Star, April 9, 1913.

[2] See “Jewish Women Hear their New Protégé,” Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24 (as Selma Selinger Danforth); “Grotto Will Entertain,”  Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24; “Arab Patrol Host to 1,500 Guests,” Washington Evening Star, April 29, 1916, p. 9; Washington Evening Star, December 9, 1917, p. 54 (‘…Miss Selma Selinger sang several patriotic solos which were so well received that she had to respond with several encores.”); “Liberty Loan Boosted at Patriotic Rally,” Washington Evening Star, April 7, 1918, p. 20.1  This is just a sampling; there were also mentions in the Washington Herald and the Washington Post.

[3] See Washington Evening Star, June 6, 1920, p. 53; “Florida Society,” Washington Evening Star, January 9, 1921, p. 25; Washington Evening Star, November 5, 1922, p. 63.

[4] Washington Evening Star, July 5, 1908, p. 26. Also, numerous other articles about Earl Klein’s performances can be found by searching genealogybank.com for Earl Klein in the District of Columbia.

Number Thirteen, the Caboose: Abraham Cohen 1866-1944

Caboose 995 at the Transportation Museum.

Caboose 995 at the Transportation Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the thirteen children born to my great-great-grandparents Jacob and Sarah Cohen, only one was still alive in 1928.  He was also the only one to live through not only the 1930s, but into the 1940s as well.  He was one of only three to live into his seventies and the only one to live past 75 years old.  He was also the last born, the baby of the family, Abraham.  Like all his siblings, he had a life that had plenty of heartbreak.

Abraham was born on March 29, 1866.  His oldest sibling, Fanny, was twenty years old when he was born and was married that same year.  Joseph, his oldest brother, was married two years later.  But in 1870 Abraham had ten older siblings still living in his household at 136 South Street.  His first real heartbreak occurred when he was thirteen and his mother Sarah died in 1879.  Fortunately he still had six siblings living at home as well as his father. By the time he was fourteen in 1880, he was already working in his father Jacob’s store.

On February 9, 1886, Abraham married Sallie McGonigal, daughter of James and Sarah McGonigal, in Camden, New Jersey.  Their first child, Sallie, was born in 1886.  I do not have a birth record for her, but sadly, I do have her death certificate.  Sallie died on November 1, 1892, when she was six and a half years old from scarlet fever. She was buried in at Old Cathedral Catholic Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Sallie Cohen death certificate

Sallie Cohen death certificate

Assuming that the child Sallie was born then in April or May, 1886, either she was born very premature or Sallie was already pregnant when they married. Abraham and Sallie would both have been only twenty when they married, although their marriage record listed their birth years as 1864, not 1866.  I am speculating here, but since they were married out of state and under age and since it seems likely that Sallie was pregnant and since Sallie was apparently Catholic and Abraham was Jewish, I am going to venture a guess that their parents did not approve of the relationship.

But Abraham and Sallie’s marriage survived.  They had a second child, Leslie Joseph Cohen, who was born on May 20, 1889.[1] In December, 1891, they had a third child, Ethel, who only lived four weeks.  She died from convulsions on January 27, 1892.

Ethel Cohen death certificate

Ethel Cohen death certificate

Then ten months later, they lost Sallie to scarlet fever. Sometime after those deaths, the family moved from where they had been living at 622 Annapolis Street to 707 Wharton Street, where they remained for many years.

The young couple weathered those terrible tragedies and had a fourth child, Raymond, on February 15, 1894.  He died eight months later from gastroenteritis and was also buried in Old Cathedral Catholic Cemetery with his sisters Sallie and Ethel.

Raymond Cohen death certificate

Raymond Cohen death certificate

In the space of just over two years Abraham and Sallie had lost three young children.  Three years later, Abraham and Sallie lost another male baby to premature birth on October 11, 1897; he was stillborn.  Interestingly, that baby was buried at Mt Zion cemetery.  Would a Catholic cemetery not accept a stillborn baby?

Stillborn baby Cohen death certificate

Stillborn baby Cohen death certificate

In 1900, Abraham, Sallie and their one surviving child, Leslie, were still living at 707 Wharton Street, and Abraham was working as …. a pawnbroker, of course.

Abraham Cohen and family 1900 census

Abraham Cohen and family 1900 census

Unless I missed the birth and death of other children, it seems that after not having any children for over ten years, Abraham and Sallie had one more baby.  Arthur was born on December 9, 1907, according to the Pennsylvania birth index. Assuming that Sallie was born in 1866, she was over 40 years old when he was born.  In the 1910 census, Abraham, Sallie, Leslie, and Arthur were all living at 2433 North 17th Street; in addition, Sallie’s sister, Mary McGonigal, was living with them as well as a servant whose duties were described as “nurse girl.”  I assume she was taking care of Arthur.  Abraham was still working as a pawnbroker.  Leslie was nineteen and an apprentice machinist.  Arthur was two years old.

Abraham Cohen 1910 census

Abraham Cohen 1910 census

In 1917 Leslie registered for the draft.  He was working as a machinist at Remington Arms in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, where his Aunt Hannah’s husband, Martin Wolf, was also employed during that period.

Leslie Cohen World War I draft registration

Leslie Cohen World War I draft registration


Leslie served in the military from 1917 to 1919, according to one record.[2]  He served in Aero Squadron 490, as seen on his headstone below.  I was able to track down a detailed five page document from Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919,  describing the service of  Leslie’s squadron during World War I by using the Fold3.com website.

490 Squadron report, p. 1

490 Squadron report, p. 1

I cannot capture all the details of his squadron’s service, but in brief, the squadron trained in San Antonio, Texas; they then traveled by train and boat from there to Long Island City in New York to await their orders to ship overseas.   They received those orders and shipped out of New York to England on November 22, 1917.

leslie service partial quote

The report details the rather uncomfortable conditions the men encountered while traveling from New York to Halifax to Liverpool, England over a sixteen day period, although they did not face any danger from enemy forces while traveling.  They arrived in Liverpool on December 8, 1917, and then left for France on December 13, 1917, where they were first stationed at Saint Maixent and then at Romorantin.  In both locations, the squadron was engaged in building barracks and other buildings for the soldiers.  They also built over sixteen miles of railroad.  The report described in detail the facilities at their second location and the work that was done.  It ends after the Armistice was signed, saying that the squadron was awaiting their orders to return to the United States.  Leslie J. Cohen is listed three times in the course of the report on the roster of men who served with the 490 Squadron, including on the final page shown below.

Leslie J. Cohen on roster

Leslie J. Cohen on roster

(M990;Publication Title: Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919
Publisher: NARA
National Archives Catalog ID: 631392
National Archives Catalog Title: Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, compiled 07/05/1917 – 08/31/1919, documenting the period 05/26/1917 – 03/31/1919
Record Group: 120
Short Description: NARA M990. Historical narratives, reports, photographs, and other records that document administrative, technical, and tactical activities of the Air Service in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.
Roll: 0021
Series: E
Series Description: Squadron Histories)

Back home in Philadelphia, Abraham’s wife  Sallie died on March 14, 1919, and surprisingly was buried not with her children at Old Cathedral Catholic Cemetery, but at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania. The family was residing at 5926 Cobbs Creek Parkway when she died, which was only a mile from Holy Cross Cemetery; nevertheless, Cathedral Cemetery, where so many of her children were buried, was only three miles away.  I wonder why she was not buried with her children.  Sallie died from influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis.  This was the time of the deady Spanish flu epidemic that killed millions of people worldwide.  Sally was about  fifty years old when she died, and her son Arthur was only eleven years old.

Sallie McGonigal Cohen death certificate 1919

Sallie McGonigal Cohen death certificate 1919

As of January 10, 1920, when the next census was taken, Abraham, now a widower, was still living at 5926 Cobbs Creek Parkway with his sons Leslie and Arthur, his sister-in-law Mary McGonigal, and a servant.  Abraham was still a pawnbroker; Leslie was a machinist in the shipyard, having returned from military service.  Arthur was in school.

Sometime later in 1920, Abraham married Elizabeth Beisswagner Grady, whose husband Robert Grady had died in 1918 and, interestingly, is also buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.  Had Abraham met her at the cemetery? At the church? Elizabeth had several children from her first marriage, though all would have been adults by 1920.  Abraham was 54 when they married, Elizabeth was 46.

In 1927, Leslie reenlisted in the army, and on the 1930 census he is listed as a soldier in the US Army, stationed at Fort Hancock in Middletown Township, New Jersey.  He served from August 23, 1927 until August 22, 1930, when he was honorably discharged.

Leslie Cohen 1930 census

Leslie Cohen 1930 census

In the 1931 directory for the city of Richmond, Virginia, Leslie is listed with his wife Emma L. and was employed as a machinist.  Thus, sometime between the date of the 1930 census and the date of the Richmond directory, he had gotten married and moved to Richmond. He was later admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Virginia on October 24, 1932, and released on February 3, 1933.  I cannot tell from the record why he was admitted or why he stayed for over three months in the hospital.  The hospital record also indicated that he was married to an Elizabeth L. Cohen (presumably a mistake; other records corroborate that her name was Emma), living in Washington, DC.

Leslie Cohen VA Hospital record

Leslie Cohen VA Hospital record

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Abraham, Elizabeth, and Arthur were living at 5530 Walnut Street according to the 1930 census.  Abraham was still working as a pawnbroker, and Arthur was working as a porter at a gas station.  Abraham, who was now 64 years old, had outlived all his siblings at this point as well as his first wife and several of his children.  I find it interesting that neither of his two sons became pawnbrokers, given the Cohen family’s overall involvement in that industry.

Abraham’s second wife Elizabeth died on August 4, 1939, from heart disease.  They had been living on Spruce Street, where Abraham is listed as living alone on the 1940 census.  He was still working as a pawnbroker at age 74.  Elizabeth was buried with her first husband Robert Grady at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon.

Abraham died on April 29, 1944, when he was 78 years old.  He also was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon with his first wife Sallie.  His death certificate was subject to a coroner’s inquest for some reason, but the inquest found that he died from arteriosclerosis.

Abraham death certificate 1944

Abraham death certificate 1944

abraham cohen amended death cert


The only strange thing about his death certificate is the description of his occupation: elevator operator.  After a lifelong career as a pawnbroker, why would Abraham have become an elevator operator?  The informant on his death certificate was Bernard Sluizer, Abraham’s brother-in-law, the widower of Abraham’s sister Elizabeth. Bernard would die just four months later.  Why would Bernard have been the informant? Well, all of Abraham’s siblings had died many years earlier, as had all their spouses except for Bernard and Jonas’ wife Sarah. Leslie was living in Richmond, Virginia.  I don’t know where Arthur was at that time.

Leslie and his wife Emma continued to live in Richmond, Virginia during the 1930s and 1940s.  According to the 1940 census, Emma was almost twenty years older than Leslie.  She is reported to have been 67 in 1940 while he was 48.  Leslie also appears never to have returned to his skilled position as a machinist.  On various Richmond directories throughout this period, his occupation is described as a helper, one time specifying at a Blue Plate Foods.  It is obviously hard to make too many inferences, but given his hospitalization and his low skilled employment afterward, it would seem that Leslie might have been disabled in some way after his second service in the army.   Leslie died on May 13, 1966, and is buried at Fort Harrison National Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Leslie Joseph Cohen headstone

As for Arthur, I just am not sure.  There were two Arthur Cohens living in the Philadelphia area who were born in Pennsylvania in or about 1907, according to the 1940 census.  Both were married. One was working as a manager in a bottling company, the other as a mechanic in a garage.  Since Arthur was working in a gas station in 1930, I am inclined to think that it is more likely that he was the second Arthur, who was married to a woman named Claire.  They were living in Upper Darby, a Philadelphia suburb in 1940, but had been living in Philadelphia in 1935, according to the 1940 census.  If this is the right Arthur Cohen, it seems that he and Claire moved out to California at some point, living in Burbank in the 1970s and 1980s, and then to Las Vegas thereafter where Claire died on June 11, 1998.  I am still not positive I have the correct Arthur, so will continue to look for more records or documents to corroborate my hunch.

Thus, there are some loose ends here.  I don’t know the full story of Leslie and his wife Emma, but if the ages on the 1940 census are correct, it seems very unlikely that there were any children.  Arthur’s story is even more unfinished.  Without a marriage record or a death certificate, it’s impossible to be sure that I have found the right person.  I also do not have any idea whether Arthur had children.

Looking back over Abraham’s life is painful.  He lost so much—his mother when he was just 13, his father nine years later, and all his siblings between 1911 and 1927.    Three of his children died when they were very young, and he outlived two wives.  One son had moved away to Richmond, Virginia, possibly disabled in some way.  The other one seems to have disappeared or moved out west at some point.  I have this sad image of Abraham as a man in his seventies, living alone, working as an elevator operator, and having only his brother-in-law Bernard Sluizer around as his family (and perhaps many nieces and nephews as well).

I hope I am wrong.


That brings to an end, for now, the long story of the thirteen children of Jacob and Sarah Cohen, my great-great-grandparents.  I will reflect on what I’ve learned about them and try and synthesize it all in my next post.






[1]   Leslie’s birth year changed from record to record.  Sometimes it was 1891, sometimes 1892, sometimes 1893.  The record closest to his birth year was the 1900 census, which indicated that he was then 11 years old, giving him a birth year of 1889.  However, on the 1910 census, his age was 19, meaning he was born in 1891.  His two draft registrations also vary.  His headstone says 1892.  They all say his birthday was May 20, regardless of the year.

[2] Ancestry.com. U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.

Original data: Historical Register of National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1749, 282 rolls); Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Simon L.B. Cohen 1898-1934: A Story about the Horrors of War

The youngest child of Reuben and Sallie Cohen was Simon L. B. Cohen.  He was born on February 25, 1898, in Philadelphia, and spent his childhood in Philadelphia and Cape May like his siblings.

When he was nineteen years old, he voluntarily enlisted in the US Army as a private in the infantry.  According to a questionnaire he completed for the American Jewish Committee, he had been a professional boxer before enlisting.  While in the service, Simon was promoted to sergeant and served in the machine gun battalion.  He was wounded in March, 1918, while fighting with his battalion in France.  In the questionnaire for the American Jewish Committee, he provided this detailed description of the battle in his own hand.

Simon L B Cohen  American Jewish Committee questionnaire

Simon L B Cohen
American Jewish Committee questionnaire

Simon page 4

I will try to transcribe it as best I can, preserving the original spelling and punctuation as well as Simon’s expressive language:

Entered the firing lines March 1, 1918, action commenced March 4, 1918; March 17 gas barrage lasting seventy-two hours, followed by a box barrage under my battalion stood the strain for five hours being boxed in by curtains of bursting shells on all sides of us preparing for an advance.  We were met by a creeping barrage in front of us followed by masses of German soldiers advancing towards us, with all of our machine guns in action mowing them down to the best of our abilities, and having us at such strong odds, our battalion being reduced from twelve hundred and fifty to two men; myself and another man.  The other man mentioned was wounded by having his left arm and right leg shot off, forcing me to take the gun, upon taking the gun, a wave of German soldiers advanced, which I mowed down, following them came another wave of German soldiers which I done likewise; Evidently the third wave arrived of which there was no evidence except the fact they used their own dead comrades bodies out of first and second waves piling them higher than a man head using them for breast works over which they fired at me. While laying there I heard reinforcements of ours arriving. Orders were given after they arrived for me to cease firing, and they went over the top but were compelled to come back, as it was impossible for them to advance through the dead German bodies, had to send working parties out so as throw the dead German bodies aside, So as infantry could advance. Seemed at that moment a black curtain fell before my eyes, and knew nothing more for three days. When I come too and found I was in the hospital at Baccarac where I was decorated by General Foch with Croix de Guerre.

I have read plenty of literature about the horrors of war, from All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, among many other fictional and factual accounts of battles and the horrible things that young people experience and see when serving as soldiers.  But I have never read one by someone related to me, someone whose family I had been researching and writing about for days and weeks before reading this account.  This was a boy, the baby of his family, one of the few children who had survived to be a young man out of the seventeen children born to his parents.  He grew up with a successful father and lived a life of relative luxury and comfort, spending summers at the seaside in Cape May.  He had many older siblings and his parents who must have treasured him as one of the few who had survived.

And then he volunteered to help his country and was exposed to this:  Being one of two of 1250 young men to survive being mowed down by other young men, seeing his friends and comrades die before him.  Killing probably many, many other young men who happened to be German by “mowing them down” with a machine gun.  Watching them use the bodies of their own dead comrades as protection on the battlefield and then watching his own countrymen throw those bodies aside so that they could advance against those other young men.  How could a nineteen year old boy like Simon watch and experience these things and not be scarred forever? What does something like that do to someone?

Simon’s story did not end there.  As he mentioned in his account, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by General Ferdinand Foch, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces,  while in the hospital recovering from his injuries.  As he described that occasion, he was decorated by General Foch, who pinned the medal on his breast, “kissed [him] on both cheeks and expressed his appreciation for [Simon’s] bravery.”  Simon was also recommended by General Pershing for a Distinguished Service Cross.

English: Hand-colored photograph of French Gen...

General Ferdinand Foch, Commander in Chief, Allied Forces, World War I

Do these medals and honors make up for the pain and suffering and mental distress that he endured? Simon recognized that the war had had a psychological effect on him. On the questionnaire, Simon mentioned that he suffered from shell shock or what we today call post-traumatic stress syndrome.  He was rightfully recognized for his service and his sacrifices, but for me, that hardly makes up for the price he paid while engaged in that service.

Croix-de-Guerre awarded to Simon L B Cohen 1918

Croix-de-Guerre awarded to Simon L B Cohen 1918

Croix-de-Gurre-Back Simon LB Cohen

To make matters even worse, his family back home was subjected to extraordinary emotional distress.  As this news article from the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, Simon had been mistakenly reported as killed in action while he was actually recuperating in France.  Only after an officer was surprised to see that Simon was not being sent back home to recover did he and Simon learn that Simon had been thought to be dead.  (“239 Phila. Soldiers Killed during War Two Soldiers Reported Dead Yesterday with 10 Wounded,”  Thursday, September 12, 1918 Paper: Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA) Volume: 179 Issue: 74 Page: 14)

simon alive

Imagine thinking that your youngest son had been killed.  Imagine that after already losing ten of your children you were told that another had died.  Then imagine the shock, the relief, the joy, maybe the anger you would feel when told that he was in fact alive.

So Simon did come home, and by 1920 he was back living with his parents and some of his siblings in Cape May.  The 1920 census reports that he had no occupation.  However, by 1930 he was married, living in Cape May, and working as a clerk for some company I cannot decipher on the census report.  He and his wife Myrtle had only been married for one year.  Simon’s father Reuben, Sr., had died just four years before in 1926.  His mother Sallie died in 1930.  Four years later, Simon himself died on October 24, 1934.  He was only 36 years old.  I plan to order his death certificate from the State of New Jersey, but thus far I have not found any explanation of his cause of death.  I won’t speculate, though I have some thoughts.

Simon was buried in Cold Spring Presbyterian Cemetery near Cape May. Five years after his death, Simon’s older brother Arthur L.W. Cohen, Sr., applied for a military headstone to mark his brother’s grave.  His short life must be remembered not only because he served his country proudly and bravely, but also because for me it will always be a reminder of the horrible things we do to these brave and proud young people when we send them off to war.

Simon LB headstone request