George Immerwahr’s Memoirs


My mother's parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews born in Poland, and my mother believes in Cracow.  However, they left Poland and emigrated to England. Their name was Goldstein, but my grandmother had been married before to a man named Oppenheim who died an early death.  He had one surviving son whose name I believe was Abraham Moses Oppenheim, but we called him "Uncle Mose" and he was much older than any of the Goldsteins.  Mose came to the US as a young fellow way back in the early 1870s and became fairly well-off in Wisconsin, and then in 1885 he sent money for the Goldsteins (including  his stepfather) to join him.

It turned out that one of the older Goldstein boys didn't like Wisconsin and returned to London (more on him later).  But the rest of them stayed in Green Bay (this was before the famous football team) though for a while they lived in Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Because Mose was the breadwinner, the Goldstein kids had their surnames changed to Oppenheim.  Somewhere around 1900 they all moved to Chicago, and my mother's parents died before my own birth in 1909, so I never knew them.  Mose continued to play a part in the Immerwahr life -- not always good -- he tried to dominate everyone.

My dad's father was named Georg Eckersdorff and his ancestors came from a place named Brieg in Silesia. He apparently married a woman from a Junker family -- "von" somebody -- and had a daughter, and when he came to the US in the 1870s he seemed to have deserted his first wife and daughter.  Dad himself did not learn about this until long after his father died, and I don't know the details.  Georg took the name Immerwahr, which had been his mother's maiden name, and Dad said that this was the result of some scandal, which may be the desertion of his first wife (I don't really know).

Grandfather Georg married a woman named Nathalie Schlesinger after coming to the US in the 1870s.  I don't know just when and where she was born, though I know that some of her brothers lived in Berlin so I suppose she was born there, though as you know the name Schlesinger means Silesian.  One of her sisters married a man named Unger who lived in Colorado and another sister married a NY man named Kroll, and I am in touch with some of the Krolls and knew the Ungers well.

Georg and Nathalie were the parents of my Dad in 1880 and his older sister Bertha and his younger sister Francis.  Dad was born in NYC on 110th Street facing Central Park, but later they moved to Montreal and still later to Bellaire, Ohio where Dad spent several years before his father's death. 

When my grandfather died in 1891, my grandmother put the three children in an orphanage in Cleveland, and went back to live with her brothers in Berlin, where she died in 1919.  She did come to Chicago to visit in 1910, and brought me some gifts which I still have (in part), but I was too young to remember her, and my other three grandparents all died before my birth.  With the much lower death rates of today, a majority of US newborns have four living grandparents at the time of their birth.

Max Immerwahr

Dad himself, whose name was Max Eckersdorff Immerwahr, was born April 24, 1880.  As I have mentioned, he lived with his parents and sisters in Bellaire, Ohio, from about age 5 to age 11, when his own father died.  His own father, though Jewish by birth, was active in the village Presbyterian church in Bellaire, Ohio, and taught Sunday School there and may even have preached an occasional sermon, I suspect he was one of the best educated men in town - maybe even the very best. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Nathalie put all three of her children in an orphanage in Cleveland, and she herself went to Berlin, Germany, to live with her brothers, as she had no means of support.

The orphanage was run by a Jewish family, but I gather from what Dad has told me that the children there were not overly indoctrinated with Judaism. Dad did make some acquaintances there who later came to Chicago to live as he did, and in fact we knew a number of these people when Ray and I were growing up.  There were two things in particular that I learned about his life in the orphanage. One was that he got good training in the manual arts, for I still have a beautiful gavel that he made on the lathe with inlaid woods.  The other was that, while the orphanage was not as bad as Oliver Twist's, there was often a shortage of food, and Dad and others learned to eat every remaining scrap.  Dad himself acquired the lifelong habit of chewing and swallowing chicken bones, and in our own childhood he couldn't stand food being put on our plates and not eaten. 

In 1896, Dad and his sisters Frances and Bertha, were sent for so they could rejoin their mother in Berlin.  One thing I particularly remember about the trans-Atlantic trip was this:  William Jennings Bryan had electrified the US populace with his famous "cross of gold" speech at the Democratic convention, and Dad had obtained a newspaper with the speech, and he wrote out copies to sell to passengers on the ship. Dad had a beautiful handwriting, and I have often wished that I could find one of those copies.

Once in Berlin, Dad went to work with one of his uncles in the paper business, and he learned all about the manufacture and uses of the various types of paper.  He was only 16 at the time, and I do not know whether he had any additional schooling, though he did learn accounting, and this might have been part of his work in the paper company.  This work went on for several years, and I do not know much more about those years.  Some time in the early 1900s, Dad's  younger sister Frances got married to a much older man named Adolf Kant.

I know very little about Dad's life during the early 1900s.  Perhaps it was 1902 or 1903 that he went to Germantown, PA, to live with a couple named Rosenbaum who were related to the Schlesingers.  But he then moved to Chicago and got a job there as a bookkeeper and it was in 1905 that he met Mother, who had moved there from Green Bay with the rest of the Oppenheims.  Still later some of the Oppenheims moved to NYC, where Mose had a prosperous shoe business.  Mose considered himself to be the boss of all his half- siblings as well as of his own children, and Mother had to get Mose's permission in order to marry Dad. They were married in November 1906.  By this time, I believe, Mother's own parents had died.  Mother's siblings Wolf, Fanny, Louis and Dave stayed in Chicago and married there.

Early in their marriage, Dad had ambitions of starting for himself in the paper business, which he knew, though he knew German-made paper much more than the American brands.  So while he kept his bookkeeping job, he started on the side selling job lots of German-made paper of specialty varieties not made in the US.  But he needed capital in order to start a business which he could operate full time.

This was achieved through a chance meeting with a man named Leon Witkowski, who had some money from the sale of a business which I think was owned by Leon's father.  At any rate, Dad and Leon formed what was called the Import Paper Company.  I was born by this time, and Mother told me that it was through hearing a Christian Science hymn that I sang that he was inspired on this business venture.  Meanwhile his mother Nathalie had visited us in 1910 but then returned to Berlin.

I guess that Dad's business succeeded fairly well, because Dad had to give financial help to Mother's siblings, included Mose himself who had gone bankrupt in New York.  But then World War I began, that necessitated a complete change in Import Paper Company's business, since Dad could no longer import paper from Germany, and his business became one of buying paper solely from US mills.  I learned something about the business, as I sometimes accompanied Dad to visit the mills in Wisconsin, many of them in the area near Green Bay, where Mother had been brought up.  The finest paper, paper made partly from rag, was manufactured mostly in New England, and some of the coarser printing paer came from mills in the northwestern states.  Weyerhauser already existed about that time.  But if Dad ever visited the mills is the northwest or New England, I did not get to go with him there.

Dad and Witkowski started an additional venture in which they financed a friend named Tod Samuel, who had recently immigrated from Australia and needed help in business supplying sub-flooring for buildings with tile floors.  So their office, which was then on South Wabash Street in Chicago had the three owners, Dad, Leon and Tod and their staffs.  Leon and his wife Hanna had no children, though Leon had a fancy car, a Pierce Arrow, with the Illinois license number 7878, which he kept until his death in the 1940s.  Tod and his wife Gladys did have children, Marge, Bunnie and Bud, and the Samuel family lived just two blocks from us on the north side of Chicago, where we had moved during 1916 (we had formerly lived on the south side, near U. of Chicago).  Bunnie is still going strong, swimming, teaching bridge, driving her Volvo on LA freeways, day and night.

Dad had a difficult time with the Oppenheims, especially with Mose.  After Mose went bankrupt, Dad helped him get started again in a smaller New York venture in which Mose was fairly successful.  But he never repaid Dad, and there came a time I remember so well when Dad needed cash in a hurry, but Mose did nothing for him.  Years later, Mose phoned Dad in the middle of the night for some money to provide some wholly unnecessary Jewish ceremony. Dad  also had trouble with Mother's youngest brother Dave, when Dave got in trouble with the law. Dave and his brother Louis had married sisters who were nieces of a Chicago gangster, "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, and Dad sometimes would tease mother about her gangster relative. Dad also had to help Wolf's wife Jenny when Wolf died, but we all liked and admired Wolf's children and also admired Fanny's children.  Fanny's daughter Nathalie, though about ten years my senior, was very dear to me, helping me with some of my youthful problems, and later also dear to Jean.  Ray and I were surprised when Nathalie died to find that she had made us her insurance beneficiaries.

Dad was greatly admired by his many friends, and Mother was too.  I remember a party held in their honor, in which all the guests sang a song praising them - a song to the tune of the WW I patriotic song "Over there," but here the opening words were "Immerwahr, Immerwahr."

Dad was good at everything he did.  When we bought a house in Winnetka, a suburb of Chicago, Dad was far more practical - and also more artistic - than either of his sons became, for he did excellent landscaping of the grounds, creating a rock garden with a water pool, entirely with his own hands.  Cars were much simpler in those days than today, but Dad did all the car's care and lubrication and repairs.  Dad was called up in 1917 for the WW I draft, but was rejected for flat feet and fortunately didn't have to serve (I have no idea how we or his business would have made out had he had to serve, as Witkowski could never have run it.)  But at that point he bought a car for the family, a 1917 Studebaker, and we all enjoyed riding in, though in those days rural roads were primitive, and there were times when a farmer's horses would pull us out of the mud.  The car enabled us to have some pleasant vacations.  There was one summer when we rented a farmer's extra house on the shores of Lake Catherine, near Antioch close to the Wisconsin border and Dad proved to be a capable fisherman.

Dad was very interested in Ray's and my education.  We both did well in school, but both of us disappointed our parents in not continuing piano lessons.  This was ameliorated somewhat when I learned to play trombone and I was able to play Dad's favorite operatic arias.  But it was Mother who was responsible for my learning trombone. She noted that I was not in any group activities, athletic or social, so she went to my high school and arranged for me to borrow a trombone over the summer, and being able to play it greatly enhanced my life. On the other hand, I feel now that I cared too much to get good grades - which pleased Dad - but which led me into taking more college math courses than I needed (because I found them easy) at the expense of studying other subjects which would have broadened me.

It was in 1920 that the four of us, Dad, Mother, Ray and I, took our unforgettable trip to Europe, spending a little time in London with the family of Mother's brother Phil, the brother who chose to return to England rather than stay in Wisconsin.  There we met Phil's wife and their daughter and three sons, all older than I, and their daughter Olga became a lifelong friend of Ray and me.  But most of that summer was spent in our grandmother Nathalie's Berlin apartment (she had died the year before we arrived) where my Aunt Bertha was also living. While we were there, Aunt Bertha married a musician named Paul Beer (a descendant of the famous composer Meyer-Beer), and Dad provided the very sumptious wedding party, remarkable because there was still little to eat in Germany in its recovery from WW I.  But while Mother, Ray and I stayed in the apartment, Dad traveled around Germany hoping to make connections whereby he could again import German paper for sale in US.  Also while in Germany we went briefly to Hamburg to visit Aunt Frances and her husband Adolf and their son Georg.  We also did go to one recreation spot, the town Baden Baden, famous for its mineral baths, and I remember looking down from our hotel room after bedtime into the dance floor to watch Mother and Dad dancing.

When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Dad became rightly worried about his two sisters and their husbands, and also about any other Jewish relatives.  Aunts Bertha and Frances were born in America and could return here, but to get US immigration visas for their husbands was more difficult. As it turned out, Bertha's husband chose to stay in Germany. Ray graduated from Swarthmore College (where he had majored in German) in 1934, and after graduation he spent the summer in Hitler's Germany.  There he located Paul Immerwahr, a distant relative, and Dad was able to get US immigration visas for Paul and his wife Gertrud. It may believe that Dad was able to sponsor other Germans to come to US, but I do not know who.

There was a relative named Henry Immerwahr who came, but I don't think Dad sponsored him. Aunt Frances had a son named Georg, but he had died years earlier.

One of Dad's big problems was to get Paul Immerwahr (a physician) into a medical career here. To do this, Paul had to have an internship here, and none of the Chicago Jewish hospitals would accept Paul - I suspect because he had a Gentile wife. But Gertrud herself, being a Catholic, was able to get Paul an internship in a Catholic hospital, and eventually Paul (with Dad's help) was able to get a medical practice in Downers Grove Illinois. Paul died in 1984, Gertrud in 1982.

Dad loved music so much that he would have been enthralled with all the wonderful music that we have today over television.  As I sit and watch and hear the wonderful pianists and orchestras and conductors and singers, I wish Dad were at my side sharing this great treat.  Dad particularly liked watching certain conductors, and as I see someone like Ozawa, Mehta or James Levine, I know how much Dad would have loved seeing them with me.  During my school years, we lived near Ravinia Park, which had outdoor concerts and live operas in summer, and Dad loved them.

Dad himself became ill with colon cancer in 1946.  He had two surgeries, but the cancer came back, and he finally died in Baltimore, where Jean and I were then living, in April 1948, just a few days before his 68th birthday.

Esther Immerwahr

Esther, my Mother, was born in London, England, on August 25, 1880. I have already mentioned that  her parents came from Poland and were named Goldstein, but that on coming to Wisconsin her surname was changed to that of her half-brother Mose Oppenheim.  She grew up not only with her siblings Wolf, Fanny, Louis and Dave, but also with Mose's several children also surnamed Oppenheim. They all had some education in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and when they moved to Chicago about the year 1900, Mother got a job as a stenographer.  Mother became a Christian Scientist during these early days in Chicago and remained one all her life. I believe that her siblings Fanny and Louis also became Scientists, and I know that Mother had Christian Science class instruction in the early 1900s from a Christian Science teacher named Jacob Shield who was also born Jewish.  I do not believe that any of her nieces or nephew, Moses' children, became Christian Scientists even though they had grown up in the same household as Mother.  Two of Mother's nieces, May and Ruth, were only a few years younger than Mother.

As I have already mentioned, Mose dominated Mother and her siblings as well as his own children, and Mother needed Mose's permission to marry Dad.  I believe that Mose had at first insisted that they come to New York (where he had moved) to get married, but that they married in Chicago anyhow.

Mother told me that when they expected my arrival they chose to move to the vicinity of the U. of Chicago so that I could eventually study there.  The address where I was born on June 12, 1909, and where Ray also was born on May 11, 1913, was 6228 S. Greenwood Ave., and the U. of Chicago campus extends as far south as the Midway which lies between 60th and 61st  Sts. The Midway was a grassy park and I remember Mother taking us there to play.

So far as I know, I did not attend a kindergarten as a child, but Mother and Dad must have taught me how to read, for I remember that when WW I started in the summer of 1914, I was reading the newspaper accounts of the war to my parents. Mother started me in 1st grade in a public school near Greenwood Ave., but I was immediately transferred to 2nd grade because of my reading ability.  (I was never taught how to write, and my handwriting evidences the fact. The 2nd grade teacher felt my parents would teach me writing, but they were not good home teachers.) In 1916 we moved to the north side of Chicago, at 1521 W. Fargo Ave.  Mother was very protective of me, and I remember that she walked with me to and from school, which was quite a distance from Fargo, leaving Ray at home with the maidservant.  Starting when Ray was born, or perhaps even earlier, we had household help, sometimes live-in help. We had quite a variety of female helpers and I remember a number of them. One was a young woman who had just come from Sweden and I helped her with her English.  Another whom I remember - because of a story she told about herself - was a black woman.  She had been a lady's maid of an opera singer, and she told of a performance of Salome when the slave girl whose job was to fan the queen took ill and couldn't appear.  So our black friend was drafted to take her place on the stage, and all was well until the bloody head of John the Baptist was brought onto the stage, and our friend who had not been told what to expect screamed and ran off the stage. Imagine the audience's reaction!

My second year on Fargo Ave. there was a new school a block away and Mother allowed me to go there by myself.  But this turned out to be a temporary school consisting of one room with only one teacher who taught all the primary grades simultaneously.  So I learned what it was to attend a one-room schoolhouse - in Chicago of all places.  Ray was still too young for school.

Later we moved to Winnetka.  There Dad had to take the Northwestern RR to get to work so Mother was taught to drive him to the station to take him there for the train and pick him up in the evening.  But she had a number of episodes with the Studebaker car which didn't injure anyone but caused her a lot of embarrassment. One time she put the car in forward gear instead of reverse to back out of the garage and she knocked out the back wall of the garage, actually a stable in which our neighbor formerly kept his horse and buggy. Another time Mother hit a young tree which another neighbor had just planted. The result was that I was drafted to drive the car to take Dad to the station and pick him up.  Driver's licenses were not required in Illinois in those days, but I was so small that I had to look through the steering wheel in order to drive.

In my adult years when I had had some quarrels with Dad - and I was wrong and Dad was right and got so mad he could have beaten me up, it was Mother who calmed him and also straightened me out.  I'm ever so grateful to her - and ashamed of my own record.

My parents sold the Winnetka house in 1926 because I had gone East to college and Ray was attending the Francis Parker school near downtown Chicago, and they took an apartment very close to that school.  Even before that, Mother was very sensitive to the cold of suburban Illinois winters and was so much more comfortable in a city apartment.  But in 1933 my parents bought a home in Highland Park, still farther out from the big city.  Ray lived with them there is the year he did graduate study at Northwestern in Evanston, and Jay and I lived there with them during the 1937-39 period when my marriage to Margaret ended and that to Jean had not begun.  In some winters they moved for a few winter months into Chicago, or Mother would go to Florida to be with Aunt Fanny.  But after Dad died in April 1948 the Highland Park house was a burden, and eventually Mother moved to Baltimore in a new apartment building, the Marylander, not too far from us.  Even then, there were some winters when I would take her (by air) to Miami and bring her back in the spring, and sometimes Jean or one of the boys would accompany us.  But in early November 1954, before even having made her Florida plans, Mother passed away quietly in her sleep.  She was still active, and the preceding day had gone out to vote. We all missed her, and everyone who knew her had loved her.  God bless her, as she had been a blessing to all of us.

Both of my parents were Jewish by ancestry, but my brother Raymond (4 years my junior) and I were raised in the Christian Science religion, and while we knew that we were Jews by ancestry and had Jewish relatives, we did not have a Jewish upbringing.   My Mother always used to say that Christian Science was the Christian religion closest to Judaism, because it acknowledges that the Savior Christ Jesus was a human Jew and not God or a part of God. Unlike many Christian religions, it does not claim that Jesus hated the Jews and that all Jews hated and killed him. In fact I think I remember her telling me when I was small that Jesus was a little Jewish boy like me or that I was a little Jewish boy like him.

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