Saturday, September 22, 2012

A letter home

I was slogging through mounds of documents that I've saved over the years and came across this sweet little letter from my dad.  He and his brother Buddy were visiting Aunt Helen and Uncle Al in Chicago. Gordon is writing home to tell his parents about all the fun they are having.  There is no date on the letter but Gordon is old enough to write and figure out how to use a typewriter so I might estimate it was written around 1940. Pay attention to the main theme of his letter -- an indication of what was important to him.  Still runs in the family...ha ha!

Following the letter are a couple photos that are much earlier, probably about 1936-1937. One shows Buddy and Gordon with their Aunt Helen at a kiddie car place.  I love how Aunt Helen looks so happy.  This would have been around the time that she reunited with Uncle Al. 


Helen Metzner Kramer with her nephews Gordon and Buddy Metzner, about 1936

Buddy Metzner about 1936

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Alex's Story

Since the last blog, a few of the Metzner cousins have had a flurry of Facebook messages reminiscing about Aunt Helen and Uncle Al. It's been fun reading about everyone's memories and I've learned a lot!!!! Thanks everyone.  Since we are on the subject I thought I'd add a little more genealogical information...bear with me...genealogical facts can be BOR-RING!!!

First things first. After the last blog I went on-line and dug a little deeper and found that Aunt Helen's 2nd husband, Charles T. McCarthy, died on May 5th, 1935 in Lakewood, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland).  He had a heart attack at 57 years old.  Not only did he leave a widow, our own Aunt Helen, but two ex-wives.  I presumed he had no children but now hear from some of you that he had two adopted sons.  I'll keep digging and see what I can turn up about Charles "Mac" McCarthy.

What I really want to do with this blog is share genealogical information I've found for Uncle Al (Alex Kramer 1897-1969).

Last summer, as I was delving deep into the relationship between Al & Helen, trying to prove their two marriages, I knew I had to "leave no stone unturned" where it concerned Uncle Al.  First, and to my surprise, he was born in Grand Rapids on Feb. 25, 1897. You'll see in his birth record below that his first name was recorded as  Elias. In 1942 he had it officially corrected in the record. At the same time he corrected his father's name from Zachariah to Zachary.

My expectation was that Alex and his parents would still be in Grand Rapids in 1900 but, unfortunately, I couldn't find them there or anywhere in the U.S.  Finally! 1907 I found Zachary and three of his sons listed in the business directory of Albany, New York.  Zachary was working as a rabbi and Al's three brothers were salesmen.  Al (a.k.a Alex) was not listed since it was a business directory and he would have only been 10 years old. 

The family was in Albany in 1910 and recorded there in the census for that year.  Zachary was listed as Yiddish, born in Russia, and working as a butcher. The older boys were all retail clerks -- one in a dry goods store -- and 13-year-old Alex was listed as a student.

It seems the rabbi's work had him moving around a bit and in 1912 he and the boys (most grown men at this point) were back in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids city directories and the 1920 census record the brothers in various lines of retail work.  One was a pharmacist and, in 1920, Alex was working as a salesman in a leather shop.   By 1921 the Kramers again have moved on -- but where? Probably Muskegon.  That's where we find Alex in 1924, employed at Kramer's Clothes Shop.   That same year Alex and Helen were married on Nov. 13th in Muskegon, only to be divorced eight months later (July 11, 1925). By 1925, Helen had moved to Cleveland.

A youthful Alex Kramer, date unknown
All of this data is nice but it doesn't provide any anecdotal information and, frankly, I'm a bit curious as to how Helen and Al met. They were both born in 1897 -- Helen in Ft. Wayne and Alex in Grand Rapids.  Aunt Helen and her parents and younger brother, Albert (Grandpa Al), move to Grand Rapids by 1912, which is the same year the Kramers return to Grand Rapids.  The families lived at opposite ends of the city so it's unlikely that they met in high school. Maybe Helen met him while shopping in a store where Alex or one of his brothers worked.  Or could someone have introduced them?  Helen was a bookkeeper and perhaps her work brought her in contact with the Kramers' business ventures. We don't know so, back to the story... 

Of course now we know that after the divorce Helen married Charles T. McCarthy on June 11, 1926.  While she is creating a new life in Cleveland, the Kramer brothers have moved to Chicago where, by 1930, they've established Kramer Brothers Clothing Company.  Whether Aunt Helen had a hand in the brothers pulling up stakes in Muskegon and reestablishing themselves in Chicago is unknown.  Some cousins recall hearing that she helped the Kramers get into business twice.  Since she probably didn't have money until her marriage to Charles in 1926, it's unlikely that she helped them establish their shop in Muskegon. It's certainly possible that she helped them relocate and set up in Chicago. We should also keep in mind that the Kramers' company was operating smack dab in the middle of the Depression, the 1930s.  Could Aunt Helen have helped them stay solvent through those rough years? Her money may have allowed her to pay debts they had with the banks, or when business was slow, help them keep their heads above water.  Again, we can only guess.

While the Kramers are running their business in Chicago, Helen is in Cleveland (Lakewood to be exact) until 1936 (a year after her husband died, probably to settle his estate), then she's gone.  It's presumed she went to Chicago to marry Uncle Al as soon as she could.  I've yet to find their second marriage record but by 1940 they were living together as husband and wife (according to the 1940 census) on East 50th Street in Chicago.  The value of the couple's property (real estate and personal property) is listed at $20,000.  By contrast, their two nearest neighbors are listed with $8000 (a proprietor of a rubber goods store) and $60 (a waitress).

Like any genealogical information, it can be overwhelming to try to keep names, dates and places straight. And while the above is a lot to absorb, I think it's interesting to read between the lines and imagine what was happening to these ancestors of ours.  I ask myself, and maybe you might too, during the nine years that Helen was married to Charles, what was her relationship with Alex, and how did she maintain it?  Did she travel frequently to Chicago to "check on the business" (wink, wink!)?  And what might have happened if Charles hadn't died in 1935? What if he had lived another 20 years -- would or could Aunt Helen have stayed away from Uncle Al for all that time?  Ah, so many questions to ponder and so few that can be answered. 

Next time I have a fun little letter to share with you so stay tuned! 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Helen's Story

As I was thinking about writing today's blog, I had to ask myself if this was the right thing to do.  The story isn't very flattering to our ancestors.  I could just stick to stories that are funny, charming, and shed a positive light on the family, but how unrealistic is that???  So, I've decided to tell this story because it reveals something about the attitudes within our family three and four generations ago, but mostly because it's just a pretty good story. It is about my Aunt Helen Metzner McCarthy Kramer (1897-1984), the daughter of Louis Metzner (1872-1930) and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Reiter Metzner (1874-1958).

Lizzie Metzner holding Paula, with Albert (right) and Gordon, 1954

My first memory of Aunt Helen was when I was probably 3 or 4 years old.  I remember a trip to her house in Chicago, but it wasn't Aunt Helen that made an impression on me that particular day. What I remember most distinctly was an old woman sitting in the living room looking very stern.  I have never forgotten that woman's face -- it's etched in my brain.

No one told me at the time who she was. It wasn't until I saw a picture of her years later that I figured it out. She was my great-grandmother, Lizzie Reiter Metzner.  It was the only occasion that I consciously remember seeing her, and I probably never saw her again. She died in 1958. I imagine she had an incredible impact on Aunt Helen's life based on the story I'm about to tell.  Let's start with a little background ...

Helen Kramer, 1954

Aunt Helen and Uncle Al Kramer moved to Grand Rapids some time in the 1960s.  They became a fixture at family events and I have to say that I enjoyed Aunt Helen's company, even though most of the older generation described her as, you might say, "a piece of work." Aunt Helen had a great smile and laugh.  I loved her, and Uncle Al, too.

I didn't know much about Uncle Al.  What I did know was that he was Jewish. Having been raised Christian (Lutheran to be exact), I thought it was pretty special to have someone Jewish in our family.  Funny though, no one ever talked about it, and neither did Uncle Al.  I have no idea how I found out that he was Jewish -- it seems like I just always knew.

Uncle Al died in 1969.  It wasn't until Aunt Helen  passed in 1984 that I heard this story from my Uncle Bud Metzner. I just sat on it until last year when curiosity got the best of me.

Uncle Bud said Aunt Helen was married to Uncle Al twice.  On the occasion of their first marriage (Nov. 13, 1924, in Muskegon, Mich.) she was told by her parents to have it annulled. They didn't approve of her being married to a Jewish man.  So, as a dutiful daughter, Helen divorced Al on July 11, 1925.

I was a bit surprised to hear that that kind of attitude existed in our family -- it wasn't one that I was raised with.  But I was especially bothered to hear the next part of the story.  According to Uncle Bud, Aunt Helen had a plan to be so rich that no one could ever tell her what to do again...and once she was rich, she'd remarry Uncle Al. Ahhh...the plot thickens.       

Uncle Bud continued the story, telling me that Aunt Helen found a rich man to marry, inherited all his money, then went back and remarried Uncle Al.  And that was the end of the story, at least from Uncle Bud.   

Last year I decided to get to the bottom of the story. How much of it was really true? I started digging and found that the facts were true. Now, whether or not Aunt Helen ever proclaimed that she was going to get rich so no one could ever tell her what to do again...that I can't say for sure. But knowing Aunt Helen, it certainly sounds plausible.  She didn't take any "guff" (so to speak) from anyone.

Based on a few tidbits of information found over the last year, I can tell you that Helen moved to Cleveland, Ohio soon after her 1924 marriage to Al. She is found in the 1925 Cleveland City Directory listed as a bookkeeper; and 11 months after her divorce was granted from Al  (on July 11, 1925) she married a very wealthy Cleveland-area businessman, Charles Thomas McCarthy, on June 11, 1926.  McCarthy was about 20 years Helen's senior. He owned an electrotype factory and, according to the 1930 U.S. Census, he and Helen were the wealthiest residents on their street -- their property was valued at $50,000 while surrounding neighbors were between $8,000-$12,000.

Marriage Record for Charles McCarthy and Helen B. Metzner, June 15, 1926

What happened after 1930 is not clear.  Charles died around 1935-1936 (record of his death cannot be found on-line) and by 1937 Helen is no longer listed in Cleveland-area city directories.  A second marriage record for Helen and Al has not been found, but I suspect the couple reunited in Chicago around 1937 and married shortly thereafter.

What this story says about Aunt Helen is that she was a very determined woman, even though her way of achieving her goal was, in my opinion, less than stellar.       But she was, obviously, deeply in love and wasn't going to be stopped.  Good for her... I think.

The story also reveals an attitude of anti-semitism that existed in our family a century ago.  Of course I'd be naive to say "not in OUR family." Then, as now, it is a prevalent and unfortunate attitude. I'm happy that I don't see it in our family today.  Maybe Uncle Al's presence in the family helped those generations before us change their perceptions of Jewish people and not pass it on to their descendants.

That really is the end of the story. But I wonder what affect Helen's second marriage to Al had on her relationship with her mother, Lizzie Metzner. It's clear that Helen "got rich" to spite her parents. But the fact that Helen and her mother are together in photographs after Al and Helen "re-united" in marriage, indicates that Grandma Lizzie must have finally accepted Helen's relationship with Al ... or did she? Could that stern look that I remember so well have been the face of disapproval? I surely hope not, but we'll never really know.