A Family Chronicle -- The Oppenheimers


Louis Albert Oppenheimer was born in 1839 in Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany, third son and sixth child of Coppel and Bella Oppenheimer. He died in 1911, the year before my father and mother were married. Everything that I know about him I heard from my father, his only son, or from my grandmother his wife, and it comes to very little. He was said to have run away to sea as a very young man, and to have jumped from his German ship to join the Union Navy early in the Civil War. It was said that he had been wounded, captured by the Confederates, es- caped from Confederate prison camp, and to have joined the Union cavalry somewhere out west. When I was very small my father had a little hat band which was said to have come from his German navy hat, but that hat band has disappeared. He certainly was in the Union navy and was really wounded because my grandmother received from the United States govern- ment the magnificent pension of $12.00 per month as the widow of a wounded Civil War veteran. The pension was given to him as Louis Op- penheimer, alias Louis Jacoby. I have a copy of that pension. I also have an old spur, which may prove that he was once somewhere involved with horses.

How and why he came to Chicago I do not know, but some time after the Civil War he settled there, was married, and had a daughter Bertha, who was born on February 27, 1867. Some years later he was separated from his first wife ---- there is some doubt that they were ever leg- ally divorced -- after which he married, or at least lived with, my grandmother Adelheid Bunschu , who was more than twenty years his junior, as his common law wife. My father was born February 9, 1885 at 1625 Clark Street, Chicago.

Louis Oppenheiimer was born a Jew, and he lived in a largely Jewish section of Chicago all of his life. It is possible that he par- ticipated in the life of the Jewish community during his first marriage, but he certainly could not have done so during his second marriage since his wife had been a Roman Catholic -- although he evidently remained on friendly terms with his neighbors. His only son was never circumcised, nor was he given any training in the Jcwish religion.

Louis owned a prayer book, printed in Hebrew and English, "The Order of Prayer for the Divine Service, and the Order of Prayer in the House of Mourners." In the center section of this book he entered the birthdates of his father and mother, and of his nine brothers and sisters, as well as the birth of his daughter, the deaths of his father and mother and the birth of his son Albert Louis. My grandmother later added the record of his death, and the birth of her two grandchildren, my sister Lois and myself. I do not think that my father knew of the existence of this prayer book and its entries, because I never heard him speak of it. It came to me with my grandmother's few papers.

I know very little more about his background. I believe he had family in Pittsburg, but who they were and what their relationship was I have no idea. I have some old letters from my father written to my mother before they were married, in which he refers to his cousins from Pittsburgh, and I remember my mother saying that my father inheri- ted money from an aunt in Pittsburgh. I wish I knew more about those people.

Whatever the facts of my grandfather's separation from his first wife, his daughter Bertha did not retain hard feelings, and I have several pictures of her, one of which is inscribed "to Albert from his sister." I also have a box with burned wood designs inscribed, "With love to Adelheid from Dorothy Gladys, Marjorie and Johnnie," the names of Bertha's children.

Louis ran a furniture store, and his home on Indiana Avenue was full of good furniture, handsome dishes and silver -- very little of which is left to us. The marble-topped tables, my big green overstuffed lady's chair, the antique bowl and pitcher, and some old silver are all that we have. The old man was a reader, and at one time I had a large book of the complete works of Josephus, a copy of the works of Erasmus, and a book called "With Stanley in Darkest Africa," which be- longed to him. Alas, with our many moves all of these books have van- ished, some of them as recently as 1976, I am ashamed to say.

For years my sister and I were regaled with a deliciously sad story about a Christmas when my father received nothing but a silver button-hook. This story varied slightly, depending upon which moral lesson was being stressed --- sometimes the little boy asked for too much, sometimes he was uncooperative and wouldn't tell what he wanted at all, sometimes he had been naughty --- but the denoument was always the same. On Christmas morning there was no tree, no pile of presents -- only a silver button hook, which I still have. There was an ending which redeemed this story. The father was so remorseful at the little boy's woe on Christmas Day that the next day he went out and brought home a supply of goodies. But that desolate Christmas morning re- mained with his son for life.

I heard that story many times, and often tried to figure out how such a dreadful misfortune could have come about. I finally found a solution which partially satisfied me many years late, when I taught in a Jewish neighborhood. The old man was, after all, a Jew, and evidently he had had just about all he could take of the kind of elab- orate Bavarian Catholic Christmas his wife rejoiced in, and had de- clared that there should be no such thing this particular year. But in his quarrel with his wife he forgot all about the repercussions to his small son -- until too late.

Some years later my father quarrelled with his father and quit high school at the end of his junior year, a thing he later much regretted. There was evidently no financial reason for him to quit; he did so just to annoy his father.

Louis, who had been wounded in the hip during the Civil War, also suffered greatly from asthma. It is said that he had to sit up day and night during the last years of his life in order to breath. I re- member a large contraption known as a Morris chair which could be tipped at various angles, which stood in the dining room window of my Grandmother's house. I am an asthmatic myself, and when I remember that house with its velvet portiers, lace glass curtains, bead hangings in every doorway, overstuffed furniture, pampas grass and knickknacks on every table, I suffer with him as he struggled for breath in the dust of those pre-vacuum cleaner days.

He was considered an old man when he died on March 25, 1911 at the age of 72. I have a handful of papers relating to him --- the Statement of Pension from the Bureau of Pensions of the Department of the Interior of the United States of America, giving his widow his pension for the remainder of her widowhood; a copy of his naturaliza- tion papers, attested to in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 1883; a copy of his last will and testament from the Probate Court of Cook County, giving all of his estate to his wife Adelheid Oppenheimer, his son Albert Oppenheimer and his daughter Bertha Wilcock to be executors; and a Charter Perpetual of Oakwoods Cemetery. Folowing is the list of Louis Oppenheimer's family from his Prayer Book:

         Father: Coppel Oppenheimer 
                -- Born September 11, 1796 -- Died July 10, 1873
         Mother: Bella Oppenheimer
                --Born March 18t 1807 -- Died March 3, 1895

   Siblings:   Moses -- April 9, 1826
                     Hanchen --March 23, 1828
                     Bertha, --April 13, 1830
                     William    June 24, 1832
                     Amalia    May 20, 1836
                     Louis    January l, 1839
                     Jettglu (sp?) -- June 14, 1841
                     Rosa    March 10, 1846
                     Sol    August 30, 1846
                     Emanuel -- April 17, 1850

          Daughter:Bertha -- February 27, 1867
          Son: Albert Louis --- February 9, 1885

I am very sorry that I do not know more about my paternal grandmother, Adelheid Bunschu Oppenheimer. She died when I was 19 years old, and for a few years before her death we did not see much of her. I remember her vivd1y, however, and one would think that I would at least know the date of her birthday, but I do not. I do not even know when she came to America, or when she married my Grandfather.

She was born in Bavaria in about 1859, and I heard her speak of Baden-Baden as her home town. I can remember her telling me that her father, who was a post-man, was so mean that he pulled her brother's ear hard enough to pull the lobe away from his head, causing it to bleed. I have a picture of her as a young girl, taken in Bruchsal, Bavaria, and also a picture of her whole family taken at about the same time.

She had several sisters as well as the brother, and she kept in touch with one of those sisters, Berta, until after the First World War, and perhaps longer. This sister was a nun, and I have a picture of her in her habit taken by a photographer in Griesbach. She later left the convent and married, and had at least one child, a daughter. I have a picture of the sister with her husband and child taken in Nordhorn. During the first World War this sister was a volunteer nurse, and I have a picture of her taken in her uniform with a message in German on the back saying that she was on night duty and that the things she has seen do not bear telling. I also had a medal and a citation she received from the German Government for her work, but they seem to have disappeared. When my father was about ten years old my grandmother had his picture taken and sent to her mother, where it was added to a picture of the old lady with her other grand- children, so cleverly montaged that when he saw it Albert exclaimed, "oh, Brother, look how much that boy looks like me."

I do not know why she left Germany, nor do I know what kind of work she did when she got to this country, nor whether she had any re- latives or friends to call on when she arrived. She had an adequate lower middle class education but was certainly not trained for any particular work. It is quite probable that sometime after she arrived in Chicago -- and how she got to Chicago I do not know---she went to work for my grandfather as a house-keeper, and from that became his common-law wife, but I really do not know. She was accepted as his wife by her neighbors, and by his daughter Bertha.

She was a plump, attractive dark-eyed woman with reddish brown hair. She had a very nice singing voice, and could whistle marvelously -- not just imitate birds, which she did very well, but she could whistle any tune with charming embellishments. She was absolutely crazy about opera and followed the gossip about all of the Opera stars in the newspapers and magazines. She collected their pictures, and as soon as the Victrola came out she also began to collect records of arias. She had a large collection of records which came to our house after her death. They were put in the attic where they warped and broke in the intense heat and cold, so that only a few re- mained, which I had until we moved to Vermont. We recorded those on tape, but made no attempt to carry those heavy shellac records with us in our move.

She was a marvelous cook, and an avid gardener. She lived most of her married life at 5225 Indiana Avenue, in a large grey stone two- flat with a front porch about six steps up from the street. The Op- penheimers lived downstairs and rented out the second floor apartment. The back yards of those big stone houses were completely enclosed by wooden fences about five feet high. She had almost completely filled her yard with beautiful flowers, leaving only a small lawn in the center. We have several pictures of me as a toddler in that yard.

She was proud of her house and yard, and when the neighborhood began to change she at first refused to move. She said she liked colored people and would not object to them as neighbors and renters. Alas, in a short time her windows were broken, faeces stuffed in her mail box, trash and tires thrown into her yard, and after she was actually pushed and threatened on the street she reluctantly sold the house and moved into an apartment with a Mrs. Meyer as co-tenant. Mrs. Meyer was a heavy, asthmatic old Jewess, who smoked cubebs con- stantly to relieve her asthma. When I remember the smell of those cu- bebs I begin to wonder if they were not at least partially made from marijuana. When Mrs. Meyer died my grandmother moved into the St. George Hotel at 60th and Dorchester.

She died from a fall on the ice in the fall of 1929 or 30. We were living in New York, and got a call that she was in the hospital. My father and mother went at once to Chicago, where they saw her in the hospital and learned that although she had a broken arm she was doing very well. That night she died in her sleep from an embolism. She was only 70 years old. When my mother went to get my grandmother's belongings from the St. George Hotel, there was almost nothing there, and she was told that the storage room was empty. Since my Grandmother had been a hoarder and had many belongings in addition to many letters and pictures my mother was sure that someone had ransacked the apartment and taken everything of value.

My Grandmother Oppenheimer could not remain a practicing Catholic because of her marriage to, or at least affiliation with, and child by-- a Jew, but I never heard her complain or worry. She kept her prayer book and rosary, and often tried to teach me little prayers. She was a cheerful, rather ebullient woman, and I truly wish I knew more about her. She must have been a very lonely person, and when I say she didn't worry about losing her religion I am probably wrong. But she never complained, criticised my parents, or bewailed her fate to her Grandchildren. She was a person of character and dignity.

Adelheid Oppenheimer 1890

Albert Louis Oppenheimer was born on the 9th of February, 1885, at 1625 Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois. I have implied that his father and mother may not have been legally married, but certainly my grandmother believed she was married, and from anything I have heard of their life, and his attitude toward his wife and child, my grandfather regarded himself as married, and wrote the date of birth of his only son in his Hebrew prayer book. The pictures of the infant Albert in elegant baby clothes, and the later dressed-up toddler and child, are an indication of a cherished, middle-class childhood.

Young Albert was not baptized, since his mother could not be a practising Catholic while married outside the church. Nor was he cir- cumsized. His father may have considered himself Jewish, but the child was born to a non-Jewish mother, and thus could not be considered a Jew. He does not seem to have had an unhappy childhood. He lived almost his entire life until married at 5225 Indiana Avenue, and I know only a few stories about his childhood. He never forgot the sad incident of the silver button-hook he once got for Christmas, and told the tale with embellishments to his little girls. He had a deformed toe-nail on the big toe of his left foot, which fascinated me. He said that he got it while flipping a street-car, and that although the injury was very pain- ful he never told his mother and father because he was not allowed to flip street-cars. I have a number of pictures taken of him during his childhood, and I am entertained to see how much he looks in those pictures as he was to look as a grown man.

An ALO Gallery

I do not know when he began to get on badly with his father, nor do I know what the quarrel was about that caused him to leave high school at the end of his junior year. Of course, leaving before grad- uation was not at all unusual in those days-- in fact, that he went to high school for three years, and that his father wanted him to continue, implied an economic status well above the laboring class of the time.

My father was a good-looking child and man. He was extremely friendly and very popular. I never heard him say an unkind or critical thing about anyone. He loved large groups of people, and I imagine one of the things which attracted him to my mother was her close family and its large circle of friends. The Oppenheimer house on Indiana Avenue was near Garfield Boulevard, and within walking distance of the University of Chicago and the parks. He was one of the group with whom the Grimms were familiar.

He could whistle, very much like his mother, loved music,and had a nice singing voice. He had beautiful handwriting, and was some- thing of an amateur artist. He loved good food and was something of a gourmet. He was a great theatre and concert goer, although my mother balked at concerts after they were married. He was a salesman for the Armour and Company Glue Works when he became engaged to my mother.

I have a little batch of letters he wrote to my mother before they were married, and I am entertained to see that he kept tossing in bits of French, which neither of them knew. My mother told me that he had been engaged to a girl in Philadelphia, and there is reference to this romance in his letters to her. He was also supposed to have been engaged to one Celia Drew before he met my mother. In the 1940s, when we lived in Des Plaines, I became acquainted with Peggy King, the daughter-in-law of Ed King who had originated the comic strip, Gas- oline Alley. Her husband Drew King was supposed to have been the original Skeezix. I had grown up knowing that Ed King was from the Grimm's old neighborhood, and that my uncles knew him and the other characters in Gasoline Alley. Therefore I told my mother of meeting Peggy, and when I told her that Peg's husband was named Drew she was enchanted. "Then Ed did marry Celia Drew!" she exclaimed. "They went together when Celia and your father broke up, but we never knew whether or not they married."

My father died on June June 21, 1933 -- their 20th wedding anniversary -- in Bronxville, New York.

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copyright © 1996 Thomas F. Bentley
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