Beginning with the history of my maternal ancestors In Hesse, I will follow my maternal family though generations, and migrations, until my parents, Lorry Brenn and Hy Goldenberg, who lived in Huntington, Indiana. This family history has much in common with other families who immigrated in the mid-19th Century and lived in small towns of the Middle West. Many such communities have since disappeared, as younger generations migrated to larger cities. Much has been said about transnational immigrations, but the internal migrations were also quite common and significant.
My family came from five modern countries, but the German ancestry has been the easiest and most rewarding to research.
From Hesse to Nashville, Tennessee
In the beginning of my genealogical research in 1995, I had a few notes from my mother’s family about her German ancestors. There wasn’t much, but we knew that they had immigrated from somewhere in Germany to Nashville, TN. One of the first bits of information was a scribble about three marriages among three sets of brothers and sisters, which my uncle Earl Brenn had copied down from a book during a visit to Nashville. He had visited one of the distant Werthan cousins living there. My great great grandfather Wolf Werthan married Henriette Godhelp in 1866. His half brother Meier Werthan married Minnie Liebman in 1873. And Minnie’s sister Bertha Liebman married Sigmund Godhelp in 1870.
A few words about Nashville in 1860
The population of Nashville in 1860 was 17,000. There were 105 Jewish households, or about 400 people. Of these, only seven had slaves, and of these seven, none had more than one. Still, the Jews of Nashville by and large supported the Confederacy. On the other hand, when President Lincoln died in 1865, Nashville Jews mourned his death, with the local B’nai B’rith lodge draping its meeting hall in mourning for thirty days and local congregations holding special memorial services. There was a tremendous turnover of Jews moving to Nashville and leaving for elsewhere in the early years. In 1870, only 44 families remained of the 105 there ten years earlier in 1860. In the 1850s the railroad reached Nashville, facilitating this mobility. [These details come from the encyclopedia of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, online.]
Altogether three Gotthelf siblings and four Werthan brothers and half-brothers made their way to Nashville in the 1850s and 1860s. But fairly soon most of them left for other places. One of the interesting characters among these Nashville residents was the younger brother of Wolf and Meier, Levi Werthan. He later lost some toes to frostbite in the Alaska Gold Rush, which took place between 1896-1899. Two sons of his served time in a federal penitentiary. But otherwise he is not part of this story.
Finding Ancestral Towns
It took me a few years to identify the towns from which my German ancestors came. But, after cranking microfilms in the Allen County Public Library in Indiana, I was able to add a lot of information about my ancestral families in general, but still not the hometown of my great great grandfather Wolf. His brother Meier had immigrated from Hamburg in September 1865, but the microfilmed copy of his ship manifest was mostly illegible. Others of the family immigrated through the port of Bremen, for which no ship’s manifests remain.
So the only thing I knew to do was to book a place on Gary Mokotoff’s annual genealogy event at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Gary called this the “candy store” of genealogy. And what a candy store it was! Unlike nowadays, in 2001, one couldn’t do very much research seated in a chair at home.
First of all, I found a much better copy of the microfilm for Meier Werthan’s immigration from Hamburg. For hometown it said Rothenburg, Cur Hessen. Luckily the Family History Library had people who were able to help identify places and read Gothic German. There were “only” about twelve Rotenburgs of various spellings in Germany, so I would have been lost otherwise. When a young woman found that the town was Rotenburg an der Fulda (meaning Rotenburg on the Fulda River), I was off and running. Microfilm after microfilm filled in my knowledge of the Werthan family. I taught myself to recognize the surname in German gothic handwriting, made copies, and then brought a few of them to the young woman to decipher. I was also able to research my great great grandmother Henriette Godhelf’s (original name Jette Gotthelf) family in the town of Hofgeismar. This surname and this town name were found on the ship’s manifests for both Sigmund and Henriette.CAHJP And I had an amazing moment upon discovering that my great great grandparents, Wolf Werthan and Henriette Gotthelf were first cousins. Her mother Roschen, born in Rotenburg, and his father Geisel were brother and sister! This fact had been forgotten over the years. Later I learned that these two ancestral towns, Rotenburg and Hofgeismar, are about an hour and a half’s drive from each other, which must have been considered far in the 1830s.
Soon after my return from Salt Lake City, I traveled to Jerusalem to the CAHJP, the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People, where I was able to add a lot more people to the family tree. There were treasures in this Archive not found elsewhere, but today the records in the tiny books of photos I found have been copied, and are available as the Hessen Gaterman records at JewishGen.org. Geisel with his two wives had eleven children, as far as I know: nine sons, some of who did not survive infancy, and then two daughters.
The woman at the library recommended that I contact the municipality of Rotenburg, which I did. The response was not long in coming. Only it was not from the city itself but from Dr. Heinrich Nuhn, a former history teacher, and a man who has devoted both his teaching and his retirement years to researching the former Jewish community in his town—and, no less important, the behavior of the local Nazi supporters in the village. And no less important, his activities preserve the memory of the Jewish community of hundreds of years. Dr. Nuhn warmly invited us to his village, and to stay with him and his wife Inge. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, soon after receiving this invitation, my husband Zvi and I found ourselves in a village which looked like it belonged in a fairytale.
And I was actually able to enter the house of my 4X great grandparents, Sussman and Elckel and their family. For perspective, Sussman David Werthan lived from 1762 to 1828. This house was right across Brotstrasse (meaning Bread Street) from the village Jewish school and synagogue, which were badly damaged on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938, and destroyed after the War. Sussman’s epitaph refers to him as “Rabbi”, which may help explain his living across the street from the synagogue.
At first Dr. Nuhn had encountered much opposition to his projects from the townspeople, who did not want to deal with this dark period of their history, and in fact, denied it. But by the time we arrived for our first visit in 2002, excavations were going on in the former mikve (ritual bath) building of the Jewish community. There were two levels of mikves, one on top of the other, the oldest dating from about 1738. There were plans in place to establish a Jewish Museum in the mikve building, which were realized in 2006.
One of the first and most important documents I received from a German researcher, Wolfgang Fritzsche, was an 1808 surname adoption list. At that time Napoleon had conquered large parts of Europe, including Hesse, and required the local people to adopt surnames, which would be passed down from generation to generation. A simple list of Jewish families and the surnames they took was chock full of useful information, and enabled building an early family tree. It was from this list that I found that the name of my 4X great grandfather was Sussman David (or Sussman son of David). The names of his mother and siblings also appear in this list. Before surnames were required for Jews, the father’s given name served as a kind of surname.
With our recommendation, and that of others, Dr. Nuhn won the Obermayer German Jewish History Award in 2005. We are very proud of this and know it is well deserved. This prestigious prize was endowed by the late American entrepreneur and philanthropist Arthur Obermayer, and it is given annually to five German non-Jews researching German Jewish heritage. We attended the awards ceremony at the regional Berlin Parliament.
One of the best things we did was to take our children to Rotenburg and Hofgeismar in 2009. Dr. Nuhn is open and was willing to answer any of their questions.
A historical sign, below, marks the site at 19 Brotgasse, where the former school and synagogue were located.
Following is information from part of the Surname Adoption list of 1808 for Rotenburg. It shows members of the WERTHAN family. I have added some information from later dates, and the grave number from the cemetery documentation, where I could find it.
From a List of the Jewish Population of Rotenburg/Fulda 1808
Surname First name Status Date/birth Date/death Grave #
|Werthan||Elckel||Widow of David Salomon||3 8 1738|
|(Gumpel) Marcus David||Son||10 8 1775|
|Werthan||Susmann David||Head of Household||7.9.1762||4.11.1828||166|
|Elke||Wife; daughter of Lucas Susmann [Apfel]; from Bebra||20.3.1766|
|Lucas||Son; handelsman (merchant), shamash||8 4 1794||27.12.1859|
|Reisgen/Roschen||Daughter; married Itzig Gotthelf, died Hofgeismar||4.3.1802||1879||Hofg.|
|Geisel||Son, shoemaker; synagogendiener
|Werthan||Eisermann David||Head of Household
|3 6 1763||185|
|Beile||Wife; Daughter of Susmann Katz; from Wanfried||1772|
|Sussmann||Son, mohel||4.8.1806||21 10 1862||72|
|Werthan||Judemann David (Yehuda)||Head of Household
Rabbi, handelsman (merchant)
|12.5.1768||25 11 1847||53|
|Judel (Gitel)||Wife; Hess… from Wanfried||8.6.1776||24.3.1864||3|
|Reichel||Daughter||4.5.1804||26 9 1888|
|David||Son of hochgeschatzten (highly esteemed) Rabbi||24.8.1806||18.5.1881||84|
A shamash is one who assists in the running of a synagogue or its religious services.
In the local Jewish cemetery there were several mostly legible old gravestones for members of my own family and their cousins, under large trees. With my previous experience of ancestral towns in Eastern Europe, most without a single gravestone remaining in the local Jewish cemetery, this was exciting. In Communist countries, the Jewish cemeteries were dismantled to provide cheap building material for sidewalks, steps and more.
Gravestone of Geisel (Yosef) Werthan, 1802-1888
Geisel was my third great grandfather
To make a long story short, Dr. Nuhn found sharp correspondence of my great great great grandfather, Geisel Sussman Werthan, master shoemaker, with the municipality from June 1831 to January 1832. In these letters he insisted that he had completed all of the years of apprenticeship and had “legally achieved the status of meister”, and that his father had been a citizen of Rotenburg from June 1808, which the town tried to deny. In addition, he mentioned that he was in danger of losing his well-to-do fiancée of seven months, because without residence rights, he would be unable to marry. Geisel finally succeeded in receiving his schutzbrief (known in English as a Letter of Protection), and in marrying his bride. His wife Teresa Apfel was from the neighboring community of Bebra. She did not live long. Geisel remarried and had more children, and so some of Wolf’s brothers were actually half brothers.
One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of the name David in the early generations of the Werthan family. In all the three branches of sons of Sussman, there were many sons bearing the name David. If a David died soon after birth, the next son would also be given the name David, until one survived.
Although he is a historian, not a genealogist, in his historical research, Dr. Nuhn eventually found other documents which confirmed that my ancestors had had schutzbriefe, meaning that they had been legal residents of Rotenburg, for a few generations before Geisel. My earliest known ancestor was David, born ca. 1665. In an aside, I wish to say that in Germany in particular, but also in other countries, Dr. Nuhn is not alone: many localities have local people dedicating much time and effort to the former Jewish communities of their towns, and it is worth investigating this possibility.
A very old document:
“David Salomon, Salomon David’s son [sohn]”,
was recognized in 1756 as a citizen of Rotenburg, and was to pay
a sum of 7 reichsthalers annually for this privilege
4.28 was the amount due for the remainder of the year 1756
This status came with a few benefits, aside from residence in the town, and the ability to marry. One of them was receiving wood for heat in the winter.
One of the earliest members of my families to immigrate to the US from Bremen to Baltimore was Sigmund Sussman Gotthelf in 1854. He Americanized his surname to Godhelp, as did all the other Gotthelfs in my family. In the 1860 US census, he was recorded as living in Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee. He enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 from Knoxville, TN. Tennessee was a Confederate state, but unlike other southern states, there were soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Many of the soldiers were themselves immigrants.
I won’t go into much detail about the war, but to say that Tennessee was the last state to secede the United States, and had the most battles of any Confederate state except Virginia. Near Chattanooga, Sigmund was taken prisoner in 1863. He pledged an oath of allegiance to the United States, and was released. This was common in those times. At the beginning of the Civil War, over 300 US officers resigned to join the Confederacy, as did numerous clerks and officials. So President Lincoln instituted a loyalty oath for those who remained.
In 1862, my great great grandmother, Henriette Gotthelf immigrated to the US, arriving in the port of New York, but how and when she made her way to Nashville, remains a mystery. Even though Nashville was liberated early in the War, it is hard to imagine her going there upon her arrival.
In the US Presidential elections of 1868, Jacob Godhelp was appointed to a Nashville committee against the election of Ulysses S. Grant, who one member called “Haman”. Grant had been the Chief of Staff of the US Army during the Civil War. Grant’s anti-Semitism is well documented: he issued the infamous Order no. 11, which required Jews to be expelled immediately from a vast territory extending from Mississippi to Illinois. After a prominent Jewish resident of Paducah, Kentucky appealed to President Lincoln against this order, the President, who had a good relationship with Jewish people, immediately ordered it to be rescinded.
Some of the information I have about the Jews of Nashville comes from a book entitled Beginnings on Market Street, by Fedora Small Frank, written for the US bicentennial in 1976.
Sigmund Godhelp and his brother Jacob became US citizens on 30 November 1864. They received their “final papers” in the “Popular Circuit Court”. The War hadn’t ended but presumably the United States was in control of Tennessee.
At first, I assume that nobody in the families had any money to speak of. In the 1869 King’s Nashville City Directory is an advertisement placed by my great great grandfather Wolf Werthan, dealing in second hand goods. He must have spent all his money on this ad. Since he soon left Nashville for Chicago; obviously the ad was not successful.
Wolf’s cousin and brother-in-law, Sigmund, remained in Nashville and established a company also dealing in second-hand goods, S. Godhelp & Co., which became M. Werthan and Co., after Sigmund’s death in 1895. The company remains in the family until this day, and is known as Werthan Industries.
In Nashville family members were members and were involved in Reform Jewish congregations and organizations.
Incidentally, the movie Driving Miss Daisy is actually about Alfred Uhry’s family from Georgia, but all of the names in the movie are from the Werthan family, including the surname and nicknames. Alfred had met someone from the Werthan family at summer camp, and they must have remained friends.
From Nashville to Chicago
Ca. 1870, the year of the Chicago fire, my great great grandparents moved from Nashville to Chicago. Why Chicago? Presumably, the main reason was economic. One brother, Lucas Werthan, had moved there previously from Nashville. According to a Chicago City Directory, Wolf worked as a clerk in the “hats and caps” store belonging to Lucas.
When I began my genealogical research, two people from the family still remembered Henriette, who had lived a long life. She wore black long after Wolf had died (in 1901), and she used to sit around the stove in the house in Chicago, drinking coffee all day. To quote my uncle Earl: “I thought she was a witch, so I would run from the kitchen and pass her by as fast as I could run.” Earl was about eight years old when Henriette died in 1925.
In the next generation, my great grandfather, Nathan Feldman, immigrated from Lodz (Poland) in 1886, as did his brother Baruch. We know nothing of the history of their family in Lodz. Soon after his immigration, Nathan enlisted in the US Army. He served in companies K and L, 7th Cavalry, from 1888 to 1891. Part of this time, he was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. Fortunately, at the battle of Wounded Knee Creek, on 29 December 1890, the soldiers counted out by fours. Nathan was number four, and therefore he was spared taking part in the fighting. This was the last major battle—or should I say massacre—of the Indian Wars. And it ended forever any hopes of the Indians for a revival of their former way of life. At the very same time as the battle, Nathan accompanied an officer to the Pine Ridge Agency. It is described as a very fast ride on horseback through “hostile territory.” Nathan was awarded a Certificate of Merit, which would have been signed by President Taft, but the original certificate, along with his sword and other keepsakes, were lost in a flood of the basement of his house in Chicago. (Incidentally, this battle was perhaps intended at the time to avenge the defeat of the 7th Cavalry, and the death of General Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1976.)
Two documents follow about the Certificate of Merit Awarded to Nathan Fellman [sic] for bravery after the Battle of Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.
Nathan and his brother Baruch, who called himself Bennet or Barnett, both settled in Chicago, and married two Werthan sisters. Bennet’s wife was Theresa, and they married in 1888. Nathan’s wife was Emma; they married in 1892.
Nathan was a picture framer, and we have a few lovely frames made by him. However, he could not make a living from framing pictures, so he and his wife had a small corner grocery and sold sandwiches at lunchtime to children from the school across the street. The family lived behind their store. The great grandchildren of Geisel the master shoemaker did not have enough shoes, and had to share them. The irony carries into the next generation. My great uncle Hurley Feldman, son of Nathan and Emma, and father of three daughters, insisted on buying a shoe store for each of his sons-in-law, whether they cared for that or not. Having lived through the Great Depression, people will always need shoes, he must have thought.
Nathan and Emma Feldman had five children. Emma became ill with diabetes, and a doctor recommended that she have more children as a remedy. So two more came into being. Of course this didn’t prevent her later suffering from the damages of diabetes. Emma, for whom I was named, died in 1939.
As a young child, I remember sitting in the grass at my grandparents’ cottage at Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana, in the summer, and listening to “Indian stories” told me by my great grandfather. Too bad I can’t remember them, but in any case, this was in the days of “cowboys and Indians”, and before the days of political correctness with regard to the native Americans.
In Chicago a close neighbor of the Feldman family was Jacob Brenn, born in Pinsk, which was then in Russia. He had immigrated in 1907, at the age of 12. Jake was very tall, good looking, and bright, and Nathan decided that Jake should marry one of his daughters. He got his wish. Jake married Fannie, who was the same age as himself, in 1915. Fannie was Nathan and Emma’s second oldest child.
Jacob studied chemistry at Valparaiso University, in Valparaiso, Indiana. Whether or not he graduated, I do not know.
How Did the Brenn Family Come to Live in Huntington, Indiana?
Following is an account of the founding of a manufacturing company in Huntington, Indiana, which my grandfather managed, from my uncle Earl Brenn:
“The Huntington Brewing Company on East Tipton Street in Huntington, was about to be closed by law under the national prohibition amendment to the Constitution. There was nearly a year left until enactment (on 19 February 1919), when the company was reorganized into the Huntington Chemical Company. A chemist named West was hired to manage the new business. The first products were doomed to failure. One of them was decaffeinating coffee for caffeine as a pain reliever. Aspirin was developed at about the same time, and was of course much more effective. The other failed product was soap from seaweed. West then sold his stockholdings to local persons and left the city.” [end quote] However, I’m not writing for a newspaper, and reading between the lines, the idea of producing caffeine was a bad one in the first place and this published story was not entirely true.
According to another, unpublished version of the history of the company, the “promoters” from Toledo, Ohio, absconded with most of the investment money. They never stood trial. Editor of the local newspaper Huntington Herald Press, Howard Houghton wrote in an article in “The Village”, that the company was reorganized once more. “Robert Polachek, who was in Huntington to call on his customers as salesman for the U.S. Sanitary Company, was sitting [on a bench] on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Huntington one evening. He fell into conversation with Mr. [Louis] Trixler, a member of the Board of Directors of the Huntington Chemical Company. Trixler told Polacheck about the chemical company’s manufacturing problems. Polachek said he knew a man who could take over the plant’s operations.”
At that time Jake Brenn was also working for the U.S. Sanitary Co., and he knew about the chemical business. He was hired on August 16, 1920, at the age of twenty-five. The company name was changed to Huntington Laboratories, Inc. Robert Polachek became one of the first salesmen of the new firm.
The population of Huntington when I was growing up there was about 16,000. The town’s population has been pretty steady for the last 100 years and more. As in other small towns around the Midwest, late in the 19th and early in the 20th century there were a few Jewish families in Huntington, mostly of German origin, and there had even been a minyan; but as their children grew up, they moved away, some of them leaving their aging parents behind. Now there is one Jewish resident, living just outside of town, but I still count my sister as the one Jewish resident. As kids, we attended Sunday school in the Reform Jewish Congregation Achduth Vesholem in Fort Wayne, over half an hour’s drive away. I can’t say that we learned much, or that this was a totally positive experience, but without it, our Jewish identity would probably have been less significant.
In 1922, the year my mother Lorraine Brenn was born in Huntington, Jake returned to Chicago for the completion of his naturalization process. At that time, Fannie, who was born in the US [as was her mother], and her children, too, all had to be naturalized, because in those days citizenship was defined according to the father of the family. This situation soon changed.
During the Great Depression, one of my grandmother’s sisters and her family were about to lose their home, because they owed taxes on it. So my great uncle Hurley and his wife Ida and my grandparents stepped in to help, but they had a stipulation: the family must take in the elders of the family. So, their home became a kind of old-age home. Their daughter told me that even in the dining room there were beds, when the home was its most crowded. She obviously suffered from this situation. And she threw out every single photo of the ancestors. Therefore, we don’t have photos of many of them.
My grandparents lived a prosperous, happy life together, and raised three children in Huntington. Jake was a community leader among the city at large. In 1966 my grandfather offered to send me to Israel for the summer. I turned him down. He didn’t live long enough to know that in 1968, I did go to Israel, and have lived there since 1969.
Members of the next generation of the family, including my uncle Earl Brenn, and my father Hy Goldenberg, worked for the company. My parents Hy and Lorry, met in Denver, Colorado during World War II. Dad was training for the 10th Mountain Division, and Mom was working for the Denver branch of Huntington Laboratories. They married exactly three months after meeting at a dance at the Jewish Community. Dad faced fierce fighting in northern Italy. After the War, my father, then managing his father’s fur business in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was offered a job with Huntington Laboratories. So was a second cousin of my mother’s from Chicago, who had married my mother’s best friend from the University. In this way, my grandfather ensured that my parents’ best friends also lived in little Huntington. Huntington Laboratories had become largely a family company, and remained so until the company was sold in 1991.
My parents became very active community leaders. From PTA President (Mom), to the Girl Scouts of America (both of my parents), to running the United Fund, Library building, and Humane Center campaigns (Dad), and many other activities. Dad was an amateur artist. Mom was a knitter and a weaver of the highest level. Both were avid nature lovers, and made their home in a wooded area outside of Huntington, where they moved in 1965. Dad had a hobby which I doubt anyone else ever had: collecting outhouses, which was published far and wide.
Mom never thought she would end up living in Huntington, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, but she and Dad were not typical small-town people. They had friends from near and far. And after Dad retired, they spent five months of each year in Israel, where they bought a house in Zichron Yaakov.
My younger brother and sister stayed in northeastern Indiana, but I found myself living in Israel, where I have lived for the past 50 years. Of course, this is a whole other story.
Growing up in a small Middle Western town in the 1950s and 60s had its drawbacks, but also its advantages. Things have changed since then, however, and I wish I could say for the better. But globalization has come to small towns, and some manufacturing plants have left.
Ellen (Goldenberg) Stepak
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1969 Ellen moved to Israel, and lived on a kibbutz for over a year. It was her second time in Israel. When she left the kibbutz, she moved to Jerusalem; for 46 years, she lived in Ramat Gan. Currently she lives in Tel Aviv.
When her husband Zvi decided to go into business for himself, and started an investment business, she became a “silent partner”.
She has three children: Avner, Amir, who lives in Washington D.C., and Raquel; four granddaughters and two grandsons; and one cat.
Since 1995, Ellen has been actively researching her family’s roots, with ancestors from five modern-day countries. This has included traveling to ancestral towns, documenting old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania and Germany, writing articles on topics related to her research, and translating material from Hebrew to English. It has been a rewarding, educational experience, involving contacts on four continents, not including Israel, which is in Asia. Ellen has published three family history books: We Were All Klutzes, about the Klots (and Kling) families of Lithuania; The Werthans of Rotenburg an der Fulda; and The Brenn Family of Pinsk.