100 Years!

On 29 September 1912, just 100 years ago today, the S.S. George Washington, a passenger ship owned by Norddeutscher Lloyd, arrived in New York harbor bearing the last of my “immigrant ancestors”.

This voyage had begun in the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen on the north coast of Germany on 21 September 1912. According to descriptions the ship was capable of carrying nearly 3,000 passengers: 520 in first class, 377 in second class, and 2,000 in third class (or, “steerage”). I don’t know how many passengers were aboard for that particular voyage; this was the height of the migration of Central Europeans to the “New World” and the ship may well have been filled to capacity. What is important to me is that among those possibly 2,000 steerage passengers were my grandmother, Katalin Helfer born Schnur, and her children: Gyula, age 11; Jenő, age 10; Erna, age 7; Lajos, age 4; and István, age 2, who was to become my father. These were the last of my ancestors to arrive in the United States.

Helfer family, 1912

Helfer family, 1912. Left to right: Erna, Jenő, Katalin, István, Gyula, Lajos

The picture above must have been taken in July or August, 1912, possibly as a remembrance card for relatives who were left behind. Pictured are Katalin and her 5 children, but not her husband, Gyula Helfer, who had migrated to the United States the year before, departing Bremen on 29 August 1911 and arriving in New York harbor on 5 September that year on Norddeutscher Lloyd’s S.S. Kronprinz Wilhelm. Gyula traveled on to Chicago to join relatives who had already settled there; Katalin and the children were traveling to join him.

These voyages started in Bremen, but the journeys actually began in Nagyszentmiklós in the so-called Banat in south central Europe. The Banat is a place with a complex history of conquest and migration, inhabited by people of diverse ethnic origins, cultures, and languages. Because of the diversity, and frequent political turmoil, Nagyszentmiklós was also known by other names reflecting the linguistic mixture of the area. In German it was Groß Sankt Nikolaus, in Romanian it was Sânnicolau Mare, in Serbian it was Сент Николаш (Sent Nikolaš), and in the Banat Bulgarian dialect it was Smikluš. Since 1921 its official name has been Sânnicolau Mare and it is included in the Romanian county of Timiș, but in 1912 it lay in the southern part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and thus within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Bremen is some 1,300 to 1,500 km. away from Sânnicolau Mare, a long train ride for Katalin and her children. According to my father, who was much too young actually to remember the trip himself and therefore relied on his older siblings and parents for descriptions, the train ride featured many portents of the coming war and the ocean crossing involved very rough seas. I’m reasonably certain that at least part of what he told me was pure fiction, or perhaps facts that had been embroidered upon by mischievous young minds. But whether or not such stories were true, the trip undoubtedly filled Katalin with concern, if only for keeping her brood and baggage safe, well, and all together all the way from the Banat to Chicago. And I’m sure that she thought often about the “unsinkable” Titanic that had met with disaster only 5 months before. The family’s safe arrival in New York must have brought her huge relief despite likely uneasiness about the remaining 1,300 or so km. train ride to Chicago, and the strange language and customs of the people she now found herself among.

The family settled in the neighborhood called Lakeview on Chicago’s north side, first in a series of apartments and much later in their own house on School Street near Ashland Avenue. With the move came cultural and linguistic change as this German-Hungarian (or donauschwäbisch) family settled into American society and American English, flavored by a dash of Hungarian and a sprinkling of German, and took American versions of their names. The parents, Gyula and Katalin, became Julius and Katherine. The younger Gyula also became Julius, Jenő became Eugene, Lajos became Lewis, and István became Steven. Erna became Ernestine for a time, but apparently she preferred Erna. Two more children were born in Chicago, Mathilde and August. And on 13 May 1920, the senior Julius Helfer became a citizen of the United States, confirming his wife’s and children’s citizenships along with his.


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