24 November 1916, 101 years ago today, my father’s youngest sibling died.
August Helfer was born 9 August 1916 in Chicago, Illinois, the tenth and last child of Julius Helfer and Katalin Schnur. He was baptized at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church in October. He died on 24 November 1916 at the age of 3 months, 14 days, of “non traumatic erysipelas”, four days after first receiving treatment for the disease, as recorded in his death certificate. On 25 November 1916 he was buried in a “2nd Class” grave, number 25, row 28, section 1 of St. Boniface Cemetery on Chicago’s north side.
These are the simple facts of August’s brief life. They are few, but I wanted somehow to celebrate him, acknowledge that he existed. Because, as someone once said, one is truly dead the last time any person speaks one’s name, and even if his lifetime was only a few months I thought it should not be ignored entirely.
August’s death illuminates a bit of the social and economic condition of my Helfer family in their first years in the United States.
My grandparents were immigrants to the United States from an area of Hungary with a large ethnically German population. They were fluent in German and Hungarian (and possibly spoke some Romanian) when they arrived, but they did not speak English. From what I gather, it didn’t take them long to learn at least basic English — Julius was naturalized, along with his wife and children, on 13 May 1920 — but they spoke with distinctly foreign accents. While this accent probably wasn’t unusual for the part of Chicago where the family lived, it must at times have caused some confusion. Perhaps dealing with officialdom could be difficult.
First, there’s the matter of August’s name. His birth certificate calls him Anton August, but he was baptized as August Michael and his death certificate reads August M. On the rare occasions my father or his siblings mentioned him they always called him August.
Second, there’s the oddness of his death certificate. My grandfather is listed as the informant, but some of what the certificate says is weirdly false. August’s place of birth is listed as Austria rather than Chicago, and his mother’s maiden name is listed as Sophia Schuar rather than Katherine Schnur. Judging from the writing on the death certificate, I think the doctor, a man named AEW Jourdan, actually filled it out. It’s not hard for me to imagine the scene. Poor Dr. Jourdan, not speaking either German or Hungarian, was called in at the worst possible time for the child’s parents, then had to get answers to the official questions on his form. The combination of the parents’ grief and conflict of languages undoubtedly led to these odd answers.
My father’s family came to the United States in the early 20th Century from “The Banat of Temesvár”, an area of mixed ethnicity which at the time was part of Hungary but which, after the First World War, was divided between Romania and Serbia. My family came from an ethnically German enclave in the part that is now in Romania. My grandfather, Gyula (Julius) Helfer, was born in a very small village then called Honoros (now Honorici). My grandmother, Katalin Schnur, was born in a larger village then called Nagyszentmiklós (now Sânnicolau Mare). They were married in Nagyszentmiklós in 1900. Julius was a tailor in Budapest in 1900, but after his marriage he relocated to Nagyszentmiklós and Temesvár (now Timișoara). Between 1901 and their departure for the United States Julius and Katalin had eight children, three of whom died before reaching their first birthday.
Julius sailed to the United States in 1911, joining relatives in Chicago, and Katalin followed with the five living children in 1912. A ninth child, Mathilde, was born in Chicago on 30 August 1914, and then, in 1916, August followed.
Over the years I was told several stories about why my grandparents decided to leave home, some of them on reflection seem a bit wild and unlikely. I think it most likely that Julius and Katalin were simply trying to improve their economic condition and provide for their children like thousands of other families from Central Europe who were flowing into New York harbor in those years. They had little when they first came to the United States.
I don’t know whether any member of my family ever visited August’s grave. I tried once, searching for an hour or so through St. Benedict’s maze of plots, but I never located “row 28, section 1”. There is no staff at the cemetery, so there was no one for me to ask.