I am writing to you today to introduce myself as one of your great-great-granddaughters. I have been studying our family’s history for almost a decade now and have recently started to write letters to my ancestors as a way of getting to know all of you better.
Helen, I have been working on this letter for weeks. I have been inexplicably nervous about reaching out to you. You see, even though I never got to meet you, I have grown up thinking of you as “Great-Grandma” because that is how my dad (your great-grandson) and his siblings refer to you in their stories. My great-grandma (your daughter, Dorothy) passed away before I was born, so I learned about you from your grandchildren, Leo and Kay, and from my dad, my aunt, and my uncle. I have to tell you that the stories from my dad’s generation often mentioned you in the context of “Great-Grandma’s cake” - their name for the delicious dessert that our family continued to have on special occasions even after your passing.
Since I started doing family history work, I have learned a lot about your life. There are still some parts of your story that are mysteries to me, but I think that I have a pretty full picture of who you were.
The first time I met you, it was 1900, and you were a twelve year old girl living on West 84th Street in New York City. There were three different generations in your home, and three different last names were recorded on the census. At the turn of the century, you, Helen Stern, were living with your stepfather, Otto Buseck, your mom, Thekla, your grandmother, Sophie Ellenbogen, and your two brothers, Louis and Howard.
Helen, I haven’t been able to find any information about how or when your father (my great-great-great grandfather), Samuel, passed away. I wonder how your family’s life changed when you, Howard, and Louis lost him.
I also can't find any records for the years between your youngest brother’s birth in 1888 and your mother’s marriage to Otto in 1897. The only clue that I have about what your life was like in those 9 years is the fact that Thekla’s father (your grandfather) passed away in 1892 in Paterson, New Jersey- the same place where your mother would married Otto five years later.
I'm curious if your family had been living in Paterson all along, or if your mother decided to move you and your siblings closer to her parents after your father died. Were you living with your grandparents when your grandfather passed away or was it only after his death that your mother and grandmother combined households so that they could support each other? I can’t imagine how difficult this period was for your family, and I find myself hoping that all of you were both physically and emotionally close so that you could comfort one another.
I also wonder if you had a good relationship with your stepfather. I believe that you would have been around nine or ten years old when your mother remarried, and I hope that Otto was a kind man who brought stability and happiness into your life. The only photo that I have of Thekla and Otto together has to be more than 100 years old now. It has been lovingly passed down and carefully repaired which I hope means that Otto was a valued addition to your family.
After the 1900 Census, the next time I am able to find you in the archives is in 1906 when you married my great- great-grandfather, Montefiore Folz, in Memphis, Tennessee. For a while now, I have been trying to figure out how you and Monte met. After all, up until this point in your life, you were living in New Jersey and New York while Monte was a member of the third generation of the Folz family to live in Memphis. But, this morning I had a breakthrough in my research, and I think that I have finally found proof that in 1905 your mother and stepfather moved your family across the country to Memphis. And, as I’m sure that at the turn of the century, the Jewish community of Memphis was as connected as it is now (if not more so!), I feel confident that your family and Monte’s family would have encountered one another regularly.
Helen, I wonder if you wouldn't mind telling me more about what drew you to Monte. In the photos that I have of him as a young man, he looks handsome but a touch serious.
In the pictures of Monte with your grandchildren, he looks more relaxed. And while still dapper as an older man, he seems to be more at ease in his skin.
Do these photos represent him well? Did he smile more often as he got older or was he always more fun-loving than his portrait suggests? Am I correct in thinking that he enjoyed spending time with his children and his grandchildren?
Helen, you were very young when you married Monte- only around 18 or 19 years old. I wonder if you were excited about joining such a large family. Monte had seven siblings. Your father-in-law, Abraham, was one of ten children (including his half siblings), and your mother-in-law, Tillie, came from a family of nine children. I can only hope that Monte’s siblings, aunts and uncles, and what must have a been a remarkable number of cousins offered you support and friendship as you found your place in the massive Frank/Folz family.
You and Monte were married on December 31st of 1906 by Rabbi Max Samfield (of Temple Israel), and less than a year later, your daughter (my great-grandmother), Dorothy, was born. That must have been an incredibly joyous time in your family’s life.
Unfortunately, I know that your joy was diminished when your mother passed away in July of 1908. Thekla was so young when she died- only 43 years old.
Knowing that Thekla and Dorothy’s lives only overlapped for half a year, it feels almost miraculous to have a photo of the two of them together. Even more remarkable is the fact that the picture actually contains four generations of our family.
Out of the hundreds and hundreds of photos that I have collected from our family members, this is one of my absolute favorites. I love everything about this picture. I love that each of you is wearing a slightly different variation of the Edwardian fashions and hairstyles that were popular at the time. I love the shy pride that I see on your face as you hold up your smiling daughter for the camera. I love that you were in your twenties, your mother was in her forties, and your grandmother was in her sixties, and that, along with Dorothy, the four of you represented not just four generations but four periods of life. It is a wonderful photograph, and I feel very lucky to have this moment preserved forever.
Helen, I have several photos of the family that you and Monte would build between 1907 and 1911. Your children- Dorothy, Theo, and Monte Jr- were beautiful, and I hope that you would be happy to know that the bow that Dorothy is wearing in this photograph would fit right in with the bows that my sisters and I wore as young girls.
I know that your family’s life was not always easy. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for all of you to deal with the passing of your second child, Theo, at the age of 26. That must have been incredibly painful for you and Monte as well as for your extended family.
Helen, for a while now, I have thought of you as a woman who chose to continue moving forward in her life even as she carried the grief that comes with the loss of loved ones.
In my mind, this idea of the woman you were was confirmed when when my great-aunt Kay (your granddaughter) entrusted me with two pieces of your jewelry.
The first was a beautiful necklace with a photo of your mother.
From what I can see of Thekla’s blouse and hairstyle, it looks like this picture might have been taken on the same day as the photo of the four generations of our family.
After I took the necklace from the jewelry box that protected it, I examined the embellished chain, and I opened the small pendant that housed the photo of your mother all the while imagining you wearing this as a way of keeping your memory of her close to your heart.
The second piece of jewelry in the case was another beautiful necklace. This piece has a long, delicate chain and a gorgeous, heavy charm. I examined it closely- noting both the small stone set like a star on the back and the decorative font of the initials on the front- “HS” for Helen Stern. (Today, as I was working on this letter, I realized that it's possible that you are wearing this necklace in the photo of you and Monte that I have included above.)
When I first looked at this second necklace, I noticed what I thought was a hinge on one side of the pendant. After a lot of careful prodding, I decided that it was actually a locket, and then (after even more prodding) I figured out how to open it up. Helen, I have to tell you that I was bouncing with excitement. I had found a secret compartment in a family heirloom!
But, opening the locket immediately quieted my enthusiastic energy. Opening the locket provided me with an emotional reminder that you are not just a name on my family tree. You were a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and so much more.
Helen, as you know, the only thing inside this precious locket was a small, worn piece of a photograph of your son, Theo, whom you lost when he was so young.
As I imagine your life, I picture you wearing these necklaces as a way to remind yourself that your loved ones continued to be with you even after they had passed away. I think of you feeling far away from Thekla or Theo and then going to your jewelry box so you could put on a physical reminder of their constant presence. I hope that these treasures comforted you when you were grieving. And, I hope that you smiled as these necklaces helped you feel the presence of your loved ones at the many joyous events in your life.
Helen, you had a long life filled with many adventures, and I'm glad that before you passed away at the age of 81, you were able to see the birth of your three grandchildren and your three great-grandchildren.
In the photos that I have of you from the 1960’s, you seem to be a very glamorous woman.
But, while I am impressed by your style, my favorite part of these photos is how much you seem to be enjoying your great-grandchildren.
From the way that you look at them and hold them, it’s easy to see how much you love them.
Helen, this ridiculously long letter is just the beginning of what I’d like to discuss with you. I’m going to have to sit down and write you a follow up letter soon. I haven’t even mentioned that my research suggests that your mother, Thekla Ellenbogen, the daughter of Meier Ellenbogen and Sophia Bär, might have come from a line of important rabbinical figures. As a rabbi myself and as someone who loves history- I have been fascinated by that possibility for a while now!
Helen, it's been so wonderful to have the chance to write to you. Thank you for the love that you gave to your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Since I know that memories were precious to you, I hope that you will find meaning in the knowledge that almost fifty years after your passing, your family continues to remember you with love and appreciation. We will make sure that your memory continues to be a blessing for generations to come.
Your Great-Great-Granddaughter, Rachel