There are some members of your family that you know from a young age. You know that they are gone, though you might not understand the full meaning for a long time. They're there in the background. In pictures. In stories. In the stories that aren't told, too. And as a genealogist, when you start your research, you come to know some of these people very well.
For me, my great grandfather Alex Hillinger was one of these people. Not only did I never meet him, but he was even gone before my father was born. My father was named for him, though. His name is a variation on Alex's birth name, Elias. So my father grew up knowing he was named for this grandfather, though never believing it, because his name was nothing like Alex. It is only recently since I have been digging deeper into Alex's past that we have learned that was his name, that he and I truly understood where his name truly came from.
My great grandfather was born Elias Seneft in 1883 in a small country in Eastern Europe known as Galicia. Galicia no longer exists, but at the time, it was part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. The country was located in what is now southern Poland and western Ukraine. The locals called the country "Naked and hungry land," which gives you an idea of what it was like to live there at the time. It was especially difficult to be Jewish there at the time. Many Jewish people had settled there over the centuries, and like everywhere else they lived in Europe, they were despised and reviled. And this anger led to pograms throughout the greater Eastern European area, anywhere Jews lived.
|Alex's father, Leon Seneft|
The family's names are odd to me, as they are all such English names. However, now that I know Alex's true name was Elias, I have to believe that the childrens' names at the very least are anglicized versions of their birth names. I'm still unsure of Leon's name, but Mindel's is definitely a Hebrew name, at the very least. I have some suspicions on what the childrens' birth names might be, but no certainty at this time.
|Photos of Alex Seneft at Camp Douglas|
Shortly after Mindel's death, World War I began, and Leon and Mindel's children began to leave England. Germans were not welcome in England once the war began, and my great grandfather was hit the hardest by this. Jack left and moved to America, soon followed by Annie, then Jennie. Alex and their other brother remained in England, and one or both of them were sent to a camp for enemy aliens, that is to say, Germans. My grandfather said that his father was sent to a place called Camp Douglas on the Isle of Man. It was a summer resort, so it was fairly well apportioned, though there was a separate area set aside from the camp for the Jews to stay in, as no one wanted to live with them nearby. We have a few photos of Alex's time in the camp, but no absolute dates for when he was there, as all English records for the camps were destroyed in World War II bombings. We do know that he was there until the end of the war, and that after the war, he was expelled from England because he was still considered an enemy alien. Because of this, Alex ended up making his way to Frankfurt.
This is where my knowledge of my family truly begins, and where my major records begin to appear. I have a few scattered records of Alex's family, but most of the records for this branch of my family came from the family book about Alex and his wife's family, and from the records of their journey to America and their time there. So for me, my family's story truly begins with my great grandparents coming to Frankfurt.
When Alex first arrived in the country, he was going by the name of Alex or Elias Seneft. However, shortly after his arrival, he was told by an official that it could not be his legal name, as his parents had married in a Jewish ceremony, not a civil one, and therefore they considered his parent's marriage invalid. This meant that his legal name by German standards was Elias Hilinger. After that time, Alex never used the surname Seneft again.
|Dora Kresch and her sister Minna|
|Alex and Dora's wedding invitation|
Alex and Dora ran a string of businesses, but growing tensions in Germany riled up by the Nazi party soon caused each of them to fail. By their youngest child's first birthday, Alex knew it was time to leave. When his final business failed, Alex arranged for his family to move to Paris so that he could try for a visa to the US, where his brother and at least one of his sisters still lived. They moved to Paris in 1933 and stayed there for about a year while Alex arranged for the family's passage. In August of 1934, they arrived at Ellis Island under the slight name change of Hillinger, which the family still uses today. There they proceeded to wait for a family member to come and vouch for them. He never did. Luckily, a neighbor from Frankfurt saw them and recognized them, vouching for them so that they were allowed to enter the country.
|The Hilinger family in Germany ca 1932|
|Alex and Dora with their first grandchild|
|Alex and Dora with her sister Minna at their daughter's wedding|