Immigrant Ancestor #1: Alex Hillinger

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
Alex's parents, Leon and Mindel, moved their family to England sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s in an attempt to find a better life and escape the rising violence. Unfortunately, between their moves, their poverty, and two major wars, most of the information about the family's early years in Galicia and London is lost. We have no paperwork on either time for any of them. We are not even certain when they moved, or how they got there. What little I do know comes from the knowledge of others in my family. Leon and Mindel had at least five children; three sons and two daughters: Jack, Alex, Jennie, Annie, and one more son I currently do not know the name of. Leon was a Rabbi, though I do not know if this was in Galicia, London, or both. And I know that Mindel did not live long in England. I have a record for her death in 1913. Her grave is marked with the words "Loving daughter Jennie."

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
Shortly after his arrival in Frankfurt, he met a young woman named Dora Kresch who had also been born in Galicia. She and her sister had moved to Frankfurt after the war to find a better life for themselves the way so many Jewish young people at the time were doing. At the time, Frankfurt's Jewish community was thriving. During their time there, the first Jewish mayor of Frankfurt was even elected, something that did not happen again until 2012.

Alex and Dora's wedding invitation
The two married in 1919, and started their family, eventually having six children: Benno, born 1920; Mina and Sam, born 1922; Helena, born 1923; Hinda (known to the family as Peppi), born 1927; and Selma, born 1931. I do know that Dora's mother and two of her sisters lived in the city, though I can only speculate whether the children spent time with them. I assume they must have, but no stories have been passed down to me. I do know that the older children all attended school at a major Jewish school in Frankfurt, Die Philanthropin, which was later shut down by the Nazis, but has been used since 1966 as a Jewish school once more.

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
The family traveled to Tennessee where they moved in with Alex's sister Annie and her husband for a time. Before they were able to get fully settled, though, Alex had an accident, and then a stroke. He was never truly able to work again. Instead, Dora took over. She worked a series of institutional cooking jobs while the children finished their schooling. The family moved from Memphis to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and then to Chicago, where many of their grandchildren and their descendants still live today.

Alex and Dora with their first grandchild
Alex and Dora with her sister Minna at their daughter's wedding
Alex survived through all the moves, and we have a many photos of him with his family. In 1942, both of their sons were drafted into the army and made citizens. Sam went off to Europe, though he was never sent to the front lines because of his German birth. Still, he served well, and stayed in Europe after the war was over. He was transferred to Frankfurt to help with the cleanup. There he met the woman he was to marry in his very own hometown. Unfortunately, Alex never got to meet her. He died the same year they were married, 1948, only a year before his grandson and namesake was born.

Genealogy Stats Update and More Resolutions for 2017

Time to update my stats again for the past year. I didn't really add a lot in my own family, but I did add my brother-in-law's family to my program, which definitely added a good deal to my numbers.

Overall Roots Magic Stats:
•    People 5260  – an increase of 532 people, which is more than double from the increase between 2013 and 2016
•    Families 1742 – an increase of 111 families, again, more than double from the previous change
•    Events 8999 – An addition of 1574 facts throughout the file, which is five times the previous change
•    Alternate Names 196 – 43 new alternate names, some of which may just be repeats. I'll have to look into these
•    Places 1425 – 203 new places, though again, I may need to see how many are just repeats written out differently.
•    Sources 390 – 109 new sources, which is definitely due to adding a new family to my tree
•    Citations 23455 – 320 new citations of those sources, which suggests to me I haven't been sourcing the facts in the new tree nearly enough. I'll have to work on that, too.

As I said, most of the changes are due to my brother-in-law's family tree, which I have to clean up, but still looks like it added a great deal to my file this year. Still finding new connections in the Scandinavian branches, too, but nothing significant yet.

Family Branch Stats:
Hillinger line
•    Still 5 generations, nothing new there
•    136 people (this may just be from a different style of counting)

Hansen line
•    Still 21 generations, ending with Nana
•    Still seems to be about 2000 people, according to what I managed with Family Tree Maker, though I may have mucked that up. There really doesn't seem to be a good report for this. At least, nothing easily done.

Bordewick line
•    Still 11 generations, ending with my mother
•    Again, seems to be just over 1000 people, according to what I can work out in FTM

Jones line
•    No changes in number here, either. Still 6 generations, ending with my grandmother
•    397 people according to my program, which is over 100 new people, so either I miscounted, or I've added more people on this line than I realized.

Then there are my brother-in-law's lines:

Nelson line
•    4 generations currently, ending with my brother-in-law's father
•    Currently seems to be at 26 people.

Bergstrahl line
•    6 generations, ending with my brother-in-law's grandmother on his father's side
•    This line currently has 56 people

Matlack line
•    7 generations, ending with my brother-in-law's mother
•    This line currently has 74 people in my program, though I see lots more to add from Family Search

Holly line
•    6 generations, ending with my brother-in-law's maternal grandmother.
•    This one's the largest, with 134 people currently in the line, though like Matlack, I see lots more to add from Family Search.

As you can see, I added quite a few people with his lines, though that part is by no means finished. And I've got more work to do because of the resolutions I already stated earlier this week. But here are a few more goals:

•    Clean up the names in the database, make sure no one has multiple names that are just repeats.
•    Clean up the place database for the same reason
•    Finish pulling everything up from Family Search for any family lines
•    Add the Nelson, Bergstrahl, Matlack, and Holly lines to the Ancestry tree as well
•    Finish adding Citations to any facts that don't have them yet

I think with the other resolutions, that's quite enough, don't you?

Happy Birthday, Grumpy

My grandfather would have been 95 today. Most of us called him Grumpy from about the time I was born. There are two stories about how he came to take the moniker. One says that his wife decided that "Grandma Hillinger" was too much of a mouthful for a kid, so she decided to go by Nana. After that, everyone wanted to know what my grandfather wanted to be called. He said "Grumpy." The other says that when I began to talk, I mangled the word Grandpa, or straight out called him Grumpy. Either way, it fit, so it stuck. From the time I was born, he was Grumpy. He was a good man, but not easy to talk to, and often a little hard on those around him. Still, he was our grandfather, and we loved him.

Sam and his sister Minna

His birth name was Sammi Hilinger. He was the third child born to his parents, Alex and Dora. He had an elder brother, and an older twin sister, Minna, who is still alive today and living in Colorado. They were born in 1922 in Frankfurt am Main and grew up in a very vibrant Jewish community.

The Hillinger family ca 1932

Unfortunately, that was also a time of rising nationalism in Germany. By the mid twenties, the Nazis were in power, and as soon as they were, they began to make life difficult for Jews and other "outsiders" in their country. Sam's father had been born in Galicia, a place where it was very hard to be poor and Jewish. He had later been sent to an English camp for being of Germanic citizenship during World War I. Both experiences helped him to recognize the signs of what might be coming for their people. He decided it was time to get out of Germany, and even Europe entirely. In 1933, they moved their family of what was now eight to Paris, living there for about a year while Alex worked on getting them all passage to the US. My grandfather often mentioned being a paper seller on the streets of Paris to make a few coins while they were living there. Because of their time there, he picked up French, which later stood him in good stead with the Army when he served during World War II.

Still, I'm sure it wasn't easy, going from a tight-knit community where everyone was like them to being exiles. Having to leave so much behind that they simply couldn't afford to take with them. Living in a new country where the language was completely different. Never knowing what might happen next, and the underlying tensions in Europe that would be impossible to ignore, even as a child. Grumpy rarely spoke German while I was growing up. A few words or phrases here or there, but he spoke English nearly always, and so it was odd to hear it when he did speak it.

Sam's page from his senior year highschool yearbook
Soon after the family made it to the US, Sam's father had a stroke, so they floundered a bit. Dora began to work as a cook in a string of institutions to make money for the family while the children learned English and finished their schooling. Sam graduated from the same Hot Springs, Arkansas school that Bill Clinton would later graduate from, and then went to work in a nearby oilfield in Texas. However, when his family moved to Chicago, Sam moved with them, leaving the job behind.

Private Sam Hillinger
Before they were too settled in their new home, the US had entered World War II. Sam and his elder brother were drafted, and Sam became a citizen, formally changing his name from Sammi to Sam. He was sent to Europe, where he worked as an accountant and occasional translator, given that he knew both French and German, both of which were very valuable languages during the war. After the war ended, so many others were eager to get home quick that the boats were packed going back home. So Sam chose to stay in Europe, using his translating skills to help in the aftermath and cleanup. He was transferred to his home town of Frankfurt, where he ended up meeting and falling for a young Lieutenant in the Army by the name of Margaret Hansen.

Sam and Maggie at their Reception
Sam and Maggie met on a trip to St. Moritz. The trip had been set up by the Red Cross as a form of entertainment for the soldiers and workers who had remained behind to help with the war cleanup after the war. Sam was travelling with some of his Army buddies, but Maggie was all alone. Upon meeting her, he ended up ignoring his buddies to sit and talk with her for the entire trip. When they arrived at the resort, the two spent much of their time there together, even learning how to ski together. It was something that would become a lifelong pastime for the pair, and something they passed on to their children and grandchildren.

They were married in 1948 in the City Registrar's office, and held a reception for their friends the next day. By that time, Maggie had retired from the Army, though Sam still continued to work for them. The two stayed in Frankfurt for another year before returning home. Their first child, my father, was born right there on the Army base.

Sam and Dora with Sam's son
Back in the US, they visited with both Sam's family in Chicago and Maggie's in Cleveland before settling in Ohio so that Sam could attend Ohio State University. He got an accounting degree there. Then they decided to move to Seattle. Neither were particularly attached to the cities their families lived in. They wanted more freedom, and more greenery. Sam received several offers from Touche, Niven, Bailey & Smart in a number of locations across the US. One of which was for Seattle. They'd heard good things about the Pacific Northwest from several of their friends in the Army, and when they learned there were ski areas within a few hours driving distance, that sealed things for them. The family drove across the country and settled in Seattle. Sam and Maggie ended up having another son and two daughters. All of their children still live in the greater Seattle area today.

Sam continued his career as an accountant, working in a string of businesses before finally starting his own business as a CPA. He found a partner to share a space with, and they bought a small house in Ballard, setting up their practice there. By that point, Sam and Maggie's children were all in school, so Maggie came to work for them as a receptionist and secretary. Sam did quite well, doing taxes for many of the businesses in the area, which gave the two enough money to travel during non-peak times of the year. They traveled to Europe quite often, visiting places they'd been to as well as those they had not, and visiting their extended family throughout Europe. He retired in the late 80s, giving them more time to ski and travel, going on cruises and with travel groups for elders, and generally enjoying their life together.

The Hillingers ca 1971

The family continued to grow. Their children married and had children of their own. Family gatherings grew larger and larger. Sam and Maggie enjoyed their time with their grandchildren, often taking them on trips as well, though more local ones. There were family Thanksgivings up in Whistler, trips to other ski areas, and trips down to California to spend time with Maggie's family down there. And through it all, there was plenty of skiing.

Sam and his sisters

It was on a trip to Spain in 2000 that we lost Sam. They had just arrived in Madrid when Sam suffered a fatal heart attack. One of their daughters went to Spain to be with Maggie so that she would not have to deal with it all alone. A year later, we scattered his ashes at one of his favorite ski areas, Steven's Pass. Nana lived more than ten years after that. She got to meet her first two great-grandchildren before she passed.

On 9/11, Grumpy was one of the first people I thought of. How would he have reacted? What would he have done? And each time there is some new upheaval in this country, I think of him, of them. Especially this past election. I wonder what he and Nana would be doing now, and how they would react to all this. Right now, they're a touchstone for me. I hope they will guide me carefully through the next four years. Whatever else, I will keep them close to my heart.

Happy New Year!

So it's the New Year, and because of the election and its results, one of my resolutions for this year is to focus on the ancestors I think Trump would like the least. By this, I mean my Jewish Ancestors and my first-generation immigrant ancestors. On all sides of my family, that is quite recent.

Neither of my parents were born in this country. My mother was born in Canada, and immigrated down here with her parents when she was still young. Now granted, she's white (Norwegian/ German/ Irish/ Welsh), but it still counts, even if people like Trump are blind to it. My father was born on an American Army Base after the war, and his parents were both US citizens, so he is a US citizen though he wasn't born in the country.

My father's mother's parents were both Danish, and came here separately to make a better life for themselves. It is because they came here that they met at all. They met on a ship returning to Denmark to see their families. After they returned to the US, they ended up getting married and settled in Cleveland. There are still many houses in Cleveland today that my great-grandfather built. Even before my great-grandmother came here, her grandfather came with another wave of Danish immigrants who settled in Minnesota. We don't know exactly where, but I am hoping to learn more about him this year as well.

However, it is starting with his father where my true "dark" blood lies. My grandfather was Jewish. He was born in 1922 in Frankfurt, Germany. He lived there until 1933 when his father chose to take the family and leave the country before things got worse.

Then there is my mother's father's mother, who while white, was 100% Northern Irish. She was born in Philadelphia, but her parents were Irish immigrants. They came here to find a better life during a time when it was hard to make a living in Ireland. They lived here from about 1883 to sometime in the early 1900s. At that time the country began to lash out against immigrants, including the Irish. My great-great grandparents left with their children and returned home to Belfast, then moved on to Canada a few years later. My great grandmother lived there until the late seventies. Then my grandfather, her son, chose to move her to the US so she would be closer to where the family lived. Still, she always hated being here in the states because of how poorly her family had been treated.

We treat our immigrants as either invisible (usually because they're white Europeans), or as criminals and vagrants who are either here to steal our jobs (usually the jobs most Americans refuse to do because they don't pay enough or are otherwise menial and therefore beneath us), or to mooch off our social welfare programs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every group of people who come here give our country something more in the way of culture. Food, clothes, a new way to think of things. They enrich our lives and our country. And without them, the US would become stagnant. I would say "and decay," but by the looks of this current election, we are already doing that. We need to start taking care of our people, both those already here and those who want to be here and contribute. Each provides a vital need, and without either, we will be lost.

So I dedicate this year to my Immigrant Ancestors, and to everything they contributed to our country. I look forward to learning more about them, and what they contributed to our country, and why they came here in the first place. And I dedicate it to my grandfather's family; to my ancestors who have been chased from country to country throughout their lives, never finding a true home because they were unwanted. We have been here for three generations now. We are not going anywhere. Not one of us.

About this blog

This blog is maintained by two sisters who have had a life long interest in geneology.
Mika writes here mostly about our family (Hansen, Hillinger, Bordewick, Park, etc), and her search for more information.
Shannon mostly uses this space as a place to make the many stories written about and by her husband's family (Holly, Walker, Walpole, etc) available to the rest of the family, present and future.

Our blog is named Oh Spusch! mostly because Shannon is bad at naming things. The first post I put up includes a story about the time Walker's great grandfather took his whole family out to see a play and the littlest kept saying "Oh! Spusch!" No one ever figured out what she meant by that.