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.


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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.