I’ve wanted to collect for some time now. My father collected Inuit carvings. Will Straw, a friend in Montreal, turned eBay into a collecting machine, making one brilliant acquistion after another. The two of them made it look like fun.
I especially liked the idea of collecting, the solitary pleasure, the little universe you build purchase by purchase, the way things you never knew or cared about suddenly assume "must have" status. But what to collect? Rugs, watches, wine, movie posters, motel coasters, first edition noir? Nothing appealed to me.
Then I came across Erna’s passport on eBay. This, I thought, this I would like to have. It came in the mail, paper in paper. The passports of 1920s Austria were delicate things, green ink on beige paper, filled now with forms, stamps, signatures, and of course Erna’s photograph, from which she looks out at us steadily, apparently thinking something funny and kind.
My German isn’t very good. So the passport didn’t give away very much. Erna was born in late October in 1894. The passport was issued in 1922. In between, what? It looks as if Erna gives her profession as a private beautician, but I could be wrong.
Lots of questions. Why did she leave? Where did she go? How did she fund her trip? What happened next?
My sister said, "look at the Ellis Island website," and this says Erna arrived in the US in 1923. She was sponsored by her brother Philippe who arrived the year before. Philippe is described as "Dr." Schonwald and he had been sponsored by his cousin, A.F. Low in Seattle. Ah, so that’s where the money came from.
But more questions. Why was a doctor leaving his homeland in 1922…at 47 no less? The early twenties seems a little early to be escaping anti-semitism, but then my German history isn’t much better than my German.
Then my sister discovered a reference to a Dr. Schonwald, President of the East Point Oysters Company of Stanwood Washington. What are the chances, she asked me, that there were two Dr. Schonwald’s in the area in the period? So, what, Dr. Schonwald was a biologist?
And then I discovered that someone has digitized the Seattle phone book for 1923. (I mean, is the Internet not the greatest thing in the history of the universe?) This calls "Philipp" a physician. And it says that his office was at 227 Cobb building. Using these key words in Google, we learn that the Cobb was built in 1910 with the purpose of offering "200 of Seattle’s best doctors and finest dentists the choicest office possible." Ok, so he’s a not just a doctor but a man of substance. (So what about the oyster thing again?)
If we consult the 1930 census, we discover that Philippe has a wife, Peggie, and two daughters, Lurlie, 15, and Rose, 12 and a Norwegian servant called Matilda. These means, among other things, that when Philippe came to America, he was travelling with two children under the age of 10.
The census also gives us a glimpse of Erna (mistransliterated as "Ema") as a boarder. Oh, my heart sank a little. Erna would now have been 35. The census says that she was a bookkeeper. Finally, it gives her birthplace as "Vatican City State." My heart rose. There is no way that this is a misprint. There’s no way the census taker misunderstood. This is either an extravagant act of the imagination or the truth.
The 1930 census says that Erna was boarding with Ariston Wchwertner, but it is clear that this too is a misprint. Erna was boarding with a "Schwertner," with whom she shared German as a first language. Also, it turns out that Schwertner was working as a nurse in a doctor’s office, and now of course we wonder whether Erna’s might have been a bookkeeper in same.
While I was searching for Schwerter, a familiar name popped up: Philipp Schonwald. This is the man who sponsored her journey from Guafenstein, Tchecho Slowakei, via Surabaya, Indonesia to San Francisco and then Seattle.
This means that Erna is merely listed as a boarder. She is in fact living with a woman who is almost certainly a relative. And chances are now good that she works with this woman as well, which suggests that she is working for her brother. Ah, Erna safe in the bossom of her family.
After that, the trail goes cold. I can’t find any more about her. Thoughts, speculations, more information, any of this would be most appreciated. Does anyone have an idea why Dr. Schonwald left in 1922 or Erna left in 1923? What little I know tells me that the Jewish community had been leaving since the 1860s. But what would have persuaded a physican to move his family and two small children across first an ocean and then a continent? But most of all, was Erna born in the Vatican City? Or was this a brilliant lie?
I ran out of vacation. It’s up to you.