There is almost always at least one story of migration, be it voluntary or forced, in every family tree. For many of us, though, migration is part and parcel of who we are, as so many of our ancestors originated in places other than where we grew up. Indeed, this blog is centered around one such forced displacement, because of war. Sometimes it’s not known exactly what factors motivated our ancestors’ migration. However, one route was particularly common for Europeans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: countless citizens turned their back on the continent and sought a better life, primarily in the USA. And so it is with Ernst Szameitat, the elder brother of my great-grandfather Oskar. He’s the one who fled the nest seemingly at will, sought out the new, and like so many others headed for a new life in the United States.
Back in the 1990s, when we started doing genealogical research as a family and I was a young girl, I can remember being told about the mysterious Ernst, who, my great-grandmother told us, had emigrated to the USA in the 1920s and who they had lost touch with after. We never got the impression she knew him well, indeed her records show she only married his brother Oskar in 1927, around about the time he is supposed to have left Germany.
There is a little more detail in one of her documents, a copy of the evidence she gave in 1966 at a private meeting of the district court’s local civil chamber concerning the property near Memel that the Gestapo had confiscated from the family in 1942. In it, she lists people who might possibly be considered heirs of her mother-in-law’s property, and Ernst’s name crops up. You might recall from this blog post that Oskar and Ernst’s mother, Anna Galbrast, had died when the children were both very young. Johanne explained that their mother had left behind some money held in trust for both the brothers and that they had received it prior to the First World War. Oskar had invested his money (which Johanne listed as 2,000 Reichsmark, though Reichsmark was not the currency used before the First World War) into the property owned by his mother-in-law, whereas Ernst, the elder brother, had had no interest in the property, never even visited, and used his share of his inhertitance to pay for teacher training, his later profession.
Johanne also wrote that Ernst and Oskar had got on well, and continued to be in touch with each other after his emigration to the USA in the 1920s. The final time he had been in touch, he had asked Oskar if he could send him some money so he could set up his own apiary (beekeeping farm), and Johanne was of the opinion that her husband did indeed send him some cash. Since then, they had heard nothing more from him. Focusing on her own concerns of who might be an heir of the confiscated property, she raised the question of whether he might have been declared dead by some local court or other, but she did not know.
Fast forward to the late 1990s when my family caught the genealogy bug and we were all researching away left right and centre in records centres across the UK, looking through microfiches for names and dates of our Irish and English ancestors. German family history, at the time, was more difficult, but since Mum had always wondered what had happened to Ernst, and recalling he had emigrated to the States, she searched the US social security index and found that he had died in Willard, Seneca, New York State. She tracked down a US contact in nearby Ovid and asked them to apply for his death certificate on her behalf. What we received back was, well, somewhat of a surprise. Ernst, now called Ernest, had died in 1975, aged 79, of a heart attack in Willard State Hospital in New York State, a psychiatric centre for the mentally ill. He had been a patient there for 33 years. His diagnosis was listed as “schizophrenia paranoid”.
More details of his life in the USA prior to his admission to hospital were not forthcoming. In 2000, the US Census records for 1930 were released to the public, and Mum had a look for him, but was unable to locate him anywhere in the USA. We collectively scratched our heads. Research into his story would have to sit on the backburner for a while.
A long while, it transpired. Not until I took the financial plunge and took out a subscription at Ancestry last year (2019), combining the results with what was available at Family Search, was I able to find out more. And what I found out was, well, even more surprising. Ships’ manifests galore with evidence of him visiting Vancouver, San Francisco, London, New York, Hamburg, Auckland, Wellington, Sydney. Immigration records and failed attempts at border crossings. A marriage certificate and divorce proceedings. Two relevant newspaper articles from New Zealand. And most bizarre was the ever changing list of his profession. Teacher. Cook. Bee-keeper. Waiter. Farmer. Police sergeant. To say I was intrigued is an understatement.
Up until this point, I have been too overwhelmed by family life and political developments to be able to sift through Ernst’s movements systematically and come up with some kind of cohesive timeline of his life. Now, with Covid-19 raging, I need a welcome distraction. Ernst’s story is just that, but it is also a jigsaw piece in my family history and thus part of who I am. He also deserves to have his story told, given that we are his only descendants. Now is as good a time as any to tell it.
Like Oskar, Andreas Ernst was born in Paszieszen, a large (for the time) village in the far north of the German Empire, in north-eastern East Prussia. His birth, in January 1896, followed his parents’ marriage in Tilsit nine months previously, and they had only just started setting up for married life in Paszieszen when he came along.
From buildings’ tax documents sent to me by the LCVA (Lithuanian Central State Archives), we learn that a plot of land in Paszieszen was conveyed to Emil Szameitat (Ernst and Oskar’s father) on 22nd February 1896, when Ernst would only have been a few weeks old. From this document we know they had a guest house of some kind, a courtyard and a residential house with a garden, a stable with a carriage entrance, another stable, and a barn. What Emil’s employment was at the time is unknown (farmer? Pub landlord? Both? On a 1911 document he was listed as a former Kaufmann, a merchant, trader or businessman), but Johanne’s documents tell us that Emil ended up going bankrupt around 1900 following his descent into alcoholism after his wife Anna’s sudden death in childbirth with their third child (who sadly also died). The Paszieszen dream was over, and Emil did not own property again: the family opted to keep the property they purchased after the First World War (the property that the Gestapo subsequently confiscated) in his second wife’s, Lucinde’s, name, just in case.
Ernst and Oskar grew up with Lucinde Szameitat completely fulfilling the role of mother, and it’s probable that the boys, who were only 18 months apart, did not remember their birth mother Anna Galbrast. We don’t know if Ernst and Lucinde were close, but Oskar certainly loved her greatly. Johanne believed that Oskar had attended primary school in Tilsit, possibly living with his paternal grandmother, Emil’s mother Lisette, while he did so. We can only assume Ernst did the same, but we’ll never know for sure. By 1911, they were all living in Memel in the Verlängerte-Alexanderstraße 8, a street that Johanne and Oskar would live on later as a married couple too, and very close to the area where Oskar was fatally wounded by a Russian grenade in October 1944. Both the boys must have attended school in Memel, but we can’t be sure which. In 1914, Oskar voluntarily joined the army to fight in the war as a seventeen year old. Perhaps Ernst did too. He was certainly active in the war, as he crops up on the list of wounded soldiers in 1915. He was part of the Grenadier-Regiment 4, which, assuming that refers to the Königin Augusta Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 4, means that he will have fought on the Western front in 1914, partaking in the Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of St Quentin, before settling into trench warfare in Flanders and Artois. In 1915, the regiment was moved to the Eastern front and fought in the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive at the end of April, as well as at Lviv, where Ernst was presumably wounded, because in September 1915 the regiment was sent back to the Western front and took part in the Third Battle of Artois as well as the Battle of the Somme (where Ernst’s brother Oskar happens to have been wounded).
Whether Ernst rejoined his regiment or was transferred somewhere else after convalescing I have not yet been able to ascertain. In fact, the trail goes cold after the First World War. The next document I found relevant to Ernst was his marriage record in 1923. This also came as a surprise, as Mum had no recollection of being told that Ernst had been married, and thought that perhaps even Johanne didn’t know about it either.
The marriage record shows Ernst living with his wife-to-be in Quednau, which was then a small town north of Königsberg, later a district of Königsberg itself and now a modern day district of Kaliningrad, Russia. Now, for those of you well versed in twentieth century Eastern European history, you will recall that the part of East Prussia north of the Memel river was separated from the rest of East Prussia and governed by the League of Nations until the Lithuanian takeover in 1923 (you can read more about the history of the region here). Formerly German citizens in the region were allowed to ‘opt for Germany’ and thus move to Germany to keep their German citizenship. Oskar, his parents, and Johanne and her family all opted to stay where they were (it was their Heimat after all) and make do with Lithuanian citizenship. I wondered, given that we find Ernst near Königsberg in 1923, whether he opted for Germany and hence left the Memelland. This would, however, assume that he left the area at the earliest in 1923. It could have been possible that he had already had itchy feet before then and wanted to leave what must have felt like the back end of beyond. In any case, he married the 21 year old Gertraud Schapals on 6th July 1923 in Quednau, where they were both living. His wife was listed as having been born in Posen, which in 1923 had formed part of the Polish ‘corridor’, but Schapals is a Prussian Lithuanian name, and her family must have originated in the Memelland. Perhaps her father was in the military, or her maternal line came from the Posen province, and her mother went there to give birth.
In a nice touch for me as a family historian, my great-grandfather Oskar is listed as one of the witnesses, and his signature appears with the bride and groom’s, and that of a second witness, Bernhard Heichel, a postal secretary.
Most interesting to me, other than the fact that the marriage ended in divorce in 1938 (see the statement in blue on the left of the image above), was that Ernst’s profession was listed as a Polizeiwachtmeister, which was the lowest of the police ranks. In some sense I was not surprised by the profession – after all, Oskar was in the police force, so why should his brother not have been? – but it of course made me wonder why Johanne seemed to think he had spent his inheritance on teacher training and that teaching had been his profession. Was she wrong? Did she misremember? Had Ernst lied about his profession, either to Johanne and Oskar or to the registry office official at the wedding? Or was this a first indication of a developing mental illness?
In any case, Ernst and Gertraud appeared to have settled into a lovely town just to the north of Königsberg. Quednau was a Gartenstadt, a garden town, and had a lovely park at its heart, but was within easy commuting distance of the provincial capital to the south.
Quednau is today known as Северная Гора (Severnaya Gora) in the Kaliningrad region of Russia. As Königsberg morphed into Kaliningrad and after those Germans that hadn’t died from starvation, disease or violence had been expelled from the region after the war, the Russians (perhaps understandably) took little effort to preserve the heritage of the once mighty East Prussian capital, the centre of which had been almost totally destroyed by RAF bombing in October 1944 as well as the Russian advance in 1945. As such, they did not rebuild the centre according to what it was like before the war, choosing to make it a model Soviet town instead. These days, Kaliningrad is often written off as ugly, when actually its post-Soviet development is really not horrible to look at and its range of styles make it a very dynamic and architecturally interesting place, in my view. But very few people seem to know that, if you just stray a little further away from the centre, a lot of German suburbia in Königsberg is preserved. Северная Гора, to my mind, looks like any German suburb built in the 1920s and 30s, save for the odd post-Soviet high rise building.
And here’s an interesting fact: Северная Гора’s most famous child is none other than Ljudmila Alexandrowna Putina, Vladimir Putin’s now ex-wife, who was born there in 1958 and spent her childhood there. I enjoyed learning that!
You can see many more images of Северная Гора here, and be sure to have a look at modern day images of the former Amalienau and Maraunenhof districts of Königsberg here and here, because there are some truly stunning villas, all within walking distance of central Kaliningrad (Google translate does a good job of translating the Russian if you’d like to read about what you’re seeing).
Despite my searches for children of Ernst and Gertraud in the years following their wedding in 1923, I was unable to find any relevant records. The next time Ernst crops up is on a ship’s manifest in September 1927. Aha! I thought. This must be when he emigrated (interestingly alone, and Gertraud must thus have stayed in Quednau). Johanne had only been a year or two out in her estimate. Brilliant.
Except it was all wrong. He was sailing from London to Sydney via South Africa on the SS Baltana. He even stayed at the very posh Hotel St Pancras, which I can only assume is this one, the night before the ship set sail. And he gave his profession as a farmer, and Sydney was given as his country of intended permanent residence. Hm.
But then he didn’t stop there. Presumably as soon as possible after his arrival in Sydney, he set sail to Wellington, New Zealand, aboard the SS Marama, where he also stated that his intention for the visit was to emigrate.
And as crazy as it seems, he then, only a few months later in April 1928, set sail from Auckland, NZ, to Vancouver, British Columbia, going via Sydney (again), Fiji and across the Pacific Ocean, on the MV Aorangi.
By this point I was thinking, huh, did he just like travel? How on earth was he funding all this? Once in Vancouver, he tried to cross the border to the USA at Seattle.
Notably, as he was without an immigration visa, he was only given a bond of six months to visit the country. He listed his intended destination as San Francisco, and stated the purpose of his visit was to see the country. There are some details of his personal appearance given: he was small at 5’6″, had a dark complexion and brown hair and eyes. He was apparently carrying $250, and again listed his profession as farmer. He gave no contact in San Francisco that he was hoping to visit. He crossed the border at Blaine on 17th May 1928.
Next, we find an application for crossing the border the other way, from the USA back to Canada, some six months later, but this time at the Detroit/Windsor border.
This time, Ernst had styled himself as Ernest, was a waiter, not only during his time in San Francisco, and this was also apparently the trade he was aiming to follow in Canada should he be granted immigration status. He seems to have made a friend called Mrs Frey in San Fransisco – perhaps he lodged with her, perhaps she was also a German immigrant – and he was carrying $100, notably far more than most of the other people trying to cross the border. His application to cross the border was rejected, though he appealed it.
There is no information on whether he successfully crossed the border this way, but it is the next piece in the puzzle that dizzied my brain more than anything Ernst had done so far. He is next found on another ship’s manifest, the SS Deutschland, in 1930. But he was travelling from Hamburg to New York (via Cuxhaven, Southampton, and Cherbourg), which must mean he’d been home to Germany in between (I have not managed to fill in the missing leg from North America back to Europe sometime in late 1928 or 1929).
This time, his profession was listed as a bee-master, and on the German manifest the equivalent Bienenzüchter. He travelled in 3rd class. He had been issued an immigration visa (no. 177) in Berlin on 2nd July 1930, and again lists Gertraud as his contact person in Quednau. Was this what Johanne was remembering when she recalled Ernst had emigrated to the USA, but she had just got her dates wrong? After all, she referred to him asking for money to set up an apiary, and here he is listed as a bee-master. He paid for the passage himself, and again appears to be carrying a fair amount of cash ($350). He states that he had never been to the US before (hmm…), was going to join someone called Garell Schmid of 505 East 142nd Street, New York, and intended to become a US citizen. As for his appearance, he had seemingly grown a couple of inches and was now 5’8″, was of fair complexion, and had blond hair and blue eyes (so the jury is definitely out on his appearance!)
Wondering what Ernst might have got up to in the USA, I tried to find old address books and newspapers from New York State and see what I could find. I was unable to find a reference to Ernst in any New York State newspapers listed here. Then I thought I’d try New Zealand newspapers, wondering if there might be any hits that would tell me what he spent 5 months doing in Wellington.
What I found was of enormous magnitude, and finding something like this has never happened before in all my long years of family history research. It only happens to famous families or royalty. I nearly fell off my chair and immediately called my mum to tell her. There were TWO whole newspaper articles all about Ernst in the Waikato Times from December 1927. I’ve quoted them fully below:
Here’s the second article from a week later:
Immediately, I was able to make much more sense of his movements. Not only did the information in the articles correlate exactly with the ships’ manifests (apart from they got Ernst’s age wrong), it would explain why he sought out New Zealand, presumably why he left (he was not granted settled status), and why he tried to get to California next (who knew it was a great region for apiary!?) There is so much new information that I haven’t managed to process fully yet, and many new leads: did he really study in Erlangen and Berlin? Or was this evidence of schizophrenia taking hold? I had known that his brother Oskar had been a keen amateur bee-keeper from other records, so wasn’t surprised to learn that Ernst dabbled in it, but had no idea he might have trained professionally. To say nothing of the reports of two children, who I have still not yet managed to find records of.
Back in the States after sailing to New York in 1930, the trail goes cold until 1937, when there is an application in Ernst’s name for Social Security, a programme unrolled by Roosevelt in 1935 as part of his New Deal measures to help out those worst hit by the Great Depression.
Notably, there is no indication of whether the application was made under Title III (unemployment insurance) or Title VI (Public Health Services) (the other titles definitely cannot have applied as they were for dependents, maternal services and services for the aged). But, since there is a note that the signature name differed from the name holder, I rather suspect it was made under Title VI. This is supported by the fact that, in the 1940 census, Ernst had already been institutionalized, and was listed as a patient at Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island.
By now, he had become an American citizen and was again going by the name of Ernest. Although he was technically a patient, on the census record he is (perhaps tellingly) listed as an inmate. He is listed as having worked for the institution for 3 hours in the past week, and that in 1935, he had been living in Manhatten.
Recall from his marriage certificate that he and Gertraud had divorced in 1938. Now I am no scholar of National Socialist legal history, so I am not aware of whether or how it was possible for Gertraud to divorce him if he was not in the country. Perhaps she was able to invoke grounds of abandonment, maybe she hadn’t heard from him for years. In any case, Ernest didn’t know about it, because he was listed as married in the 1940 census. It is possible (probable), however, that that would have been filled out on his behalf by staff who did not know of his divorce. Still, it’s all very intriguing.
You might remember that there had been an address listed with the details from his death certificate, which was 106 West 105th Street, Manhatten. I suspect this was his last domestic address before he was institutionalized, and it hardly seems from the pictures on StreetView to have been a suitable place to have an apiary, so who knows what Ernst got up to while living there. In any case, it was probably in 1937 that Ernst left society behind and entered the threshold of a mental asylum.
Both Central Islip State Hospital and Willard State Hospital, where Ernst was later transferred in 1942 (possibly because it got too crowded in Islip), had been set up originally in the nineteenth century to take the mentally ill away from alms and poor houses and distance them from society, giving them their own self-sufficient environment in which they could contribute to the closed society via manual labour, as a farm hand, or as part of a team working for the general upkeep of the hospital. In reality, many if not most of the patients were desperate to leave the institutions, were subjected to poor care and treatment for incorrectly diagnosed mental disorders, and were forgotten about by the society around them. In the 1940s, common treatments for schizophrenia were insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, among others. Mental illness was hugely stigmatized, and there was a lot of shame attached to having a relative as a patient in such an institution.
By contrast with Central Islip State Hospital, which has since been demolished, Willard State Hospital was upstate and situated on Lake Seneca in truly beautiful surroundings. Some of the buildings have been repurposed for a post-incarceration addiction service, while other buildings have been left to decay. It can’t have all been bad there, as, back in its day, the Willard inpatients were able to enjoy leisure activities, and the hospital had its own cinema and even its own bowling alley. Still, these things do not make up for thousands of people’s loss of freedom, especially as diagnosis was often made on a whim, and at the time mental illness was considered to comprise a whole range of conditions (e.g. gender dysphoria) where modern medicine has today very much moved on.
As I read around the internet about Willard, I stumbled on a remarkable discovery: in 1995, when the hospital finally closed, some 400 suitcases were found in an abandoned building. It turns out these suitcases had belonged to patients brought to Willard in the twentieth century, and were neatly stored in alphabetical order, presumably ready for them to have again should they be discharged from the hospital (though this rarely happened). There they remained untouched until they were found half a century later.
This story received some press coverage even in the UK, and you can read all about this amazing but sad discovery here and here. Jon Crispin has photographed about 80 of them, but because of New York State’s very strong privacy laws, he is not able to give the full names of the cases’ owners. I noticed scrolling through his pictures that there is one belonging to an Ernest S. Was it our Ernest? I’ll always wonder.
This is my attempt to tell the story of Ern(e)st’s life. If nothing else, no one else ever has. If he did have children, it’s not even clear whether they knew who their father was. And for centuries the mentally ill were stigmatized, locked up and forgotten. Ern(e)st’s story throws up more questions than it does answers. How did he fund his travel around the world? Why did he keep changing his profession? Did he keep in touch with Gertraud? Why didn’t she join him? Why did they divorce? Why did he lose touch with Oskar and Johanne? Who were/are his children? Did he really study beekeeping in Erlangen and Berlin?
There is irony in the fact that he died a similar death (alone, far away from loved ones) to many members of his family. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Willard State Hospital Cemetery because he had no family to bury him in a private graveyard. In this respect, he shares his resting place with his father, his brother, and his nephew. They too have unmarked graves, somewhere on the Eastern front in Europe, far from their loved ones. It is not lost on me that had Ernst remained in Germany, he would likely have been murdered by the Nazis as part of their Aktion T4 programme. At least he was spared that. That is not to belittle the loss of freedom and stigmatization he suffered in the US. His life undoubtedly ended in tragedy.
I’ll leave you with this short (4 minute!) video from the New York Times. It’s a deeply moving tribute to those who died at Willard, including Andreas Ern(e)st Szameitat.