How Genealogy Solved the Mystery of My Grandpa Adolph

 Adolph a Bad Word

As a kid growing up during WWII, the only Adolph I knew of was Adolph Hitler. So, you can imagine both my surprise and embarrassment when I learned that we had an Adolph in our own family. The middle initial, “A” in my father’s name – Curtis A. Vanlaw – stood for Adolph.

Adolph and Gertrude Weinlaub - my grandparents
Adolph and Gertrude Weinlaub – my grandparents

The German custom – I later learned that it was really a Jewish custom – that the son takes on his father’s first name as his middle name. In my case, I was Peter Curtis Vanlaw. My grandfather’s given name was Adolph. So, my father was stuck with Adolph as his middle name. To save further embarrassment, I just didn’t noise it around to friends or the kids in the school yard.

A New Jew at 52

For those of you who know my story, I didn’t learn that I was Jewish until I was 52 years old. And only then did I learn that our family name had been Weinlaub. So, my grandfather was actually Adolph Weinlaub. See The Day I Learned I was a Jew. But since my father had been reluctant to discuss any members of his family for the first 52 years of my life, I knew nothing about my grandpa. After my folks died, I found a bunch of photo albums. Adolph was prominent in most of them. But until I began to research my family’s history, I knew nothing about him. And even then, he proved to be an enigma for many years.

Using Genealogy on the Web

It was somewhere around 2001 when I began to research my family. To get started,  I took a wild stab and landed on the web site. It directed me to search for a family name. I could have tried Rehfisch, or Baruch, or Blumenthal, but I chose Weinlaub and like magic I got a reply from another person also trying to trace the Weinlaub family. He sent my a hand written family tree that included not only Adolph, but his two brothers, Simon and Robert. There were other connections as well, linking other family members, who I thought were only friends, not relatives. See Walter Wicclair. A short time later, again through JewishGen.Com, another researcher sent me information taken from the 1870 tax roles from a little German town called Graetz*, then in the district of Posen, Germany, now a part of Poland. It was Adolph’s birthplace, and as it turned out, an enclave for my ancestors: the family Weinlaub.

Getting Help in Hannover

Someone on the site put me in touch with a researcher in Hannover by the name of Helmut Zimmerman who uncovered many more details. Over the course of the next year, Helmut was able to come up with Adolph’s birthdate, when he married his wife Gertrude, when and how he acquired his luxury eiderdown bedding business, Oppenheimer Co.Daunensteppenfabrik. I also learned how his father in law, Emil Blumenthal, who with another partner, originally bought the company from the Oppenheimers, and how Adolph was made a partner in the company after literally marrying the bosses daughter. He and his wife, Gertrude, had two sons, Willhelm and Kurt.  As was the custom in Germany,”Willi”, the eldest, was groomed since childhood to run the company. See Jealousy Feuds and Family Secrets Prts. 1 &2 Meanwhile, Kurt, my father, abandoned his family’s business in 1926 and came to America to make it on his own. But after marrying my mother, in July of 1929, they had only a few comfortable months here before the stock market crashed that October. His company ultimately closed its doors in 1932, and he returned to Germany in hopes of getting his brother to give him a fresh start in the family business. But only a few months later, in April, 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, Adolph’s wife Gertrude, committed suicide. See Channeling My Grandmother.

Adolph W. with his new Chrysler. Taken between Oct. 1930 and Jan. 1931.
Adolph W. with his new Chrysler. Taken between Oct. 1930 and Jan. 1931.

The Mystery Begins

Now comes the mystery: From 1932 on there was no mention of Adolph. His absence was significant enough that I always assumed that he quietly passed away in ’31 or ’32. By all rights Willi should have been running the business. The way my mother told the story, my parents were ready to emigrate back to America from Berlin, after my father’s aborted attempt to rejoin the family business in Hannover. But after Gertrude’s suicide, my father felt an urgent obligation to step in and settle his mother’s affairs because he didn’t trust his brother, Wilhelm, to do it properly. Yet to make this detour by way of Hannover, he risked losing his return visa to America by overstaying the few valid days he had left on it. But one would have assumed that Adolph should have been the one to settle his wife’s estate. Yet he was never mentioned in my mother’s description of the events – thus implying – at least in my mind – that he was dead. Then, much to my surprise,  I learned that Adolph was still very much alive at the time, and lived for three more years until 1936. . Meanwhile, his son, Willi – who was supposedly running the company – fled from Germany in 1934, two years before Adolph finally passed away. Subsequently, records from Hannover showed that Adolph’s name remained on the books as proprietor of the Oppenheimer Co., until his death.

Where was Adolph?

So where was Adolph when my father supposedly settled Gertrude’s affairs? For the next few years, I assumed that he’d been physically or mentally incapacitated – possibly institutionalized in a home for the aged, or some sort of sanitarium. Someone even suggested that there may have been a family scandal involving Adolph that was serious enough to  banish his name from my family. As outlandish as it appears now, at the time it had some merit, since my father never talked about him. But none of my sources were able to confirm either of those hypotheses. Then later, through, I found a ship’s manifest that showed that a year before his death, Adolph made a trip to London to visit his eldest son, Wili and his grand daughter Edith. That raised a new question: Why didn’t Adolph remain in London as a refugee from Hitler’s continued destruction of Jewish life in Germany? That question will never be answered.

Adolph and grand daughter, Edith.
Adolph and grand daughter, Edith.

Finally years later, I learned from another source in Hannover that Grandpa Adolf  continued to be listed as the sole proprietor of the Oppenheimer Co., Daunensteppenfabrik. At the same time, Herman Jaeger**, the father of Adolph’s daughter in-law Liesel**, was employed as Adolph’s assistant. So I have to conclude that Adolph continued to at least supervise his company with Jaeger managing the day to day operation.

That made more sense when I learned that Adolph  continued to live in his house in Hannover, at #3 Goebenstrasse – which was also the location of his factory – until his death in 1936, when Jaeger assumed control of the company.

Adolph's eiderdown bedding factory, literally in his backyard at #3 Goebenstrasse, Hannover.
Adolph’s eiderdown bedding factory, literally in his backyard at #3 Goebenstrasse, Hannover.

I also learned from the same source, and Adolph’s obituary, that much to the consternation of the members of his temple, he insisted that he be cremated and the urn buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bothfeld. The gravesite is still in existence.

*Graetz is now known as Grodzisk Wielkopolski in the Polish district of Poznan.

**Both Herman and his daughter, Liesel, were Lutheran.


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