Gertrude Kraier Kleipass

A heavily Abridged Biography

Gertrude on her son’s wedding day in 1971.

Alan J. Kleipass

Once upon a time...


THE STRONGEST memories I have of Gertrude, my maternal grandmother, are centered on this time of year: the six-week period between Thanksgiving and the beginning of the new year. It was a hectic period filled with shopping and cooking and baking and a million other little things that if taken alone would amount to very little, but taken as a whole they added up to what were the happiest times of my life thus far.

Nan, as I called her, seemed to have always been the center of her extended family. If there was going to be a party, odds are it was in her house. If there was going to be a get-together over the summer, you could rest assured that it was going to take place at whatever location she and her husband had decided to stay at that year – sometimes to Lake Ronkonkoma on Long Island, and sometimes to the Catskills. And it was her table the family gathered around on the holidays.

I was born too late to witness the golden age of these family gatherings, but I have heard about them from my mother, and seen the evidence in the thousands of photos and slides and scores of 16mm films my grandfather, a camera buff and techno-fan of the first order, took of them. And every holiday season, up until 1982, I also received a fairly good demonstration of what it had been like as no fewer than seven people gathered around her table for Thanksgiving supper, and that grew to a minimum of nine when her sister Eva and Eva’s husband came in from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Christmas of 1971.

Christmas of 1971

The musical score that accompanied those treasured holiday seasons was performed by the scratchy, static-filled, but love-worn records with German Christmas carols (and one Alvin and the Chipmunks LP) that we played on the Philco console (a monster of a piece of furniture with a TV, radio, and Hi-Fi stereo built into it) in the living room. They would be playing while I “helped” Nan to bake her German Christmas cookies or homemade egg or cinnamon breads, or while I was helping my mother to select, stamp, and seal the holiday cards – there were a pair of lists, one in red and one in green, and amounting to several hundred names of family and close friends and “people we knew” to whom it would probably have been rude not to send cards to. We received nearly as many cards in return, each of which we would punch a hole in and string onto red and green cords hung around archways for just such a reason. And, of course, there would be presents by the dozens to buy and wrap.

All of this business would start on that first Friday after Thanksgiving Day. That day we would pull out from various closets (or the common storage room when we lived on East 26th Street) half-dozen or so boxes of Christmas decorations and the artificial tree – a tree which, in some years, was white or silver – how very 1970s-ish! – and the decorating would begin in earnest. It was usually a three-day project just to decorate our apartment. This long weekend also included the baking of the first of two or three batches of the German Christmas cookies. Some of these would go to Uncle Bill, and another portion would be packed into a cookie tin and shipped off to Aunt Ann (Gertrude’s sister Anna) in Modesto, California. She in return would send us anything from baked goods to homemade fruit preserves from her garden to fresh fruit picked the very day she sent it. You never knew what to expect when her package came. Aunt Eva, on the other hand, was more predictable. She would bring in canned items from her garden as well as fresh yams from there for Christmas dinner, and a tin of her cookies. Nan’s cookies were spiced ones, where as Aunt Eva’s were sugar cookies complete with the colored sugar crystals on top.

Aunt Eva and Aunt Ann c.1980.

Aunt Eva and Aunt Ann c.1980

It has been twenty-four years (1982) since I had a holiday season like that. In the summer of 1983 Aunt Eva died and with her something seemed to have died in my grandmother. I don’t recall much about the holidays that year except that I was having serious health problems, Uncle Gene came in from Honesdale at some point to bring my grandmother some of Aunt Eva’s things, and that my grandmother was in the hospital over New Year’s Eve – on one visit my mother and I had joked that we’d see her next year.

That next year, 1984, saw my grandmother’s death in March. We had Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house that year, and planned to do the same for Christmas but a fire, in our house, on Christmas Eve put an end to that idea. We have not had a family dinner or get-together since then. Today, it’s a family of two (plus a couple of dogs) who gather around the TV rather than the table for holiday dinner.

Even in those fond memories, my grandmother exists as little more than a presence in my thoughts. I cannot picture her in my mind, nor can I hear her voice any longer. As the years pass, she fades from my mind not unlike the way that frozen images of long-dead family members and their friends are slowly fading from some of the oldest photographs.

I can vaguely recall a lesson in grade school where the notion of tape-recording oral histories was mentioned, and I regret that I didn’t do something like that with my grandmother. If it had survived the fire, it would have been such a valuable thing to me now – and not just for this document. In the recording’s absence I must rely on faulty memories, fading images, and decaying letters and official papers to fill in the details of her life. There isn’t much, but as I review the first draft of this essay I am coming to realize that there was more than I had thought.

The Kraier Family

Stefan Kraier was born on January 30, 1881, but his place of birth is uncertain. My mother believed it have been somewhere in France; however, the passenger manifest from when he immigrated to the United States shows his birthplace to be Bendorf – a tiny community along the Rhine River near Koblenz: roughly halfway between Bonn and Frankfurt. Whether born in Bendorf or France, he was an only child born to French parents who were Jewish. Stefan would later convert to Roman Catholicism. We believe he was a foot soldier during World War I.(#1)

Katherine Decker (her name is spelled Katarine on her passenger manifest) was born on June 5, 1884 in the town of Neuendorf – a coastal community to the north of Berlin. She had a brother and two sisters (Barbara Decker Schneck is the only one’s name we know), and was a devout Roman Catholic.(#1)

How Stefan and Katherine met is a matter of some conjecture. Family lore says that they met through a church function, but given their different religions and how far apart they lived (unless her family moved closer to Bendorf), this story does not seem to add up.

The Kraier family c.1919 (l to r): Eva, Katherine, Barbara, Anna, Gertrude (standing in center), Heinrich, Margaret, Stefan Sr., and Stefan Jr.

The Kraier family c.1919 (l to r): Eva, Katherine, Barbara, Anna, Gertrude
(standing in center), Heinrich, Margaret, Stefan Sr., and Stefan Jr.

Regardless of how my maternal grandmother’s parents met, they did meet and eventually got married. They had seven children: 2 sons and 5 daughters: Barbara “Bessie” (born: 5-Apr-02, died: June 1982), Margaret (b. 16-Apr-04, d. Jan. 1990), Gertrude (b. 20-Mar-06, d. 3-Mar-84), Eva (b. 7-Oct-07, d. July 1983), Stefan Jr. “Steve” (b. 23-Jul-09, d. July 1986), Anna “Ann” (b. 19-Aug-12, d. 29-Oct-97), and Heinrich “Henry” (b. 18-Apr-14, d. 6-Mar-94).(#2) All of them were born in the tiny village of Bendorf, in what is today the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, on the family’s farm.

Although it was a farm in the literal sense (planted fields, animals, etc.), my great-grandfather was more a miner by trade than farmer. I remember my grandmother telling me that there is (was?) a tunnel in Holland which he worked on and that his name was on a plaque there with the rest of the laborers names. He might very well have worked as a miner when not needed on the farm to supplement their income. There are volcanic rock mines in the region of Bendorf that date back to the Roman era.(#3) On the ship’s manifest, Stefan is listed as a miner, and that was the work he sought to do in West Virginia when he immigrated to the United States. The reason for his mining work could have been the size of their farm. While I have no handy way of finding out its size at this time, research has turned up the statistic that during the period from 1890 to 1914, sixty percent of German farmers owned less than 5 acres of land.(#4)

My great-grandfather’s career isn’t the only thing about my grandmother’s life in Germany that I have more conjecture and hypothesis about than actual fact. Though she talked a great deal, she didn’t say much about what it was like for her to grow up in Germany, and it would probably be fair to say that I have learned much more about the world she grew up in while researching this project than I ever learned directly from her. Of the two dozen or so photographs I have of my mother’s parents and their families from before they emigrated, only one photo (below) offers a window into their Germany; all of the rest were staged photographs that were taken in a studio setting.

Margaret, Stefan, Gertrude, Anna, and Katherine c.1917.

Margaret, Stefan, Gertrude, Anna, and Katherine c.1917.

Judging by the apparent ages of Anna and Stefan, this photography was probably taken around the summer of 1917. Its location is a mystery, but it should be safe to assume that it was taken in Bendorf at a restaurant or park that overlooked the Rhine River with part of Bendorf or a sister city in the background. Gertrude would have been a nursing student about that time, and that could very well be her uniform – gussied up with a string of beads for a day out with her family – she is wearing in the photograph.

Looking at the smiling faces in the photograph, I find it too easy to forget that at that very moment what would later be called the “Great War” (and later still World War I) was raging all across Europe. At age 36, it is highly possible that Stefan Sr. was away from home fighting in the trenches. Maybe the photography was meant for Stefan – since is measures only 4½ x 3½ inches, it certainly is small enough to be toted around in a pocket or in a soldier’s Bible.

Historical information about Bendorf is nearly as hard to come by as information about the Kraiers while they were living there. Today it is a tiny hamlet of 17,500 souls. A century ago, c.1900, it was considered an important market town along the central Rhine.(#5) Beyond that, I haven’t been able to uncover anything of the town’s recent nor distant history.

On the Kraiers’ farm I know that they had pigs, chickens, a cow, and some sort of draft beast for plowing and for hauling the wagon; however, neither I, nor my mother, can recall if it was horses or oxen or both that they had for these tasks.

There was a humorous story that my grandmother loved to tell, her eyes sparkling as she spoke, of one day when the pigs broke out of their pen. The girls and their mother tried to block them and get them back in the pen, and you did this, in part, by blocking their path, shooing them with your hands or skirt, and shouting at them all in an effort to get them to change direction and go the way you wanted them to. Well, their mother took on the biggest of the lot in this fashion, but instead of turning, the pig plowed right between her legs, and took off down the road with Katherine riding her backwards.

The story usually ended with my grandmother laughing as hard as she and her sisters probably laughed on that day. Another story about her and her sisters involves a pair of work boots. And though I don’t recall her mentioning the context surrounding the story, I’m guessing it might have taken place during World War I or during the turmoil just after it – a period when someone breaking into their house might have been a real threat.

My grandmother, God bless her, had a wicked streak in her which I seem to have inherited, and after one particular argument, the nature of which is lost to history, with the two sisters she shared a room with, she took her revenge with a pair of work boots. She opened the window a bit and stuck the boots under the edge of her sister’s bed, making it look as if someone had broken in and was hiding under the bed. She then went into what we would call the family or living room to sew and waited for the screams that eventually came when her sister Eva discovered the “intruder.”

Of the many stories my grandmother told me of her life and of my mother’s life as they were growing up, those two are by far my favorites.

Despite questions about Stefan Sr.’s religious background, my grandmother and her siblings were raised in a strict Roman Catholic household. In the church that her family attended it was the custom to combine a child’s first Holy Communion with their Confirmation of their faith. My grandmother did this a around age 8, and the event was commemorated with a photograph at a studio in Bendorf. This is the earliest photograph we have of her.

Gertrude Kraier c.1914.

Gertrude Kraier c.1914

Religion was very important to Nan, but it seems to me that she embraced it in terms of a deeply held faith, and she drew upon it for strength in her darkest hours. She had her crucifixes – one had to be hung above the head of every bed, around every neck, and on the end of the rosary that should be in your pocket or pocket book; she had her religious medals of saints and called upon their specific niche (so to speak) when in need – to this day when something goes missing either I or my mother with invoke St. Anthony’s name before asking the other if we’ve seen the lost item; and there was always a Catholic calendar in the kitchen listing the feasting and fasting and no meat days which she continued to observe even after Vatican II eased or did away with them, but despite all of that I don’t believe she had, or would have now, any patience for those who use religion as a way of excluding people. I can think of finer example of this than her relationship with a gay couple who were our next door neighbors on East 26th Street.

Of all the neighbors my family has had over the years, these were the only two who after my grandmother welcomed them into her house she never let go. I grew up calling them uncle, and I can honestly say that Nan thought of Marvin and Richard as sons. At holidays, and every day in between, there was always a place at our table for them – not to mention a pullout bed like the time when Christmas dinner ended with a nasty snowstorm and Nan wasn’t going to take no for an answer when she told them they weren’t going to travel home in such a storm. And when she died, they were the first people mom called.

The Journey to America

When I started this project, I had a vague notion – but one I believe was fairly accurate – of why the Kraiers came to the United States, in what order they came, and why the settled where they did. The research I did for the first draft exposed some cracks in that theory. The fact checking I have done for this final draft has shattered them to pieces.

Originally, my mother and I both believed that because of the financial hardships and the political instability of post-war Germany, the Kraiers had decided to leave Germany for the United States. We also thought that Stefan Sr., Barbara, and Margaret had come to America first to find jobs and a place for the family to live, and that once they had done this they sent for the rest of the family. Our source for this was Gertrude – and she, of all people, should know the whole story. She probably did, but she either accidentally or intentionally left out a few details.

The first crack in the story came when I decided to find the name of the ship that Barbara, Margaret, and their father came over on. We had a paper copy of the ship manifest for when Gertrude came over on the S.S. Thuringia thanks to a distant cousin in Texas who was researching the Kleipass / Kleypas family lineage – my grandfather, William Kleipass, also came over on the Thuringia and that is where he and Gertrude first met. Finding that these were now available online(#6), that’s where I turned. My search of the passenger ship manifests turned up Stefan and Margaret on two different ships and coming over several months apart, but there was no record of Barbara’s arrival in New York. There was also a mystery in their entries in the manifest: they were both going to a Mr. & Mrs. __________ in Wheeling, WV. The last name on each was different, but the wife was listed as their relative nonetheless. The mystery part was that neither of the last names – Tironyo and Runco – had ever been uttered by my grandmother as belonging to a family member… or so we thought.

There had been no record of Barbara’s arrival in America, but I had been only searching the Hamburg to New York ships since that was the route everyone else in the family took. By accident, while fact checking for the final draft I searched the whole database for the manifest from the Thuringia to see if it had a clearer copy of the manifest. This accidental search turned up Barbara’s name on a totally different route. She had come to America via Antwerp and Boston. It was D’oh! moment, but seeing as she was the first one to come over, it’s understandable that she might have gone to a different city. And then I saw her destination…

As I type this I am reminded of Miriam Beneviste’s reaction to the unexpected leads she discovered while researching her family’s history in Daniel Evan Weiss’ book The Swine’s Wedding.

Until today it was thought that Aunt Bessie’s first husband was Bruno Murdaca. It now appears that he was her second (of three) husbands, and that Joseph Runco (Giuseppe di Runco), a 1913 immigrant from Italy and who in 1920 was working in a can factory(#7) in Wheeling, West Virginia, was her first husband. He is listed as her bridegroom on the manifest. I cannot help but wonder how this came about, how long the marriage lasted, and just how many other people in the family – my mother’s generation and later, that is – knew about this marriage. Perhaps she was a mail-order bride? But why did he mail-order a German (or Prussian as she is called on the manifest) bride instead of an Italian one? There is definitely a story to be found out there!

Eva and Gertrude Kraier c.1923

Eva and Gertrude Kraier c.1923

As it now stands, Barbara arrived at Boston aboard the S.S. Finland on February 15, 1921, after departing Antwerp on February 3rd. Margaret arrived at New York aboard the S.S. Hansa on June 5, 1922, after departing Hamburg on May 25th. Stefan Sr. arrived at New York aboard the S.S. Reliance on April 27, 1923, after departing Hamburg on April 17th. The remainder of the family (Katherine, Gertrude, Eva, Stefan Jr., Anna, and Heinrich) departed Hamburg aboard the S.S. Thuringia on October 4, 1923 and arrived in New York City on October 16th.

Gertrude almost didn’t immigrate with her family to the United States. She had been engaged to be married and he didn’t want to leave Germany, but that problem sort of resolved itself. According to grandmother, and told to me via my mother, she caught her fiancée stealing an intimate moment with one of her close friends. Whether this tale is true or not, I do not know, so I tend to take it with a grain of salt… and much chuckling.

The Germany they were leaving behind was not in the greatest of shapes, and in reading up on the Weimar Republic – the historian-given name for the German government from 1919 to 1933 – for this project(#8) I have come to realize just how chaotic Germany was in the years between the end of the war and when her family left in 1923.

The political scene was a roiling mess, and the mark was suffering from hyperinflation: it had been worth 4 marks to the U.S. dollar in 1914, it then declined to 62.6 marks to the dollar in November 1921, and by the time Nan and her family left Germany in October of 1923 the exchange rate was 62 billion (!) marks to the dollar.(#9)

This hyperinflation meant that Germany could not meet the backbreaking reparation demands placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles (or the “Diktat” as the German public termed it) and said so. France and Belgium’s response to this news was, in January of 1923, to invade and occupy the Ruhr region: Germany’s most heavily industrialized region at the time.(#10) Germans fought back against this occupation with strikes and passive resistance that lasted well into the summer months, further weakening the economy – and not to mention further angering France. To put a cap on that fateful year, it ended with Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch (a coup d'état) on November 9, 1923.

Given this, the probability that Stefan Sr. had Jewish blood in him, and much more, it is understandable why my grandmother usually chose to over simplify the matter and simply say that they just had to get out when they did or else they might never have.

A couple of side notes:

The Ruhr included the city of Duisburg where my great-grandmother Katherine’s sister, Barbara Schneck, lived, and the Ruhr is the region just to the immediate north of Solingen, where William Kleipass (my future grandfather) and his family lived.

Besides the unexpected husband, the passenger manifests turned up one other bit of trivia no one ever mentioned. On Stefan Sr.’s entry, under “marks of identification,” it lists “penis cutt [sic] off.” I mention it only because this is hardly the type of problem you would expect to see in a man with seven children. Was he wounded during WWI? Was this a form of birth control to guarantee there wouldn’t be an eighth child? Or did he simply slip while shaving during rough weather on the voyage? Alas, we shall probably never know the answer to this mystery.

Because of the hyperinflation, I suspect that they sold everything that they could to help pay for their steamship tickets. Presumably this would have included the farmland too, yet in the back of my mind there is a dim recollection of my grandmother telling me that they (we) still held the deed to the farmland after they left Germany, but that the government had seized it at some point after that. Nazi-era laws regarding foreign land ownership, perhaps; or maybe just a case of seemingly abandoned land being claimed by the government due to back taxes or the like?

The S.S. Thuringia in an undated photo. Source:

The S.S. Thuringia in an undated photo.

Of the four steamships that the Kraier family crossed the Atlantic Ocean to America on, it was the S.S. Thuringia (pictured above) that arguably played the most important part in the future of Gertrude Kraier.

The Thuringia was built in 1922 by the Howaldtswerke shipyard in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany for Hamburg American Line’s Hamburg – New York trade. She made her maiden voyage from Hamburg to New York on January 22, 1923, and her first return trip was scheduled for February 8th of that year. She did not have the lines or elegance of the Titanic – and at half the length (474 feet) and a quarter of the tonnage (11,343 gross) of the Titanic, the Thuringia didn’t have Titanic’s carrying capacity either – but at least she didn’t strike an iceberg and sink on her maiden voyage, which puts her at least one-up on the Titanic. And while the Thuringia might not have looked like the Titanic, it was about to become the setting for a real life romance not unlike the fictional one of Jack and Rose in the 1997 retelling of the Titanic’s sinking… or maybe not…

Ad for S.S. Thuringia’s first NY to Hamburg voyage on Feb. 8, 1923.

Ad for S.S. Thuringia’s first NY to
Hamburg voyage on Feb. 8, 1923.

I could easily allow my imagination to run wild and weave a beautiful love story about how my grandparents met aboard the Thuringia, but this is not supposed to be an historical romance novel – I’ll leave the writing of those to my cousin Lisa Kleypas. The simple truth of the matter is that my grandparents said very little about their time together on the Thuringia, and all that my mother and I know about it is that they met thanks to the dining room placing their families at the same table, their mothers got along fine together, 11-year-old Anna fell head-over-heels for 14-year-old Kurt (but nothing ever came of it), and Gertrude and William were so madly in love that they were married onboard the ship by the captain before it arrived in New York on October 16th. Oh, and that William was seasick for the entire voyage, but Gertrude was perfectly fine at sea.

The route the Kraiers took from Bendorf to Hamburg is uncertain. They could have traveled south to Frankfort and then north to Hamburg thus avoiding the occupied Ruhr region, but there is also the strong possibility that they traveled north through the Ruhr so that they could visit with and say good-bye to Katherine’s sister in Duisburg before going on to Hamburg. If the latter was the case, then it allows for an interesting point to ponder: At the very moment that William Kleipass and his family (his half-brother Kurt Schussler, and their mother Anna Schussler) were packing in Solingen to leave for America aboard the Thuringia, Gertrude and her family would have been passing through or near Solingen in route to Duisburg and then Hamburg and the Thuringia.

In the movies this is where they would insert the silent scene with Gertrude staring contemplatively out of the railway coach’s window at the passing houses and William staring contemplatively out of his bedroom window at the tracks, and just as her train passes they lock gazes for the moment it takes the train to pass his house.

Welcome to America!

Typically, upon arrival in New York Harbor a steamship would head straight to its berth where the 1st and 2nd class passengers would be discharged and the 3rd and / or steerage class passengers would be ferried to Ellis Island for examination and processing.(#11) Neither my mother nor I can recall if any of the family actually passed through Ellis Island. My mother thinks that her mother’s family did, but her father’s family didn’t. This would be consistent with the tale of them being in different classes of accommodations, and with a reference to “3rd” on a pre-voyage document written in German that I found among my grandmother’s papers.

A photograph of Gertrude and William Kleipass c.1924

A photograph of Gertrude
and William Kleipass c.1924

There is one problem with this – ironically it’s the same one raised about Jack and Rose’s love affair in Titanic: The locking gates by steerage were there for a reason: for at least one point in US immigration procedural history, if steerage passengers were allowed to mix with 1st or 2nd class passengers then all of the passengers would have to pass through Ellis Island’s medical screening. If such was still the case aboard the Thuringia in 1923, then Gertrude and William’s families would never have been seated at the same table in the dining room – nor would they have been allowed into the same parts of the ship, for that matter. The manifest for the Thuringia does not indicate the passenger’s class of accommodation, so for the moment it remains a mystery as to whether they were truly in separate classes or just in different grades of accommodation within the same travel class.

Regardless of how they passed through customs and immigration, once they arrived in New York City my grandparents were forced to part each other’s company. William’s family stayed here in New York and went to live at 577 Fairview Avenue in the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn. Gertrude’s family left New York, probably by a train from Pennsylvania Station, and journeyed to Wheeling, WV. Their initial mailing address there was P.O. Box 578, but the family would later settle at 434 Warwood Avenue. These addresses come from postcards that William sent to Gertrude in West Virginia – the first of which, pictured on the next page, was sent on October 22, 1923 – five days after their arrival in America. The postcards, five in all, are all written in German, but this one is the only one that can really be read. The rest are either in pencil which has worn off, or they are in a cramped script that is difficult to read and decipher.

Front of postcard c.1923                      Back of postcard c.1923

A postcard that William Kleipass, in Brooklyn, NY, sent to Gertrude Kraier,
in Wheeling, WV, five days after they arrived in the United States.

Gertrude and William’s separation was a brief one, for by early November she was back in New York City, and on November 7, 1923 they were officially married in Brooklyn. I am uncertain as to whether this was a church wedding or a civil wedding. I also don’t know why the shipboard wedding wasn’t enough. According to my mother, they did have a church wedding, so the wedding of November 7th was most likely this wedding. It is unclear if she returned to Wheeling following the wedding or stayed in New York, but again it is most likely that she stayed in New York. The mustard factory where she worked for a period of time appears to have only been in Queens: A. Bauer’s Mustard and Horseradish Co.

Gertrude and Ethel c.1926

Gertrude and Ethel c.1926

My grandparents’ first home together was in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, somewhere in the vicinity of Newkirk Ave. and East 39th Street. Their home’s exact address is a mystery at the moment, but I do know that they were renting a floor in a two or three –family house, that several of the neighboring lots were still undeveloped, and that this is where, on December 7, 1924, my Aunt Ethel was born – she was born there literally, with a midwife’s assistance – and spent her early childhood years.

The photo to the top left was taken in the back yard of that house and shows just how rural some portions of Brooklyn were back in the late 1920s. The second photo, below right, is from the spring of 1925 and was taken outside of what was probably that neighborhood’s general store.

Gertrude and Ethel c.1925

Gertrude and Ethel c.1925

My grandparents lived on Newkirk Avenue for about ten years before moving in the mid-1930s to a larger rented apartment on the top floor of a 2-family Brownstone in another section of Flatbush. The house at 2515 Bedford Avenue would be their home for the better part of the next thirty years – until 1961. It was here that my grandmother and her home would became the center of her extended family’s lives as her parents and siblings gradually married and moved closer east, into eastern Pennsylvania or Ridgewood or to Long Island. And it was here that my mother and her brother were born and grew up – though it should be noted that both of them were born in hospitals, not at home.

Bedford Avenue was also where all of that turmoil, which my grandparents and their families left Germany to escape, finally caught up with them.

When you are a foreigner in a foreign land it is only natural for you to drift toward your “own kind” and associate with them. My grandparents did this throughout much of the late 1920s and the 1930s, but as things started to heat up in Germany they also started to heat up within their social circle. Though I have not found any articles to back up her stories, I don’t have any reason to doubt them. Nan did not speak often of these social groups, but when she did she spoke of how Nazis or sympathetic Germans would come to the gatherings – picnics and such – and handout leaflets and try to recruit people into an American branch of the Nazi party. This was done openly, without fear of intervention by the proper authorities, but the authorities (the FBI most likely) were watching, and that made my grandparents uncomfortable. They started to withdraw from these social activities; coincidentally, this would have been about the same time that Nan’s family were moving to the New York City area, and so they were trading one social group for another.

I never attached much importance to this whole episode, after all they weren’t hounded like people were during the McCarthy hearings, nor were they rounded up and placed into camps like the Japanese were during the war. But then I found this among my grandparents’ papers:

Gertrude Kleipass’ Government issued "Certificate of Identification" issued to her at the start of World War II because she was still a German citizen.

Gertrude Kleipass’ Government issued "Certificate of Identification" issued to
her at the start of World War II because she was still a German citizen.

This small booklet was issued by the U.S. Dept. of Justice and politely titled “Certificate of Identification,” but its date of issue and use of the term “aliens of enemy nationality” speak to just how close Germans might have been to joining the Japanese in the camps.

The late 1930s was also a transition for my grandparents’ photographic record. There are thousands of images from this time, but nearly all of them are on slides or 16mm films – neither of which I have wherewithal to scan at this time. Unfortunately, these slides and films also contain the best "evidence" of just how rowdy some of my grandparents’ parties could get! But the photo below, though much corroded, does show one of the smaller family outings c.1934. Aunt Ethel is the tall girl in the front, with her grandmother Katherine over her right shoulder and her mother over her left one with Stefan Sr. standing to her left.

Katherine died just a few years later, in August of 1938.

Photo of a family outing c.1934

Photo of a family outing c.1934

Between the birth of my Aunt Ethel in 1924 and the birth of my mother in 1942, my grandmother lost two or three babies. We do not know if they were miscarriages or stillbirths because that was not something people of Nan’s generation talked about. We don’t know if they were boys or girls because that’s not something you talked about. We don’t know what became of their earthly remains because that was just something you did not talk about. An educated guess would be that they were buried on Hart Island – New York City’s Potter’s Field. Of all the little mysteries I have about my grandmother, I think that this is the one I’d most like to have an answer to.

Ethel and Yvonne Kleipass – Dec. 1942

Ethel and Yvonne Kleipass – December of 1942

At 12 noon on October 7, 1942 my mother was born – two months shy of 18 years after her sister Ethel was born. As a possible result of the deaths of those two or three babies, when Yvonne was born she was birthed in a hospital and under a doctor’s care. Gertrude kept a scrapbook with all of the cards and telegrams they received, but the most interesting memento I found in the book was an envelope with the meal menus from her stay in the hospital, each of which had checks next to the items she must have ordered or eaten.

William Jr. – Summer 1947

William Jr. – Summer of 1947

And then, four years later, on January 13, 1947, Gertrude gave birth to a son: William Jr. At ages 41 and 45, he would be the last child Gertrude and William Sr. would have.

The disparity in ages between Ethel and her siblings meant that over the coming years Ethel would become as much a third parent to them as she was a sister – though there are some tales my mother has told me of that makes me question the health of such a relationship – the sound of a fire engine, for example, was usually enough to have Ethel racing down the street to check that it wasn’t the school that was on fire.

All of the joy surrounding William Jr’s birth was suddenly tempered by the death of Gertrude’s father. It was an expected death – his health had been failing for some time – probably in part from his mining work – and aside from you might expect when a parent dies, even expectedly, there’s not much to say about his – nor about Katherine’s – deaths. After Katherine died Stefan Sr. had gotten remarried to a woman that Gertrude simply couldn’t stand – a rare problem for her. No information about this step-mother seems to have been passed down – not even her name!

Yvonne in "Grandpa's Chair"

Yvonne in "Grandpa's Chair"

The only thing that my mother can recall about the events surrounding her grandfather’s death is that after he died she became very possessive of “Grandpa’s Chair” and that she wouldn’t let anyone else sit in that chair during the wake and for some time afterwards.

At the risk of over-abridging her life, the next twenty-odd years were relatively calm and uneventful for Gertrude – although her life was anything but as easy as Harriett or June would have had you believe – you’d find no one in high heels and pearls in Gertrude’s kitchen that is for certain! She as a rollup your sleeves and get dirt kind of housewife, and would do many things around the house that the TV housewives – except, perhaps, for Lucy Ricardo – would have considered to be men’s work. For example, my grandmother would buy white paint, tint it to the exact color that she wanted – not the latest colors that the paint companies were pushing – and then paint the house herself without help from William or their children. I marvel at that… then again, I’ve painted with my mother and my uncle… Grandmother had the right idea.

In 1961, Gertrude and her family left Bedford Avenue and moved into a new apartment building at 425 E.26th Street (which was also in Flatbush). Not long after this move things started to get problematic for them. It began with my grandmother nearly dying.

According to my mother, Gertrude had gone into the hospital for a minor gallstone-related procedure, but someone goofed. She was released feeling fine, but that night she was readmitted with an infection that developed into peritonitis. The infection seemed to be drug resistant because no matter what the doctors did her condition just worsened. By the next evening a priest was at her bedside to give her last rights. As my grandmother would later tell her family, at some point in that night, as she was drifting in and out of consciousness, she saw the Virgin Mary at the foot of her bed and her presence filled her with radiant warmth. That warmth, she felt, was a cure from on high – it was certainly a turning point in her illness and she slowly began to improve from there on out. The cause of the infection was later found to have been some sort of surgical sponge or gauze that had been accidentally left in her during the initial procedure.

A photo of Ethel, Bill, William Sr, and Yvonne standing around William’s mother Anna Kleipass Schussler c.1960

A photo of Ethel, Bill, William Sr, and
Yvonne standing around William’s mother
Anna Kleipass Schussler c.1960

The next health scare of that decade was my grandfather. Toward the end of the decade, he began to develop heart problems which slowed him down and led to him retiring from the John Hancock Insurance Co. in 1966 after thirty-three years with the company – he sold policies in the Bay Ridge area. His office has long since been torn down and was replaced with an A&P supermarket – which itself has been replaced by a Duane Reade.

In 1966, William and Kurt’s mother, who had been in a nursing home for several years, passed away. It wasn’t exactly a surprise death, but that never really means that the grief doesn’t hurt any less when they do die.

The final blow for the family came on January 25, 1969.

Ethel Kleipass 1924-1969

Ethel Kleipass 1924-1969

In January of that year Aunt Ethel died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. There are many things that a parent is willing and ready to do for a child, but as I often heard my grandmother lament, a parent should NEVER have to bury a child. Her death pained my grandmother deeply, but it was probably the beginning of the end for my grandfather.

My grandfather’s health went steadily down hill following Ethel’s death, and a trip that he and Nan took back to Germany in early 1971 sapped the last of it. He was too ill to attend their son’s wedding in August of 1971 and so a family friend stood in for him.

William Jr., Gertrude, and Yvonne Kleipass - August 1971

William Jr., Gertrude, and
Yvonne Kleipass in August
of 1971 at his wedding.

The photo at right shows Gertrude with Bill and my mom at his wedding. And I suspect that my mother’s announcement that she was pregnant… out of wedlock… to a man who was going to get married… but to someone else… did not make matters any better.

I was expected to be born on or around Christmas Eve 1971, but in the interest of getting more toys in the future, I refused to come out until January 18, 1972. As the first – and, as it turned out, only – grandchild I was welcomed with open arms (and lots of toys!). But as with my Uncle Bill, the joy was soon tempered by a death in the family.

William Sr. and Alan - February 1972

William Sr. and Alan - February 1972

On March 7, 1972, my maternal grandfather died, and Gertrude went into mourning – black dresses and all. She grieved him for many months before my mother persuaded her to put away the black and live for her grandson. It worked, and she did, but a good part of her went into the grave with her husband.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother was in and out of the hospital every couple of months with breathing or chest pain issues. She was a life-long smoker on the order of around a pack a day, which accounted for some of her health problems. She had emphazma, and might have even had undiagnosed lung cancer. But those aren’t the things about her that stand out for me in those first few years of my life.

What I remember is sitting in grandpa’s chair – an olive-colored, leather wing-backed chair – in Nan’s room and watching TV shows: Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Howdy Doody (in reruns), or Paula & Carol in the Magic Garden. I would bawl at the top of my lungs when each show would end causing my mother and / or grandmother to come racing into the room to comfort me.

Yvonne, Alan, and Gertrude Kleipass with Henry Kraier and his first wife Francis c.1977.

Yvonne, Alan, and Gertrude
Kleipass with Henry Kraier
and his first wife Francis
in the summer of 1977.

I also remember sitting at the little round table in the kitchen, the table set with my colorful plastic toy tea set and Nan pouring me my first real cup of coffee. I hated it and to this very day I cannot stand the taste of coffee and only begrudging drink it.

In April of 1976 we moved from East 26th Street to 40 Brighton 1st Road (in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn). We moved there for two reasons: Flatbush was changing and robberies were on the rise and our apartment building had a serious rat problem that prompted us to buy a cat, and a number of our friends from East 26th Street were moving into the two building complex.

If it had been hoped that the move would be beneficial to Nan’s health, it wasn’t to be. Her health continued to decline after we moved to Brighton. By 1978 or ‘79 we had an oxygen tank in the house, and that was eventually replaced with an oxygen machine when her reliance on it started to tax the ability to replace the tanks.

Marvin, Alan, and Gertrude at Alan’s 1st Holy Communion party – June 1978

Marvin, Alan, and Gertrude at
Alan’s 1st Holy Communion
party – June of 1978

In January of 1981 Aunt Julia, Kurt Schussler’s wife, died. In the middle of that summer Nan had a mild stroke, and a month or two later, in September, Uncle Kurt died. The stroke didn’t do too much damage, but it did leave her hand on that side colder than the other and she started to wear her old dress gloves from the ‘50s and ‘60s to keep that hand warm. It was around this time that Michael Jackson was making his fashion statement with the single sequined glove, and so Nan’s single glove was always certain to elicit a comment and comparison.

In August of 1983, Aunt Eva died after a brief but vicious illness. In the later years of Nan’s life, Eva was the one sibling she saw most frequently and talked with most often. Her sudden illness and death was a surprise and a jolt that she never really recovered from. She wasn’t well enough to attend the funeral and so it was up to mom and I – and Uncle Henry and his daughter Barbara – to represent the family. After the funeral, Uncle Henry drove us all back to Brooklyn (from Islip) so that he could visit with Nan. It was a strange visit in that for the first time I didn’t see… didn’t sense the usual spirit she had when family got together.

In September or October of that year she was in the hospital, and again at the end of December with a stay through to the New Year. At the end of February of 1984 she was back in again for the final time. During this stay she suffered a massive stroke while in the hospital that left her in a coma. She stayed that way until life support was withdrawn and she passed away on March 3rd – four days shy of the 12th anniversary of her husband’s death.

In Conclusion: Confusion


This project has not ended where I had expected it to end. For one thing, it is 25 pages long! And for another, I have discovered things about my grandmother’s family that I never knew, never expected, and, in the case of her father’s identifying mark, things I never wanted to know.

It has been an interesting voyage of discovery, but this isn’t the conclusion of this journey, it’s merely a pause in a journey that has only just begun.

From my grandmother I have inherited a mystery wrapped in an enigma, or so it would seem. Things which my mother and I thought that we knew for a fact have suddenly developed cracks… No, that is incorrect. The cracks have always been there, it’s just that now we can see them plainly. At the risk of turning into a Miriam Beneviste – God help us all – I plan to continue the research I which I started here. After all, if we inherit anything at all from our ancestors it is our heritage and history, for we are the sum of their existence.


  1. The background information on my great-grandparents comes mainly from my mother: either from conversations we had relating to this project, or from the material I received from her for a family tree essay I wrote on 16-Sep-1986 for “per 5” which I am going to assume was my sophomore year English class in high school.
  2. Date of Birth and Date of Death data for Gertrude and her siblings comes partially from personal knowledge, but mainly the dates were referenced using the Social Security Death Index database on
  3. Bendorf area’s volcanic mining trivia came from the Goethe-Institut’s website:
  4. The New Encyclopædia Britannica (15th edition): Volume 20, Page 115
  5. Bendorf current population figure comes from “Rheinland-Pfalz - City Population” website:, and the historical trivia came from a Google translation of the website “Stadt Bendorf” page:
  6. United States Passenger Lists Genealogy Searches at
  7. Joseph Runco’s biographical information comes from the 1920 US Census:
  8. The New Encyclopædia Britannica (15th edition): Volume 20, Page 118 & 119
  9. Events That Changed the World: 1900-1920 – Gary Zacharias, Book Editor Greenhaven Press ©2004 – ISBN: 0-7377-1753-x and 0-7377-1752-1 – Page 202
  10. page on the occupation by France and Belgium of the Ruhr region of Germany in 1923:
  11. Ellis Island historical information from the Ellis Island website:

Note About Photos:

All photos in this document are from the family photo albums of the author, Alan J. Kleipass, unless otherwise noted.