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The Schweitzer Fürstenheim Family

a Tale of Generations and Separations

On October 20, 1934, Ulrich Schweitzer came to the Torah for his bar mitzvah reading. The text happened to be the portion “Lech, Lecha” (Go, leave; Genesis 12:1), the instructions given to Abram to leave his homeland for a new country. Three years later Ulrich arrived in the United States at the age of sixteen, in March 1937, without his parents or twin sister. The story of Ulrich’s life, and that of his family, is extensively documented in the Schweitzer Fürstenheim Collection (call number AR 25935) and the related book Dear Uli! (call number st 15349), written by Ulrich’s son and heavily based on the documents in the archival collection. The archival collection is especially strong in its extensive correspondence of family members, especially the letters sent to Ulrich Schweitzer and Franz Fürstenheim, but also includes a large amount of other documentation, especially personal and official documents of family members.

AR 25935 Schweitzer Wertheimer store b4f22
Schweitzer & Wertheimer store, Frankenthal. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, AR 25935. From Box 4, Folder 22.

Isaac Schweitzer was the paternal grandfather of Ulrich Schweitzer, a man who had gone to America in 1866 to seek his fortune, but found his wife, Isabella (née Guggenheimer), instead. The couple married in 1875. For several years he had a general store in Virginia, but in 1876 returned to Germany, where he and his brother-in-law founded the store Schweitzer & Wertheimer in Frankenthal. The story of Isaac and Isabella is documented and described in the related Schweitzer-Guggenheimer Letter Collection (call number AR 25837). Among Isaac and Isabella’s ten children was their son, Hugo. In 1901 Hugo came to Berlin, where he worked for the firm Gebrüder Feisenberger in Berlin, which manufactured rubber products. From 1914-1915 he served during World War I, until he was wounded by a bullet; the bullet was partially blocked by his canteen and a diary he carried. In 1924 he became general manager of Gebrüder Feisenberger, in charge of buying and selling multiple product lines of the company.

AR 25935 Clara Hirschhorn Furstenheim b4f23
Photo of Clara Hirschhorn. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, AR 25935. From Box 4, Folder 23.

Franz Fürstenheim came from the town of Kustrin, then in Prussia, and had been educated as a medical doctor. After his marriage to Clara Hirschhorn in 1891, he joined the firm of his father-in-law, J. Hirschhorn, which produced oil and street lamps, as well as cooking appliances. He eventually became a partner and later took over the firm’s leadership, and would become a leading industrialist in Berlin. He had three children: Julius, Charlotte, and Annelise. Julius would join his father at J. Hirschhorn, and Annelise would become a physician. In 1917, Charlotte passed the exam to work as a nurse during World War I. Among the extensive family correspondence in the archival collection, he is nearly always referred to as “Opi” (grandpa).

AR 25935Franz Furstenheim with friends
Franz Fürstenheim with friends. AR 25935. From Box 4, Folder 28.

In 1920 Hugo Schweitzer married Charlotte (called Lotte) Fürstenheim. The couple had twins, born on their mother’s birthday: Ulrich (called Uli) and Isabel (called Isa). The family resided in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood in Berlin. After primary school, Uli attended the Goethe Schule and Isa the Hohenzollern Lyzeum; in 1936 Uli would attend the American school in Berlin in anticipation of his future emigration.

AR 25935 Lotte to Uli first b1f1
First letter written by Lotte to Uli, after he had departed for New York. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, AR 25935. From Box 1, Folder 1.

The growing difficulties of being Jewish in Nazi Germany led Franz Fürstenheim to travel to the United States in 1935 and 1937 to investigate emigration options for family members. Some members of the extended family already resided there. His daughter Annelise and her husband Wolfgang Casper came first to the United States, arriving on December 13, 1935, where they settled in New York City. Uli arrived in New York on board the S.S. Manhattan on March 19, 1937. After first staying with his aunt and uncle in Queens, he later moved to stay with the Solender family in Washington Heights, where he attended George Washington High School. His mother traveled to visit him in August 1937, but afterward returned to Germany. In February 1938, Uli graduated high school and began his studies at New York University’s University Heights campus. He had intended to study at City College, but at the time foreign students were barred from studying there. These rules were lifted by September 1938, so he transferred there, attending evening courses at the School of Business and Civic Administration for the next two years, while simultaneously working. Beginning in 1939 he worked as a bellhop during summer break at hotels in upstate New York, along Lake Placid and Lake Champlain. In September 1940 he began studying at New York University’s Law School, for which he had received a partial scholarship. He attended evening classes while working during the day in a clerkship from September 1941-February 1943 at the law firm of Marshall, Bratter, and Seligson. The archival collection includes numerous letters sent to Uli by his family members during his early years in New York, sending news and offering advice, along with documentation about his first years in New York, such as diary entries and daily planners, material that pertains to his summer jobs in upstate New York, and documents related to his education and his early professional work in the legal field.

In March 1937, another part of the Fürstenheim family also departed Germany: Julius Fürstenheim (later Julio Furstenheim), Lotte’s elder brother, along with his wife Gertrude (Trude) and their children Lilli and Herbert, went to Argentina, where they settled in Buenos Aires. The archival collection includes numerous letters from Julius and his family members, especially letters exchanged with his father, Franz Fürstenheim, once the family was in Argentina.

AR 25935 Lotte Schweitzer 2
Lotte Schweitzer. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, AR 25935. From Box 4, Folder 24.

By May 1938, Uli’s parents had decided it was time for them to leave Germany as well. They began to investigate their possibilities for emigration, especially concerned for the future of their daughter, Isa. By this time there was more than a six-month wait for visa applications for the United States. On the night of November 9-10, 1938, the so-called “Kristallnacht” (“Night of Broken Glass”, known more accurately as the Reich Pogrom or the November Pogrom) occurred, where synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed, and numerous Jewish men arrested. The Jews in Berlin were no exception, and Hugo Schweitzer was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. Lotte and Isa sent Uli a coded note to inform him of Hugo’s arrest; Isa would later write Uli with more details once she was safely outside of Germany. After Hugo’s release from Sachsenhausen on November 26, the family decided to go to England to await their American visas. Isa was the first to leave, in spring 1939, and found a position as domestic help with a Quaker family, the Johnsons, in Hale, England. Her parents joined her a few weeks later. In England, Lotte’s health began to deteriorate. In fall 1941 and May 1942 she underwent operations, followed months later by depression and psychosis possibly brought about by problems with her thyroid. In spite of many medical consultations, physicians were unable to help her and her health continued to decline over the next several years. Lotte died due to heart failure on January 28, 1945. Hugo, Lotte, and Isa’s lives in England are often discussed among the family’s extensive correspondence sent to Uli and Franz, with the collection including many letters from Isa to Uli during these wartime years in England. The notification of Lotte’s death is mentioned among the collection’s correspondence, including poignant letters about dealing with her loss; some official documents from England pertain to her death as well.

AR 25935Isa Schweitzer id booklet
Isa Schweitzer's British identification booklet. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, AR 25935. From Box 4, Folder 12.

After his children and grandchildren had departed Germany, Franz Fürstenheim had remained, awaiting his American visa to join the family in New York. In 1941 he finally received it. He arrived in New York on March 24, 1941 after a four-week journey traveling via Spain and Cuba. Although a wealthy man prior to his departure, due to the taxes and fees imposed on Jews by the Nazi government regarding the sale of his house and the various taxes and levies they imposed on Jews leaving Germany, he lost almost all of his money during emigration. He estimated that in 1941 he lost 118,000 RM. Once in New York, Franz moved into an apartment with Uli in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York City, which Uli had originally rented in expectation of the rest of the Schweitzer family joining them in New York.

Uli was never drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II due to a problem with his eardrum. However, during the war he was a member of the local Air Warden Service. In April 1943 he passed the New York State bar exam. He then received a position as a clerk at the law firm of Rook, Clark, Buckner & Ballantine. He became an American citizen on August 1, 1944.

Following the death of Charlotte Schweitzer and the end of the war, Hugo and Isabel Schweitzer were free to join Uli and the rest of the family in New York. Many letters in the archival collection mention Hugo and Isa’s visa process and preparations. They sailed in May 1946 on the M.S. Gripsholm, arriving in New York on May 27, and the family was finally reunited after nine years of separation.

AR 25935 Uli, Hugo, Isa b4f38
Photo of Uli, Hugo and Isa Schweitzer. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, AR 25935. From Box 4, Folder 38.

By 1945, Uli had met Florence Billikopf, related to his former employer, James Marshall. In January 1947 they became engaged; they married on March 30, 1947. From 1948-1949 they lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, before moving to Peter Cooper Village in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan.

In New York City, Hugo Schweitzer found work at the Loft Candy Company. Several of his siblings lived on the Upper West Side, so he also spent time with them. He died in 1950 after a period of declining health and an unsuccessful surgery.

Isa Schweitzer, who had begun working as a dressmaker in Germany, found a position in New York at a millinery and for a wedding dressmaker, before becoming a tailor at Elizabeth Arden, under the designer Castillo. In August 1947, she became engaged to Gunther Jack Ostheimer, whom she married on February 1, 1948. The couple moved to Washington, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, and had three children: Carol, Elaine, and Michael. They were active in their synagogue, the Beth Israel Congregation. Isa became a member on its Board of Directors, was President of the congregation’s Sisterhood, and was elected President of the local Washington chapter of Hadassah.

Franz Fürstenheim became an American citizen on August 29, 1946. He had a circle of friends among the German-Jewish refugees in New York City and in the Catskill Mountains, where he spent his summers in Tannersville or Haines Falls, New York. He also worked as office manager for the Society of American Chemists and Pharmacists and was a member of Congregation Habonim. In August 1948 Franz was hospitalized for problems with his heart, and had weakened health in the years thereafter. He died on May 21, 1950.

AR 25935 Uli to Isa postwar Berlin b2f47
Page of a detailed letter from Uli to Isa, decribing a visit to postwar Berlin in 1951. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, AR 25935. From Box 2, Folder 47.

Uli and Florence visited Berlin in 1951, and the collection includes a number of photographs of the destroyed city and a detailed report by Uli of the visit and the German friends he met while there. In 1952 they had a son, Peter. The couple also financially supported a foster son in France, Lucien Zylberstein. In 1952 they purchased a home in the town of Greenburgh, Westchester County, New York, near Scarsdale.

Uli remained with his abovementioned law firm as an associate until 1955; it was later renamed the firm of Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood. Beginning in December 1955 he began working as a general corporate attorney at the New York Central System railroad, becoming their general counsel in 1967, and continued his employment there as general corporate counsel after the system was acquired to become the Penn Central Company in February 1968. In 1970 he joined the Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., where he was the chief legal officer as well as Senior Vice-President and Resident Counsel. He retired from this position in 1987. Documentation of his legal career in the archival collection includes résumés, curricula vitae, and various questionnaires that document the progression in his career. In addition to legal professional associations, he was active in several local community organizations, including helping to found the Westchester Reform Synagogue.

AR 25935 Ulrich Schweitzer corporate counsel
Newspaper clipping featuring Ulrich Schweitzer in his role as corporate counsel, 1966, AR 25935. From Box 2, Folder 11.

Ulrich and Florence’s son, Peter, would go on to become a rabbi, and led the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City for twenty-five years. Florence Schweitzer died in 1982. Ulrich’s sister, Isabel Ostheimer, died in 1989. In 1996 Ulrich revisited Berlin with his son Peter and niece Carol. Ulrich Schweitzer died on August 21, 2014.

The Schweitzer Fürstenheim Collection contains four linear feet of papers of all of the family members mentioned above and more, with copious details on the experiences of family members, their lives in Germany, their emigration, and their later lives in their new homelands. In addition to the considerable amount of correspondence and official, personal, and professional papers, the collection also holds a large amount of photographs that depict many members of both the Schweitzer and Fürstenheim branches of the family. For further information about the contents of the archival collection, please consult the collection’s online finding aid. To read the narrative of the family's story, please consult the book Dear Uli! Related is also an oversized photo album, which depicts the Villa Stoltzenberg, where Franz Fürstenheim resided from 1928-1929.