In 1977, my mom, Jeannette Elizabeth Roth Price Woolf, decided she wanted to learn more about her paternal line, so started researching. She took a genealogy class at BYU and learned out to use research logs, organize files, take notes, write letters, keep track of whatever she was working on, etc. Mom was meticulous in everything she did, and this was no different. Her files on Adolph went so far as to include copies of news articles she read about the best places to do specific forms of research, copies of letters she’d written, responses she’d received, vital records, certified copies of census record extracts, as well as photographs of the paintings: one of Adolph, and one of his wife Kathinka.
What she knew about Adolph would have filled a paragraph, maybe two. He and his wife Kathinka came to America from Germany in 1866 with their three children — Wilhelmina, Augusta, and Reinhardt — moved to Illinois where their youngest son, Edward Otto was born, and eventually settled in St. Louis. Ok, there was a little more than that.
Adolph Roth met Kathinka Luja when he was 24 and she was 14, working as a barmaid. They courted for 10 years before getting married. And family lore suggested her family had been courtiers in the courts of Spain!
After she’d been researching for about 3 years, she came across a copy a ship’s manifest that had her perplexed, so she called her father, Bill Roth. I was sitting at the table with her when she called, and the conversation went something like this:
Mom: Daddy, I just found a ship’s manifest that shows a family arriving July 3, 1866 on the SS Bremen. The parents are Adolph and Kathinka, with children Wilhelmina, Augusta, and Reinhardt. All of their information matches what I have, except their last name is Rothschild, not Roth. Do you think they could be the same people?
Granddaddy: Oh, I know they are. That was the family name.
Mom: What?!? When did the name change? And why?
Granddaddy: My father changed it when he left home because he was antisemitic.
Mom: Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? You knew I was researching this!
Granddaddy: I didn’t think it mattered.
So, Adolph Roth became Adolph Rothschild, and that’s when mom was able to find his death certificate, and to request census record extracts (which would only show him and his wife and members of the household if he was listed as the head of household). And with the last name of Rothschild, mom assumed the family was Jewish, so she began writing to synagogues in St. Petersburg, IL and St. Louis, MO, to see if he’d been a member of the congregation, but none of them had any record of him.
One of the family stories that baffled us for years – decades! – was the one about their youngest son. At the age of 19, Edward and Adolph had a discussion about Edward’s future. Edward, a gifted artist, wanted to be a painter. His father wanted him to be a Lutheran minister. The debate ended in a stalemate, and Edward, dog in tow, retreated to the basement. He sketched a lovely drawing of his dog, later turning it into a painting, and in the morning, he left, disappeared for 9 years, without a word to anyone. Why on earth would a nice Jewish man want his son to be a Lutheran minister?
When I took over the Rothschild research from mom sometime around 2003, the family tree was pretty small. Reunions still consisted of mom and her 3 kids, her brother Billy, their cousin Sandra, Sandra’s son Frank, and his children, and their cousin Betty who had 6 children, all married, with lots of grandchildren. I think we numbered around 30.
Family Lore is a fabulous place to start a genealogical journey, but as new pieces of information become available, our perceptions about what might have been change, and we form new ideas. Adolph is the perfect example of this. At one of our family reunions, we all pitched in to pay for a DNA test taken by my Uncle Bill, as he was the last direct male line descendant in the family. The test came back and definitively proved we were of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Which, to our way of thinking, meant Adolph had married a nice Jewish girl. In fact, going back to family lore for the Luja family, we believed those courtiers in the Royal Court of Spain were Jews.
One of our perceptions was that Adolph was estranged from his family. This was particularly true when we realized Kathinka couldn’t have been a nice Jewish girl. This one, I’m embarrassed to say, took me far too long to figure out. In fact, it wasn’t until after Camille and I had each taken our own DNA test that we began to realize we were really off base where Kathinka was concerned. First off, while I have some DNA from the Iberian Peninsuala, Camille doesn’t have any. Instead, she has Danish genes. I do as well, but figured they came from my paternal line. This discovery prompted an email with silly lyrics set to a tune from the musical “My Fair Lady”. “Our genes from Spain came mainly from the Danes!” Told you they were silly. Then, we finally, really took a look at Kathinka’s parents, and realized there was absolutely no way they were Jewish.
Kathinka Luja, whose full name we recently discovered was Maria Elisabethe Katherine Luja, was born 18 April 1839 in Hanau, Hesse, Germany. Her parents were Christoph Luja and Christiana Heil. No, I cannot tell you why it took me nearly 20 years to look at those names and realize Jews weren’t prone to using Christ-based names, but it did. So, Kathinka wasn’t a Jew. Ok, well, that explained why Adolph was estranged from his family. And why did we think this? Because, at the time, we had found zero evidence supporting any connection between him and his family, even those living in the States.
In the beginning, based on the 1880 census, we believed that Adolph Roth/Rothschild had been born in Vöhl. Because of that, we believed he was related to the Rothschild family of Vöhl. (Thank you, Förderkreis Synagoge in Vöhl, e.V. for making SO MUCH information about that family available on your website!) We believed he and Kathinka met when she was working as a barmaid at the age of 14 and he was 24. We believed they courted for 10 years because her family didn’t approve of him. We believed he was estranged from his family, probably because of that marriage. We knew they had 4 children. We knew they had arrived in New York City on the SS Bremen on 2 July 1866. We knew they had lived in St. Petersburg, Illinois for a while before finally settling in St. Louis. We knew that they were buried there at the Valhalla Cemetery.
So, how much of what we believed was true? How much wasn’t? How and where did all the pieces fit together? And how on earth were we ever going to connect Adolph to the Rothschild family of Vöhl? Well, it’s been a process, that’s for sure. And it started with the letters mom received from her two paternal aunts, Edna Roth Bock and Eugenia Josephine “Jean” Roth Burr.
In the letters from Aunt Edna, dated in 1969 and 1970, she insisted the family name had been Rothschild, which she had learned when she was a girl corresponding via mail with her Calman cousins. But no one in the family believed her, and even her father, Edward Otto Roth/Rothschild told her she was wrong. Letters from Aunt Jean from the 1970s and 1980s would periodically refer to Aunt Edna’s belief about the family name, but it really wasn’t anything more than speculation, which is why mom was searching for Adolph Roth.
In the summer of 2016, Camille received a hint on Ancestry.com. We both felt like this was right, like this was our Adolph, but I wanted a copy of the document. So we tracked down an email address for Burg Gemünden, wrote to them, and waited. Eventually we got a reply letting us know we’d reached the church at Nieder Gemünden, but we needed the church at Burg Gemünden, and provided us with an email address. So we wrote them. And waited.
In December of 2016, I wrote a letter and mailed it. More waiting. We were both getting frustrated.
On a cold Monday in January 2017, I felt prompted to look through mom’s files, and I stumbled across a newspaper article mom had cut out of the Salt Lake Tribune dated Sunday, May 1, 1977, entitled “The Search for Jewish Roots”. Part of the article is torn away, but it was the very last article that caught my attention: “The best place? ‘Painful though it may be to admit,’ writes Mr. Rottenberg, ‘the best records for Jewish ancestor hunters are not to be found in Jewish institutions, but in the Mormons’ genealogical library in Salt Lake City.'”
I just stared at that. And a light went on. I knew that the library closed at 5 on Mondays, and I got off work at 3:30. That gave me just enough time to drive up there, see if I could find the record. I raced downtown after work, walked into the library, went to the help desk, and asked for baptismal records for Burg Gemünden in 1860. A very nice man was there, and he helped me find the correct reel of microfilm, reminded me how to use the microfilm reader, and left me to my own devices. It didn’t take long to realize I had a problem: while I may once have been fluent in reading, speaking, and understanding German, I no longer was. Especially not with the alte schrift, the old-style handwriting. But I can still read numbers, so I ploughed ahead, figuring I could get to the general area and then ask for help. As I was getting closer, I gave the handle one last crank, and the microfilm stopped scrolling. Perfectly centered on the screen was a document, in terrible handwriting, with the name Adolph Rothschild written in the left-hand margin. I got goosebumps. I hurried back to the help desk, explained my situation, and the man who had helped me earlier came over, skimmed the document, and then exclaimed, “He was Jewish?!?” I started sobbing. I knew, I KNEW that whatever else he told me, this was MY Adolph Rothschild. The helper sat down and started reading. In brief it says, “On 1 June 1860, after much study, and going before the board to prove his understanding of Christianity, and his acceptance of the Lutheran faith, Abraham Rothschild, a Jew, born 28 December 1829 in Vöhl, son of the deceased merchant Ascher Rothschild, and his first wife Sprinza nee Sternberg, was baptized, and was, by the priest, given the Christian name of Adolph.”
There, in one document, was the information that linked my gg-grandfather to the Rothschild family of Vöhl. The names Ascher Rothschild and Sprinza Sternberg I recognized from the Synagogue Vöhl website. I couldn’t stop crying. The helper left, I thought because of my tears, but he simply returned to hand me some tissues.
Finding this document, this missing link, was so bittersweet for me. I wanted, more than anything, to call my mom and tell her all about it. Tell her that our combined 40 years of wandering in the genealogical wilderness was over, and that Adolph had siblings — so many of them! And parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, all of it! But mom had had a stroke a number of years before, and couldn’t comprehend the information. Still, I like to think part of her understood.
I told Camille. I told my “Aunt” Betty (mom’s first cousin). I emailed the extended family. I told my husband, over and over and over. And I continue to tell it, because it’s just such an amazing story. And an absolute turning point in our research into this family.
Armed with this new information, Camille and I dove into the deep end of the genealogy pool and have been busy ever since. All the blog posts before this one, and all the rest of the blog posts for this generation, and a number of the blog posts for subsequent generations, are a direct result of this one document.
Thanks, Camille, for sharing that hint with me, and for feeling like I did that it was “our guy.”
Next up, we’ll learn more about Adolph, and separate fact from family lore.