Our World War I Family Story: The First Immigrants From Germany Post WW1

Ernestine Schumann-Heink Our family story begins with Madame Ernestine Rössler Schumann-Heink, an opera singer born 15 Jun 1861 in Libeň, outside Prauge, Czech Republic, at the time, a part of the Austrian empire (brief biography here).  She rose to opera stardom and was a larger than life, warm, engaging, witty, controversial, colorful, extremely strong willed woman who never quit.  Ernestine died in 17 Nov 1936 in Hollywood, Ca.  Ernestine was my husband Charlie’s 2nd great grandmother.

August Death (post war record)

During World War 1 Ernestine had family serving on both sides of the war: Lt. August Heink her son, and Capt. Karl Rössler her brother, fought for Germany, and her sons Henry, Ferdinand and George served with US forces.  August died on 15 Jun 1918 when the submarine he served on was sunk in the English Channel.

August left a widow Katharina Maria “Kathie” Finsen (26 Feb 1884 Finsberg, Germany – 14 Apr 1931 San Diego, Ca), and two children, Ilse and Hans, both born in Hamburg, Germany.  Life post World War 1 in Germany was hard.  Food shortages, housing and clothing were difficult and expensive to acquire, especially for a widow.

In early 1919 Ernestine received correspondence from Kathie detailing life in post war Germany, that she

The Salinas Daily Union 15 Aug 1919, p 9

(Kathie) was mentally suffering, and indicated the family was struggling to survive.  On 03 Aug 1919 Ernestine departed New York for Amsterdam,
Holland, Ernestine wasn’t able to enter Germany due to death threats for supporting the United States in World War 1.  The family accompanied Ernestine to New York on the Ship Rotterdam, arriving on 07 Sep 1919.  For two days they were barred from disembarking at the Port of New York; German citizens were prohibited from entering the United States.  Two days later, without fanfare, her family was permitted to disembark and pursue life in the United States.

How did Ernestine make this happen?   Either law or Executive Order (I have not yet identified which) prohibited immigration by German citizens during and following World War 1.  This was not a hidden, shush, sneak the family into the United States, wink-wink action.  This was typical Ernestine, I am doing this, it will happen, carried out on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. While there are at least one hundred (online) articles about this trip, many reporting factually, some against the family, but none explaining how Ernestine was able to bring her daughter-in-law and grandchildren into the United States.

I began my research at the National Archives in Washington, DC.  While meeting with a Congressional Archivist we determined the 3 most likely ways to legally receive an exemption from existing law/executive order:

  1. Congressional act
  2. State Department authorization
  3. Presidential order

The archivist eliminated Congressional act; no act was passed prior to summer recess and Congress was in recess during this time.  Additional searches located a news article describing a performance given by Ernestine on 17 October 1919 to State Department employees in Washington, DC. The suggestion was made this “smelled like a DC quid-pro-quo” and my next avenue of research.

In the State Department records in College Park, Md (NARA 2), while attending Gen-Fed, I found my answer.  The correspondence shows (with more to be located) an evolving story, culminating with the Secretary of State granting visa’s.  Ernestine was heavily involved in selling War Bonds to finance the US war effort, and this is suggested as a reason for permitting her family to enter the US.

Document and Summary
20 May 1920 Letter from Ernestine saying her daughter would never return to Germany, implying she was leaving husband and getting a divorce. Only interpretation in file, not Ernestine’s original letter.

RG 59, Entry 705, Box 278, packet Ernestine Schumann-Heink

18 Jul 1919 Summary of an interview encouraging the State Dept. to grant entrance to her family (story of daughter and daughter-in-law are intermixed, Kathie had 2 children, her daughter married to a doctor had 3).

RG 59, Entry 705, Box 278, packet Ernestine Schumann-Heink

18 Jul 1919 Page 2 “it is probable that it will be acted on favorably, in view of the great service …” Ernestine’s involvement in US efforts during WW1 are worthy of several additional posts, they were that significant.

RG 59, Entry 705, Box 278, packet Ernestine Schumann-Heink

18 Aug 1919 Urgent telegram from The Hague to Secretary of State asking for permission to sail to US.  Note telegram now says daughter-in-law is of Danish birth and seeks to come to US and re-establish her Danish citizenship!

RG 59, Entry 705, Box 56, packet Kate Heink

23 Aug 1919 Telegram from The Hague, urgently requesting Visa before ship sails 27 Aug 1919

RG 59, Entry 705, Box 278, packet Ernestine Schumann-Heink

23 Aug 1919 Letter from State Dept, US to The Hague granting visas to Kate Heink and 3 children (there were only 2).  Notice the signature (in red) is Lansing.  Robert Lansing was Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson and served from 1915-1920.

RG 59, Entry 705, Box 56, packet Kate Heink

30 Aug 1919 Rules prevent immigration of singers grandchildren. By the time this article is published the ship has left Rotterdam and headed for the US, with family aboard.
Buffalo Evening News, 30 Aug  1919, page 3, http://www.newspapers.com
The Heink family arrives in New York City on 07 Sep 1919!  Note that Kathie Maria Heink “Marie Heink” was born in Germany (not the Netherlands)

Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957. Year: 1919; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 2675; Line: 22; Page: 80

17 Oct 1919 Schumann-Heink performs for State Department employees including Secretary Lansing!
The Washington Post, 17 Oct 1919, page 7, http://www.fold3.com

As a final note, Katharina, Ilse and Hans became naturalized American citizens.  Who says researching family history isn’t interesting?


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