Archive for January, 2017

Lessons Learned

Since starting my genealogy, my Great-Grandfather and I have had a bit of a contentious relationship: I hunt for him, he eludes me and snickers from Heaven, and all remains in balance in our worlds. I would like to think there is mutual respect there, and that sometime soon he will give up his secrets.

Ernst Heinryck May was born in 1878 in a small town in Poland called Beizun. According to his sister’s diary, which is in the possession of my cousin in Poland, he lived in a nicer home, and the family were millers, owning two windmills. He immigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of 10 and resided in Chicago, Illinois for a short period of time before coming to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1899, he met and married my Great-Grandmother, Helena Alberta Gilda. It is noted in his sister’s diary that his family was not pleased with the match (although the reason is not cited), but that the two were very much in love. She emigrated from Poland in 1893, and was, by trade, a seamstress.

In 1904, Ernst applied for Naturalization in Chicago, and then soon after went back to Philadelphia, where he purchased ship’s passage for his immediate family. They arrived in Philadelphia in June, 1904. They spent three months in Philadelphia before relocating the entire family to Chicago, which was, according to my 2nd Great-Grandfather, “the biggest town in America.” The first three of my Great-Grandparents’ children were born in Philadelphia, and the fourth was born in Chicago in 1906.

Helena’s sister, Carolina, married a man named Gottfried (or, Godfrey) Wagnetz in 1892 in Philadelphia. In 1908, Helena and Ernst purchased ship’s passage for Gottfried’s brother, Gustave, to come to the U.S. This transaction was made at the Rosenbaum Bank in Philadelphia, and we can assume that they were back in the Philadelphia area as early as 1908. In 1910, the May Family was living across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey.

At this point, things started unravelling for the May Family. World War I was gearing up, Ernst had made at least two trips back to Poland between 1914 and 1920, and had gotten himself an FBI file, under suspicion of being a German sympathizer. By 1920, Ernst and Helena were living in separate households in Philadelphia. Sometime between 1920 and 1927, they were divorced, and in 1927 she remarried – to her brother-in-law’s brother, Gustave Wagnetz, the man she and her ex-husband sponsored in 1908 to come over from Poland. Helena was obviously a very strong woman. She not only separated but divorced her husband at a time when divorce was socially frowned upon.

This is where I lose the trail of Ernst. I cannot find him in 1930, 1940 or his death record, which I believe was sometime in the 1950’s. Family legend has it that he died destitute in a hospital for the blind in New York.

This is why I “do” genealogy – I want to know the people and their stories, good and bad, respectable and scandalous, because the stories of these people make up who I am. I have come to realize, the more I learn, that he is more of a sympathetic figure than I had previously given him credit for. Maybe that is the lesson he has given me – to give him the benefit of the doubt.



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