Friday, 6 May 2016

Johanna Wollheim: a Matriarch

As I get older I am increasingly saddened as to how quickly we are forgotten. As a child of nine or ten I was captivated by my great grandfather's notebook, which brought alive ancestors and family members from two hundred years ago and more, and as time went by I was able to read their letters and know them a little better. Understandably those who died in infancy left very little trace: my sister Stella, my aunt Fausta, my great uncle Randle: I knew a little about them. I knew nothing about the many brothers and sisters of my grandmother from Gorizia, many of whom had died in infancy. My great great great grandfather Samson Schiff I knew only from his grave in Milan; it was a tremendously emotional moment when, fifteen years ago, I opened a book I had bought which contained a chapter about him. It was similar with his daughter Paolina, who died at approximately the same time as my mother was born, and who was unknown to my family, even though she is now the subject of research. My great great grandmother died in Genova when I was a toddler, but I don't think anybody knew, not even her beloved grandson, my Italian grandfather. If we are fortunate, most of us will leave behind a mere record of our birth, marriage and death, and very little else. I have attempted over the past two years to piece together some of the history of the Schiff family, and this has gone well, as I have been very fortunate in the help I have been given.
I thought the story of Johanna Schiff was pretty straightforward. Born Johanna Wollheim in 1811 in Lissa, now Leszno in Poland, she married in 1832 Leopold Schiff in Trieste, where her father appeared to have established a shipping business. She gave birth to nine children and some time in the 1860s appears to have died. But two nights ago I discovered some material deposited in 2002 by Hermann de Fonseca Wollheim in the Leo Baeck Institute in New York which astounded me. I have attempted to contact him in Belgium but without success, and it is possible he may have died. In this document he declares that Leopold Schiff was the second husband of Johanna Wollheim, and that she had married Aaron Simonsohn of Dresden on 7th May, 1826. This would make her 15 at the time of her marriage, which is surprising, but not impossible. The document also gives her three children: Nathan, born 29th April, 1829; David, born 15th March, 1831, and a son Simon for whom no date of birth is given. The sources for this information are said to be the archives of the Leszno Jewish Museum, and the Dresden Jewish Community Register.
David Simonsohn became a well known artist, David Simonson-Castelli, and left at least two children, Henriette, and the artist Ernst Oskar, and died in Dresden on 8th February, 1896. His sister was a talented pianist Eugenie Simonson.
But what happened? It appears that Johanna left her husband and children in Dresden, and married Leopold Schiff in November, 1832. Was she divorced by Aaron Simonsohn? I am not sure of the date of his death. Similarly, we have a record of Johanna up until 10th June, 1861 when she received a letter from the explorer Karl von Scherzinger addressed to her in Trieste at the establishment of Schiff & Wollheim. We do not know when she died, but within ten years her husband Leopold Schiff had left Trieste to live with his three daughters in Hamburg, where he died in 1871.
It is surprising that we do not know details of her death. Her daughter Octavia is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Trieste, the sole grave in the very large plot of the Schiff family. Did she return to Dresden to see the children of her first marriage? Had she separated from her husband Leopold Schiff? Or was she visiting her first family. Although it is slightly ambiguous Hermann de Fonseca-Wollheim's research seems to indicate that she died in Dresden on 3rd August, 1869, which seems to match the information we already have. Her son Alfred in London created a shrine in London to his father's memory, but not to the memory of his mother. However, he did name one of his daughters after her. Her family created a charity in her memory in her birthplace of Leszno which survived until the Second World War.
I keep telling myself that there were perhaps two Johanna Wollheims, but the evidence from Hermann de Fonseca-Wollheim is quite explicit: Leopold Schiff was her second husband. I expect further evidence will gradually appear.

Trieste, 6th May, 2016

1 comment:

  1. I can add that thanks to the archivist of the Trieste Jewish Community I can positively state that the marriage between Johanna Wollheim and Leopold Schiff was indeed a first marriage for both of them. Perhaps there was another Johanna Wollheim, a cousin or an aunt.