52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: #3 – Sophie Weiss Spiegel – A Strong Woman

Sophie as a young girl
Sophie Weiss was my maternal great-grandmother. Although she was quite wealthy at points in her life, I knew things had not always been easy thanks to stories my mother had shared with me. I also have many unanswered questions about Sophie’s life.

Sophie, sister Rosa and brother Josef
Vienna, Austria
Born in Weiner Neustadt, Austria on June 20, 1874[1], to Emanuel (Mandl) Weiss and Theresia (Resi) Passauer, Sophie had one sister, Rosa. My mother told me they had a half-brother, Josef as well. She also shared that her grandmother had been raised primarily by an aunt[2]. I have not yet found any information on Sophie’s life as a young girl.
Sophie married Herman Spiegel on January 27, 1901. The marriage was held at Tempelgasse, the largest synagogue in Vienna, Austria at that time. Herman, the son of Josef Spiegel, had been born in Iasi, Romania in 1855. Herman had done quite well financially. As a partner with two other men, he owned Toko Spiegel, a department store in Semarang, Java (Indonesia). Sophie and Herman lived in Java from 1899 through 1908 when they returned to Vienna with their three children, Clare (b. Jan. 3, 1902), Rose (b. Oct. 19, 1903), and Emile (b. July 7, 1907).

Sophie and Herman Spiegel

I learned a bit about Sophie’s life in Semarang through my mother and the wealth of pictures we are so lucky to have.

The family’s life in Java seemed charmed to me – large home, servants, trips, exotic stories about snakes and natives.

The Spiegel home in Java 

For reasons I may never know, they returned to Vienna around 1908. On October 24, 1911, Herman died. Sophie was left with three young children, aged 9, 8 and 4. She had no parents, her sister Rosa had died in 1903 from tetanus. How did she provide for her family? Was there money? If so, what was the source? I do know that she struggled to raise her youngest, Emile. A high-spirited boy, my mother told me that Sophie had “shipped him off because she couldn’t manage him by herself.” I have documentation that Emile did indeed live in Holland from 1920 – 1924 with Sophie’s best friend, Katherine Barandse.

Sophie’s best friend – Katharine Barandse
Sophie (far left) with her children and friends in Java.
That’s Emile directly above the life- saver.
I never really thought about what life was like for Sophie and her children until I read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. Vienna in 1911 was a place of culture. According to de Waal, the Jewish community (to which Sophie and her family belonged), was, for the most part, assimilated so well they were almost indistinguishable. Life was pretty good.
The family home at 43 Silbergasse Vienna, Austria
By 1914, World War 1 had changed all that. The war would last until 1918. Foodstuffs were in short supply. There were lines for everything. How did Sophie cope with that while raising her children alone? I wish I knew. Her children were then 12, 13 and 7. Did they go to synagogue? I know they celebrated Christmas like many of the Viennese Jews of that time. I know Sophie was observant on some level as I am in possession of her Hebrew prayer books. I have much research to do here.
Throughout WWI, Sophie and her children remained in Vienna, despite increasing anti-Semitism. Their address in 1917 was 43 Silbergasse. 
In 1920, Sophie sent her son, Emile to Holland. He was 13 and would attend school there before moving to the United States in 1924. 
Visiting family in the United States – 1927
Sophie is directly behind the little girl in the white coat.

Sophie and daughter, Rose traveled to the United States in 1927 to visit Emile and her brother-in-law, Max Oppenheim. Daughter Claire married in 1928 and moved to Prague. Rose married Paul Lichtenthal in 1930. The couple moved into Sophie’s apartment. On March 5, 1932 my mother, Doris was born to Paul and Rose. The four would share a residence for the remainder of Sophie’s life.

I don’t know if Sophie had any income from Herman’s former business. Paul’s family however was quite well off. They were “workaholics” according to my mother, owning at least four men’s hat stores and a factory. The company name was Lital, a shortened form of their last name, Lichtenthal.
My mother adored her “Omi”, connecting more with her than her own mother. According my mother, Sophie was a very cultured woman. She preferred to be addressed as “Hochwohlgeboren Frau” which translates to “High Well Born woman.” She possessed many beautiful (and expensive) linens, pieces of jewelry and some art. Her friends held lively conversations which were of great interest to my mother. There were maids to press the linens, polish the silver and a cook to do the shopping and prepare the meals, although Sophie was a pretty good cook in her own right. We have her cookbook which would fun to get translated at some point. Life was good.
March 12, 1938[3]– Germany invaded Austria and all Jews are expelled.
March 26, 1938 – Jews are warned to leave Austria.
On April 10, 1938 Germany annexed Austria. Sophie was understandably worried about the situation and expressed the desire to leave. Her son-in-law, Paul was working in the well-established and financially successful family hat business, Lital. His father, Sigmund Lichtenthal, didn’t feel any pressing need to leave. Sophie felt otherwise.
May 31, 1938 – Paul was arrested and deported to the Dachau concentration camp. He would remain there until September 22, 1938 when he was transferred to Buchenwald, another concentration camp.
By August 1938, Sophie had secured passage to the United States for herself, her daughter and granddaughter. They would travel via Holland, as Sophie wisely (or just luckily) had retained her Dutch citizenship, granted during her residence in Java years before. 
Sophie’s 1938 Dutch Passport
On February 7, 1939, Sophie arrived in the United States on the SS Volendam.

Her daughter and grand-daughter had arrived a few months earlier, settling into an apartment at 30 Eastchester Road in New Rochelle, NY. Sophie’s son Emile was the building manager.
Paul was released from Buchenwald four days later on February 11, 1939 and was on a ship to join his family in the United States by March 4, 1939. From what I understand, his freedom was secured by RalphOppenheim, son of Sophie’s sister Rosa, a very successful executive in the fur-dyeing business.
Sophie, her daughter, son-in-law, and grand-daughter lived together in the Eastchester Road apartment. It was close quarters. No more expansive dinner tables set with fancy linens, crystal and silver. No more maids. No servants of any kind. The apartment had just two bedrooms – one of which was shared by my mother and her beloved grandmother, Sophie. Sophie never spoke English, much to my mother’s chagrin. She made some friends but I have no idea how she spent her time. Sophie may also have suffered from a stomach tumor as my mother explained to me, her stomach was somewhat distended.

L-to-R: Emil, Doris, Sophie, Peter Schuster (Claire’ son)

The family struggled financially. Paul secured work at the Danbury Hat factory and Rose began a business, D’Orette Linens, creating placemats from a new material called Plexon. But, money was always an issue and both Paul and Rose had serious health concerns. I’m sure they were grateful to be alive and together as a family as many Jews had not been able to escape with their lives much less their possessions. In that respect, Sophie actually was quite lucky. She was able to ship some of her artwork and maintained possession of several pieces of jewelry. Of course we have no way of knowing what was lost. My mother often lamented the loss of many of her cherished toys. After my mother passed away in 2011 we found several suitcases in her attic full of Sophie’s fine china and glassware. They were still wrapped in the Viennese newspaper from June of 1938. They had never been unwrapped until we found them.

Sophie passed away on April 18, 1949. Her death certificate lists the immediate cause of death as “Coronary Thrombosis” due to “Arterio-sclerosis” and Diabetes.

Sophie was a source of comfort and support for my mother, who often spoke lovingly of her “Omi.” I am now an “Omi” myself, the fourth in our family, unless my 8 month-old grandson decides to call me by another name. Thankfully, I have not had to experience similar traumas as my great-grandmother, Sophie. She survived the loss of her mother at a young age, lost her husband after only 10 years of marriage, raised three children alone during a World War, faced anti-Semitism, fled her homeland as a result of another World War, lost many of her possessions, and learned to live in a new country at the age of 64.

A strong woman.

[1] I have conflicting records on her birthdate. Some records state June 15, 1874.
[2] I have yet to determine a death date for Theresia but it was between 1860 (marriage to Emanuel) and 1897 (Emanuel’s death – he was listed as widower at that time.) 

2 thoughts on “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: #3 – Sophie Weiss Spiegel – A Strong Woman

  1. im from semarang, java, just found n read this article, n i love it, the way u told about java n semarang, hope i can see u if u visit my city.. n fyi, in semarang now already open spiegel cafe n bar, likes ur grand mothers last name, i dunno r u n ur family has connection to that cafe, but just seems interested, i just clicked my google with keyword spiegels semarang, than i found ur article.. terimakasih 🙂


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