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Tuesday, October 26, 2010



attempts to set down
The story of his Proximate Ancestors,
In parts, by way of a Narrative of Certain Facts and Accounts about them,
From their Origins in Europe, To Their Deaths in America.

Ulrico Schmidl (1510-80)

First German immigrant
on Argentine soil


My father was German Cesario Sonntag, and my mother is Iliana Leonor Redlich, and this is a chronicle of the lives and deaths of their own proximate ancestors, insofar as either I, or anyone knows anything about them. I begin by recording the few facts I know of the first immigrants in my family who migrated from Germany to Argentina.

I can trace the sources of my own ancestry to five immigrant families, as follows: I. The Redlichs, the oldest immigrant family, which has its origin in the arrival of Federico Rutenberg to Buenos Aires. This is the family of my mother’s father. II. The Strassburgers, which is the family of my mother’s grandmother on her father’s side, my own great-grandmother, Urchen, whom I knew well, and whose immigrant background is traceable. III.The Sonntags, the family of my father’s father. IV. The Wessels, the family of my father’s mother, and V. The Kranichfelds, or Krannichfeldts, the family of my mother’s mother. All of these branches originate with an immigrant who was born in Germany and traveled to Buenos Aires to settle and die there.

I. The Redlichs

The first ancestor of mine in America was a man named Federico, or Friedrich, Rutenberg, who was born in Bremen on November 11, 1816.

Federico Rutenberg (1816-1890)

Of his early history, little is known, except what I have been able to obtain from a speech given by his grandson, Ricardo Redlich, in Buenos Aires, on May 14, 1954, and on the contents of which I fully rely. Before he was twenty, he was apprenticed in the furniture business in Bremen, in a manufactory owned by friends of his father. Eventually, he took over the Hamburg branch of the business, and in that city he met his future wife, Magdalene Meier (1815-1897), a native of Hamburg, who also worked for the firm. As the partners were very satisfied with his work, and he was soon running both the Bremen and the Hamburg businesses, they asked him to take responsibility for a foreign branch they intended to open in either the USA or South America, the decision as to exactly where being left up to him.

Federico Rutenberg, in his early years.

It is said that his decision to travel to Buenos Aires was based on a contingency, as he might just have likely traveled to New York instead. He seems to have settled on Buenos Aires because he had greater facility in learning the Spanish language than the English. Or he may have decided the matter by a toss of the coin. His fiancée, Magdalene, was to stay in Hamburg, where she took on the supervision of the upholstery section of the firm, and she would join him in Buenos Aires depending on the success of the venture. He left for Buenos Aires in the year 1836, in a ship with three masts, on a journey that would take him eighty to ninety days.

There are many stories about Rutenberg’s life in Buenos Aires, where he befriended the despot, Juan Manuel de Rosas, and managed to survive the turmoil of the mid-century in the city and emerge as a friend of the wealthier sorts in that primitive society. Being one of the relatively few Germans who migrated to Buenos Aires in the early nineteenth century, Federico has been credited with association in the foundation of the German institutions of the city, such as the German Hospital, the German School, the German Church and Cemetery, and the Club Concordia, all flourishing to this day, but for the Club. He seems to have lived his whole life in the city, although precisely where is a mystery. His shop, until 1883-84, was located at the corner of Avenida Rivadavia and Calle Maipu, which is the very heart of the city, a few blocks west of the Cathedral and the Plaza de Mayo, but it is uncertain whether or not he lived there as well. In his shop, about which not much is known, Federico sold heavy pieces of furniture in finely polished red wood and mahogany, which he imported from Germany. These pieces found their way into the homes of the most prestigious families of Buenos Aires, where they probably still stand, mute witnesses to traditional German handicraft in that alien territory. Rosas is said to have bought the first consignment in its entirety. I have seen some of his work in my childhood, massive cupboards containing large drawers lined in felt that glided easily in and out of their beds, within brightly polished cabinets.

There are various anecdotes about his relation to the despot Rosas, and what mostly emerges from these is that he developed a friendship with the man, confirmed by the fact of his having visited the elderly Rosas in Southampton after the tyrant was exiled in the aftermath of the battle of Caseros (1852). Rosas died in England in 1877, and I have been told that Federico visited the despot at his farm in Southampton when Rosas was a white-haired old man. In that visit, Federico was accompanied by my great-grandfather, Rutenberg’s eldest grandson, also called Federico, who recalled the event in later years and told the story to his son, my grandfather, who passed it on to me. Since my great-grandfather was born in 1867, and it is difficult for a man to recollect anything much before the age of five, I conclude that the visit must have taken place some time between 1870 and 1877. Regrettably, nothing of import must have happened thence, or I would know about it.

The home of Rosas in Southampton
My great-grandfather visited with Rosas here in the 1870's.

Federico was politically adaptable, as it is also said that he hid the fugitive Dalmacio Velez Sarsfield, eventually the author of the Argentine Civil Code, when the latter was persecuted by Rosas, a good deed that yielded him an estancia in Indian territory, never actually possessed by my family, but only promised.

I believe that Federico was a walker, because my grandfather had a walking stick that he had inherited from him, and on this stick were metal engravings and medals from different towns in Germany. When you walked into one of those towns, you hammered in the town’s medal on your walking stick. There were quite a few of these metal picture-medals on this stick that I myself saw. I assumed the man must have walked through many towns. Of course, it is possible that the walking was done mostly in the neighborhood of Bremen and Hamburg, and for business reasons rather than exercise or tourism.

Probably on a subsequent trip back to Hamburg, he married Magdalene Meier, and brought her with him to Buenos Aires. Their only daughter was Philipine Helene Juliane Rutenberg (1849-1933) the true founder of the Argentine branch of my mother’s father’s family.

Federico Rutenberg died in Buenos Aires in 1890, and his wife Magdalene survived him by seven years. Thus passed the first of the immigrants of my family in Argentina.

Philipine Helene Juliane Rutenberg (1849-1933,)
and a few of her grandchildren

Philipine Helene Juliane Rutenberg (1849-1933) or Elena, as she is known to us, born in Argentina, married Hugo Redlich in Buenos Aires, on May 20, 1866. They sired a large family during a life of prosperity and optimism that ran the course of Argentina’s most prosperous times, a golden century of national aggrandizement and wealth, unfolding from the time of the battle of Caseros to the end of the Second World War. Of thirteen children, eleven survived into adulthood. The eldest, Federico Fernando Pablo Redlich (1867-1926) was my great grandfather, and I will come back to him. Among the youngest of this family were Ana Catalina Willemen, nee Redlich (1884-1976), Elvira Turtl, nee Redlich (1890-1967), Elena Emilia Burgwardt, nee Redlich (1879-1957), and Otilia Natalia Ques, nee Redlich (1887-1967), whom I recall very well, as they lived long into my own period. They were tall, stately aunts, dressed in black, but mirthful and imperious. I also recall the military figure of Ricardo Teodoro Redlich (1879-1961), a formidable uncle, who used to be seen customarily walking all over the town of Adrogue when I was a boy, until he was run over by a car.

Elena Emilia Burgwardt, nee Redlich (1879-1957),
Ana Catalina Willemen, nee Redlich (1884-1976),
and Otilia Natalia Ques, nee Redlich (1887-1967)

This large and prosperous family was founded by F. Hugo Redlich, who was born in 1838 in the city of Memel, in the far northern East Prussian provinces of the Baltic. The city of Memel, now known as Klaipeda in Lithuania, was one of the great northern cities of the Hanseatic League, an important commercial center and a cosmopolitan port city. F. Hugo Redlich was the son of Ferdinand August Redlich (1792-1854) and Natalie Josephine Nitschmann (1802-1881), who were married in Memel in 1824, at about the time that Federico Rutenberg was making up his mind to emigrate. Natalie Nitschmann was a native of the little town of Willkowischken, which no longer exists. East Prussia, in fact, ceased to exist during the Second World War, and was later integrated with Lithuania and the Soviet Union. The town may be the same as the modern Vilkaviskis, a city in southwestern Lithuania, about twenty five kilometers northeast of Marijampole, on the bank of the River Seimena, half way between Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad) and Vilnius. Until 1940, the city had a large Jewish Community which was annihilated by the Nazis and their local collaborators. On the other hand, the town may be the one formerly known as Wolfshof, renamed thus by the Nazis in 1938, and only a few kilometers from Popelken, half way between the old East Prussian capital of Koenigsberg and the famous city of Tilsit. In 1905, the town was included in the Labiau district and was a district of approximately 184 acres, with about 43 Protestant German households in it.

The old port of Memel

The reason for this brief digression is that Natalie Nitschmann may be the one possibility of my having Slavic blood coursing in my veins, although the Germans in Lithuania always considered themselves to be of very pure stock.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
['I am definitely not Russian, come from Lithuania, pure German.' The words are said in German, in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land)

Like Nietzsche, I have always sought pride in some sort of remote Slavic ancestry, an alluring and admirable image of Sarmatian aristocrats hovering in the background of those peasant Germans. But, also like Nietzsche, I would have trouble proving any of it.

My great-great-grandparents, F. Hugo Redlich and Elena Rutenberg de Redlich, lived most of their lives in Argentina. They were married in Buenos Aires on May 20, 1866, and their first son, my great-grandfather Federico, was born a year later, on March 28, 1867. Elena survived her oldest son Federico, and died in 1933. Hugo died in 1920. I know very little about their lives, but there are many photographs of both of them, and of their large family, still extant, and they were well known by many people who have been very close to me in my own life.

Hugo Redlich and his family (date unknown): Hugo and his wife, Elena Rutenberg, in the center and my great-grandfather Federico, directly behind his father.

On my mother’s side, Hugo Redlich and Elena’s parents are the initial pioneering immigrants from Germany. I do not know when Hugo arrived in Argentina, but he was living there by the time his first son was born, in 1867. There is some reference to the possibility that he lived in Quilmes at one time, but it is uncertain. Subsequent references always locate him in Adrogue, the suburb where I grew up, south of the city of Buenos Aires.

1 comment:

  1. Eerily, when I look at these pictures of Federico Rutenberg, I feel I am looking directly at YOU, Uncle Berto! On the other hand, when I search for any faces I recognize in the family of Hugo Redlich, I don't see anyone. Except perhaps, in the lady on the far left, a hint of Abuela.