III. The Sonntags
Maximo Sonntag (1881-1949)
Of my father’s family, I know of only one immigrant, and that was his own father, Max, or Maximo, Sonntag. I remember my grandfather quite well, having seen him on a few occasions before his death, which occurred on April 28, 1949, on the eve of what was to be another one of his great trips to Europe. My grandfather was born on November 8, 1881, in the small town of Torgau, on the River Elbe, in Saxony. His family was from the even more diminutive town of Gross Osterhausen, at the foot of the Harz Mountains in Saxony, just a few miles south of Eisleben, where Martin Luther was born and died. It is said that Maximo’s father, my great-grandfather, migrated from the farm lands to the city of Leipzig where he eventually became a well-known tramway conductor. Or perhaps he became the head of all tramway conductors in the city, for when he died, it is said that all the tramways in Leipzig were stopped for a few minutes, in his honor. But some of his relatives remained on the farm, because my father visited with them in 1937, on the occasion of a family visit to Germany. Eventually, all these Saxon Sonntags moved to Leipzig, and the family land must have been alienated some time after the Second World War. Gross Osterhausen was within the Communist state of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.
My father often spoke of his relatives in Gross Osterhausen with a sort of loving irony. I think he was bemused at having authentic peasants for ancestors. He described the farm as a series of large buildings on a plot that was no larger than the average Los Angeles suburban back-yard. I assume he was exaggerating as to its smallness. The buildings were typical German farm structures, as evidenced in the following photograph:
Sonntags at the farm in Gross Osterhausen (probably the 1937 visit?): My grandmother Berta is second from the left, and my tia Gerda is right next to her on the left. I don’t recognize the others.
An earlier occasion in Gross Osterhausen (date unknown): Berta is second from right in the back, tia Gerda in the front center and, next to her on her right, my father being held by my uncle Max, his older brother.
But to return to the story, and hence to the nineteenth century, in Leipzig, my grandfather must have trained in business and perhaps come to be noticed by the brothers Berger of Bingen, a small town in the Rhineland, in the valley of the Mosel. The Bergers owned a successful import-export business in printing supplies, a firm with international connections. The house of Curt Berger had a branch in Buenos Aires, and some time in the early years of the twentieth century, perhaps 1905, my grandfather was assigned to that post. If 1905 is the precise date of his arrival, and I do not know this for certain, then he was in his mid-twenties when he began his new life in Buenos Aires. He did not know a word of Spanish, and he arrived in a ship with little on him of any value.
I have unfortunately very little information about the early life of my grandfather in Buenos Aires. I have heard that he worked very hard in the firm, and that he would come home and put his bare feet in a pan of ice-cold water so as to stay awake and study for the Argentine naturalization examination. Eventually, he became a citizen and he learned to speak Spanish fluently. His story is one of relentless business success, as he worked his way to the board of directors of the company by the time he was in his forties. He lived in a modest house in the remote suburb of Jose C. Paz, north-west of the city, but in the 1940’s, he had it remodeled, and it became the large, elegant house that I knew as a boy. It was a very large landscaped estate, with a large garden, broad avenues, fish ponds, an old fashioned swimming pool, tall trees and flower beds everywhere.
IV. The Wessels
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Maximo married Berta Wessel, my grandmother, in Buenos Aires, on January 25, 1909. My uncle Maximo (tio Bummel) was born a year later, on December 27, 1910. Berta Auguste Wessel was born on September 4, 1886 in Buenos Aires. I know even less about her family history than his, but I will leave her own personal history for later, as I am here concerned exclusively with the immigrants.
Berta Auguste Wessel de Sonntag in Mar del Plata (late 1950’s).
Berta’ father was Cesario Wessel, an engineer, lecturer, and secretary at the University of Buenos Aires, reputed to have translated into Spanish a book by Richard Napp Zinn, a relative on his wife’s side, entitled Die Argentinische Republik. He was born in the Province of Entre Rios, in the city of Concepcion del Uruguay, on December 25, 1856. I have no information on his parents or what part of Germany they came from. My father told me that visiting his home in Buenos Aires was always a gloomy experience, as it was a cold and damp house.
Cesario Wessel was married twice, and both his wives were sisters from an old Rhineland family. The first wife was Magdalene Johanna Amalie Martha Napp, born in Hamburg on January 22, 1863, in the eastern suburb of St. Pauli. She married Cesario in Buenos Aires on October 25, 1884, and their first child, also named Cesario (the old tio Cesario) was born a year later, on August 23, 1885, and my grandmother Berta on September 4, 1886. Magdalene died on July 4, 1921 in Buenos Aires.
Cesario Wessel and Tante Molly (date unknown)
Tante Molly then became Cesario’s second wife, and she was alive in my lifetime and I knew her well. Her name was Amalie (Mali, or Molly) Margarethe Napp, and she was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 18, 1874. She married Cesario after her sister’s death on December 12, 1923. Her marriage was childless.
Why was Tante Molly born in Hoboken? Tante Molly had an interesting family. Her father, Felix Jacob Napp, was a sailor and eventually a sea captain from the port of St. Pauli in Hamburg. He was born on December 17, 1833. He was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, when Tante Molly was born in 1874. I recall my father telling me that this man had died in Brooklyn, when he fell from the docks and was crushed by a ship there. In any case, his violent ending and obscure destiny belie his origins, which were solid bourgeois, from an old middle-class and well-educated family rooted since time immemorial in the beautiful Rhineland town of St. Goarshausen (below).
St. Goarshauen on the Rhine
My grandmother, Berta Wessel, was the first child of Cesario and his first wife Magdalene, and she is reputed to have been the de facto mother of all those children during the course of her early life, as her mother was in some way incapacitated. I have little evidence for this, and am ignorant of the reasons for it, but if it is true, it would account for my grandmother’s strongly totalitarian personality. There were quite a few Wessels, but I only knew my grandmother and her younger sister, Tante Juanita, (Johanna Juliane Wessel, 1889-1969) who was a delightful woman and married to one of the Hasenbalgs, the family of my brother-in-law, Rodolfo Grigera.
My father and his father in Jose C. Paz (date unknown)