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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

Ruth's sister, my grandmother: Elsbeth Perlitz Knuppel

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Elsbeth Emma Perlitz, possibly 1932.

Ruth's story would have been lost in the numerous horror stories of WWII if not for my grandmother, Elsbeth Perlitz Knuppel. I was in my mid-30's when I first learned of the existence of my great aunt; I distinctly remember during a visit with my grandmother, along with my son who was a toddler at the time, that she mentioned a sister. Now, I had known that she had two brothers; Heinz, who was presumed to have died at Stalingrad (and whom is officially still listed as MIA in Germany military records), and Günter, who as a young boy survived the war and now lived in East Germany. Stunned, I asked my grandmother about her sister, but she would only reply, "The Nazis killed Ruth". I had no idea at the time how much this simple statement would direct my life's research in the years to come.

From her birth in February 1912, Elsbeth lived with her mother, Emma Perlitz and her grandparents, Christian and Luise Perlitz, on their farm in Markt Alvensleben. She often spoke of her childhood being happy. The family affectionately called her “Liesbeth”.

Elsbeth, age 17, riding a bicycle in front of her grandparents' home on Friedenstrasse.

Elsbeth continued to reside with her grandparents in Alvensleben following the marriage of her mother and stepfather in February 1920. Elsbeth shared a feather bed in the attic of the home on Friedenstrasse 81 with her aunt, Elsa, Christian and Luise’s youngest daughter who was only 2.5 years older than Elsbeth. In the winter, the snow would come in around the window and it was so cold they did not want to get out of the comfort of their the warm feather bed.

After her mother and stepfather's marriage, they moved to Magdeburg and lived on Nachtweide Straße 31A, where Paul’s print shop was located. Emma gave birth to Elsbeth’s half sister, Ruth, on July 11, 1920. Elsbeth also would soon have two brothers, Heinz in 1921, and Günter in 1928.

Elsbeth attended school, presumably to the age of 14 (as was the age where public schooling stopped for girls at that time in Germany), and to the extent that school classes were held during and after the First World War. Food would have been scarce during the war years. Elsbeth would move to Magdeburg when she was 15 years old and work as a maid for the family that owned the Saxonia Porzellanfabrik bone china manufacturing company in Neuhaldensleben (now Haldensleben), Germany.

Maker’s Mark for Saxonia Porzellanfabrik Manufacturing Company.

Given the bleak economic outlook for women her age, Elsbeth, at the age of 18, boarded the ship Stuttgart, by herself, and departed for the United States on July 31, 1930. She arrived in America at New York City on August 10, 1930. (See more on the Stuttgart in the next blog post.)

Elsbeth Perlitz aboard the ship Stuttgart along with two unidentified persons in 1930.

Elsbeth had family in America who had immigrated earlier in the century. Elsbeth's cousin Willy had a car and he drove himself and Elsbeth’s mother’s sister, Helen Anna Perlitz Krull Rakowski, to New York City where they met Elsbeth when her ship docked. Her Tante (Aunt) Helen brought her a lunch that included the first peach my grandmother ever had. For the rest of her life, any time we had peaches, my grandmother would mention the peach her Tante Helen gave her when they picked her up from the ship. Elsbeth lived with her aunt for several years after her arrival in America and they would remain close friends all their lives, so close that Elsbeth would name her daughter after her Tante Helen.

Elsbeth Perlitz Knuppel with Helen Perlitz Krull Rakowski, Annapolis, MD 1962.

More on her cousin Willy Perlitz, composer of parts of the Naval Academy's fight song, Anchors Aweigh, in a future blog post. Meanwhile, read about Anchors Aweigh on Wikipedia: Anchors Aweigh - Wikipedia

After her arrival in the United States, my grandmother worked cleaning houses to earn money. She also worked as a nanny for a wealthy family in Washington DC. She went to live with the family and care for their children. By 1935, Elsbeth had saved up enough money for a trip home to Germany to visit family. Her Reisepass shows that she went to the German Consulate at the Hansa Haus in Baltimore to obtain her necessary paperwork. The Hansa Haus in Baltimore still stands today and is the only early Germanic style building in Baltimore. Baltimore had a large German population and the Hansa Haus was built on German and Charles Street. (In September 1918, Baltimore renamed German Street to Redwood due to anti-German sentiment during WWI.) The building housed the North German Lloyd Steamship Company and the German Consulate. In the 1930’s the German Consulate flew the Nazi flag outside the building and a hammer was thrown through a window in protest of Hitler’s activities.

Hansa Haus in Baltimore in 2023. Photo credit: Emmy Knuppel

Elsbeth’s Reisepass approved by the German Consulate in Baltimore on May 10, 1935. The Reisepass was analogous to today’s Passport in that it was an official document which you needed to show to enter or leave a country.

Funds used by American citizens in 1935 were tracked in their Reisepass.

Old family photographs show a happy visit in 1935 with her siblings, mother, stepfather, and great-aunt.

Elsbeth and her youngest brother, Günter, in 1935 in Herrenkrugpark in Magdeburg, Germany.

Elsbeth Perlitz Knuppel (bottom left) with stepfather, Paul Mühlmann. Back row: Greta Eggert (friend of Elsbeth), Elsbeth’s sister Ruth Mühlmann, Mariechen (wife of Elsbeth’s uncle Willy Perlitz), and Elsbeth’s mother Emma Perlitz Mühlmann.

Elsbeth’s trip home to Germany in 1935 would be the last time she ever saw her family. During WWII, her brother would die at Stalingrad, her sister, Ruth, would die in the gas chamber at Bernburg Euthanasia Centre, her mother would die in May 1956, of pneumonia after suffering the lingering effects of a stroke for over a year, and her stepfather soon followed his wife in death on August 1956.

During her 1935 visit, two events happened to my grandmother which in hindsight were foreshadowing of the future in Germany. Upon her entering the threshold of a bookstore, a Nazi soldier called out in an ugly angry voice, “Was machen Sie?? Das ist ein jüdische Buchhandlung!” (Translation: What are you doing? That is a Jewish bookstore!) To which my grandmother replied, “Ich bin Amerikaner. Ich werde mein amerikanische Geld ausgeben, wo immer ich will! Wder Sie noch sein Hitler werden mir sagen, wo ich es ausgeben soll!” (Translation: “I am an American! I’ll spend my American money anywhere I want! Neither you or your Hitler is going to tell me where I can spend it!”) The other event was a parade in a town where, when the German troops marched by, everyone gave the Hitler Salute. My grandmother scoffed at this display of cultism and said, “I’m an American, I’m not giving that stupid salute and they can’t make me!” Her mother turned her face to her and spoke softly but urgently, “No, they can’t make you do it, but we have to stay here after you go home. Do not make trouble for us.”

Elsbeth arrived back in New York City aboard the Bremen on September 10, 1935, with a sense of unease for the family she had left back in Deutschland. Elsbeth would meet my grandfather, another German immigrant, Henry August Julius Knuppel, at a dance sponsored by the German Singing Society at the Indian Spring Country Club in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Founded in 1921, Indian Spring Country Club was relocated in the late 1950’s due to the building of the Washington Beltway and is now located on Layhill Road. A portion was turned into a subdivision and Montgomery Blair High School - the building that opened in 1999 - sits on the remaining portion of the original Indian Spring Golf Course.)

Henry told their daughter, Helen, that he fell in love with Elsbeth at first sight. Elsbeth said she fell in love with Henry’s beautiful blue eyes. (The Knuppel blue eyes continue to be passed down through the generations as proven by my son and grandson.)

One of my favorite pictures of my grandparents, Henry Knuppel and Elsbeth Perlitz, while courting.

Henry and Elsbeth would marry on October 17, 1936, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, then located at Saratoga and Fremont Streets in Baltimore, Maryland. They traveled from Washington DC to Baltimore to get married since St. Paul’s at the time was a German-speaking Lutheran church.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at Saratoga and Fremont Streets in Baltimore, Maryland. The building no longer exists. Public Domain.

Elsbeth and Henry would have two children, Henry and Helen, and raise them first at 1320 Belmont Street NW in Washington DC and then on Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Elsbeth and Henry's oldest child, Henry Adolf Knuppel, (middle name in honor of his paternal uncle who died in WWI) sits astride a pony in 1939 in front of Belmont Street, DC, while his father is visible in the upper right hand corner.

Helen Knuppel Foster and brother Henry in the backyard on Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA in 1951.

Elsbeth continued to clean houses for people and saved her money. Henry was a licensed Master Electrician who worked in Washington DC. Henry helped install electric street lights at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, and he installed the coach lights on the house in Georgetown where a young John F. Kennedy, future President of the United States, lived with his bride, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

To learn about my grandfather's emigration story, click here and scroll to the very bottom of the page: I was asked by Fritz Wehrenberg (whom I believe is our distant cousin) to contribute my Opa's story for the website Fritz runs on the history of the town of Liebenau, Germany, my grandfather's hometown. I met Fritz on both of my trips to the small bucolic town of Liebenau. He and his friend and fellow Liebenau historian, Heinrich Clausing, were so helpful taking us on a tour of St. Laurentius-Kirche, the church my grandfather and family attended, as well as the historic Witten Hus in Liebenau.

Fritz Wehrenberg and Heinrich Clausing gave us a tour in January 2020 and June 2022. They have been very helpful with our historical research.

My grandparents, Elsbeth and Henry, bought 25 acres in West Virginia in the early 1960’s. They retired to Berkeley Springs where they raised steers, pigs, goats, chickens, and geese. Their seven grandchildren loved to come to the farm to visit and would often stay for weeks in the summer.

Elsbeth and Henry with their daughter-in-law and five of their grandchildren and granddog, Cosmo Knuppel, in front of their home in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia in 1971.

They kept a large garden, which I later realized probably meant food security for them having grown up with the shortages of WWI. In 1977, Henry and Elsbeth made one last trip overseas to their home country. At that time, they visited their hometowns and the few relatives that were still alive. I remember my grandmother was so sad to visit Alvensleben/Bebertal and Magdeburg. This was still during the era of East Germany and she said it was so gray, not the colorful, lively places she remembered from her childhood. They both stated they would never again visit Germany due to both their advancing age and because they preferred living in their adopted country.

They lived on their farm until the 1990’s when my grandfather’s declining health caused them to move in with my father at his home in Woodbine, Maryland. My grandfather passed away in June 1995. Upon his death, he and Elsbeth had been married 66 years. Oma was one month shy of her 97th birthday when she died in 2009. In her later years, she would ask me to buy money orders for her to send to her only surviving sibling, Günter, in East Germany. My grandparents are buried next to each other in the Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland, USA.

Grave marker for Henry and Elsbeth at Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Author’s Photo 2023.

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2 comentários

Helen Foster
Helen Foster
22 de out. de 2023

You did a wonderful job telling mom's story.


21 de out. de 2023

I love learning more about your family. The photos are wonderful. The pic of your Tante Helen (with your Dad when they were young) reminds of Sylke when she was a child.

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