I’ve mentioned my great-great-great aunt Rose several times in the sidelines of other people’s stories: she took her niece, my great-grandmother Rona, to Hawaii in 1926, she went and picked up her father and youngest sister to bring them to America in 1908, and her brother Max was living with her when he killed himself in 1904. But Rose was a lot more interesting than these supporting character roles would have you assume.
Rose grew up in the small town of Rudno, Slovakia — then Hungary — where her father was an innkeeper. Her mother, Josephine Feirman, died in 1877, leaving behind 4 children, including 15 year old Max and 8 year old Rose. Their father Jacob remarried sometime relatively soon after, and had at least 3 children with his new wife, Rosa. Margaret, the youngest, was born when Rose was 23, the year before she left for America. Rose’s younger sister Fanny had immigrated to America in February of 1893, possibly to follow a fiance named Ludwig Wagner who she married in Chicago that October. A few months after Fanny, 24 year old Rose followed, traveling overland to Amsterdam where she boarded the SS Dubbledam, which arrived in New York City May 20, 1893.
Rose, Fanny and Ludwig had picked an auspicious time to settle in Chicago and indeed, I suspect that this is possibly why they picked Chicago as a destination. The World’s Fair had opened to the public on May 1, while Rose was probably sailing across the Atlantic on the Dubbledam and the city was abuzz with excitement and visitors. There were plenty of opportunities for economic growth, especially for enterprising saloon owners, which both Ludwig and Rose would eventually become. Rose and Fanny hopefully spent some time at the fair — perhaps crossing paths with their future brother-in-law Sam who, as a boy of 10, was probably in awe of technical feats like the Ferris Wheel. Though Fanny would divorce Ludwig sometime before her 1921 death, their home at this time was the landing pad for the other family members making their way across the ocean to Chicago. When my great-grandmother Ella arrived in Chicago as a 13 year old in 1895, she gave her destination as South Chicago — likely Ludwig and Fanny’s house on Buffalo Avenue.
I don’t know if Rose lived with them at this time, though I suspect she did not. Rose seems to have been a singularly independent lady, which is perhaps the reason why she never married. By 1902, “Miss Rose Holcman” was listed in Chicago city directories as owning a saloon at 8902 Greenbay Avenue, something that seems somewhat unusual for a single woman to be doing. Despite her independence, though, Rose was still closely linked to her family. As already mentioned, her older brother Max lived with her during the 2 years between his arrival in America and his suicide in an outbuilding on Greenbay Avenue and she “adopted” her younger sister Margaret after their father’s death in 1912. Even though Margaret was in her early 20s at the time, I’ve been told Rose served as her surrogate mother, especially after the two ladies relocated to San Diego, California in about 1913. This was probably for health reasons – though I’m not sure which woman’s health was impacted by the move. The sisters lived together until Margaret’s 1916 marriage to Herman Wilms, a member of the German-American Bund who never had any idea his bride was a Jew. Margaret and Herman’s story will have to wait for another day, but Rose’s own self-hating-Jewish assimilationist views seem to be very closely related to this odd marriage.
Even as early as 1902, “Miss Rose Holcman” of the Chicago city directory mentioned above had altered the spelling of her name to seem less ethnic, less Jewy. The original spelling used by her sisters and brothers was Holzman or sometimes Holtzman. Lest we think that this was some kind of subconscious re-spelling choice, Rose’s 1937 naturalization record includes an amendment that formally changes her surname from Holzman to Holcman. True, the Holzmans were never particularly religious — my great-grandmother Rona’s childhood home was so devoid of any religion that she tagged along to Christian Science services and seminaries with her best friend out of some need to find a faith — but denying their cultural and religious background was not something any other members of the family did, to the best of my knowledge.
Rose, in fact, did such a good job of appearing simply European that a neighbor reported her to the Bureau of Investigation (later called the FBI) for being a suspected “radical pro-German” in 1917. Rose’s file is only 1 page, so it would seem authorities didn’t think her case worthy of much investigation, but it alleges that she “receiv[ed] groups of men and women visitors, usually on Sundays, who come to see her early in the morning and who remain until late into the night.” The last straw is that “these persons” seemed to “conduct themselves in a very quiet and secretive manner.” Who these people were remains to be seen — though I’d love to know if they were some of Herman Wilms’ pro-German friends. Herman himself doesn’t have a similar file, but he and Margaret lived on a farm in a relatively rural area of San Diego County and it would make some kind of sense if he and his friends gathered at Rose’s house when they came into the city.
I don’t know if Rose lived long enough to receive the letter that told her how her brother Adolf (the only sibling who elected to stay in Rudno instead of coming to Chicago) and nearly all his family were murdered in Auschwitz for being precisely what she tried not to be. I’m sure she would have been heartbroken, as her sister Ella was. But I’m curious to know what kind of feelings were swirling through her head, she who supported her younger sister’s marriage to an anti-Semitic German farmer.
All of this leaves me not sure what to make of maiden aunt Rose, who died April 5, 1945, at the age of 76 — apart from being quite certain she is far too interesting to just be a supporting character in other people’s lives.
Rose F. Holzman (1869-1945)