Coming to America



We’ve been traveling far

Without a home

But not without a star


Only want to be free

We huddle close

Hang on to a dream.” — Lyrics to “America”; Neil Diamond

Grandpa W and me   G and G Wolf and me (My grandparents and me)

Let me brag a little bit about my grandparents, Jacob and Lena Wolf. My grandfather died when I was two, but, according to my grandmother, he and I were crazy about each other. His photos reveal a bald, chubby man with a warm smile and a bit of a twinkle in his eye. He liked rich food, beer, and cigarettes, and he collapsed at age fifty-four of a stroke. My grandmother, widowed at age fifty-one, raised her two youngest children, ages seven and eleven, alone. She was a strong-willed woman who loved her family fiercely but could ladle on guilt like gravy on mashed potatoes. She seldom spoke about life in the “old days”, or if she did, we weren’t listening. Mostly she spoke about her vegetable garden, her aches and pains, and the price of groceries. I guess because I was absorbed in my own life, I never bothered to ask her much about hers before she died in 1979. I wish I had.

My grandparents Jacob and Magdalena (Foelker) Wolf set out for the United States in 1923. He was twenty-six; she, twenty-three. Like so many immigrants then and now, they left their home for a better life. Jacob was one of eleven brothers and two sisters living on the family farm in Neu Banat, a German region in Romania. (A bit of history: Germans from the Black Forest were invited to immigrate to this region, then a part of Austria-Hungary, in the 1700’s, a situation somewhat similar to the Homestead Act in the United States.) The farm was not large enough to sustain this large family. One of Jacob’s older brothers, Andrew, departed for America, and when Jacob was about twelve, Andrew returned home for a visit. A family photograph, taken during Andrew’s visit, shows a handsome, maybe a bit cocky, young man with a rakish hair style and a well-tailored American suit, surrounded by his work-weary family, all wearing sturdy, somber clothes and grim expressions. One can only imagine what Andrew might have told his little brother about life in Chicago, but the picture Andrew painted must have stuck with Jacob as he grew up.

With few prospects in his homeland, Jacob convinced his young wife Lena, as she was called, to leave her family and start anew in Chicago, reassuring her that this was a temporary move. Their passport picture shows the young couple and their two little girls Elizabeth and baby Magdalena, but an X hides Magdalena’s little face. Several months before the journey, the little girl died of pneumonia and never crossed the ocean. Jacob and Lena set out with few possessions and almost no money, their sixth grade educations, but with a keen intelligence, a robust work ethic, and a determination to prosper.

When Jacob, Lena, and Elizabeth arrived on Ellis Island, they were separated – men in one hall, women in another. There, Jacob was told that the family didn’t have enough money to enter the country. Instead of two hundred dollars for the entire family, they needed two hundred each. Jacob sent a telegram to his brother in Chicago, but it took a week or two for the money to arrive, for the family to be reunited, and for them to continue their trip, this time by train, the City of Big Shoulders. Although Elizabeth was only three and a half at the time, she recalled her mother crying as they tried to sleep in the women and children’s quarters. One can only imagine the loneliness, fear, and isolation this young wife and mother felt along with the grief of losing her baby daughter only a few months before. Throughout the rest of her life, Lena rarely spoke of this time.

When the family arrived in Chicago, they rented an apartment, heated by a wood stove, on Burling Street, near North Avenue and Halsted, and Jacob went to work in a butcher shop. Lena cleaned houses, including the home of the wealthy Mrs. O’Malley, who helped her learn English. While Lena worked, Lizzie went to a day care facility run by the white-winged Daughters of Charity. In 1925, Mary was born and she too was cared for by the sisters.

The Wolf family didn’t stay in the Burling Street apartment for long. Jacob, not content to stay in one place, moved his family to a stove-heated apartment on Larabee followed by one on Melrose, where they lived when Jack was born in 1929. From there, the family moved to a two-flat only a half a block from St. Matthias School. Each place was a little nicer than the last, one more step up the ladder. This home on Giddings Street was near the butcher shop on Lincoln and Leland that Jacob owned. He no longer worked for someone else.

Wolfs 1937  (The home on Drake — Grandpa with Liz, my mother Mary, and Jack)

Next, the family moved to 4607 North Drake, their first single-family house. Jacob ‘s store was near St. Matthias School that Mary and her little brother attended, so their father took them to school on his way to the store in the morning. After school, the children rode home on the Lawrence Avenue streetcar. The Drake home had a front porch with a swing, a pretty garden where Lena could grow flowers, and three bedrooms. Liz’s room was the best – it had its own closed-in porch where Liz could escape the family and read in solitude. Mary shared a bedroom with her little brother Jack for a while, and eventually she was allowed to move in with Liz. Mary liked sharing a room with her big sister, except for Liz’s penchant for crunching on apples while she read into the wee hours of the night.

Jacob and Lena’s limited education didn’t keep them from learning English. With no formal instruction in English, they read a German newspaper along with Chicago papers, and spoke English and German at home. Soon they learned the workings of city life. Jacob figured out that acquiring and selling real estate was the way to wealth. The ladder to success had many rungs and he was on his way up, one building at a time.

The family moved to a five-flat on Leavitt Street in 1940, when their son Bobby was born. It was the first multi-family property that Jacob bought. Soon after Mary graduated from Alvernia High School, Jacob and Lena bought their home on Mozart Street, a classic brick bungalow on a tree-lined street, just a few blocks from Our Lady of Mercy Church. They lived in this home when the youngest child, Kathryn, was born in 1944.

Wolf Mozart house (Grandma and Grandpa with Bobby at the Mozart house)

For the first fifteen years or so of living in Chicago, the family had little money. The Great Depression made life difficult, but there was always food to eat and the rent was paid. Lena sewed clothes for her children, and they even managed to afford the one dollar a month tuition at St. Matthias as well as the fifty dollar a year Alvernia High School tuition for Liz.

In the late thirties, the Wolfs managed to have enough money for the family to rent a summer cottage on Gage’s Lake, northwest of the city. It was heaven for Mary and her older sister Liz, now a career girl working as a secretary on South Wabash Street. Lots of teenagers and young adults congregated on the raft in the middle of the lake on hot summer afternoons. A little store sold candy and popcorn and at night, Mary and her friends, including her crush Matty Rill, sat on blankets to watch free movies under the stars.

Sand Lake windmill Mom (My mother Mary at Sand Lake, next to Grandpa’s windmill)

But, Jacob and Lena weren’t settling for renting a cottage. They wanted to own one, so in 1941, they bought a summer house on Sand Lake in Lake Villa. No, their daughters didn’t like it. But it was theirs, and they poured their energy it. Lena planted gardens, one for flowers and one for vegetables. Jacob made a brick fireplace, a decorative wishing well and windmill out of stone. The two were always working – cutting the lawn, trimming bushes, painting something. Lena and the younger children stayed at the lake all summer, and Jacob often drove out in the evenings to escape the city heat.

In the city, Jacob bought a seventeen-unit building on Glenwood Avenue. By the late forties, they were somewhat well-off, a long way from the couple who waited for Andrew to wire money so they could leave Ellis Island.

Then, Jacob died and Lena’s life changed. She sold the Glenwood building, and with the profits and with the social security benefits her two children received, she forged on. She returned to cleaning houses, but maintained her city house and her lake house.

When she remarried in the 60’s, she and her new husband Peter Heinrich, a landsleit – a man from the old country –, she sold her Mozart home to move with Pete to a smaller home on Belle Plaine Avenue. Later, she sold her lake home to her daughter Kathryn and her husband, and Kay lived there year-round until 2015.

My cousin Maureen once said that when she pictured our grandmother, she only saw her as stooped, reaching down to pull weeds or to pluck beans off a vine. Grandma cooked, scrubbed, mopped, wiped, worked, worked, worked. I suppose my grandfather was much the same, a man who did little to relax.

Did they ever regret their decision to come to Chicago? What was the hardest part about leaving their family? What drove their decisions once they settled in to life here? What made them most proud? I wish I knew their answers to these questions. So, I guess, and I pick the brain of my mother whose intelligence, work ethic, and love of family is a strong reflection of her mom and dad.






3 thoughts on “Coming to America

  1. Pingback: Separating Fact from Fiction | Hello, Lamppost

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