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The one I never met

We all have them. Those shadowy mysterious figures in our pasts whom we’d love to sit down with over a cup of coffee, just to try to get to know them.

One of mine — the closest of mine — was born 122 years ago tomorrow.

He was my grandfather.

And I never knew him.

Hugo Ernst Geissler was born 24 March 1891 in Bad Köstritz,1 a town then in the Principality of Reuß jüngerer Linie and now in the district of Greiz, in Thüringen, Germany. Its total population is fewer than 4000 people.2

He died 13 January 1945 in Chicago, Illinois, of cancer, at the age of 53.3 It would be some years yet before my birth. He never laid eyes on any of his grandchildren except my oldest brother, my father’s son by his first marriage.

He would be a stranger to me if he were sitting across that coffee table from me this morning. And yet.. and yet… I have this wistful sense from everything I know about the man that I would have liked him.

I know he spent his earliest childhood there in the village where he was born. The family moved to Gera before he was 10.4 I don’t know, yet, what his schooling was, but we have a photo of a young boy in uniform and I have to wonder if perhaps he wasn’t in some sort of military school.

I know he was in the German Army — a gefreiter — probably closest to a private first class — in the German Army in World War I. His term of service began at least as early as 1912 (he was photographed sitting with his troops in Danzig in 1912) and continued to perhaps as late as 1918 (he wore a German Army uniform at his wedding in February 1918).

Hugo Ernst served in the Grenadier-Regt. König Friedrich I (4.Ostpreußisches) Nr.5 (Danzig) XVII Armee Korps, and in the Danziger Infanterie-Regt. Nr.128 (Danzig; III Bn Neufahrwasser) XVII Armee Korps.

And he met my grandmother Marie somehow in a beer garden in Bremen. They were married on Valentine’s Day 1918 in Bremen. He was out of the Army then, shown on his marriage record as a machinist living in Bremen.5

He and Marie stayed in Bremen until early 1925. Their first-born child, Marie Emma, was born in 1919 and died in 1920.6 Their only other child, my father, was born in Bremen in 1921.7

And Hugo Ernst gathered up his little family and took them to America on the SS George Washington in early 1925; they landed in New York on 6 February 1925.8 He had family already there — two aunts,9 an uncle,10 cousins11 and even three sisters12 who had come before and were waiting in Chicago when he brought his small family over.

And there he worked, hard, in hard-labor jobs, all the years until his death. He was a coal foundry worker and day laborer the entire 20 years he spent in Chicago.

But he laughed. And he made people laugh. For a costume party in the 1920s, he pinned the high-denomination currency of inflation-ridden post-WWI Germany to his suit and ran around the room. When asked what in the world he was doing, he said he was “galloping inflation.” His costume won first place.

He’s the one you see in later photos playing in the lake or in the park or on the playground with his son. He’s the one who made the Sunday tradition of a chicken dinner and a strawberry cake where you didn’t have to ask permission to have a second piece.

He’s the one with the smile on his face when the rest of those German immigrants wore their poker faces. He’s the one even my father’s first wife enjoyed being around.

And he’s the one I wish I had been able to know.

Even if just long enough for a cup of coffee and a chat.


  1. Kirchenbuch Bad Köstritz, Taufregister Seite 69 Nr. 21 aus 1891, Baptismal Record of Hugo Ernst Geissler (digital image of record in possession of JG Russell).
  2. Wikipedia DE (http://, “Reuß jüngerer Linie,” rev. 17 Mar 2013.
  3. Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 1145, Hugo Geissler, 13 Jan 1945; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
  4. Adreßbuch der Haupt- und Residenzstadt Gera, 1901, p. 29, entry for Geissler, Hermann, ausseher, Moltkestrasse 42 (FHL microfilm INTL 2158071).
  5. Heiraten (Marriages), p. 41, nr. 5, Geißler-Nuckel, 14 Feb 1918; Kirchenbuch (Church Book), Evangelische Kirche St. Jakobi, Bremen, Heiraten 1911-1930; FHL INTL microfilm 953,273. Also Bescheinigung der Eheschließung (Certificate of Marriage), nr. 135 (1918), Geißler-Nuckel, Standesamt (Registry Office), Bremen.
  6. “Funerary Records 1875-1939 (Die Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875-1939),” Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen (Gesellschaft für Familienforschung e. V. Bremen) ( : accessed 25 Jan 2013).
  7. Evangelische Zionskirche, Bremen, Kirchenbuch, Taufregister Nr. 3 aus 1922, Baptismal Record of Hugo Hermann Geissler, 12 Feb 1922; FHL microfilm 953275.
  8. Manifest, S.S. George Washington, Jan-Feb 1925, p. 59 (stamped), lines 4-6, Geissler family; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  9. For Augusta Paula (Graumüller) Schreiner: 1900 U.S. census, Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 914, p. 71A (stamped), dwelling 210, family 528, Frank Sweiner household; digital image, ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 282. For Anna (Graumüller) Nitschke: 1910 U.S. census, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 1272, p. 20A (penned), family 344, Anna Nitckle household; digital image, ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 275
  10. 1920 U.S. census, Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 1878, p. 3A (penned), dwelling 37, family 53, Amel Gramuller; digital image, ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 348.
  11. For Elisabeth Marks: 1920 U.S. census, Cook Co., IL, pop. sched., ED 1789, p. 2A (penned), dwell. 25, fam. 33, Herman Marks household. For Willy and Alfred Benschura: Manifest, S.S. George Washington, 9 January 1924, p. 137 (stamped), lines 15-16, Alfred and Willy Benschura (NARA T715, roll 3439).
  12. For Hedwig “Hattie” (Geissler) Knop: 1910 U.S. census, Cook Co., IL, pop. sched., ED 1358, p. 7B (penned), dwell. 106, fam. 148, Hattie Knop. For Elly (Geissler) Nasgowitz: Manifest, S.S. President Harding, January 1923, p. 131 (stamped), line 1, Elly Nasgowitz (NARA T715, roll 3244). For Martha (Geissler) Benschura: Manifest, S.S. President Arthur, 19 March 1923, p. 125 (stamped), line 2, Martha Benschura (NARA T715, roll 3269).
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