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The push-pull questions of family history

It’s yet another of those questions that The Legal Genealogist has no answer for.

You know the kind: the questions that you wish someone was alive to answer.

The questions there will never be an answer to.

What I know is that her oldest sister emigrated to America in 1890.1

Her baby brother — my grandfather — emigrated in 1925.2

In between, another sister in January 1923 and yet another not even six weeks later in March 1923.3

But as far as The Legal Genealogist can tell, Ida Agnes (Geissler) Oettel only came to America once, in 1930, and it was to visit, not to stay.4


And here, today, on the 135th anniversary (plus one week) of her birth in Köstritz, in what was then the Principality of Reuss jüngere Linie and is now the German state of Thüringen,5 I have to wonder…

Just what was it that kept her there?

There in her homeland after all of her living siblings had moved on to new lives in a new land.

It wasn’t a spouse. She had married Franz Oskar Oettel in Bremen on 3 October 1908,6 born him two sons in short order — Ernst Hermann in 19097 and Hugo Herbert in 19108 — and then had found herself a war widow after the Battle of the Barrenkopf in Alsace on 20 July 1915.9

Though she had moved her young family to Gera to live near her parents after she was widowed — the 1917 Gera city directory records her as living on Friedericistrasse10 — it wasn’t her parents. Her mother, Emma Louisa (Graumüller) Geissler had died in Gera on 3 January 1929.11 Her father, Hermann Eduard Geissler, had died there on 30 July 1933.12

And by the time the second of her parents died, she had to have seen the storm clouds of war closing in for the second time in her lifetime. She had to have known her sons would be at risk if they stayed — and there were all those family members in the United States if she chose to go.

So why didn’t she go?

There are so many things about that decision I’d like to know.

• Did she not like what she found there in the United States when she visited in 1930? Was the big city environment of Chicago with its 1930 population of nearly 3.4 million just too different from the roughly 80,000 population city of Gera?13

• Was she simply unwilling to leave behind all that she knew, there in her mid- to late 40s, confident that whatever would come would leave her and her family untouched there in her pocket of Germany?

• Was it her sons, rising to manhood in those early years of the 1930s, who didn’t want to go? They hadn’t traveled with her on that 1930 trip; did they not want to leave the life they were building in the only home they’d known?

• The one that haunts me a bit… was she willing to come, but unable to? The visa system had begun in the United States in 1924;14 had she and her sons tried to get visas and been turned down or put on a wait list? Or had her sons — of an age for military service by then — been unable to secure permission to travel because of their obligations?

• And the one that haunts me a lot… could either of her sons, my father’s first cousins, have been a supporter of the rising Nazi Party in Germany? Not just unwilling to go to the United States but enthusiastically embracing the new government and its aims?

And then there’s the question that may have haunted Agnes herself to her dying day — did she ever regret her decision to stay? Particularly after her younger son, Hugo Herbert, died in the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943…15

There’s certainly no-one alive today to answer these questions. Agnes herself died in Gera in 1956.16 Her surviving son, Ernst, died there in 1981.17

In every immigration decision, there are forces that push to go, and forces that pull to stay.

In this one, the pull outweighed the push.

And it would be wonderful if, just this once, there was even so much as a hint as to why

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “What kept her there?,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 19 Feb 2022).


Image: Agnes (right) and her parents Emma and Hermann Geissler, 1920s

  1. Manifest, SS Rhein, August 1890, page 7 (penned), passenger 329, Hedwig Geisler; digital images, ( : accessed 12 Feb 2022); citing NARA microfilm publication M255, roll 48.
  2. Ibid., manifest, SS George Washington, 6 February 1925, stamped page 59, lines 4-6, Hugo, Marie and Hugo Geissler; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  3. Ibid., manifest, SS President Harding, 17 January 1923, stamped page 131, line 1, Elly Nasgowitz; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 3244. And see ibid., manifest, SS President Arthur, 19 March 1923, stamped page 125, line 2, Martha Benschura; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 3269.
  4. Ibid., manifest, SS Bremen, 4 Sep 1930, p. 119 (stamped), line 3, Agnes Oettel; citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 4817.
  5. Geburtenregister (Birth register) 1887, nr 14, Ida Agnes Geissler (12 Feb 1887); Standesamt, Köstritz. This post was supposed to run a week ago, on the precise 135th anniversary of Agnes’ birth, but some technical issue of the PEBCAK variety delayed it…
  6. Heiratsregister (Marriage register) 1908, nr 1390, Oettel-Geissler, 3 Oct 1908; Standesamt, Bremen.
  7. Geburtenregister 1909, nr 629, Ernst Hermann, 12 Apr 1909; Standesamt, Bremen.
  8. See card for Oettel, Herbert, “Germany, Military Killed in Action, 1939-1948,” G-A 656/1139; digital images, ( : accessed 12 Feb 2022); citing Graberkarteikarten Gefallener Deutscher Soldaten 1939-1948, Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Berlin.
  9. “Die Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875 – 1939” (Funerary Records 1875 – 1939), entry for Franz Oskar Oettel, citing Bremen Standesamt 1915, Seite (Page) 968, Nr. 3334; database, Die Maus – Gesellschaft für Familienforschung e.V. Bremen (Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen) ( : accessed 22 Feb 2022).
  10. Stadthandbuch der Haupt- und Residenzstadt Gera (Gera: Verlag Karl Bauch, 1917), 135; digital images, ( : accessed 12 Feb 2022).
  11. Sterberegister (Death register) 1929, nr 7, Emma Luise Geisler (3 Jan 1929); Stadesamt, Gera.
  12. Sterberegister 1933, nr 645, Eduard Hermann Geisler (30 July 1933); Stadesamt, Gera.
  13. For Chicago, see Wikipedia (, “Chicago,” rev. 13 Feb 2022. For Gera, see ibid., “Gera,” rev. 7 Jan 2022.
  14. “An act to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States, and for other purposes,” 43 Stat. 153 (26 May 1924).
  15. See card for Oettel, Herbert, “Germany, Military Killed in Action, 1939-1948,” G-A 656/1139.
  16. Sterberegister 1956, nr 553, Ida Agnes Oettel (17 May 1956); Stadesamt, Gera.
  17. Obituary notice, Ernst Oettel, 22 Oct 1981; Gera City Archives.
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