Herman arrived in Chicago to visit with his relatives on a cold and blustery day in November 1939. The city had a large and growing Jewish community, many of whom were actively involved in aiding refugees from Nazi Germany. In fact, without the affidavit of financial support from Herbert Oberfelder, Herman would probably not have received his US visa. (For information about the Spiegel connection to Herman, please read the blog “Chicago and the Spiegels” posted on November 8, 2014.)

Chicago has a long history of welcoming immigrants. Founded in 1829 when it had fewer than 100 residents, the city by Lake Michigan grew rapidly—between 1870 and 1906 it was considered the fastest growing city in the world. By 1860, Chicago had reached a population of 109,000, with half of them foreign-born. Between 1850 and 1900, 1/3 of all the new immigrants who settled in Chicago were from Germany. It was during this period that Herman’s great-aunt Frieda and her husband, Issac Oberfelder, came to Chicago. The new Jewish families first settled in the central Maxwell Street area, then later in Kenwood and Hyde Park south of the city center, or in Lawndale on the eastern edge of the city. Later, as some of the families became more affluent, many like Mae Spiegel moved north along the lake shore in areas such as Skokie and Highland Park. In 1937, a survey of the Jewish population of Chicago revealed that 57% of the adults over 15 were born outside the United States.

These communities were vibrant and entrepreneurial. Many arrived in the city as street peddlers with packs on their backs. Soon they opened stores in the downtown area. From their number, the founders of such businesses as Florsheim, Spiegel, and Sears & Roebuck emerged. These newly successful immigrants valued education, charity work, and the arts. They became philanthropists and contributed to the cultural growth of the city. Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck originally endowed the Museum of Science and Industry. In the early 1900s, the influx of refugees from Russia was instrumental in the establishment of trade unions and in their efforts to gain collective bargaining rights and abolish child labor.

In 1859, several Chicago Jewish organizations banded together to form the United Hebrew Relief Association (UHRA). They were noted for the help they gave to the less fortunate of the community and for large building projects. The first Jewish hospital was built by the UHRA in 1868 but burned to the ground in the disastrous citywide fire in 1871. Michael Reese, a Bavarian immigrant who made his millions in real estate speculation, had recently died. He had bequeathed a large sum earmarked for the building of a new hospital. The funds were immediately set to work. The new “modern” hospital was completed in 1880 and named after its benefactor. This hospital, where the vivacious Leonora Kohn of Immigrant Soldier served as a nursing aide, had the policy, unusual at the time, of serving all without regard to race, creed, or nationality. It was also a notable pioneer and innovator in the modern care of premature infants.

By 1930, during the time Nazism was emerging in Germany, the Jewish community in Chicago (approx. 275,000 in number and 8% of the total city population) was the third largest in the world, surpassed only by Warsaw and New York. Of course, by 1945 the Jewish community of Warsaw ceased to exist. North Lawndale, the most intensively Jewish area of Chicago, had 60 synagogues, a Yiddish theater, the Jewish theological center, a hospital, facilities for the aged, blind, and orphans, and numerous Zionist, educational, and social organizations.

Meanwhile, the influx of immigrants into Chicago continued, many arriving now from the Jim Crow states of the American South, as well as from all parts of Europe as Nazi oppression grew. The Jewish community, with many of its wealthiest members claiming German-Jewish roots, watched the mounting danger in their homeland. In 1936, the Jewish Welfare Fund was organized to supply aid and relief overseas. But most rescue efforts were individual or family affairs. Wealthy patrons signed financial affidavits for relatives and friends, helped pay for their travel expenses, and aided them when they arrived in Chicago with the search for housing and work. Mae Spiegel and her two brothers, Herbert and Walter Oberfelder were prime examples. They helped countless relatives, close and distant, not the least of which were Herman and my father (Fred Lang).

This was the Chicago that Herman visited for one brief week in November 1939. Many of the places he visited during his short stay are still there. With the magic of Google Maps and screenshots, I can share some of these locations from Immigrant Soldier. Only the modern cars in the street tag these photos as contemporary—otherwise the buildings in these three photos are little changed.


Left to right, Top to bottom: The Walter Field building on Fulton Street where Uncle Herbert had his office, The Marshall Field Department Store, State Street entrance, and the building where Cousin Mae Spiegel lived on North Lake Shore Drive and where Herman went for dinner.

The two postcards below, from the Chicago Postcard Museum collection, show the Tiffany glass domed entrance at Marshall Field’s which so impressed Herman and the Men’s Grill where Uncle Herbert took him for lunch. http://www.ChicagoPostcardMuseum.org











Chicago, the “broad-shouldered city” of Carl Sandburg’s 1914 poem, saw enormous changes during the war years. Over 260 defense plants were built almost overnight and the subway system was opened. Half a million workers arrived to do their bit for the war in Chicago’s new factories. Some estimates say that every city block of Chicago contributed an average of seven of her sons and daughters to the armed services during WWII. The boys of the pre-war Jewish community of Chicago were now young men. They served in all branches of the military and many became Ritchie Boys.


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