Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s will probably be familiar with the Spiegel name. Along with Sears and Roebuck, the Spiegel Company of Chicago was one of the best known catalog retailers in the United States. Beloved by their customers since 1912 for offering free credit and installment payment, in 1938 they began to target higher income clientele by introducing better quality apparel and other merchandise. In those days and on through the mid-twentieth century, every family had a Sears and Roebuck catalog, but it was the Spiegel Catalog that gave your coffee table class.

Are you wondering why I am talking about the Spiegels? The explanation involves complicated family lineage. In short, it was a connection with the Spiegels and their relatives the Oberfelders that allowed my father and my uncle Herman, the hero of Immigrant Soldier, to come to America. Early versions of the novel manuscript did not include any mention of the Spiegels. To keep things simple, I had consolidated several real characters into one, the main great-uncle who helped Herman.

Then in early 2014, I heard from the publisher in Chicago. She had read the manuscript, was still interested, and would look at it again if I was willing to do some editing based on her comments. She even suggested we talk on the phone to discuss what she thought needed to be improved. Responses of this type are rare from editors, and I felt like I had been handed a gift. It was a challenge that demanded more work and offered no promises, but I was eager to give it a try. Luckily, much of what she was concerned about had already been dealt with in the process of working with my freelance editor.

I knew that the publishing house, based in Chicago, mostly produced books with a connection to the windy city. Immigrant Soldier has only one chapter that takes place in Chicago, so I was not surprised when the publisher, during the course of our phone conversation, said she would be pleased if I could “beef up” the Chicago chapter. Naturally, at this point, I thought of the Spiegels. The idea of including this famous Chicago family in the story pleased the publisher, and she recommended a researcher based in the area who could help me do some fact checking.

This was the first time I had worked with a professional researcher, and it was both gratifying and exciting. She was able to find pictures of the various Spiegel and Oberfelder residences, to confirm dates of births, marriages, and deaths, and to even clarify the transportation system in 1939 so I could have Herman taking the correct trams and buses to get around the city.

How do the Spiegels qualify to be part of the story? Herman’s paternal grandmother, Marie Offenback and her sister Frieda begin the connection in Germany. Frieda Offenback  (and it is Frieda whose name I was given at birth, though I have never really used it.) married Issac Oberfelder and the young couple immigrated to the United States, settling first in Iowa, then Nebraska, and later moving to Chicago. Issac and Frieda had three sons (Joseph, Walter, and Herbert) and a daughter, Mae. In 1908 Mae, married Arthur H. Spiegel, the youngest son of a wealthy furniture retailer. Arthur, handsome and creative, started the mail order side of the Spiegel business, initiated the sale of clothing in the catalog, and traveled often to Hollywood where he started a movie making company. Unfortunately, he died in 1916, at the early age of 32, leaving Mae a grieving widow with two young children, a boy and a girl.

Mae Oberfelder Spiegel never remarried. She lived a comfortable life as a large stockholder in the Spiegel fortune, became very interested in nursing education for women, helped many desperate Jewish refugees to flee Nazi Germany, and remained close to her two brothers, Walter and Herbert Oberfelder.

Walter and Herbert, wealthy in their own right from various ventures, including a competing catalog business, Walter Field Company, where their nephew, Arthur Spiegel Jr. worked with them, provided the affidavits of support to the US government that allowed both Herman and my father to immigrate.

It was exciting to confirm dimly remembered family stories and be able to place these real characters into the Chicago chapter of Immigrant Soldier. Mae, Arthur Jr., Walter, and Herbert came alive for me, and I am pleased to have them join my cast of characters.


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