A Letter to Donald Thiem, concerning our Thiem Ancestors in Berlin
Greetings to you and Lou from the Austrian Alps. I hope all is well with both of you and the family. I have been meaning to write you about some research I did on our Thiem ancestors in May in Berlin. Barbara and I attended a Mendelssohn family reunion there, and so I took advantage of being in the city—now again the capital of reunited Germany—to do some poking around in the libraries and archives. Last night I had a dream in which Dad appeared (I was at an informal street concert, with a Latino double bass, and all of a sudden he was there and sat down next to me). He was alive, but not doing well, though he looked good, dressed up in a 1950s style suit. He complained of pains in his side, and said he had called you and told you he was not much longer for this world. After I woke up, I remembered that when, some years ago, he came down with that blood disease, I told him it would be good if he called you—that was perhaps the kernel of the dream episode. In any case, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed seeing you and Lou at the funeral, however sad the occasion. I remember Lou was ailing then, and I hope she is doing better now.
As you may remember, I went to Berlin some years ago in search of records and possible descendants of Hermann and Emma Thiem, from whom your father received letters—the ones you have among the family records. I had no luck. The house in Wassertorstrasse had been bombed out in World War Two, and also the parish church,which would have had records. Barbara and I went to the cemetery in Berlin—Kreuzberg, where the family lived, to find the grave of Hermann, who had been buried there (as we learned from one of the letters). He was the brother of Rudolph Thiem the sculptor, and though he too was a sculptor, he earned his living as an estate manager. I learned this from the grave registry at the cemetery. Alas, his gravestone was no longer there, and he had been exhumed—a sign that none of our Thiems were left to pay for the grave maintenance. Land is scarce in European cities and most families have to pay rent on a grave space, in perpetuity; otherwise the remains are dug up and put into a charnel house (a ‘bone house’).
Then I tried calling up Thiems in the Berlin telephone directory, and asking them, out of the blue, if they had relatives named Rudolf or Hermann or Otto or Dora. In my imagination I saw myself meeting one of our collateral relatives. It would be a splendid thing, I thought, speaking German to them. They would be old, and would remember stories of our common ancestors. They would be astonished that I had married a German woman and spent the summers in Austria. They would see me as a prodigal Thiem, the one how had returned to the Old World, and taken up residence there, at least in the summer months. I would tell them about all the New World Thiems, of you and your children, and of Dad, whom they had heard of. This wish was not to be fulfilled. There were lots of Thiems in the directory. I called a number of them, who more or less politely told me they had no connection with our family.
In January 2005, I gave the keynote address at a conference in Berlin on ‘The Fate of the Book.’ As my name was in the program and on posters displayed in the city, I was hoping some Thiem relative might show up. Another pipe dream!
This May I had two days in Berlin in which to work the archives. There is a microfiche catalog (the Berlineradressbuch) in the Center for Berlin Studies in the Zentral und Landes Bibliothek (Central and State Library) in Breitestrasse. The catalog has yearly indexes of heads of households (with addresses and professions). Searching these from 1845-1890, I came across our Thiem ancestors.
Here are a few highlights of what I discovered:
--1845. Rudolph and Hermann Thiem’s grandfather was in all likelihood the F. Thiem in this index (C.L.F Thiem in later indexes). He is listed in the 1845 index as a restaurant owner and coffee house proprietor, living in Juedenstr. 36 (Jews’ Street—it is possible but not very likely he was Jewish—perhaps his wife was). Later, he gave up the restaurant but kept the coffee house. His last listing is in 1872, and he may have died or retired that year. Coffee houses in the nineteenth century usually had billiard tables, and so C.L.F. Thiem’s son Ferdinand would have grown up helping in the café and working with the billiard tables. C.L.F. Thiem’s grandson, our Rudolph Thiem, the sculptor, was born in 1857, and he would also have probably worked in the café and learned to cook. According to John R. Thiem, Rudolph taught his daughter-in-law, Hazel, how to cook! So the Berlin index helps explain how Rudolph came by this knowledge, most unusual for a man born in the nineteenth century.
--1873. Rudolph’s and Hermann’s father, Ferdinand Thiem, was the billiard table manufacturer, mentioned in family records that you have. His first listing is as F. Thiem in 1873, at the same address as the C.L.F. Thiem (earlier listed as F. Thiem), the coffee house proprietor, almost certainly his father. Ferdinand Thiem is listed here as a Billiardtuchstopfer, that is, billiard cloth fitter. There were four other Billardtuchstopfers listed in Berlin at this time. Ferdinand’s two sons, Rudolph (probably spelled Rudolf at that time) and Hermann, were respectively,16 and 14 years old, or thereabouts.
--By 1879, Ferdinand’s billiard business seems to have taken off. In this year, Ferdinand inserted a paid advertisement for his firm in the Berlin Address Book, a sign of his expansion and prosperity. I’ve enclosed a photocopy of the page with the 1870 ad. Here is my translation of it into English: “F. Thiem . . . offers the services of his large stockroom of ivory billiard balls, for sale or rental, as well as cues, cue leather, . . . cue points, chalk, cones, dice, brushes, rule books, old and new billiard tables. I also undertake the fitting and sewing of billiard cloth, as well as the installation of new and old cushions, rubbers, the reduction in size of billiard tables, and their removal, disassembly, and assembly, all on the most reasonable terms.”
--1880. Rudolph and Hermann have become partners in their father’s business. Ferdinand has expanded into the manufacture of ivory balls and the tables themselves. This is clear from the next advertisement that he runs in the Berlin Address Book (see enclosed photocopy). The ad reads: “Billiard Table and Ivory Billiard Ball Factory. F. Thiem and Sons.” The drawing of a billiard table embellishes the ad. Rudolph and Hermann doubtless developed a taste for woodworking, and the appropriate skills, as they helped build billiard tables and their accoutrements. This would have set the stage for their interest in sculpture and woodcarving.
--1881. This year includes the first, and only, listing of Rudolph Thiem, the sculptor. It reads: “R. Thiem, Sculptor and Proprietor, Cabinet Maker’s Workshop for Mirror Frames, SO Oranienstr. 28. H. Pt. The ad makes me think of the hall tree Rudolph made that you gave me. It stands in the foyer of my house, and as you recall, holds a large framed mirror. Rudolph Thiem, about age 24, had thus set up his own business as an independent sculptor and cabinet maker. From a source that you have among the family records and gave me, I learned that Rudolph emigrated to the States in this same year, 1881. As far as we know, he never again saw his father, his brother, or his mother (if she was still alive). His father’s billiard business is still listed and it is located down the street at S. Oranienstr. 58, but this year there is no paid advertisement nor will there be in future years. Rudolph’s leaving the family firm must have had an effect on Ferdinand’s revenues and probably forced him to reduce the size of his business. I wonder if Ferdinand supported and approved of his son’s moving out.
--1888. There is a listing for H. Thiem, Sculptor, SO Reichenbergstr. 24 II (Ferdinand’s business is in the same area). This has to be Hermann Thiem, younger brother of Rudolph, born 8/7/1859. I could find no other listing for him before 1890. So Ferdinand’s younger son also moved out of the family business. Ferdinand’s billiard business is however still listed through 1890. The single listing for Hermann suggests he did not make it as an independent sculptor. He may have moved elsewhere, perhaps to take up managing an estate outside of Berlin. Or did he go back into business with his father?
Next summer I intend to return to Berlin, to try and fill in the gaps in the above chronicle . . . .
I greatly look forward to seeing both of you again—it’s been three years now since Dad died. I am sorry that he, or his ashes, were not buried (with a memorial) among his ancestors. I talked to him about it. He was just not interested.
I hope you are having a good summer. Please say hello from me to all my cousins, their spouses, and children. With some luck I will see them soon. My most affectionate regards,