Monday, June 9, 2014

Remembering Nora Solmssen


The good thing about posting something like this is that it can help you get in touch with lost family members.  Nora's daughter Mimi contacted me and offered some corrections

1) Nora had ovarian rather than breast cancer
2) Nora was tested for BRCA mutations.  The first test was inconclusive and the second test was negative.  This makes me wonder how accurate these tests are.
3) Nora was diagnosed in 2001 and died in 2005.  My father died in 1997, so he couldn't have been the one who told me she had cancer or that she had died.
4) A second cousin on my *mother's* side says that her mother, who would have been my mother's cousin, used to play music with Mimi, and that Mimi was a violinist, not a pianist.  Small world.

The original post:

Recently, I've been remembering my second cousin, Nora. 

I only met her once or twice when I was a child. Her family lived in New Jersey. We lived in Wisconsin. 

Her father was eight years older than my father, and my father had kids late. He was 41 when I was born. As a result, she was probably twenty years older than I. 

I remember her as very beautiful. She had long, thick, shiny jet-black hair. She was slender and graceful. 

She had an aquiline nose. Some people don't like that type of nose, but I always liked them, because several people in my family had them. 

I dated a guy briefly who had a hooked nose, like Nora, and like my grandfather. Later I saw him and he had had his nose bobbed. I was horrified. I loved that nose. Good thing he dumped me before he bobbed his nose. He was Iranian, but he reminded me of that part of my family that was of Jewish ancestry.  He considered himself Aryan, though. 

Nora was a Solmssen. The Solmssens and the Mendelsohns were the great Jewish banking families of Germany. 

When I was twelve, my father took me to Germany, including to Berlin, where he was born. 

My grandfather was a successful patent attorney before the Holocaust. My dad took me to the building where he was born. His family had lived on the top floor.  They had the whole floor. It was a large building. The whole top floor would have been a huge apartment. They had servants. There were stone sculptures, maybe of lions, on the railing of the balcony along the front of the top floor. Even with the holes in the walls left over from the WWII bombing, which were still visible, it was an impressive place. I think it was on Linden Street.

Yet my father's family were the poor cousins. He also took me to Schwanverde. I hope I have that name right. Schwanverde was the complex where my father visited his Solmssen cousins, when he was a child. The Solmssens had a different name then.  They were called Salomonson.  I hope I have name spelled right also.  

When we went, Schwanverde had been made into a children's camp, but it was still impressive.  It was a huge house, on a lake. Later I was told that it was actually an island. My father told me that every tree had been imported, that they were all exotic. 

My father also told me that Hitler later confiscated that complex and lived there himself during WWII. 

My father's cousin, Kurt, Nora's uncle, later told me he had had to fight with the neighbors to keep it a children's camp. They felt that a children's camp did not belong in their fancy neighborhood. 

Nora's mother, Mimi, was from the Mendelsohn family, which also included the famous composer, Felix Mendelsohn. Mimi was an accomplished pianist herself. I seem to recall that Nora was a musician as well and that she may have sung with Don Ho. 

When I knew them, Nora's parents, Mimi and Max, lived in an elegant mansion, in Summit, NJ. They had impressive pieces of antique furniture that, at least as I understood, they had managed to get out of Germany.

As an adult, Nora moved to Hawaii. That seemed to me a very romantic place to live.  

All in all, the Solmssens seemed to me to be rather like royalty. I was very impressed with them. 

Of course, too, my second cousin, Nora's first cousin, Arthur Solmssen, wrote a historical novel called A Princess in Berlin, based on Solmssen and Mendelsohn family stories. In the novel, one of the family members was a legal princess. In reality, there was no one who was legally a princess, but they lived that life. 

The Solmssens also tended to be tall. I think that increased sense of awe with respect to them.  In any case, children tend to be easily impressed by adults. 

And yet, despited all this, my cousin Nora died fairly young of breast cancer. I remember my father telling me and being disconcerted. How could this beautiful, graceful, vibrant person die so young? I thought she must have had incompetent doctors. 

Her father Max has breast cancer as well, but he managed to live to be ninety one. He outlived my father who was eight years younger, but then my father was in a radiation accident in Los Alamos. 

But it was the story of Nora and Max's cancers that made me seek Ashkenazi Jewish type BRCA mutation testing. 

My mother's family didn't have breast cancer at all. They are all WASPs. There were more of them and more closely related. I always thought that I would be like them. I was surprised that the genetic counselor didn't even know that WASP meant English ancestry. Perhaps she never even sees WASPs. 

I never thought of myself as really connected with the more distant relatives on my father's side, but, sure enough, I have a typical Ashkenazi Jewish BRCA 2 mutation that caused my recent Ovarian cancer.  Despite the apparent distance of our relationship, Nora and I apparently share this mutatino.

So I'm thinking of beautiful Nora now. 

Last I saw Arthur he was writing a real history of the Solmssen and Mendelsohn families, but I don't know if he ever finished it.  I hope he does finish it.  I think it would be fascinating.