By John Peter Hess, Backford, Mollington & District Local History Society
How can a family fight on both sides in a war and survive? Ours did and contact was immediately re-established afterwards, even though family members on both sides had died in action. Here is our story.
Being of Jewish origin, the family were obliged to leave Eastern Europe in the 17th century, where opinion had turned against them. They were not alone, of course. It was a common experience for Jewish people to be so hounded. In fact, their particular group came to Germany and were settled by a Count near Hungen in the Duchy of Hesse. Initially they had no surnames, but as one of the conditions of acceptance, were obliged to take one. They chose the name Hess after the Duchy.
Eventually, the Hess family prospered in Hungen. My great-grandfather, Abraham Hess, born in 1811, was a shopkeeper in the town square, earning enough money for his son Adolph, born in 1846, to study chemistry at Heidelberg University. Adolph Hess came to England in 1869 to practice his new skill and by 1875 had decided to set up his own chemical manufacturing company in Leeds, Yorkshire.
Adolph was fortunate enough to meet and marry Flora Livingston in 1880. Flora came from another Jewish family, originally named Lowenstein, from whom three young sons, Marks, Frank, and Loeb, had made a great deal of money in the California gold rush and had returned home with their changed name to live in Frankfurt. With Flora came a dowry sufficient to enable Adolph to improve his business prospects when the couple settled in Leeds. Later, his half-brother Julius married another Livingston daughter, Stephanie, and they too moved to Leeds. The company now became known as Adolph Hess and Brother Ltd, and, with the additional funds brought in by Julius, certainly did well. A third brother, Bernard, joined the company later, although he failed to marry a Livingston and brought no money in!
Flora and Stephanie had six sisters, all of whom found German husbands and lived in prosperity in Germany. In addition, another branch of the family had two daughters, one of whom, Fanny, married Salomon Herxheimer, a physician, in Frankfurt; the other, Rose, born in 1860 and not committing herself to marriage, used her money and that which she inherited to become a great philanthropist in the city. Among many gifts of support, she financed the life and work of artist Wilhelm Steinhausen, well known and respected in Frankfurt today. However, her crowning achievement was the foundation of the ‘Nellini’ Institute for old ladies on hard times (called ‘Nellini’ after her great friend Minna Noll, who died in 1909). Working with the charitable Diakonissen Institute next door in Cronstetten Strasse, Frankfurt, the Nellini was built and opened in 1913, fully endowed with funds by Rose.
We now had growing families in both England and Germany. Adolph and Flora Hess had eight children – from Arthur, born 1884, Alice, John, Eric, Dorothy, Stephie, Nathaniel –‘Dan’(my father), to Maud Emma, born 1902. Julius and Stephanie had two, Florence, born 1891, and Henry, born 1895. In Germany a brother of Adolph, Max Hess, also married and had two sons, William, born 1873 and Albert, born 1880. The Livingstons had built substantial houses in Frankfurt, while some of their married daughters produced families of their own.
As time went by, there was much interaction between the families, as a large number of photographs proves, in the years 1900-1914. Holidays were enjoyed in England and Germany. The silver wedding of Adolph and Flora in 1905 was celebrated in Buxton and the German families were well represented there. Travel to the continent was popular, especially to the mountains for scenery or skiing, though the opportunity to visit the relations was always taken. Arthur and Albert were especially friendly – I have a lovely picture taken by Arthur of Albert posing in the gateway of Saalburg Roman fort. Mostly, the ladies were taken in formal dresses, in Frankfurt and around that area, but everyone looks happy. My aunt, Maud Emma –‘Emmie’– remembered going as a young girl to Frankfurt: there she met her grandmother Henriette, widow of Abraham Hess, and cousin Rose, who made a big impression on her. Emmie also remembered Alice being sent home from Frankfurt for wantonly taking over the driving of a coach and four, to the outrage of all concerned. On another occasion in Germany the English boys played cricket too near the dining room window, and showered broken glass over the freshly prepared meal. But such stories were matters for laughter and reminiscence, not recrimination.
The death of Adolph Hess in 1912 could have spoiled our family arrangements for the future. Indeed, it was a sad occasion. But he had planned well. Arthur had been prepared and given suitable experience, so he could take over running the company.
Then came the war and it would only be fair to say that 1914 brought the end of our easy association. Contact was renewed afterwards, but its basis was different and events after the war eventually drove all our family away from Frankfurt.
I shall never be able to understand how families like ours coped with this situation, and there must have been many in the same position. Suddenly, friends and relations of years past were enemies, could not contact each other and were expected to fight. On both sides, they did. Although William Hess had already emigrated to Switzerland, and the few Livingston sons were too young, Albert Hess was available for the army, asking only to be sent to the eastern front to avoid confronting his cousins. Rose Livingston turned over her recently established home for elderly ladies to be a hospital for wounded soldiers.
In England, Arthur, John, Eric and Henry joined the army in 1914, Dan in 1915. All fought in France, save Eric, whose posting was for the Middle East and eventually for the Dardanelles. Julius and Bernard Hess were left behind, two Germans to endure anti-German sentiment and the occasional brick through the factory window. When the Lusitania was sunk in 1915 Julius wrote to the Yorkshire Post… “I did not think the Germans would do such a dastardly thing”.
By the end of 1916, Arthur, Albert and Henry were dead: Eric and John wounded, Eric so badly as to be invalided out of the army. How was this borne at home? Everyone suffering and no one complaining; as a friend wrote to Stephie Hess in 1916. “Our brother was killed on March 23rd. The shock was almost more than we could bear, as he is our only brother. But now I am proud, so proud of him, that it eases the heartache a little”.
More horrors reached England with the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Many died: in our family Julius fell to it after a short illness, at the age of sixty. Ironic it certainly was that 1918 was very good for business, our company’s best so far.
Then, at last, it was the end of the war and John and Dan Hess returned safely, the latter having won the Military Cross twice. He would never talk
of those events, but was plainly very shaken up by his experiences, leaving to seek a new life in Canada not long after. John had also been wounded, as mentioned, and never really recovered his health. He died in 1931 of sleeping sickness, probably originally encountered in the trenches.
If the war upended most of our family arrangements in England, things were much worse in Germany. Losing the war created, among many problems for that country, a terrible inflation and the Livingstons totally lost their comfortable living standards. Rose died at the end of 1914 from cancer, so at least she was spared the financial decline of her Nellini Institute. It survived only after being partially closed with rooms let off, and then only with assistance from the Diakonissen Institute.
In the 1930s came the Nazi government and all their restrictions on Jewish people. The German end of our family was fortunate that its English members were able to help. Thus, nearly all the descendants of the Livingston sisters and their dependants escaped through England, obtaining sponsorship by their English cousins. From England they scattered to Australia, Israel and America. None were left in Frankfurt.
Our company continued in Leeds, directed initially by Eric and John. John soon fell ill, however, and Eric died from cancer in 1926. That proved the point at which my father, Dan Hess, was invited back from Canada to take over. He did so and the company’s success was restored.
During the Second World War Frankfurt was heavily bombed and we thought there would be nothing left from the Hess and Livingston days. So it was with some uncertainty that Aunt Emmie and I, with my wife Valerie, visited the city in 1995. No one from the English family had been there since 1914.
Much had disappeared, that was clear. However, we were very excited to find the ‘Nellini’ intact. In fact, it had been fire-bombed and burned to the ground, but not by explosives, and many original features remained as a result. The building had been completely reconstructed in its old style and was again occupied and run by the Sisters of the Diakonissen for elderly ladies in need. They greeted us enthusiastically. Aunt Emmie gave them a talk – in English, which most understood – about her memories of Rose Livingston. Rose was a legend to the sisters, so the talk gave them great pleasure. We have retained contact with the ‘Nellini’ ever since then.
The Jewish cemetery containing many members of our family has survived intact, as have two other buildings from the old days. One is the Villa Herxheimer in Zeppelinallee, created in 1906 by Fanny in memory of her husband Salomon and restored in 1996; now the office of a legal firm. The second is the Livingston Stable and Coach House in Ulmenstrasse, built in 1882 as part of the house and outbuildings by Marks Livingston. This is a fascinating structure, in the ‘German Renaissance’ style and with the statue of a gold miner on one corner to show how it was funded. It is said that the first electric lifts in Germany were employed here to lift coaches up to the second floor. Now the Stables are headquarters of the Frankfurt Press Corps, within which part is a restaurant where we were able to eat one evening. Once they knew we were descendants of the Livingstons, proprietor and guests alike were vehement in their welcome.
In a way, therefore, the connection between the Hess family in England and our German origins has itself been restored. I hope it may always be so.
***For the full story of this family see ‘Our Family, A History of the Hess and Livingston Families’, by John Peter Hess, 2001; ISBN 0-95255-8-9. This story originally appeared on the Europeana website, and we thank John Peter Hess, who now lives in Cheshire, for allowing us to include it here as well***
For another story of Germans living in Cheshire, please see our page on Lt-Colonel Hermann Hesse.