Monday, November 24, 2008

Moritz Feibusch


Age: 57

Residence: San Francisco, CA

Occupation: Importer/Exporter

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks

Died in wreck

Moritz Feibusch was a food broker from San Francisco. He was born in the village of Rogasen, in the Posen province of German East Prussia (now Poland) on April 24, 1880, the second oldest of seven children. His father, Salomon Feibusch, had emigrated to the United States in about 1865 and lived in New York, eventually becoming a naturalized US citizen.

Though he was a plumber by trade, Salomon Feibusch worked in a New York City sausage factory. It was said that he never ate sausage himself, though, saying that "only God and the butcher knows the ingredients." He married in 1867 and not long afterward his wife (whose name, sadly, appears to have been lost to history) and her baby died in childbirth. A grieving Salomon Feibusch returned to his home in Rogasen, and his family convinced him to stay.

In 1877, Salomon Feibusch married Ernestine Krombach, and the two of them had seven children, of whom Moritz Feibusch was the second oldest. In 1889, Ernestine Feibusch passed away during childbirth, just as her husband's first wife had.

The following year, Salomon Feibusch remarried again, this time to Mine Schocken, and the two of them had seven more children. She is remembered by Salomon's grandson Martin Feibusch as "an exceptional woman who made no distinction between her own children and her step children."

Salomon Feibusch lived the rest of his life in Rogasen, and died of blood poisoning in 1904 at the age of 56. Mine Feibusch, on the other hand, lived until 1939, when she passed away in Berlin of natural causes.

Moritz Feibusch, having apprenticed as a tailor, emigrated to the United States in 1897 when he was 17 years old. His uncles Jake and Aron and his aunts Sarah and Pauline had been living in the Bay Area for the past 30 years, and so Moritz Feibusch settled in San Francisco. As the family story goes, Feibusch, hoping for some help in getting started in his new country, went to see his Uncle Aron, a very wealthy and rather eccentric man who owned a great deal of property in downtown Oakland. But Aron Feibusch merely gave his nephew a silver dollar and told him to "make his own way."

And Moritz Feibusch did just this for most of the next decade, becoming a naturalized United States citizen in 1900. However, after much of San Francisco was destroyed by the massive earthquake and subsequent fire in 1906, Feibusch returned to Germany, where he shared an apartment with some of his brothers in Berlin. Unlike his father, however, Feibusch did not remain long in Germany. Two years later he returned to San Francisco where he took a job with Prager's Dry Goods, and eventually became the company's buyer.

On August 5th, 1911, Moritz Feibusch married Mignon Schocken. Her father, Abraham Schocken, was the brother of Feibusch's stepmother, Mine. Mignon was an accomplished violinist. Throughout her career she worked with, among others, Alfred Hertz, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, and acted as "backstage mother" to child violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin during his early years of performing in San Francisco. Mignon had also written and published songs, including a song called "Hum of the Hammer", about the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

Cover of the sheet music to Mignon Schocken's song, "Hum of the Hammer"

Mignon Schocken Feibusch, an only child, remained very close to her mother Lillie throughout her life, to the point of being quite dependent on her. Thus, Moritz Feibusch and his new wife moved in with her parents, where they would live until the early 1920s when Feibusch bought a home of his own at 2601 Lincoln Way, across the street from the southern edge of Golden Gate Park. Abe and Lillie Schocken moved into the new house along with Moritz and Mignon Feibusch.

In about 1920, Moritz Feibusch had been offered a job by two distant relatives, John and Fred Jacobs, who owned a business called California Canneries. They asked Feibusch if he might be interested in representing the company and selling their products. Feibusch used this as an opportunity to open his own brokerage office, with the Jacobs brothers as silent partners. He set up shop in an office at 112 Market Street in San Francisco, practically in the shadow of the Ferry Building clock tower. Beatrice Ginsberg was hired as Feibusch's secretary, and her future husband Emery Marks (they married in 1934) served as Feibusch’s business manager. Feibusch, Mr. Marks and Miss Ginsberg proved to be an excellent team, and the brokerage company, which operated under the name "M. Feibusch", grew into a thriving business.

In early 1928, Feibusch made his first trip back to Germany since 1906, accompanied by Mignon and her parents. It was partly to visit family – Abe Schocken had not seen his sister in over 30 years – but mainly it was for medical reasons. Mignon had been suffering from a brain tumor for a number of years, and was finally going to have surgery to have the tumor removed. Mignon and her mother were both Christian Scientists, and Mignon had avoided seeking medical attention for her condition for as long as possible. The operation was scheduled, but at the last minute Mignon changed her mind and decided against having the procedure. The family returned to San Francisco.

Mignon Feibusch, circa 1928
(Photo courtesy of the Judah L. Magnes Museum)

Later that same year, in the fall of 1928, Moritz Feibusch had to make an emergency business trip to Europe. Through his brokerage company, Feibusch had sold several train cars full of fresh apples to a buyer in France, who was subsequently unable to come up with enough money to cover the deal and therefore refused to accept delivery. Feibusch immediately left for Europe, and managed to resell the apples before they spoiled. He took away a valuable business lesson from the experience, however, and thereafter the M. Feibusch company dealt exclusively in the exportation of dried and canned goods, and later in the importation of canned fish products from Scandinavia.

In about 1932, Moritz Feibusch arranged to buy out John and Fred Jacobs’ interest in the M. Feibusch company. Some months later, California Canneries declared bankruptcy, and Feibusch took a leading role in the corporation's reorganization. He received 50% of the stock in the new company, which was renamed Calbear Canneries. The M. Feibusch company handled all of the buying and selling for Calbear, as the company now had no credit rating.

The M. Feibusch company also began to represent two other canning companies and two dried fruit packers, all of which were located near Fresno, CA. The canneries produced mainly tomato products, while the packing companies produced dried figs and dates, as well as a wide range of other dried fruits that were sold in fancy gift assortments. Between the goods these companies produced and the output of Calbear Canneries, the M. Feibusch company's domestic and export sales were excellent. Moritz Feibusch was quickly becoming a very successful man.

Label from a can of Calbear fruit cocktail.
(label courtesy of Deborah Lewy Poole)

From 1928 on, Feibusch had visited Europe at least once a year – mostly England and Germany. In late 1932, based on the success of his company in San Francisco, Feibusch opened an office in London, which was operated as a separate company. Calbear Foods Limited, located at 37 Eastcheap, handled both the canned foods and dried fruits that M. Feibusch Co. exported from California. The office was run by Miss Marjorie E. Woods, who proved to be a very efficient manager. Sales improved more than ever.

On his annual trip to Germany in the spring of 1933, Moritz Feibusch and his next youngest brother, Arno, discussed the possibility of Arno's son, Martin Hans, coming to live with Moritz in San Francisco. The political situation in Germany had taken a turn for the worse in January when Adolf Hitler had been named Chancellor, and by the time Moritz Feibusch visited his family in Berlin in March or April it had become all too clear that the Nazi Party was gaining control of the government. Arno Feibusch wanted to get his son out of Germany.

The 15 year-old Martin Hans Feibusch had been strongly considering emigrating to Palestine, but his father gradually convinced him that it would be a better idea for him to go to California with his Uncle Moritz instead. Martin Hans eventually agreed, and it was decided that arrangements should be made for him to leave for the United States as soon as possible. To circumvent U.S. immigration quotas, Moritz Feibusch would adopt his nephew, who could then remain in the United States as the son of a U.S. citizen. Feibusch hired a lawyer and the process was begun (though in the end the adoption was never finalized), and in the meantime Martin Feibusch sailed for the United States aboard the steamship Europa during the first week of October, 1933. Upon his arrival in San Francisco, he moved into the house at 2601 Lincoln Way with his Uncle Moritz and Aunt Mignon, as well as Mignon's mother Lillie Schocken. Abraham Schocken had passed away in 1931.

Meanwhile, Mignon Feibusch's health had begun to fail. Her brain tumor had worsened to the point where, by 1934, she was unable to take part in social or family gatherings. She finally decided to have the operation that she had cancelled during her trip to Germany in 1928, but unfortunately it was just too late. Mignon Feibusch passed away a few weeks after her surgery.

Moritz Feibusch's business continued to grow and he still made his annual voyages to England and Germany. Since he no longer had his ailing wife to look after back home, he began extending his overseas trips to include vacations to France and Egypt. For these, he had custom-made postcards designed – these featured a collage photo of him climbing the Eiffel Tower for his Paris trip, and a photo of him with a camel in front of a pyramid for his Egypt trip. He would send these postcards to numerous business associates and his ever-growing circle of friends.

Moritz Feibusch's custom postcard from his trip to Paris, circa 1935.
(postcard copy courtesy of Martin Feibusch)

At the same time, Feibusch continued to use his business connections and his U.S. citizenship to help members of his family to get out of Germany. In 1936, Feibusch arranged for his brothers Jacob and George, as well as George's wife Ruth, to move to the United States. They sailed to San Francisco in June aboard the French Line steamship San Jose. When they arrived, they moved into the house on Lincoln Way, and the two brothers worked in the cannery.

As 1936 turned to 1937, Feibusch began to make similar arrangements for his brother Isidor, Isidor's wife Emma, and their two sons Ernst and Hans. The plan was for Jacob, George, and Ruth to move into their own place in the spring of 1937 to make room at the house for Isidor and his family.

Moritz Feibusch at his desk, circa 1937.
(photo courtesy of Martin Feibusch)

At the end of January of 1937, Moritz Feibusch left for his annual trip to Europe. His mother-in-law, Lillie Schocken, had moved into a retirement hotel in San Francisco after Mignon passed away in 1934. Feibusch's nephew Martin had graduated from high school in January and by March he had moved out of the house on Lincoln Way and was living in a hotel by the city's waterfront and working for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

This year, Feibusch decided to bring his secretary and his business manager, Rebecca and Emery Marks, along on his Europe trip. This was most likely so that they could become acquainted with the London office. The couple remained in London while Feibusch made his traditional visit to Germany to see his family. During Feibusch's stay in Germany, the visas for his brother Isidor and his family came through, and plans were made for them to sail to San Francisco once he had returned home from his trip.

During his travels, Feibusch had picked up a cold and it occurred to him that the promise of a warmer climate was a perfect excuse for him to take a trip down to Italy. It was then that he decided to book passage home to the States on the German passenger Zeppelin Hindenburg.

For one thing, he had been fascinated by Zeppelins for years. When the Graf Zeppelin made its famous round-the-world flight in 1929, for instance, Feibusch had sent postcards along on the trip, including one addressed to his brother Arno in Berlin. Also, Moritz Feibusch had, by this time, crossed the ocean at least thirty times by steamship and knew that the Hindenburg would not only get him home a few days faster, but that it would also, as he had heard so often, be a far more comfortable way to travel. Finally, since he would be turning 57 at the end of April, and since the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 was scheduled to depart the first week of May, he thought it would also make a nice birthday present to himself.

He asked Mr. and Mrs. Marks if they would like to join him in Italy, and then fly home on the Hindenburg with him. They declined, and instead took the Queen Mary back to New York in early March. Moritz Feibusch booked his flight home, went on his trip to Italy, and then returned to Germany in time to catch the Hindenburg at the Rhein-Main Airport in Frankfurt on May 3rd.

Moritz Feibusch (at left, indicated by arrow) and other passengers (Ernst Rudolf Anders, lower center with binoculars, and Lt. Claus Hinkelbein, facing camera) looking out of the Hindenburg's observation windows during the final flight. Image is from home movie footage taken by fellow passenger Joseph Späh.

As he had done for the past couple of years, Feibusch had custom postcards printed up to send to friends, family, and business associates to commemorate his trip. This time, given his rather unusual mode of transportation back to the United States, he chose to feature the Hindenburg on his postcards. He had two different versions made, each featuring a photo of him (actually, his passport photo) superimposed upon a photo of the Hindenburg in flight, and the message "Greetings on the Maiden Voyage of the Hindenburg - May 1937 - M. Feibusch."

A photocopy of one of the postcards that Moritz Feibusch had custom made for his flight on the Hindenburg. Since none of his onboard postcards survived the fire, this was very likely given to a friend or family member in Germany before Feibusch sailed on the Hindenburg.
(postcard copy courtesy of Dr. Cheryl Ganz)

As he sat in the Hindenburg's lounge addressing his postcards – all 200 of them - the ship's chief steward, Heinrich Kubis, remarked to Feibusch that he was a year too late, as the Hindenburg's maiden flight had actually been made the previous year. Feibusch responded good-naturedly that at least it was his maiden voyage. He also sent at least one letter to himself via his home address in San Francisco. This was a common thing for passengers to do, of course, as a letter stamped onboard the Hindenburg was considered a particularly choice philatelic souvenir.

On a slightly darker note, and perhaps further evidence to support his efforts to gradually get his family out of Germany, Moritz Feibusch may have experienced a small but notable bit of anti-semitism during the voyage. Whereas the Hindenburg's stewards generally arranged seating assignments in the dining room so that passengers tended to be in groups of four or more, Feibusch was reportedly seated for meals throughout the flight at a table for two with Mr. William Leuchtenberg, another Jewish passenger on the flight. This story has only appeared in one or two sources over the years and cannot be absolutely confirmed, so it should be taken with that caveat in mind. However, given the political sentiments of the day, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that this could indeed have occurred.

As the Hindenburg flew towards the airfield at Lakehurst, NJ at the end of the voyage on the evening of May 6th, 1937, Feibusch realized he wasn't going to be able to finish addressing all of his postcards after all. So he waited with other passengers and probably watched the landing crew on the ground below as they grabbed the landing ropes and began to haul the ship down toward its mooring mast.

Moritz Feibusch's possible location in the starboard passenger lounge at the time of the fire.

It's not known precisely where Moritz Feibusch was when the fire broke out a few minutes later. According to his nephew Martin, whenever Feibusch sailed on an ocean liner he generally liked to disembark as soon as the ship was tied up at the dock, and would normally have been standing somewhere near the ship's gangway. In this case, however, the customs inspection was scheduled to take place aboard the ship after the Hindenburg landed, with Chief Steward Kubis setting up a customs table in the portside dining room, and US customs agents boarding the ship immediately upon landing in order to begin processing the passengers.

In addition to this, it had been generally agreed among the passengers that Birger Brinck, a Swedish journalist, would be allowed to go through customs ahead of everyone else, as he had to drive into Pennsylvania to do an interview, and then turn right back around and get back to Lakehurst in time to catch the Hindenburg for the return flight later that evening. There would really have been no reason for Feibusch to have been waiting in his usual spot near the head of the gangway, as it was still going to be awhile yet before he would be able to go through his customs inspection and thereafter be allowed to leave the ship.

Chances are, therefore, that Moritz Feibusch was probably on the starboard side of the ship near one of the windows, either in the lounge on A-deck or downstairs near the new B-deck passenger cabins. He was unable to escape in time when the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed, and it was a few days before his body was identified. He was reportedly found with his movie camera under his body as though he had fallen on it, and the camera was salvaged. However, nobody in the family knew what became of it after that.

A number of the pieces of mail sent by Feibusch during the flight were also salvaged from the wreck, and have since become valuable artifacts among those who collect Hindenburg crash mail.

Several pages from Moritz Feibusch's passport, recovered from his suit jacket pocket and subsequently donated by family members to the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, CA.
(Photos courtesy of the Judah L. Magnes Museum)

On Tuesday, May 11th, five days after his death, Moritz Feibusch's coffin was taken, along with those of the German fatalities and a Swedish passenger who died in the fire, to Pier 86 in New York City for a memorial ceremony to be held before the coffins of the European dead were loaded aboard the steamship Hamburg to be shipped back across the Atlantic.

It is not known why Feibusch's coffin was included in this ceremony, as he had been an American citizen for the better part of 40 years. It was rather ironic, therefore, that Moritz Feibusch – not only an American citizen but moreover a Jewish man who was in the process of helping his family to leave Germany while they still could – was honored in a NSDAP memorial service, complete with uniformed Nazis marching with their arms extended in salute.

Of the 28 coffins laid out in a row along Pier 86, 26 of them were draped in German swastika flags. Moritz Feibusch's coffin was covered in the flag of his adopted homeland, and the last one, draped in a Swedish flag, was that of Birger Brinck, the journalist who was to have been at the head of the customs line had the Hindenburg landed safely.

Moritz Feibusch's coffin, fourth from bottom, draped in an American flag, at the memorial service on Pier 86 in New York on May 11, 1937.

Moritz Feibusch's body, in its sealed coffin, was shipped back to San Francisco where he was laid to rest. Mr. and Mrs. Marks, who had returned from Europe two months before aboard the Queen Mary, were the executors of Feibusch's estate, and they saw to it that Isidor Feibusch and his family were still able to come over to the United States as planned, which they did at the end of June, 1937.

However, when the time came for Calbear Cannery to reopen for the 1938 canning season, a conflict between Mr and Mrs. Marks and the Feibusch brothers resulted in the financing for that year not being arranged for. Instead, the brothers, the heirs to Moritz Feibusch's estate, opted to close the cannery and its offices, sell off the assets, and distribute the proceeds among the Feibusch heirs.

Despite the liquidation of Moritz Feibusch's businesses, however, Emery and Rebecca Marks worked with Marjorie Woods, who still managed Calbear's London office, to continue the task of getting the rest of the Feibusch family out of Germany by way of England. These efforts were undoubtedly complicated by the fact that there were no longer any of Moritz Feibusch's businesses in which his brothers and their families could work once they arrived in England or the United States, and thus no guaranteed means of support for them. This created some problems and delays as far as the ability to obtain the proper visas for everyone.

They wanted to get their mother, Mine Feibusch, out of the country as well. However, by 1938 she was quite elderly, in increasingly ill health, and was really not in any shape to travel. She passed away the following year.

Arno Feibusch, Martin Hans' father, had a particularly difficult time leaving Germany, as he and his brother Adolf were arrested by the Gestapo in November of 1938. They were held in a concentration camp until Miss Woods and the Marks' could arrange for their visas and passage out of the country. They eventually made it to England in 1939.

In the end, however, all of Moritz Feibusch's siblings and their families were able to leave Germany. Once in England, unfortunately, most of the Feibusches were classified as "enemy aliens" by the British government and held in an internment camp until they could get their residency issues worked out. After the war, Arno and Simon Feibusch moved to the United States, while Adolf Feibusch and his brother David chose to remain in England with their families.

I am very grateful to Mr. Martin Feibusch, the nephew of Moritz Feibusch, for having provided a wealth of information about his uncle's life and about the Feibusch family history in general. This article had previously been far shorter and full of errors and/or incomplete information, and would undoubtedly have remained that way without Martin's assistance. I am very pleased to be able to present a far more accurate and in-depth biography of Moritz Feibusch than has appeared in print in the past. (Thanks also to Art Paulson for putting Martin and myself in touch.)

I would also like to thank Deborah Lewy Poole, Moritz Feibusch's grand-niece, for generously providing the portrait photo of Mr. Feibusch used at the beginning of this article, and for the scan of the Calbear can label.

I am most grateful to Perian Sully and Francesco Spagnolo of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California for allowing me to use copies of their scans of Moritz Feibusch's passport in this article. Perian contacted me after the passport was discovered among other of Mr. Feibusch's effects in the museum's archive, and I was honored to have the opportunity to help her to place the documents in historical context. A full series of photos of this and two other of Mr. Feibusch's passports, along with several other documents and bits of ephemera, can be found HERE.

Thanks also to Dr. Cheryl Ganz of the National Postal Museum for providing information on mail sent by Moritz Feibusch while onboard the Hindenburg, as well as for providing a photocopy of Mr. Feibusch's custom Hindenburg postcard.


plus ca change.... said...

Fascinating story -
I was idly passing time by googling my name and this story popped up.
It is amazing that until the advent of the internet, I thought that I knew every Feibusch there was in the US, if not the world, and that they all were my relatives, living in NY or NJ. I have since learned of the CA branch.

Jason Evers Herbert said...

I have a Moritz Feibusch postcard in my possession belonging to my Grandfather Frank Herbert who was Chairman of the Danish Bacon Company.It is scorched. I have had the card for some years and this is the first time that I have read the whole story. Many thanks for your research on Moritz. I was very moved to discover the full story.

Unknown said...

This is my great uncle. I'm the granddaughter of George and Ruth Feibusch

Patrick Russell said...

Please feel free to email me at the address listed under "Contact Me" on the sidebar. I'd be glad to share any information about your great uncle that I might have in my files.

Be well,

Rhea Tannenbaum said...

I would be very grateful to discuss with you the Feibusch family genealogy, in both Prussia and the U.S. I've concluded that my Phillips ancestors likely had the surname Feibusch when they lived in Europe. If you would like to help sort out some genealogical puzzlers you can contact me through my profile on Thank you!

Unknown said...

Posen province was in 'West Prussia' and not in 'East Prussia'.


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Anonymous said...

Martin Hans is my Opa(grandfather)

Anonymous said...

Martin Hans was my Opa (grandfather) Morritz was my great great uncle!!

Eric Torres said...

I have tons of things postcards an telegrams an letters ... An a book that was made for a man name Simon Feibush