The People of Pancho

At Play In The Archive

After Tragedy, Bureaucracy

Hello, People.

This post covers the bureaucratic aftermath of the terrible train crash in Kreiensen in 1923 that took the lives of my great-great grandmother Marie Puhlmann Lessiack, as well as the entire Keil family. It seems that there was a bit of confusion at the American consulate as to how to handle the paperwork and the Keil family’s effects.

At first, there was a question regarding Bruno Keil’s citizenship, but on August 22, 1923 the American Consul in Charge, wrote the following letter to the American Consul in Bremen. I do not know which Lessiack brother is referred to in the letter — my great-grandpa Leo, or his younger brother Peter, who would have been only 21 years old at the time.

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On August 28th, 1923, approximately one month after the accident on July 31, 2923, the American consulate filed an official report of the death of the entire Keil family. Only Bruno Keil’s name appears on the form; Emma and the children are listed only as, “(wife and (2) children).” I find the language in this letter so curious — I don’t think I would ever describe the grim responsibility of reporting deaths as an honor.

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Bruno was properly identified as a naturalized U.S. citizen, and the cause of death was described as, “killed instantly when train in which they were traveling was run into by fast express following.” In my earlier post on this topic, I mentioned that I didn’t know which of the two trains that collided my ancestors were on — now I do.

Additionally, “Railway officials in Kreiensen report that no effects for recovered.” However, the party responsible for, “custody of effects and accounting thereof” is listed as Wally Lessiack, Emma and Leo’s sister for whom little Wally was named. Also listed is Bruno Keil’s brother, Paul Keil.

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What happened to Bruno’s original passport? While Emma’s passport application matches the date listed on the form, both form and letter say that “Bruno Keil was holder of Emergency passport No. 668 issued by Embassy in Berlin on May 11th, 1923. Mrs. Keil was holder of Departmental passport No. 196194 issued on June 22, 1923.” However, other documents indicate that Bruno Keil became a naturalized U.S. citizen on June 16, 1922, and I assume that he needed the passport to enter Germany. Maybe he lost his passport at some point during his trip?

The form indicates that my great-grandpa Leo and Peter were notified of the tragedy on August 11th, 1923. I can’t even imagine the anguish with which that notification must have been greeted, and as I mentioned above, I don’t know which brother (maybe both?) travelled to Germany to deal with the aftermath. I suspect that Peter did travel, though, because I came across letters from the Hamburg-Amerika Line (Leo’s employer) and from the United American Lines, Bruno Keil’s employers at the time of his death. It seems that the two shipping companies cooperated to get the Lessiack children where they needed to be in the wake of the tragedy. I wish that I had a translation for the Hamburg-Amerika letter, because all of this is just wild guessing on my part.

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Soon followed a grim cataloging of the Keils estate.  I find this letter really puzzling because there is no mention of Leo at all — only Peter is mentioned by name, and Wally by inference. I don’t know anything about the Schmidt family that is mentioned, and I have to wonder why Wally and Peter were reportedly living with the Schmidts when Leo and Margaret and Bruno and Emma lived right next door to each other on Queen Anne Road. The information in this letter doesn’t seem quite right, but I guess that’s par for the course in the the aftermath of a tragedy when officials are trying to figure out what’s going on.

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In any case, it’s the following listing of effects that really takes my breath away. Have you ever packed for an overseas trip with children? I have done so many times, and so this list of quotidian comforts really brings Emma, Bruno, and the kids alive for me. These folks obviously didn’t travel light, but then again, neither do I, despite my best efforts. It looks as if they might also have done some shopping, as well as received some gifts from the many relatives they were in Germany to visit. It’s just so heartbreaking in its specificity, People.

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Apparently the consulate did indeed take possession of the effects, because shortly thereafter some New York lawyers got in touch. I find it very interesting that no actual names are mentioned in this letter. It’s “this woman” and “an executor” only.

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To which the consulate replied (to paraphrase): Show us proof.

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I guess the letter crossed in the mail because there shortly followed this testy little exchange.

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To which the consulate replied delicately, “Your attention is invited to the Department’s reply of October 4, 1923, which you have doubtless received ere this.” In other words, back off. Ah, they don’t write ’em like they used to.

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Meanwhile, the wheels of bureaucracy continue to churn. As this letter from the State Department describes, the earlier paperwork — that is, a single form for the entire Keil family — was filed improperly: “You are instructed to furnish the Department as early as practicable with a report of the death of each individual on Form No. 192, in duplicate.”

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And so it was done, at last, correctly. Here is Bruno’s form.

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And Emma’s,

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and little Wally’s form,

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and finally, little Leopold’s.

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Too, too sad, People.

"July 1921" on back, but 1920 on front. Neither of those dates can be correct, based on the size of the children.

14 comments on “After Tragedy, Bureaucracy

  1. Luanne @ TFK
    January 3, 2016

    Your documents and the way you’ve pulled this together is fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing the story!


  2. Su Leslie
    January 4, 2016

    You are right; too sad! Your work in bringing all of this material together and telling the story is such a wonderful tribute to your lost relatives.


  3. Amy
    January 4, 2016

    Hope your foot is doing well. This is a hard post to read because you’ve really brought all the emotion to the fore. I wanted to read the actual documents, but for some reason I could not click and zoom so had a hard time doing so. I wonder why??

    As for translating the letter that’s in German, have you tried Google Translate? My other recommendation is to join the German Genealogy group if you are on Facebook. People there do translations, and one person in particular is incredibly helpful there. I’ve mentioned him several times on my blog, Matthias Steinke.


    • Pancho
      January 4, 2016

      That is a great idea, but I have so many docs that need translating that I fear I will wear out my welcome; I’m hoping to find a student who might want the job for a small stipend. I’m not sure what’s going on with the images, but I will investigate. Thanks for letting me know. Finally, remember when we talked about wanting to learn German? I recently discovered Duolingo–check it out and see what you think. I’m finding the format very convenient to do on my tablet with my morning coffee.


  4. sultanabun
    January 4, 2016

    Oh my heart, that list! 2 wedding rings. Dolls, aprons, bathing suits.
    It reads like a poem.


    • Pancho
      January 4, 2016

      Doesn’t it? The children’s things sock me right in the gut.


  5. Pingback: Late-breaking Translations | The People of Pancho

  6. Daniel Stern
    April 13, 2016

    I found your story with great interest as my great uncle who was born and raised in Fulda, Germany was also killed in this railway accident. I do have my great uncle’s death notice and two photos of the accident that were published in the news at the time. You can also see his photo and some details (in German) about his death here:

    If you are interested in digital copies please let me know.


    Daniel Stern


    • Pancho
      May 18, 2016

      Daniel, thank you so much for the pointer!


  7. Werner Haase-Wessel
    May 14, 2016

    “Zahnarzt Dr. Stern, Hamburg” is mentioned in many contemporary sources;
    here some of my finds: survived the early-morning Kreiensen-accident seriously injured and died same day (July 31) hospitalized at Göttingen. Dr-grade received
    1922/23, grade probably (not “med.dent.” though thesis endodontical).
    Couldn´t yet trace him at Hamburg: neither as practioner nor permanent(!)
    resident; said adress there residence of “Witwe Stern”, apparently widow
    of “Prokurist Stern”. Werner from EINBECK


    • Pancho
      May 17, 2016

      Werner, you’re a wonder! Thank you for the information.


    • Daniel Stern
      May 19, 2016

      Hello Werner,

      I would be most interested in seeing these sources; are any of them available online? If not I would be happy for the reference information and I will see if I can track them down via the local libraries. Any help would be greatly appreciated!


      Daniel Stern


      • Pancho
        May 30, 2016

        Daniel, I have Werner’s contact information. He asked me to give it to you, so please send me an email at and I’ll send it to you. Then you two can be in contact directly.


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