Who was John Elsas, and Why Do I Care?


Dr. Hoppe’s monograph about my great-grandfather John Elsas.

Are you into genealogy? Some people get their fix via “23 and Me,” some get it by meticulous research on sites such as “Ancestry.com.” I have never delved into genealogy, but I got a taste of my family’s backstory via an unexpected email from more than 4000 miles away.

The email, from Frankfurt, Germany, was originally sent to Laury, but mystified as to its nature she forwarded it to me. And I learned a part of my family history that I had never thought to explore before.

I know that my father was a German Jew, who fled Berlin in the face of rising Nazi power in the early 1930s. And I knew his mother, my grandmother Fanny, emigrated from Germany to Switzerland with her other son and her second husband, Freidrich Raff, a German movie screenwriter.

While I was in grammar school my dad would type a letter to his “Mutti” on thin onion-skin paper for airmail delivery to Zurich every other week. Linda and I would add a line or two about school or my weekly bowling scores. Those letters and a single visit to Switzerland in 1964 were my sole contact with Fanny. And because my father was a quiet man, not prone to talking about his past,  I knew nothing of her life or her history.

That changed with the Frankfurt e-mail. The letter to Laury was from Dr. Dorothee Hoppe, a German researcher, who had become interested in John Elsas, a German artist from the early 1900’s. In her research, she identified that Herr Elsas’s descendants bore the last name “Raff,” and from that clue she discovered Laury.

Via multiple correspondences with Dr. Hoppe, I learned that Herr Elsas was the father of Fanny Elsas and my great-grandfather. A fairly wealthy German-Jewish stockbroker, he experienced a post-retirement career as a self-trained artist. To translate a quote from a monograph written by Dr. Hoppe  “his designs often exist of caricatured exaggeration.  The majority of pictures are accompanied by a doggerel verse that explained and narrated, in kind, a maxim that the painted scene illustrated.” He worked in multiple media and had many exhibitions. Quite a successful second career!

Dr. Hoppe also filled me in on family history that I was unaware of, and that even my father may not have known. For example, I never heard him speak of an aunt who died at Theresienstadt, a victim of the Holocaust. Dr. Hoppe also has access to a collection of letters written by my father as a young man, one of which indicates he immigrated to the USA in 1934, a year later than I had previously believed.

I have a tendency to look forward and don’t spend that much time looking at my past. But I am glad for this unexpected insight into my family history. And the story of John Elsas adds another talented artist to my lineage. It’s amazing I still can’t draw a straight line!


This post reminds me that in honor of my father I am once again participating in the SEABlue Prostate Cancer Awareness Run in Lincoln Park in September. To support our cause, please click here!

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