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Germany, 1930: Heinrich Paul and Mary Louise Wahl Sommers
Much of this is taken from an interview with Mary Sommers in 1995. Her granddaughter, Kathleen Amoroso, submitted the interview and, as can be seen below, has continued the research. Click on images to enlarge.


At the age of eighteen, Mary met Heinrich Sommer, and they were married on May 21, 1929, in Cologne, Germany. A year and a half after their wedding they came to America by boat. Mary was six months pregnant, and she recalled their journey as "rough but nice". When asked what nationality she was, she responded, "I am an American. I never think back. I always liked it here."

In Mary's words: "After a while Grandpa [her husband] wanted to go to America. To get here together we had to get one number. [The quota system was in place by then.] Otherwise, we had to get married to get one number. I get one number and he gets one. I didn't want to go, because I didn't know what to do. I couldn't talk, and he couldn't either. We couldn't speak English. So he said we go together. So I said I didn't care. We had to wait a year and a half. We got married when I was nineteen and a half. We stayed in my house, with me in my room, because we figured we'd go, but we had to wait a year and a half. Every time we were close, they set the quotas back. After a year and a half, finally, we could go. So we came over on September 6th. On Labor Day we came over."

The Journey Here: "We came on the boat. The name was Milwaukee. It took us eight days. We were on the tourist class. There was second class, tourist class and third class. Third class was no good, very poor. We went tourist class. It was very nice. It was pretty rough, too, and we didn't get too seasick. He didn't, and I didn't. We landed in New York…

…"I was over six months pregnant at that time. The doctors, I remember, they were talking to each other, because before you come over they give you an exam. They said, ‘Well, should she go?’ And I heard them say, ‘She's young, and she's strong, and sure. Do you have enough money for when you get to America so they won't have to take care of you?’ ‘Yeah, we have enough money to come back if we don't like it.’ ‘O.k. let them go.’ So we went, and the next day we came to Boston."

What They Found: In Mary's words: "We had gotten an apartment which was near the boss in the town. We lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, in a nice apartment and stayed there for a year. Then the baby was born in December, Edie. We stayed a year, and we went to New York. Mr. Charles from Charles of the Ritz asked them to come to work in New York. So [they] did."

"They" refers to a friend who worked with Heinrich Paul both before and after coming to the US. They had met before Hienrich was married when they were working as hairdressers on a cruise ship that went to South America. The friend came to the US first and was the sponsor for Heinrich and Mary.

"At that time he [her husband] spoke pretty good English. There was a Swedish girl in the beauty salon the first time, and she went with them through all the little children’s books. ‘This is a house,’ -- he had to repeat it. But he learned. I didn't learn it, because I was home with nobody to talk to except the boss's wife who was German, so she wouldn't let me talk. So one time, at Easter, they went on a trip to Germany, and I had to go shopping, and I couldn't talk. I was young. By that time, I was twenty-one, and so I went to the stores that they had all outside. Groceries -- market, you know. They were supermarkets that they had outside. Markets for vegetables. So I would go and say, ‘I want this’ and point to it. The young fellow wasn't even older than I was, and they would laugh their heads off. They would say, ‘No, no, no way. You say it. This is broccoli.’ Broccoli, it's a hard word. I don't know what I said, and they laughed their heads off, so I laughed right along with them. The next time I come I say, ‘Broccoli’, and he said, ‘good’. Then every time I came I had to say it, and that's the way I learned a little.

"The baby came, and I couldn't go to evening school. You see we didn't have a car, and I couldn't afford a taxi all the time to the school, and I didn't know how to get back because I couldn't call a taxi from the school. So I couldn't go. I did go a couple of times, and I walked. It was a long, long walk. The teacher said, ‘You read something.’ I said, ‘I can't read.’ She said to try it. She said, ‘You do better than the whole class. You don't have to come back.’ I was sunk. I said, ‘She doesn't want me.’ But I learned.

"[In] New York... we stayed four and a half years... At that time Grandpa [her husband] became the manager of the Plaza Hotel in New York in the beauty salon. He was good. So after four and a half years, the boss asked him if he would like to go back to Boston. He said he would, but his name in New York was Henry... But he [the boss] says, ‘You go to Boston, but we already have a Henry in Boston. You have to take a different name. Which name would you want?’ So he says, ‘I don't know. I have to ask my wife.’ So he came and says, ‘Mum, what name do you want me to go by?’ I said, ‘Richard. I always liked the name Richard.’ So he told the boss, ‘Richard,’ and the boss said, ‘O.K., it's Richard.’


"So he stayed with the boss until 1936, about a year, and he went into business for himself in the same shop where he came and had his first job. The boss had gone to Elizabeth Arden facial salon. He worked in a beauty shop there. He took the fellow that [he] worked with when he came over, and they all came to him, and he had a partner. His name was Paul. Grandpa’s name was Henry Paul. Now he was Richard Henry Paul. It was Sommers. When we took out the citizenship papers, he told the judge that he changed it. Everybody said Sommers. He put ‘yes’ on it. He said, ‘No change. Sommers is o.k. No change.’"

Granddaughter: "We later found out that Heinrich Paul Sommers was born Heinrich Paul Somplatzki. He never told his wife that his name was Somplatzki when he was born, and his father changed the whole family's name in 1921 to Sommer. Then Henrich had his name officially changed to Richard Henry Paul Sommers in the U.S."

Eldest Daughter: "The shop in Boston was called ‘Paul-Richard Hairdressers’ of 91 Newberry Street, a very upscale street with F.A.O. Schwarz toys, and he bought many of our toys there. Pop bought the other Paul out and became the sole owner of Paul-Richard Hairdressers. Later, ...he bought the Beauty Salon at the Copley Plaza Hotel... He named his shop... ‘Richard of the Plaza.’ He combined the staff of the Newberry Street shop and the Copley Plaza Beauty Shop and had about 16 people working for him. I would help him at the desk to make the appointments and be cashier when I was on summer vacation in high school (about 1946 - 48). Each customer had her own booth to have her hair done... It was a very high-class shop with many well-to-do clients. It wasn't until later that the customers had their hair dried in a general area.

Encountering Any Prejudice: One daughter remembers a story of her father going around to tell people to turn their lights off during an air raid drill and a man pulled a gun on him when he rang the doorbell.

Eldest Daughter: "About any prejudices I encountered as a child of German parents, yes there were some.    Arlene is right about the man who pulled a gun on my father when he went door to door during an air raid drill to tell a man to put out his lights, which everyone was supposed to do when they heard the sirens.  However, maybe the man was just nuts and would have done that to anyone who told him what to do.   I also remember playing in our yard a couple times when the kids next door started throwing pebbles and little stones from the driveway at us yelling, "NAZI!  NAZI!!" We were always friends otherwise, before and after these episodes.   They must have just been repeating what they heard their parents saying at home.  

"Mostly life was fair.  Actually, my father was the only one in the neighborhood who displayed the American flag.  It was on a flagpole in his lovely garden, which he took great pride in."

Telling the Story: Granddaughter: "I first heard this story from my Grandmother Mary in 1995. I was fascinated. We were lucky enough to have audio taped her. It is so very special to know what it was like for them when they came to America. I have since located a first cousin of my mother's who lives in Germany, and I have traced Mary's line back to the 1600s in Germany. I identify with all my ethnic roots, German, French and Irish."

Old Customs: "My mother was the third child of Richard and Mary and was never taught any German. We have carried down several of the recipes, lentil soup and dumplings. One custom that I remember hearing was lentil soup on New Year’s Eve with hot dogs. The one with the most hot dogs in the bowl would have good luck the next year.

"I have a few keepsakes -- my grandmother's photo albums, a "going-away" book of poems and sayings that family and friends gave to her before she left Germany for America, and some jewelry.

"No one in my family has traveled to Germany, but I have located a first cousin of my mother's, and my grandfather's sister, Hilde, is still living. My mother has written a letter to her."






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