The Schafer Sisters

Elsa, Frieda, Gabriella & Irma

~1890s - 1980s

Frieda Schafer Epstein, Irma Schafer Morberger, Elsa Schafer Skoutajan and Gabriella (Gabi) Schafer Steiner* were the daughters of Max Schafer and his wife Paulina. Max Schafer was the brother of Berta Schafer Jellinek. The four sisters were all born before the turn of the twentieth century in the Moravian Czech region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Frieda and Irma and their respective husbands, Adolf and Marcel, managed to escape from the Nazis directly to New York City. Frieda and Adolf were especially fortunate in that the Viennese bank at which Adolf worked, granted him the transfer he requested to its New York branch. Elsa and Gabriella were not as fortunate at first. They were each abandoned by their Christian husbands immediately after the Anschluss. However, they were able to get visas for Cuba and the Dominican Republic, respectively, and eventually reunited with their sisters in New York.

Gabriella remarried in New York. Elsa did not, and once said when asked about the biggest change that the Nazis and the war had wrought on her life, “If it were not for the Nazis, I would [still] be married.” The four sisters lived close to each other and to my family in the Inwood section in northern Manhattan, near Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters. None of the four sisters had children. Irma, Elsa and Gabriella each worked outside their homes for varying lengths of time. Frieda never needed to. Gabriella volunteered as a reading tutor in New York City public schools near the end of her life.

Throughout their lives in America, the “Schaferischen” (or “the cousins,” as my father Karl Jellinek also often referred to them) maintained aspects of their old Viennese culture. They hosted “Jauses” (leisurely afternoon coffee, with such accompaniments as delicious home-baked Viennese nut tortes or pastries and cut up apples that had been peeled in one continuous revolving strip). Continuing to speak mostly in their “echt Deutsch” (genuine, pure German) vs. deliberately mixing German with English and Yiddish, as my parents did, was another important example of their attachment to their homeland culture. Daily walks and summer vacations in the countryside were also a continuation of their prior European lifestyle.

As Frieda, Irma, and Gabriella became widowed in turn, they and Elsa increased their support of each other in their struggles with loss, loneliness and old age, until their deaths, one by one, in their eighties to nineties.

* The four sisters’ names are listed in the top subheading, as they appear, from left to right, in the photo. The sisters’ full names are listed in the first sentence above, in their age order, with Frieda, being the oldest.

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