“I am in search of parts of my family, and I suppose that some of them lived, or maybe still live, in Sea Cliff,” wrote Renate Hugendubel in an email to Mayor Edward Lieberman on Aug. 12.
Scrolling through his inbox that morning, Lieberman skipped over a routine collection of unread messages. Then he read Hugendubel’s request. “I would be very thankful if I could get a hint for descendants of the Schoelles family,” she wrote.
Growing up in Germany, Renate, now 63, and her sister, Christa, 67, received letters from a paternal aunt, Maud Schoelles St. John, who lived in Sea Cliff. Renate remembers receiving a porcelain doll as a gift one Christmas morning from this distant American relative. She named the doll Maud, in honor of St. John, who died in 1966.
Christa recently reviewed the hand-written letters, which crisscrossed the Atlantic in the mid-20th century, learning about the family she never knew. With diligent research, which included digging through attics and searching through Ancestry.com, the sisters were able to trace their heritage from Stuttgart to Sea Cliff.
In the email to Lieberman, Renate explained that her great-great uncle, Johann Müller, came to America from Frankfurt in the mid-19th century. He became a U.S. citizen 140 years ago, on Sept. 18, 1878, and soon moved his family to the village from the crowded boroughs of New York City. In 1883, his daughter, Mathilda, married resident William Schoelles and had four children, including Maud. William’s family owned Schoelles Pharmacy, now Packard Cabinetry, on Sea Cliff Avenue.
“For me it is really amazing how these people trusted in migration,” Hugendubel said of her ancestors. “They left their home in the hope to find a new one; it’s what people often did.”
Hugendubel told Lieberman that she and her husband, Volker, planned to visit New York in September to look for the gravesites of William and Maud at the All Faiths Cemetery in Queens. The mayor offered the German visitors a tour of the village, as well as an introduction to the director of the Village Museum, Sara Reres, to help with their research.
When the Hugendubels arrived, they brought old photos, passports and obituaries that Renate had found through her research in Germany. They shared them with Reres, who said she didn’t know of any living Schoelleses in Sea Cliff. However, the museum’s file on the family did provide Renate with some insight into what it must have been like for her relatives living in the village all those years ago.
“This family has a more extensive history than most of the families in Sea Cliff, because William was a pharmacist for so many years,” Reres said. At the pharmacy, there was a soda fountain where the Schoelleses served homemade ice cream. Reres had a photo of “Pop” Schoelles from 1909. He stood outside the pharmacy with some of his employees and a two-foot-tall block of ice.
“Down in the basement — it’s still there — there’s an ice cellar, and they’d keep the ice down there and make ice cream from it,” Reres said.
Lieberman presented the Hugendubels with official village pins, and explained that the Latin phrase engraved on them roughly translates to, “Your own be allowed also.”
The village “was a very tolerant, open community,” Lieberman said. “It invited anyone of different faiths or beliefs to come to Sea Cliff, and to this day it’s still a truism.”
Touring the community, walking along Main Street and thinking of home when she spotted some of the roads winding from the cliffs down to the beach, Hugendubel was enamored of it all. “It’s really interesting to read all these old stories in the village newspaper,” she said. “You get a very good picture of the people and what they did.”
She said she admired the tenacity of her ancestors, who never faltered in pursuing a better life in America. She also praised Sea Cliff’s acceptance of her immigrant relatives, a custom that, in today’s political climate, is disappearing.
“Nowadays people say, ‘We can’t take refugees,’ and I say we need these people,” Hugendubel said. “We need them for new impulses, and to stay innovative. If people only stay in their small community, they won’t find new things. They won’t find innovative ways to work and to live.”