Erna Lindner was born on May 27, 1904 on a farm in Austria, which later became part of Czechoslovakia.  Her parents, Alban Hager and Sylvia Kainz, worked “night and day” on the farm, and when Alban had to fight in the First World War, the running of the farm fell on Sylvia and their five children: Alban, Jr., Theresa, Walter, Erna and Martin.  Erna says that it was “a very, very, very had life.  Very difficult,” even after her father came back from the war, though, she says, “we always had plenty of good, fresh food.”  Erna says that no one really went to school, except Sunday school, and as young people they never went out and socialized, as there was always too much work to do on the farm.

Erna did meet a boy, however, named Theo Lindner, at church.  Her only time to see him was on Sunday afternoons when he would sometimes come to the Hager farm to visit and talk with Erna’s parents.  As time went on, all three of Erna’s older siblings left for America.  Eventually, Theo left, too.  From that point on, Erna was desperate to get to America to be with Theo.  Finally, when she was 19, in 1923, her parents arranged for her to travel with a large group of people from their town who were all making the journey together.  Only her younger brother, Martin, remained behind to care for the farm and their parents.

Erna stuck with the group on the long ship ride over and then traveled alone to Chicago, where she was reunited with her sister, Theresa.  Erna immediately found a job as a waitress at a restaurant at Cicero and 26th and then began looking for Theo.  She finally found him, and within 3 months of arriving in America, she married him.  They had a small wedding dinner for immediate family only and went to live with Theresa until they could get someplace of their own.  Theo worked as a tailor, and Erna eventually got a job in a factory, which she stayed at for 31 years.

Erna and Theo finally got their own place, which was a two-room apartment, and later saved enough to buy a two-story house.  During the depression, however, they found they couldn’t pay the mortgage, so they lost the house, which, Erna says, broke Theo’s heart.  Erna says they had “a nice life together,” but that Theo “never really go over” losing the house.  In fact, she believes that it contributed to his early death at age fifty in 1950.  Apparently, he went to sleep one night and never woke up.  They had been together for twenty-seven years and had three children: Sarah, Ruth, and Paul.  Theo lived to see both daughters married, but died during Paul’s engagement.

Erna continued working, even after Theo’s death, supporting herself and helping with her grandchildren.  She was an extremely hard worker, never taking time for herself or any hobbies, except for dancing.  She loved music and continued to go to dance halls until she was seventy-five years old, at which point, she says, her legs “finally gave out.”  She never traveled, except for her one-time trip from Austria/Czechoslovakia to Chicago.  After that, she says, she “never once stepped foot out of Chicago.”

In her later years, unfortunately, more sadness occurred for Erna.  Her daughter, Sarah, became ill, and Erna spent the last fifteen years of Sarah’s life going to hospitals to visit her whenever she had to be admitted and helping her with her children, Vincent and Fanny.  Not only was this difficult to deal with over the years, but then Vincent committed suicide, leaving behind two children of his own and a wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time.  Erna explains that Vincent died in a car “accident”—that he was in a closed garage and died of “fumes.”  She does not equate his death with suicide.  Whether she cannot face the truth or was never really told the truth, is unclear.  Not long after Vincent’s suicide, Sarah died, too.  And shortly after that, Erna’s son-in-law, Ralph, (her daughter, Ruth’s husband) died as well.

Despite all of this loss and tragedy, Erna does not seem bitter or depressed.  She often says, “What can we do?”  With Sarah deceased and her son, Paul, living in Florida, Erna became more and more dependent on her youngest daughter, Ruth.  Since her husband, Ralph’s, death, however, Ruth has been having her own increased health problems, as well as depression, and has found it harder and harder to care for her mother.  Eventually, she broached the subject with Erna of going to a nursing home, which Erna was surprisingly accepting of.  Erna herself chose the Bohemian Home for the Aged, because she was familiar with it, as she had often attended the Home’s annual Memorial Day picnic, which the community at large was invited to participate in.

Erna has thus made a very smooth transition.  “I’m happy with this place.  It’s clean,” she says and is very proud of the fact that she has learned her way around the facility so quickly.  “I’m not dumb,” she says.  “I’m just old.  I don’t have anybody, only my daughter, and I wanted to be with people, so I came here.  I’ve had a hard life, but you have to take care of yourself.  You can’t depend on anyone else to make you happy.”

(Originally written: May 1996)

If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago:

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