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 farms.
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. Finally, 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 from their town who were all making the journey together. Only her baby 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 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 Theo Lindner. 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 Sarah’s husband and children when she was at home. Not only was this difficult to deal with over the years, but then one of Sarah’s son’s, Vincent, committed suicide, leaving behind two children and his wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time. Erna says that Vincent died in a car accident of sorts, that he was in a closed garage and died of “fumes,” though she doesn’t equate his death with suicide. Whether she cannot face the truth or was never really told the truth, is unclear. Not long after that, Sarah died, too, as well as her daughter, Ruth’s, husband.
Despite all of this loss and tragedy, Erna does not seem bitter or depressed. She often says, “What can we do?” With Sarah gone and Paul living in Florida, it was Ruth that had been primarily looking after Erna, but now with her husband’s recent death, she can no longer cope with caring for Erna, too. Erna was apparently accepting of the decision to go to a nursing home and says, “I’m happy with this place. It’s clean.” She is also somewhat familiar with the facility as she was a frequent participant in the home’s annual Memorial Day picnic, in which the community at large was invited to attend. She is very proud of the fact that she has learned her way around the facility so quickly, though she says of the staff, “They think I’m dumb, but I’m not dumb. I’m just old.”
Erna seems to be adjusting well, though occasionally she seems reflective. “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.”
(Originally written: May 1996)