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My Big Jewish Circus Ancestry

A Yorkshire Lass who wanted to know about her ancestors and found more than she could have ever imagined!

All genealogy projects are fascinating but as a genealogist there are some that will stay with me forever. This is one of them.

Meeting Helen

I first spoke to Helen in October 2020 when she got in touch and asked if I’d research her maternal ancestry. After a bit of a chinwag, we decided I’d research back to all 16 of her mum’s great-great grandparents and put together one of my family history books – full of original records, newspaper articles and whatever else I could get my hands on that’d tell her all about her ancestors, their lives and juicy details of what they got up to!

Helen told me her grandma Ida was born in Bradford but spent time in an orphanage, presumably because her mum had died.

The first intriguing thing I found was that while Ida was in the orphanage,

both her parents were very much alive…

Ida and the Orphanage

By the time she was 6 years old (in 1911), Ida and her sister Hilda were at the ‘Home for Waifs and Strays’ in Nidd, North Yorkshire (near Ripon).

They were the youngest of 11 siblings, the rest of which were still back in Bradford with their dad George at Otley Road.

The Orphanage. 'Home for Waifs and Strays', Nidd, North Yorkshire
The Orphanage, home for 6-year-old Ida in 1911
George Thomas Stallard (1872-1944)
George Stallard (Ida's dad) with family (kind courtesy of Jane Beck)
(Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA) Series RG14, 1911)
1911 Census: George & Mary ('the other woman') at Otley Road
Ida’s parents & German roots

George Thomas Stallard was a boot maker originally from London, at 24 years old he was living at Otley Road. In 1896 he got married at St Augustine’s Church in Undercliffe to a 20-year-old girl from Hillside Road – her name was Alma Ernestine Paulina Bloomfield.

George & Alma's marriage record

Alma was born in Berlin to German parents

who had come to live in southern England when she was a young girl.

It turned out they were part of a very famous Circus family.

George and Alma had 11 children together but by the time Ida was in the orphanage Alma was gone.

It turned out Alma had not died. Quite the opposite – she was down south in Essex and lived to a ripe old age.

Why had Alma left a husband and 11 children behind?

“She had her reasons”

I made contact with Jane, a lady who’d been researching this family a few years ago. She’d spoken to an elderly lady who was Alma’s niece who had apparently said:

“It was very sad that Alma had to leave the family, but she had her reasons.”

Sadly she didn't go into more detail and has now passed. She’d described Alma as a mild-mannered lady unlike her sister who “sang very risqué songs on stage at the Royal Albert Hall”.

Alma was a much-loved aunt who died after receiving poor care during her final illness in the 1950s, a great sadness to her niece.

We’ll never know whether Alma knew that when she died in 1957, back in Bradford she had a 2-year-old great-granddaughter – Helen’s mum (and probably many more descendants!)

Alma in the white dress, presumably with family (kind courtesy of Jane Beck)
An intriguing & untimely death

My next discovery was that Alma’s father had died in 1906.

His name was Wolf Wilhelm Blumenfeld (known as ‘William) and he was a professional juggler that had died in Switzerland, even though he lived in England – very intriguing!

Did Alma move back down south to help care for her siblings with her mother?

The circumstances of Wolf’s death were my next discovery,

and I could hardly believe was I was reading!

Wolf Blumenfeld & a deadly stage performance

In 1906 Wolf and his son William were touring Europe as they had done many times before, performing on-stage.

On the night of 24th January they were performing at the Hotel Storchen in Basle, Switzerland.

Things went badly wrong and the events that took place

were reported in newspapers around the world.

Storchen Hotel, where Wolf Blumenfeld was killed
The Beer Hall, the room where Wolf was killed in 1906
A horrified audience

The trick that proved fateful for Wolf was one he’d performed many times – and involved ‘catching’ a bullet between his teeth.

Magician George Grimmond performing 'catch the bullet' in 1958

An audience member would be invited onto the stage by Wolf and witness a pistol gun being loaded with a bullet.

Wolf would then ask the audience member to aim the gun at his head and pull the trigger. He’d then reveal a bullet between his teeth, delighting his captive audience.

On this occasion the gun was fired and Wolf fell to floor with a shriek.

The audience applauded and laughed,

until a pool of blood started to appear around Wolf’s head.

An attendant rushed forward and confirmed Wolf was dead. A bullet had gone through his forehead and into his brain.

Wolf Wilhelm Blumenfeld death Basle Switzerland 1906
Wolf's death was reported in newspapers around the world
Widowed again

Alma’s mother now found herself a widow with 9 children between 8 and 28 years of age.

Her name was Gottliebin (nee Nagele), born in Germany in the 1850s and when she was a teenager she’d married an American man who died shortly afterwards.

It was then she joined the Circus and met Wolf, who was part of the Blumenfeld Circus.

Jewish German Roots, A Circus is born!

Wolf Blumenfeld was from a long line of ancestors that date back to a family of Jewish travelling actors in Rhineland, Germany in the 1600s.

Rhineland, Germany. Home of the Jewish Blumenfeld family of travelling actors in the 1600s

Maurice Levi Cerf (1783-1867) married one of the Blumenfeld daughters. He was from a French-Alsatian family that owned a menagerie of birds and apes. Granted permission by the city to take his wife’s last name, he went by ‘Moritz Hirsch Blumenfeld’.

In 1811 the family went on tour as the official ‘Blumenfeld Circus’

with four horses, two bears and a mix of performers.

Moritz and his wife are Helen’s great great great great (4x great) grandparents.

They quickly became the foremost of all the Jewish circuses and like many, developed their own dialect. They spoke Blumenfeldsprache which was a mixture of French, Yiddish, Romance (Gypsy dialect) and technical Circus jargon.

Moritz and his wife had nine children, most of which started performing when they were young and went on to start their own branches of the Circus and/or work as performers.

One of those children was Emanuel Levy Blumenfeld, who Moritz gave control of the circus to in 1834. He was Wolf’s father.

Emanuel and a Circus at War

Emanuel modernized the circus and his second wife Jeanette Stein brought her own family’s circus into the marriage. (What isn’t clear is whether Jeanette was Wolf’s biological mother).

Emmanuel Levy Blumenfeld (1811-1885)
Emanuel, Circus owner and Helen's 3x great grandfather

The Blumenfeld Circus became one of the largest operations of its time with headquarters in Guhrau, Germany (now Gora, Poland).

In the years leading up to the turn of the century the Circus was travelling via rail and had six tents, 130 horses, its own string orchestra and a “Wonder Pig”, they were averaging around 4’000 visitors.

By the time World War One came around the Circus had passed to Emanuel’s son Adolf.

Many of the Circus members were called to fight in the German army

while their animals were also requisitioned for military use.

After the war, the Blumenfeld Circus established a headquarters in Megdeburg, Germany during which time they had 45 horses, two elephants, four camels, three llamas and two bulls.

Sadly the economic crisis saw the Blumenfeld Circus go bankrupt in 1928.

World War Two, Jewish Persecution and suicide

Like many European Jewish Circus families, the Blumenfeld family numbers were significantly reduced during World War Two.

The stories of Alfons, Alex and Arthur are typical of what happened to many Jewish German Circus artists.

Alfons, Arthur & Alex Blumenfeld
The talented Blumenfeld brothers

Alfons, Alex and Arthur were brothers, sons of Moritz’s youngest son, Simon. In 1919 they founded Wanderzirkus Gebrüder Blumenfeld jun. (Travelling Circus Brothers Blumenfeld jun.). Each of them played a leading part in the program, Alfons with a liberty horse act, Arthur with two trained bulls and Alex with a high school dressage on his famous horse “Puppchen” (‘Little Doll’) which danced to operatic melodies.

Like many German circuses in the 1920s, the brothers slid into financial difficulty. They were forced into bankruptcy and went their separate ways; Alex took work as a horse trainer and performer in Scandinavia, Alfons worked as a program director in Austria and Arthur performed his liberty horse act with another German circus.

Alex emigrated to Denmark in 1937 and when the Second World War broke out he had moved to France. He tried in vain to gain entry to Sweden or Great Britain but he was arrested as an ‘enemy alien’ by French police and sent to an internment camp in southern France. For some time he’d been able to correspond with his wife Eugenie who was part of an Italian circus family and had stayed in Belgium.

After several transfers to other camps, Alex ended up in Drancy

and from there was deported by the Germans to Auschwitz on 14th August 1942.

From there, his trace is lost.

Alfons emigrated to Paris in 1938 with his wife Olympia.

They were interned in separate camps at the beginning of World War Two.

Their stories ended in separate transports to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz, where many members of the Blumenfeld Circus family were murdered

Arthur and his wife Victoria settled in Berlin with their daughters Rita and Eva. Victoria came from a branch of the Blumenfeld family but had managed to register herself as an adopted child of unknown ‘aryan’ origin.

Thanks to this supposed mixed marriage, the family was safe from deportation but German authorities still subjected Arthur to the usual discriminations such as forced labour and wearing the Jewish badge.

Arthur lost nine siblings under the Nazi regime and his failed attempts to revive the Circus after the war ended with his suicide in 1951.

Going full circle

Strangely, the Blumenfeld Circus went full circle.

In the 1960s, Emanuel’s great-grandson Jack married Christine Busch and assumed the management of Circus Busch, one of the most successful Circuses in the world on account of it showcasing Harry Houdini in the early 1900s.

Taking secrets to the grave

It's unlikely we'll ever know why Alma left her husband and 11 children to move hundreds of miles away.

Was it the horrific circumstances of her father's death? Did her mother need support raising her siblings? Could it have been the result of an English-German marriage at a time of unrest?

There's no doubt that whatever her reasons were, the family she was descended from have been one of the most interesting ones I've ever researched.

More importantly, it's one more person connected to their ancestors and proof again that whoever you are and whatever your beliefs, you usually don't have to look far to find personal connections to historical events it's vital we never forget.


With kind thanks to Jane Beck and Alma's niece for 'filling in the gaps' and Daniel Teichman for his time and kind efforts in digging up information about Wolf's demise.

Also to Helen for giving me the opportunity to spend Christmas 2020 absorbed in a truly fascinating piece of work, and giving me permission to share the stories of her ancestors.

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