Saturday, August 21, 2021

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Henry & Elsie Baumann, From Escaping the Nazis to Finding Success in New England


Many Cape Cod restaurants have interesting or inspiring stories behind their creation. Few have stories more deeply entrenched in world history than the story behind Elsie’s and its owners Elsie and Henry Baumann. Long before creating a legacy in the restaurant industry Elsie and Henry were part of something much greater. They were two of the 282,000 Jewish citizens who fled Germany in the years leading up to the start of World War II in September 1939.

Henry Baumann was born December 12, 1903 and Elsie was born March 28, 1912 in Nuremberg, Germany. The couple was living in the Germany with their two young sons, Edward and Rudolph, with Henry making a relatively good living in the meat business. As Hitler and the Nazi Party gained power things changed dramatically. The Baumann Family was planning on leaving Germany behind, something they never wanted to do.

Nuremberg, Germany in 2015 (Ввласенко, Wikimedia)

    One night in late 1938 eight armed men awakened the family during the night. They tore up their home, terrorized the two young boys, and most alarming they took Henry off to a concentration camp. In a tremendous bit of luck due to the fact that Henry’s emigration papers had already been issued the Gestapo allowed him to leave for America. It was only Henry though. Elsie along with Edward and Rudolph were left behind in Nazi Germany.

    Henry arrived in America and waited in New York for word of his family’s arrival. For six months the Gestapo routinely interrogated Elsie, asking her why she wanted to leave Germany so badly. It took until July 1939 for Elsie to be able to leave to join her husband in America. They had escaped what would end up being one of the most horrifying events in history, the Holocaust.

    With the Nazi’s now behind them things started slowly in America for the Baumann’s. Upon arrival they both spoke no English and had a mere four dollars to their names. The Baumann’s found their way to Lowell, Massachusetts. Henry found work in a meat factory while Elsie worked for the Red Cross.

Harvard Square, 1936 (Richard Merrill)

    They learned English and became American citizens in 1944. Henry and Elsie worked hard to save money for several years in Cambridge before taking their first major step forward. In the late-1940’s the couple would purchase a small shop in the Boston suburb and name it Hunter’s Lunch. Their first step forward would last only four years as the property would be taken by eminent domain to make way for the new Southeast Expressway.

    In 1955 Elsie and Henry got another chance and it would pay off in a big way. They bought the restaurant on the corner of Mount Auburn and Holyoke Street in the Harvard Square section of Cambridge. There they opened a sandwich shop they named Elsie’s Lunch. It specialized in German food but became well known for a pair of sandwiches. The ‘Fresser’s Dream’ sandwich would contain a heaping portion of meats including ham, turkey, and corned beef. It would only be topped by Elsie’s ‘Roast Beef Special.’ The thinly-sliced meat was topped with onions, German mustard, Russian dressing, and relish. The best part of all was these scrumptious sandwiches were only 50 cents.

    Elsie’s attracted people from all around. It included students and staff from nearby colleges and John and Robert Kennedy. The sandwich shop would open every day at 6am with Elsie as the face of the establishment and Henry as the soul of it. Elsie’s kind heart and generous listening skills got her the nickname of the ‘adopted mother of Harvard.’ The couple did their best to make the establishment feel like a home kitchen as much as possible. Henry and Elsie were happy and proud to have made it in America. Their love of where they were and what they did shone through. It made Elsie’s a place to be in and around Boston.

    After a decade of running the shop the daily grind began to take its toll on Elsie. She was there often until 2am making sure everything was clean. This attention to detail caught up with her in January 1965 when she had a heart attack. It made it impossible for Elsie to continue a full-time schedule. She and Henry made the difficult decision to sell their immensely popular establishment shortly thereafter. It was particularly difficult as the little sandwich shop was selling between 1200-1500 roast beef sandwiches every day. The Baumann’s found the perfect new owners in Philip and Claudette Markell. They agreed to not change Elsie’s even in the slightest which eased the Baumann’s pain of leaving their business behind.

The former location of Elsie's in Harvard Square. (Google Maps)

    The Baumann’s would retire and travel after selling their Cambridge establishment. They returned to Germany nearly thirty years after leaving. After traveling the family came to Cape Cod and settled in Falmouth. However the down time would start to wear on them.

    Only a year after selling their Cambridge restaurant Elsie and Henry purchased James Rogers’ Greenhouse Sandwich Shop at 553 Palmer Avenue. It was there that they recreated Elsie’s Lunch for the Cape in 1966. It would have much the same menu as the Cambridge spot with the ‘Fresser’s Dream’ and ‘Roast Beef Special’ becoming popular to an entirely new set of clientele. The couple had expected their new venture to be a quiet lunch venture. In a fitting tribute to the quality of the food there would routinely be lines out the door of hungry patrons waiting to get their share of the delicious sandwiches.

Henry and Elsie Baumann inside their Falmouth location. (Falmouth Historical Society)

    Despite not being nearly as booming as its Cambridge counterpart, Elsie’s in Falmouth was a success and would be a staple of Falmouth’s restaurant scene for twenty years until Elsie and Henry decided it was time to retire in 1986. Crabapples Restaurant has taken up residence at 553 Palmer Avenue ever since.

    The Cambridge original Elsie’s would last until 1994 as of 2021 Playa Bowls stands where this icon once did. Henry and Elsie remained married for 58 years before his death in 1991. Elsie died on February 3, 2002 at the age of 89. They came from Germany with no money and speaking no English and ended up with not one but two successful restaurants in Massachusetts. Henry and Elsie Baumann left behind not only a legacy in the restaurant business but more importantly a legacy of hard work, survival, and perseverance as they made their way thousands of miles from their homeland to escape the growing evil of the Nazis.


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