06/27/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

June 28, 1914: What a Difference a Day Makes


The author's great-uncle, Stanley Wallenstein (1909-1914)

One day in history can change a family - or the world - forever.

My grandfather had a brother he never met. There were no memories of his brother to relay, no stories of two boys growing up together in 1920s New York City and no stickball in the streets. But every once in a while - during conversations about his (and my) family - my grandfather would talk about his long dead brother, Stanley.

It was only a few years ago, after beginning my own research on my (and his) family, that I discovered an interesting historical significance about Stanley. I knew that he died very young. I knew that he died before my grandfather was born. But that was all I knew.

On a visit to the family plot at an old cemetery in Queens, I read the details about Stanley's entire life carved into stone.

Stanley - age five - died on June 28, 1914, the very same day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated, along with his wife, exactly 100 years ago this weekend.

On June 28, 1914, while visiting Sarajevo, a territory of the Austrian empire, Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were shot to death while they rode in an open car. Their murders, at the hands of a Serbian national group, set off a chain of events which led to the beginning of World War I.

The Great War would last four years and claim 37 million lives.

Just as the murder of the Archduke bent history, the death of my great-grandparents' first child had tremendous implications for my family. My great-grandfather, Joseph, was almost 40 when Stanley was born in February of 1909. The son of German Jewish immigrants, Joseph - a former tobacco merchant turned leather merchant - owned a prosperous business near Union Square. In 1906, he married Martha Schallek, the daughter of Austrian immigrants. Just as Joseph's fellow New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt was about to yield the White House to William Howard Taft - the Wallensteins had a son, named Stanley.

Then, in the spring of 1914, Joseph and Martha went through the worst experience any parents can go through. Stanley died from "appendicitis and peritonitis" (an inflammation of the tissue that lines the inner wall of the abdomen). One can only assume that in 1914 the death of a five-year-old from appendicitis was a sudden and traumatic event in the lives of this family. But they persevered.

As Joseph and Martha grieved for their child, the war in Europe dragged on. In May of 1915, the American civilian ship Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing 128 Americans. (My great-grandfather, Joseph, had once traveled on the Lusitania for business.)

By April of 1917, the United States had declared war on Germany and the other axis powers. Around that same time, Martha Wallenstein was pregnant again. On August 1, 1917 she gave birth to another son - my future grandfather - named Herbert, in memory of her late father.

In 1928, when my grandfather was 10, his father Joseph died after a bout of pneumonia at the age of 58. But again, the family persevered.

Raised primarily by his mother, my grandfather attended the City University of New York, fought in WWII, went to law school, became an attorney and eventually an Assistant New York State Attorney General under the great Louis Lefkowitz. He also married, had two children and later, two grandchildren.

Presumably, just as the death of the Archduke dramatically altered the course of world history, my grandfather would most likely never have existed if Stanley hadn't died that Sunday a century ago. Joseph was 44 and Martha was 30 when Stanley died. Both were well past the normal age to have children, especially in the early 20th century. With Stanley, they were probably content having one child. Most likely, they decided to have another only because Stanley had died.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 changed the world more dramatically and more directly than any other assassination in modern history. Europe was already teetering on the brink of war and it took one bullet in Sarajevo to push it over the edge. The lingering effects of the First World War were directly responsible for the Second World War a quarter of a century later. The effects of that war are still felt to this very day in our policies and our way of life.

Similarly, the death of little Stanley Wallenstein on June 28, 1914 had a direct impact on my family. My great-grandparents chose to have another child after they experienced such a great loss. It's a good thing they did - at least for my father, my aunt, me, my sister, my niece and my two children.

One day can truly change the world - or a family - forever.