The 28th of May 1879 marked the birth of one of the most fascinating, complex, and enigmatic personalities of his time. Felix A. Sommerfeld’s mother, Pauline Sommerfeld, nee Rosenbaum, was delighted to have delivered the fourth healthy son to her husband Isidor. His brothers Hermann, eight years older, Julius, almost exactly six years his senior, and Siegfried, a vibrant four-year-old, all curiously waited to see the baby for the first time. The family lived in Borkendorf, a little village six miles or “half-an-hour away” from Schneidemühl. The Sommerfeld family operated the Borkendorfer Mühle, a grain mill and distribution center.
Not much is known about the early years of Sommerfeld’s life in Borkendorf. Throughout the school year one can imagine little Felix driving by coach or riding with his father from Borkendorf to Schneidemühl in the mornings, having lunch at the father’s office or in one of his relative’s homes, finishing his homework in the afternoon, and joining his father for the journey home at night. In 1889, after grade school, Sommerfeld entered the “Oberrealschule” on the Berlinerstrasse, only a few blocks from his parents’ store. The middle – or “real” school taught knowledge usable in „real life,” such as science, finance, and one or two living languages such as English and French.
Foreign lands and culture especially fascinated Sommerfeld. The popular magazines were full of fascinating articles about the American frontier. Both the gold rush of 1849 and the Apache wars of the 1880s inspired most youths in the tightly regulated Prussian state. Schneidemühl saw a comparatively large percentage of émigrés with descendants living all over Latin America, United States, and Canada.One can picture the young man lying on his bed and day dreaming about the seemingly endless space of the “Wild West,” the lack of rules and freedom to do whatever one chose.
By the time Sommerfeld graduated from high school both his two older brothers, Julius and Hermann, had already decided to seek their fortune in the United States. The Spartan discipline of pre-1900 Prussia left an unmistakable imprint on the development of Sommerfeld’s personality. Obedience to authority, precision, punctuality, and toughness all became traits that characterized the grown man. His well-honed manners allowed him to dine with presidents, prominent politicians, and social elites alike.
Sommerfeld went on to study mining engineering, then joined the German military and served in the Boxer campaign as a horse messenger. After military service he came to the United States in 1902, prospecting for gold in the American West and Northern Mexico. Before he returned to Germany in 1905 or 1906, he worked as an insurance salesman in Chicago. In 1908, he returned to Northern Mexico. By then he worked for the German Ettappendienst der Marine, the precursor to the German Naval Intelligence Service. It is unknown but highly likely that Sommerfeld went to the Naval Intelligence School in Berlin between 1906 and 1908. Within two years of returning to Mexico, Sommerfeld became the personal assistant to the revolutionary leader Francisco I. Madero. When Madero defeated President Diaz in 1911, Sommerfeld joined him as head of the Mexican Secret Service in Mexico City. Sommerfeld was so close to the presidential family that his apartment was in Chapultepec Castle. No foreigner ever played such an important role in revolutionary Mexico.
Sommerfeld went on working for Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa, and Adolfo de la Huerta. In the later 1920s he had an office in the Hotel Bristol in Berlin and asked his mail to be forwarded to Francisco Madero's widow Sara in Mexico City. Nothing is known about the business he was involved in then other than Frederico Stallforth and the Madero family had something to do with it. When the Nazis took over Germany, he came back to either Mexico or the United States. In 1942, weeks after his brother Siegfried either committed suicide in the Gestapo offices of Schneidemuehl or was murdered by the Nazi thugs, Sommerfeld volunteered for service in the US army. He was 63 years old. The Nazi government had killed his sisters, his bother, uncountable cousins, uncles and aunts. The city of Schneidemuehl (today Pila) was cleansed of its entire Jewish history, the synagogue destroyed, the cemetery leveled, and records of its Jewish families burned.
The army registration is the last known document of a man whose career spanned three decades, who was a spymaster, secret service agent, arms dealer, prospector, and mining engineer. Having served Germany for decades, and being a fervent nationalist, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the destruction of his family and heritage must have been hard to comprehend. He never married. The place of his last resting place, the time of his death, and the name that is on his gravestone is unknown. He remains an enigma, a fascinating one, at least to me. Happy birthday.