Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Erfrieren zu verhindern"

It is cold in Wisconsin! Yesterday morning, when I stepped out the door the thermometer read -9 F (-23 C), - and that didn’t even account for the wind chill. Today at least it was a balmy 3F (-16 C). How timely then to run across this little bit of helpful insight from an 1877 Milwaukee advice book for German-Americans: Der Praktische Rathgeber – Ein Schatzkästchen für Jedermann

Erfrieren bei großer Kälte zu verhindern. – Es ist schon häufig vorgekommen, daß reisende Personen, besonders Fußgänger, bei strenger Kälte und in tiefem Schnee, halb müde geworden, sich niedergesetzt, Branntwein getrunken, eingeschlafen und erfroren sind. Dies zu verhüten braucht man nur auf dergleichen Reisen ein Stückchen Kampher bei sich zu führen und wenn man sich ermattet fühlt davon zu essen. Derselbe erzeugt eine solche Wärme im Körper, daß die Kräfte wiederkehren und das Leben dadurch erhalten wird.

"Luxies" and Germans

This anecdote comes to us from Kevin Wester, Director of Development, Luxembourg American Cultural Society, Inc. in Port Washington, Wisconsin (an area that's lousy with Luxies!).

It’s no secret that there is a certain ethnic rivalry between Luxembourgers and Germans. So often, we “Luxies” have been generically classified as Germans. And thus we continue to fight the good fight that we are uniquely ourselves and we are proud to hail from the little Grand Duchy. Though Luxembourg is so very small, we will not be pushed around by the “big guy.”

This pride in our heritage is evidenced in a humorous story appearing in
Reminiscences and Anecdotes of Early Taylor County [Wisconsin], by Arthur J. Latton, 1920:

……The story is told of two former Medford [Wisconsin] men of different nationalities who found it easy to indulge in real arguments, in defending the merits of their respective fatherlands. One day the lame German, [Mr.] Lutz, was in the tavern of a Luxemburger, and as usual the argument became heated, and with each drink, a little more so. Finally, the German said he had tried to locate Luxemburg on a map of Europe, but found that a fly must have “lighted” on the map, and had obliterated Luxemburg entirely. This so angered the Luxemburg tavern man that he attempted to obliterate Lutz, and chased the limping man almost to his home on Whalen Avenue, before giving up the chase…….

Friday, January 25, 2008

When Wine and Beer Fight

It's fairly well-known that Wisconsin has a history of being the soil into which many German-speaking immigrants put roots, so it doesn’t seem surprising to find a European-style Rathskeller and Stiftskeller in the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Complete with soaring arches, vaulted ceilings, dark wood, evocative murals with German slogans, displays of beer steins, and—of course—a bar serving beer, these spaces for the congregation of students are also used and appreciated by townsfolk and visitors alike.

However, the official history claims the German themes were accidental, or perhaps providential. In 1927 Leon Pescheret, the Union’s French-born interior designer, was inspired by the bare space to remark on its similarity to a Rathskeller, or the cellar of a German village hall, where city fathers gathered for relaxation and refreshment after work. Since the space was intended to allow for the fellowship and refreshment of students, Pescheret was given permission to transform it along the lines of a Rathskeller. The murals, with German mottoes, were created by Eugene Hausler, who had trained in Germany and was very familiar with Rathskeller décor.

The adjoining Stiftskeller, or “cellar of the founders,” was created in 1962 when more space was needed for the overly-crowded Rathskeller. While the German theme was continued, a lack of funds delayed the addition of murals until 1978 when Kurt Schaldach, a German painter living in Milwaukee, was commissioned for the job. Schaldach was born in 1913 in Danzig, and studied art there before coming to the United States in 1952. One of the most striking murals in the Stiftskeller is Schaldach’s version of the “Battle between Beer and Wine.” Based upon the mural in the Munich Rathskeller, it depicts an army of beer steins streaming out of a town to assault a contingent of gnomes employing wine and champagne bottles with cork cannonballs to defend their Rhine Valley castle.An interesting note: If one travels about 45 miles southwest from the Memorial Union to visit Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe, one can view yet another version of this fantastical battle!

We wonder how many other of these alcohol-infused battle scenes have been inspired from the one in Munich? Let us know if you’ve seen one, and send a photo if you can!

German Essay Contest has German-American Topic

And talking about 400 years of German-Americans… Here is a fun project for students and teachers to explore German-American history and maybe even win a prize: every year the German Information Center USA at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. holds an essay contest for American students in grades 3 to 12 to familiarize them with traditional and modern German culture, language and society. This year’s contest topics are 1) “2008 – the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Germans in America” and 2) “Germany – Land of Ideas.” Essays must be written in English and submitted electronically by April 15, 2008. Prizes are $50-$100 book store gift certificates for students AND the teachers who advise them! For contest rules and guidelines see

325 or 400 Years?

In 1983, the Max Kade Institute was founded on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the first German settlement in America. Now 325 years ago, thirteen Mennonite families from Krefeld had settled a few miles north of the newly founded town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their settlement was soon to be known as “Germantown.” While those Krefeld immigrants were the first German-speakers to successfully establish themselves for generations in America, they were not the first Germans to arrive on the continent. In fact, Germans were among the earliest European arrivals in Jamestown, Virginia. In October 1608, 12 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, a group of five unnamed German glassmakers, three carpenters called Adam, Franz and Samuel and a Swiss-German mineral expert, one William Volday (or Wilhelm Waldi), arrived in Jamestown on the English ship “Mary and Margaret.” In 1620 a group of four saw mill wrights from Hamburg as well as two German miners recruited by the Virginia Company of London followed.
The German craftsmen were to help accomplish the Virginia Company’s mission of manufacturing tradable goods in the new world, and establish a livable space that could accommodate England’s overpopulation. However, like most of the earliest English Jamestown settlers the German colonists perished before they could accomplish their goal or leave any significant personal mark on America. Today only archeological finds give evidence to those early attempts at manufacturing. The remnants of a “glasshouse” with three ovens made of river boulders cemented together with clay was excavated in 1948. It is believed to be the earliest European manufacturing site on American soil. There is a record of “a trial of glass” being brought back to England in December 1608, but the glass trade imagined by the Virginia Company never took off. Today the remnants of the “glasshouse,” the worksite of the first German-Americans, can be visited in Historic Jamestown:

Frohes neues Jahr

2008 is already a few days old, but here on our University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the new semester has just begun, and at the Max Kade Institute we still feel like saying “Frohes Neues Jahr!” to everyone. A happy new year it should be. At the MKI we will celebrate our 25th anniversary. It will be an occasion not only to reflect on our Institute, but on German-American history and those many influences derived from German-speaking Europe that are visible in American culture today, - one example: American festive culture. We find “Oktoberfests” all across the country, we think that Santa Claus and the Christmas tree originated in Germany, but how do we celebrate the beginning of a new year?
For me, growing up in Germany, Silvester (New Year’s Eve) was a time of fun and partying with friends and family and of course good food and drink. We ate Berliner (those jelly-filled doughnuts, JFK did NOT talk about) and - living in the North – Heringsalat (herring and red beet salad). And, of course, we had a Feuerzangen­bowle, that spectacle of a mulled wine drink with a burning sugar cone on top ( At midnight, champagne corks flew and Fourth-of-July style fireworks broke out in the neighborhoods, colorfully illuminating the skies over every city and little town at the exact same moment across the country. Now living in Wisconsin, there are no fireworks at midnight in our suburb, but we always have a Feuerzangenbowle, - which turns out to be popular among many of our American friends, too. I buy Berliner, and sometimes I even make Heringsalat, - which I mostly have all to myself.
But there is a place in America, where the whole town celebrated New Year 2008 with German traditions AND on German time (!): Harmony, Pennsylvania, founded by Lutheran pacifists from a village near Stuttgart over 200 years ago. There were German foods (the Southern kind – no Heringsalat) and German music. There were traditions of old such as Bleigießen (dissolve a soft metal – lead in the olden days - in a spoon over a candle, pour it into cold water and see clues for your future in the resulting object), and there were traditions of new (the British skit “Dinner for Two” which plays on German TV every New Year’s Eve). And at “midnight” there were fireworks!

More about “Silvester in Harmony” on the following Websites.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Help save our past!

Are you interested in that “other” perspective on America’s development that can be found in documentation handed down to us by our country’s earlier immigrants? This is commendable! Are you one of those whose New Year’s resolution is to clean out your basement or your office, to get rid of what you are not using? This is commendable, too! Did you answer “yes” to both questions? You may be contradicting yourself.

We attempt to preserve important records that illuminate the past. But what is important—and how can we tell the seed (or the wheat) from the chaff? How can we “make new friends, but keep the old,” when there is limited room in our lives and on our shelves? How can we identify these things, when so many records were even written in a variety of foreign languages?

Recent years have seen the publication of two incomplete German-American texts: Essellen’s Babylon and Lotta L. Leser’s short story “Wie Peter Meffert ‘nein’ sagen lernte.” Three of thirty-three installments of the former (which German scholars had long feared totally lost) could not be found, and half of the latter has also vanished (although the story won first prize in 1908 in a literary competition).

Documents of the government, churches, and social organizations of many communities—especially those not written in English—have found their way to the landfill. Even personal records such as letters and diaries, which tell stories inaccessible in other forms, have been relegated to the dump by descendants who can do nothing with them. We shudder to think....

How can we go about doing a better job of rescuing the past? We face a dilemma: before long it will be too late.