Friday, March 28, 2008

Deciphering the Past

Anyone researching their German-speaking ancestors has likely come across the “Old German Script” in church records, handwritten letters, or diaries. As if learning the German language wasn’t enough of a barrier, now there’s another code to break! The sharp, angled lines of the alte deutsche Schriften (“old German scripts”) can be confusing (the curvier Sütterlin version is only slightly easier to decipher), but once you get the hang of it, it can be an interesting puzzle. There are several good sites on the Internet with information on the history of these scripts (for example, see HERE and HERE) and some, such as THIS one, supply guides for decoding the letters.

The script was, of course, being taught in German-language schools in the United States. The Max Kade Institute has several primers in its collection, published in America during the 19th century, that include lessons for learning this handwriting method. We also have several collections of letters and a few diaries written in the old script.

Here’s an image of a cross-written letter from the archives of the Max Kade Institute—observe how the page was turned sideways and the writing continued, likely in an effort to save on postage as well as paper. Click on the image for a larger version and test your skills—see if you can make out “Mein liebes Mathildchen” as the greeting!
By 1941 (and by Hitler’s decree) the script was no longer being taught in German schools. Not many people who were taught the script in their youth are still around today—however, members of the Sütterlin-Schreibstube in the Förderverein Altenzentrum [Center for the Aged Support Association] in Ansgar (Hamburg, Germany) offer transliteration services from the old German script into Latin (Roman) script. More information on this service can be found here:
The service provides intellectual stimulation for the members and helps make the diaries, letters, and other documents of our ancestors accessible.

We here at the Max Kade Institute are constantly wondering: How much American history is hidden in documents written by German-speaking immigrants? More researchers with skills in transcribing these scripts are needed!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Osterfeuer" – A German Tradition in Texas

Easter is around the corner. In Germany--as in the United States--this means colorful eggs, Easter bunnies and spring decorations. But all across Germany people celebrate the end of winter with another ancient tradition with clear pre-Christian roots: the lighting of “Osterfeuer” (big community bonfires) on the Saturday before Easter. There is one community in the United States, Fredericksburg in Texas, that still maintains this old tradition brought by German immigrants. It is interesting, though, that the popular belief among the Texas Germans today is that this practice dates back to contacts between German settlers and their Indian neighbors. According to this story, the custom originated in the early years of German settlement in Fredericksburg, when Comanche Indian scouts lit signal fires in the night to communicate with their chiefs, who were negotiating a treaty with German leader John Meusebach. The scouts presumably were informing their chiefs about the movements of the town's inhabitants. The following is the translation of an excerpt from the Max Kade Institute’s recent German-dialect CD publication “German Words – American Voices.” It features a Texas-German speaker recorded in 1964 by linguist Glenn Gilbert.

The Easter Fires burn every year on the Saturday evening before Easter on the hills around Fredericksburg. If you look up from the middle of town on that evening, you can see eight to twelve fires on top of the hills. Most of the fires have been built by various boy scout troops, but some families have built their own fires for many years. The family fires are mostly built out of wood, but the boy scout fires are mostly built out of lubricating oil and all kinds of rubber tires. In the weeks before the fires are lighted, the scouts look for and fetch old tires and lubricating oil. Each troop wants to have the biggest fire and each one also wants its fire to flare up first. Nowadays the people on top of the hills get a signal when they should light their fires. The signal comes from the fair grounds where a pageant is given. The pageant tells the history of the Easter Fires. It shows how hard the times in 1845 and shortly thereafter were, when the first German settlers arrived in Fredericksburg. They not only had a hard time with the weather, but also with cultivating the land; the wild Indians, mostly Comanche and Apache, often stole livestock, killed people, and dragged children away. For that reason the people were very afraid of the Indians. But that is why John Meusebach, a captain, like John Smith, wanted to make a peace treaty with the Indians. So the men went with Meusebach to the San Saba River, where the Comanche Indians were, in order to speak with them. While the men were away, the women and children were alone at home. The Indians probably also knew that the men had gone away to speak with them, since they built fires everywhere on the hills around Fredericksburg. When it was dark, a few children saw the many fires and they were afraid of them. The mother did not know at first what to do, but then she remembered the Easter Story she had learned as a child (in the old country). She knew that the children would understand the story since they had seen wild rabbits everywhere in Texas. So she told the children that the Easter Bunny and his helpers had built the fires in order to boil and dye the eggs. The little rabbits all fetched wildflowers to make the dye. The children were satisfied with the story and stayed quiet. The mother was glad that the children had fallen asleep and that she could boil the eggs so that she herself would not have to think about the Indians. So it is that every Easter the Easter Fires burn, just as there is a community Christmas tree every Christmas.

Image: Osterfeuer in Benneckenstein (

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

National German-American Heritage Center in Washington, DC

Plans are under way for the first national German-American Heritage Center in the United States to be established in downtown Washington, DC. The Center will be located at Hockemeyer Hall, a spectacular 1888 Victorian townhouse. Originally built by John Hockemeyer, a successful German merchant, Hockemeyer Hall was later expanded to become a businessmen’s club in 1893. The German-American Heritage Foundation, the principal organization behind the project, has already renovated the exterior of the historic building and is looking forward to restoring its interior. Permanent exhibits at the Heritage Center will focus on immigration, migration, Jamestown and Germantown to name a few. They will be supplemented by rotating exhibits from around the country and special programs to present the history and communities of Americans of German-speaking ancestry that helped shape the United States.