Saturday, September 18, 1999

Our German soul: Rich heritage remains

Cincinnatians raise voices, steins in praise this weekend

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Music Hall, left; Old St. Mary's Church, center; and old St. Paul's Church, right, rise over Over-the-Rhine.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Not just any city can host the world's second-largest authentic Oktoberfest. Sure, it helps to be able to produce tens of thousands of cream puffs, potato pancakes and soft pretzels. But the city must have something more: a German soul.

        History tells us that Cincinnati qualifies.

        So here's a question: After the songs are sung at this weekend's Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati, after the beer is imbibed, the strudel consumed and the dancers disappear, what vestiges of Cincinnati's German heritage will remain? Is it something you can see, or hear?

        The search begins where the German immigrants first settled, in Over-the-Rhine.

        A police car cruises slowly along a paved walkway in Washington Park. Just across Elm Street, majestic Music Hall basks in sunshine.

        The park, where homeless people and alcoholics often linger, may seem an odd place for a monument to a German revolutionary named Friedrich Hecker. But in 19th century Cincinnati this area was teeming with all things German.

Pam VanArsdale performs on Fountain Square at Friday's festival kickoff.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        Don Heinrich Tolzmann, a fourth-generation German-Ameri can and an expert on the Tristate's German heritage, stops to admire the monument. He directs the University of Cincinnati's German-American Studies program and is president of the German-American Citizens League, the umbrella organization for 20 local German-American societies.

        The oldest of those groups, Cincinnati Central Turners, was founded by Friedrich Hecker in 1848. Earlier that year, he led an army of 8,000 in an attempt to unite the German states under a republican form of government. Failing that, Mr. Hecker and his comrades fled to Cincinnati.

        Many of them settled in the “elbow,” or bend, of what was once the Miami and Erie Canal (now Central Parkway). The canal was nicknamed the Rhine. And because one crossed over it to reach the German district, the area became known as Over-the-Rhine.

        Reminders of the city's heritage occasionally reappear in the neighborhood.

        Last year as workers demolished an old structure near the intersection of McMicken, Vine and Findlay streets, an adjacent building's wall came into view. On it was a hand-painted sign in old German lettering.

The Germania Building's statue of a woman with a globe and books at her feet expresses the German-American love for learning and the arts.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Apotheke, it said. German for drugstore.

        Workers painted the wall red, but at Dr. Tolzmann's urging, they spared the German word.

        “It's important we don't destroy the evidence and material culture that's here,” he says. “It's an integral part of the community identity. If you erase that, you succumb to historical amnesia.”

        Much already has been erased, or is disappearing.

        At the corner of Walnut and East 13th streets, a boarded-up building stands vacant. Old paint has peeled off the facade, revealing faded words: Deutsche gegenseitige Versicherungs-Gesellschaft von Cincinnati.

        This was the German Mutual Insurance Co. of Cincinnati.

        A block away, a statue of a woman is perched in a niche of a grand old structure with an ornamental stone facade — the Germania Building.

        “Of all the buildings in Over-the-Rhine, this one really expresses the German-American spirit, the love for culture and learning and the arts,” Dr. Tolzmann says.

  Don Heinrich Tolzmann has compiled a 31-stop online tour of Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Visit it at Under “People and Places,” click on German-American tour of Cincinnati.
        The statue of Germania personifies that spirit. She stands tall, with a globe, books and palette at her feet.

        During World War I, the statue was covered with a black cape, and the building was renamed Columbia. Today, the woman presides over a dreary stretch of Walnut Street.

        The Germans' most impressive craftsmanship can still be seen in several old churches. Old St. Mary's, in particular, occupies a “special place in the hearts of many German-Americans in Cincinnati, because it's the oldest German church still functioning,” Dr. Tolzmann says.

        Bells ring, announcing 11 a.m. Sunday Mass. A man and woman enter Old St. Mary's at 13th and Clay streets, greeted by soft organ music. Sunlight brightens huge Bavarian stained glass windows.

        “Look at this church. It's beautiful,” the woman whispers. For a moment she ad mires a statue that depicts Jesus after his removal from the cross. Then the couple join about 60 others in wooden pews.

        A priest says: Im Namen des Vaters und des Sohnen und des Heiligen Geistes. “Amen,” say the worshipers.

        Ten thousand people came to see the cornerstone laid on March 25, 1841. The building's construction was a labor of love. Parishioners baked bricks in their ovens and brought them to church every Sunday.

        Hand-carved wooden statues, paintings and a high altar with ornate arches bestow an Old World look on the sanctuary.

        Only the sermon is in English.

        Gehet hin in Frieden. (Go in peace.)

        Dank sei Gott, dem Hernn.(Thanks be to God, the Lord.)

        After Mass, worshipers chat outside. Sixteen of them retire to a cozy basement for some of Joann Ruehlman's sandwiches (wurst, Swiss cheese and paprika on schwarzbrot) and Fruehshoppen, or “early beer.

        The men open bottles of Warsteiner; the women choose soft drinks. Soon the men's deep voices break into song, Ein Prosit der Gemuetlichkeit.

        For Ben Albers of Dent, who came to America from Germany 41 years ago, the gathering is a tradition. And the church is a part of him.

        “Old St. Mary's reminds us of the old country. It's a touch of home,” Mr. Albers says. Generations of German-Americans worked hard to make Old St. Mary's what it is. “We appreciate that and try to keep it up.”

        Over-the-Rhine overflowed with German-Americans. After the Civil War, new arrivals moved up the hill to the north, and to the city's west side, and across the river into Kentucky.

        German influence can be seen in some of the city's most important icons, Dr. Tolzmann says.

        The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge is named for the German-born architect who designed it. When it opened in 1866, it symbolized what new immigrants could accomplish in America.

        Fountain Square's Tyler Davidson Fountain was cast in Munich by Ferdinand von Miller.

        Findlay Market is where hundreds of German farmers sold goods.

        Music Hall hosted many German song festivals.

        Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum is where German-born Adolph Strauch introduced a new concept in cemetery landscaping that was adopted by cemeteries worldwide.

        Other German influences are more subtle, Dr. Tolzmann says. The ample green space in Cincinnati's many parks, for instance, reflects the German love of woodlands.

        In the late 19th century, the Germans toiled in more than 30 breweries, large and small. Their children attended bilingual public schools. By early this century, more than 40 such schools were scattered across the city, and some 15,000 students were enrolled in German classes.

        But two world wars, sandwiched around Prohibition (1920-33), profoundly changed Cincinnati's German community.

        Prohibition doomed the breweries and undercut the economic stability of the German neighborhoods. Today the old Hudepohl Brewing Co.'s bottling plant on East McMicken houses FreeStore/FoodBank offices. Not far away, on Elm Street, a “for sale” sign hangs on former offices of the Christian Moerlein Brewery.

        When the United States entered World War I in 1917, anti-German sentiment surfaced quickly. Within a year, German-language books had been removed from libraries. About a third of the city's 15 German publications folded. German street names were Anglicized. The public schools' bilingual programs were axed, and German teachers were dismissed. Among the affected schools was Fairview, in Clifton Heights. German was not spoken there again until 1974, when it was transformed into Fairview German Language School.

        Today, it's impossible to miss the big Willkommen (Welcome) sign on the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade magnet school's Warner Street side.

        Inside, the sign on Jim Garvey's door says Direktorat. The principal proudly points out Fairview's “achievement school” status, which ranks it among the best Cincinnati Public Schools.

        Most parents who send their children to Fairview do because of the school's quality reputation, rather than a desire that they learn German, he says.

        And yet, “German really makes sense in our community, because a great percentage of our population has German roots,” says Julie Benthaus Banner, a third-grade teacher. About 45 percent of Greater Cincinnati's 1.8 million residents can claim German descent.

        Mick Noll's great-great-grandparents emigrated from Germany and settled in Northern Kentucky, on Buttermilk Pike. They raised and sold crops at a farmer's market on Sixth Street in Covington.

        Today, Mr. Noll also sells goods on Sixth Street. He is a partner in the Strudel Haus in MainStrasse Village.

        While much of Over-the-Rhine was allowed to decay, Covington began capitalizing on its German-American heritage in the 1970s when the historic village began taking shape. Today more than 40 shops and restaurants are housed in renovated 19thcentury buildings in a five-block area.

        At MainStrasse's Linden Noll Gift Haus, owner Delores Lind Carpenter sells nutcrackers, beer steins, toys, glass ornaments and other items she obtains on trips to Germany, where both her parents were born.

        She remembers growing up in Corryville during World War II, hearing the taunts directed at her German-American family. She also remembers when there was no place to buy German-made items in Cincinnati. So she opened her gift shop in 1983.

        She retrieves an item that some people simply can't do without during Oktoberfest. “They are real leather, the real thing,” she says, holding a pair of lederhosen.

        Old buildings deteriorate, cultural landmarks are lost. What's left are people.

        The German-American community flourishes in Cincinnati. The German-American Citizens League comprises 20 groups, and membership is about 25,000.

        Among the largest groups are the Catholic Kolping Society, the Donauschwaben Society and the Germania Society, all of which promote and preserve German culture.

        Still, even in Zinzinnati, a family's German heritage can disappear. It might have happened in Mike Pelzel's family, but the 51-year-old school teacher from White Oak refused to let go.

        Although his great-grandfather emigrated here in 1882, Mr. Pelzel heard nothing about his German roots when he was growing up. No family members ever spoke German.

        “World War I put an end to it,” he says.

        He learned, through his father, what his grandfather had said during the war: “We are going to speak English now.”

        But a walk through Spring Grove Cemetery piqued Mr. Pelzel's interest in his ancestry. He started thinking about his great-grandfather and wondering what happened to his children. He began researching and soon found himself on a genealogical adventure.

        He traced his German ancestors to the central Czech Republic. He estimates he spent 40 hours a week for seven years writing his family history — five volumes worth, two of them in German.

        “It's been the highlight of our lives, my wife and I,” he says.

        Indeed, Mike and Nancy hosted a family reunion for Pelzels in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1995; another was held in Cincinnati two years ago.

        His goal now is to bring German heritage alive for others. Mr. Pelzel will be curator when the German-American Citizens League's German Heritage Museum opens next spring in Green Township's West Fork Park.

        “My whole goal is not only to preserve history, but to enhance it. My goal is to bring it back on a personal level.”

        A worthy goal in a city with a German soul.

Tracking Cincinnati's German heritage
How to get to Oktoberfest

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