View Full Version : The Germans Came; Now They Are Us

October 25th, 2003, 12:46 AM
October 25, 2003

The Germans Came; Now They Are Us


John Kenny serving a customer at Karl Ehmer in Ridgewood, Queens, a German butcher with a changing clientele.

Not long ago, Ridgewood, Queens, was the city's quintessential German neighborhood, where residents would flock on weekends to the nearby Metropolitan Oval for soccer matches between teams with German names, follow up the game with sauerbraten, dumplings and beer, and end the day with polkas at a German social club.

But in this season of Oktoberfests, it is all the more obvious that Ridgewood is losing its Germans and the city is watching another of its signature enclaves turn into something more cosmopolitan. The descendants of German immigrants continue to dissolve into the American mainstream, marrying non-Germans, raising their children with only a smattering of ethnic awareness and forsaking the tribal streets of Ridgewood for the more scrambled suburbs.

Of course, many German-American residents still keep up the traditions, enrolling their children in German-language classes and joining folk-dance and singing clubs. But even some who do are realistic about how much longer a vigorous identity can be sustained.

"You need to change with the times and realize it was the American dream to fit in with the American population," said Richard Mezic, 35, a former president of Die Erste Gottscheer Tanzgruppe, (the First Gottscheer Dance Group), a Germanic folk group.

There is another factor in this melding of identity. Despite the passage of more than five decades, some German-American residents in Ridgewood say that the stigma of two world wars endures and that as a result, many are content to blend into an all-purpose Americanism. In New York City, with its large population of Jews, the issue is even more sensitive.

"To this very day, both wars have caused people of Germanic background to pull their horns back and really not talk about it all that much," said Paul Kerzner, counsel to the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association and a fourth-generation German-American.

In the last census, only 2,744 of Ridgewood's 47,417 residents said they were of German ancestry, with larger numbers claiming Italian and Polish heritage and significant numbers Romanian and Albanian.

In 1980, 10,608 residents said they were German, and old-timers estimate that in the 1950's and 60's the neighborhood was more than 70 percent German. In New York City as a whole, according to Susan Weber-Stoger, a research associate at the Queens College sociology department, only 255,536 claimed a German ancestor in 2000, compared with 453,898 in 1980.

Germans have lived in New York since colonial days. (Almost one in seven Americans claim some German ancestry, Ms. Weber-Stoger said.) Ridgewood has been a largely German neighborhood at least since the 1880's, when Germans took jobs in Brooklyn breweries.

The beer barons and others built their workers yellow brick row houses with three-window bay fronts and low stoops across the border in Queens, giving Ridgewood its characteristic look.

Although Yorkville in Manhattan largely disappeared as a German enclave two generations ago, until two decades ago there were usually a bustling Oktoberfest in Forest Park and several German Masses at neighborhood churches, as well as dozens of German shops along Myrtle Avenue.

But there was no community-wide festival of beer and food in Ridgewood this month and some cannot recall one in several years. Mr. Kerzner is helping to organize a modest Oktoberfest tonight at St. Matthias Roman Catholic Church, one of those rule-proving exceptions.

Last year, the Rev. John Stoudt, whose German ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, ended the German-language service at Emmaus Evangelical Lutheran Church after the number of worshipers fell below 10. That leaves only two churches with German services, and the Mass at St. Matthias is down to about 50 worshipers.

Worried about shrinking German patronage in the city for its bratwurst and knockwurst, the Karl Ehmer plant on Fresh Pond Road is gradually shifting its focus to other ethnic groups and is also looking for German business in places like Texas and California.

Gebhardt's restaurant closed in the last year, leaving three warhorses Niederstein's, Zum Stammtisch and Von Westernhagen standing in Ridgewood and nearby Glendale and Middle Village. The bienenstich, a custardy almond-topped confection, at Rudy's Bakery are still prized, but nearby residents say Rudy's may be the only genuinely German bakery left.

At the Alster Gift Shop, the neighborhood's last outpost of German wares, the shelves are as sparsely stocked as the customers are few. Metropolitan Oval, in Maspeth, where teams with names like Blau-Weiss Gotschee played dust-filled soccer behind a screen of row houses, is now owned by a foundation that serves a cross-section of ethnic groups.

New York adventurers may mourn the loss of another foreign land they could sample with a subway ride, but surprisingly, few of the German-Americans interviewed in Ridgewood seem to be wistful for the past.

Kathleen Hulser, public historian of the New-York Historical Society who is planning a museum show for next spring tentatively called "Forgotten German New York," said German-Americans have never clung as fiercely to their identity as, say, the Irish.

"There's been so many Germans here for so long that Germans feel very comfortable here, but the polar opposite is that after two wars and the Holocaust, the term German is so toxic that nobody wants to identify themselves as that," Ms. Hulser said.

Richard Alba, a distinguished professor of sociology at the State University at Albany, said that "many families drew the conclusion that the best thing to do was to encourage their children to assimilate."

Evelyn Agnoli, 33, a daughter of Bavarian immigrants who lives in next-door Glendale, studied German as a girl and continues to stay connected to her German heritage by dancing with a Bavarian troupe called Original Enzian.

"I want my daughter and my next kid to know where I came from and how I was raised," she said.

Still, she added that she has experienced the hazards of identifying too strongly as German in New York. "I used to wear a German eagle around my neck and a Jewish person came up to me and said, `How can you wear that.' "

Of course, there are such annual events as the German-American Steuben Parade up Fifth Avenue, which drew 10,000 marchers last month. William Hetzler, the parade's chairman, trots out George M. Steinbrenner, Donald J. Trump and other German-descended notables as parade marshals and has worked hard to maintain strong relations with prominent Jews.

One group that does not shrug off its identity is the close-knit community of Gottscheers (pronounced Gut-SHAY-uhrs), ethnic Germans from Slovenia who sustain hunting and fishing clubs and benefit societies in Gottscheer Hall in Ridgewood. They were among the people of Germanic background who were resettled by the Nazis within the Reich and at war's end wound up in refugee camps, eventually immigrating to the United States in the 1950's.

The neighborhood is dotted with small insurance companies and butcher shops that bear Gottscheer names. But the Gottscheer children are also intermarrying and the long-range fate of their community is uncertain.

"Life is a journey," said Elfriede Parthe, manager of Gottscheer Hall, "and you know what, nothing ever stays the same."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

October 27th, 2003, 10:13 AM
Sad. Oh well, used to like Gebhart's, too.

October 30th, 2003, 10:28 AM
What a lot of people don't realize is that so many things are give to society as a whole doe to the assimilation.

Most American beers have German roots (Schlitz, Strohs (I think), Pabst, etc etc) as well as things such as Frankfurters and the like.

There are certain things that are not German exclusively, but Germanic in nature. Kielbasa is one of those things (Kielbasa with sauerkraut). I believe that that is more Polish than German.....

I am a little disappointed in the fact that there are few, if any, good German restaurants in NYC given the formerly high numbers. In a city that has EVERYTHING, all the Germans have moved to Pennsylvania.

Sorry, I am meandering here while writing at work and thinking of beer and sausage... ;)

I guess the point I want to make is that sometimes when a culture is assimilated into the mainstream, bits and pieces of that culture BECOME the mainstream.

I would rather have an integrated culture than a NYC that I have to know 9 different languages to order something from the restaurant I am sitting in.

I love Italian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Spanish, Mexican and other nationalities and what they bring to NYC, but I also like it when they consider themselves to be New Yorkers first, and Chinese or Russian second.

I have never seen such sharply delineated diversity in one area in my life, within a few blocks changing nationality and spoken word from one to another so fast it makes your head spin.

I am all for more assimilation. So long as we don't LOOSE everything in the process.... ;)