contents ©2016 by Harold Pfohl
Over the past 30 years genealogy and family history have experienced a great increase in popularity. Perhaps this is due to the immensely successful “Roots” by Alex Haley, coupled with the vast genealogical archives accumulated by the Mormon Church that facilitate family research. In any event, Americans of German descent are becoming far more conscious of their past than they have been for most of the Twentieth Century. Justifiable pride in the achievements of our Germanic ancestors was long reduced and questioned as a result of the ferocity of German enmity in World War II and the consummate evil of the Nazi regime. A question that has long preoccupied me is how is it possible that distant cousins with shared ancestral roots could have supported the monstrosity of Hitler and his regime. There are no satisfying answers to that question.
The German-Americans that I grew up with were the finest people I have known in my lifetime and they heartily embraced our American system and values. About 1/3 of the soldiers in the American Army fighting Germany in Europe during WW II were of German descent. My Uncle Louis Pfohl was stationed in England as an engine mechanic for Flying Fortress B-17 bombers; he was fluent in German, and was used as an occasional interpreter for prisoners. A cousin of another uncle was a sergeant in combat in Italy. He and the enemy called for a truce to collect the dead and wounded. He sat down on the hillside with his German Sergeant counterpart, talked in German, shared tobacco, and then they went back to shooting at each other. On another occasion knowing the language saved his life when he heard: “da sitzt ein, schießen!” (there sits one, shoot!) and he ducked.
Now more than 70 years have passed since the war ended, and this huge American ethnic minority has an emerging consciousness and cognizance of its history, with pride in its’ ancestral German roots.
My intention in putting together this blog and (hopefully) a book associated with it, is to tell a story of ancestral immigration that many Americans of German descent, especially in the upper Midwest, can relate to. It is an album of photos, often with remarks associated with the images that expand beyond family interests to life in general as it relates to the image.
I hope that it is of interest to many of my fellow German-Americans.
THE SILENT MINORITY – see this article in the February 7, 2015 Economist about Americans of German descent in the US. Excerpts below:
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German-Americans are America’s largest single ethnic group … In 2013, according to the Census bureau, 46m Americans claimed German ancestry: more than the number who traced their roots to Ireland (33m) or England (25m). In whole swathes of the northern United States, German-Americans outnumber any other group (see map). Some 41% of the people in Wisconsin are of Teutonic stock.
Yet despite their numbers, they are barely visible…
Companies founded by German-Americans tend to play down their roots, too: think of Pfizer, Boeing, Steinway, Levi Strauss or Heinz. Buried somewhere on their websites may be a brief note that “Steinway & Sons was founded in 1853 by German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway in a Manhattan loft on Varick Street”. But firms that play up their Germanic history…are rare.
German immigrants have flavoured American culture like cinnamon in an Apfelkuchen. They imported Christmas trees and Easter bunnies and gave America a taste for pretzels, hot dogs, bratwursts and sauerkraut. They built big Lutheran churches wherever they went. Germans in Wisconsin launched America’s first kindergarten and set upTurnvereine, or gymnastics clubs, in Milwaukee, Cincinnati and other cities.
After a failed revolution in Germany in 1848, disillusioned revolutionaries decamped to America and spread progressive ideas. “Germanism, socialism and beer makes Milwaukee different,”…
During the first world war, parts of America grew hysterically anti-German. Some Germans were spat at in the street. The teaching of their language was banned in schools. Sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage”. German books were burned, dachshunds kicked and German-Americans forced to buy war bonds to prove their patriotism. When New Ulm, a predominantly German town in Minnesota, refused to let its young men join the draft, the National Guard was sent in. After the war, German-Americans hunkered down. Many stopped speaking German and anglicised their names.
The second world war saw less anti-German hysteria, although some 10,000 German-Americans were interned as enemy aliens. President Franklin Roosevelt conspicuously appointed military commanders with names like Eisenhower and Nimitz to fight the Axis powers. But the Holocaust gave German-Americans yet another reason to hide their origins.