1900 to 1939

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Remembered History --> 1900 to 1939

Hiding the Heritage

I have heard that there was a great deal of discrimination against German people during WWI and I know for a fact that there was some during WWII also. I was 11 years old when war was declared. I also knew that I was of German descent — my great-grandfather was Jacob Benz from Metzingen, Württemberg, Germany. In the U.S. the surname was changed to Bence. I don't remember my being specifically instructed about it, but I certainly knew that if I said I was German, the other children would harass me. I proudly told everyone that I was Irish (which was half true).

Margaret Davis (marbence2002@yahoo.com)

Being German During WWII

I, too, would like to add to the memories.

My dad was sent to the U.S. in 1912 by the Lutheran Church in Germany when he was 19 after graduating from a Lutheran school in Hannover as a social worker. He was on the staff of the German Seaman’s Mission in Hoboken, New Jersey, until he retired in 1959 as the last “Hausvater.” The Mission was then closed.

In 1914, as required, he registered with the German consulate in New York but was not recalled to Germany for military service. However, the minister who was the Director of the Mission was imprisoned during 1917–18 by the United States government and released after the Armistice. My father applied for citizenship and was denied because of his registration. When my mother and father married in 1919, my mother lost her citizenship, though born here of two naturalized citizens. She did receive her citizenship papers a few years later, and my dad finally became a citizen in 1928, just before I was born.

During WWII the Seamen’s Mission was under surveillance. One morning in late January 1942, our telephone rang at 7 a.m. … it was the FBI requesting that my dad appear immediately at the Mission (we lived in another town). When he arrived, the seamen – many of whom were German nationals – were being loaded onto buses, but the only major finds by the investigators were short wave radios.

Being of German descent was not a problem for our family or others in the area, as the county had always had a very large German-American population.

The Fosters (lrfoster@joimail.com)

Proud to Help the War Effort

Hi, this is Bev. I'm 71, so that means I was 7 years old when WWII started. My dad's parents came from Germany (Prussia) just before dad was born. He was the third child, with three more to come. Our last name was “Edling” and also “Erling” in the late 1800s. The word is that it was of Viking origin. Actually, like so many others, whoever wrote our name down, wrote it as he/she thought it was spelt.

We lived (and still do) in Connecticut. My youth was spent in New Britain, a very diversified town. Each ethnic group had its own neighborhood where the folks shared the respective language and traditions. However, I don’t remember any adverse actions towards us. My mom loved to go to the Italian section to buy fresh vegetables. The Polish section had cabbage and similar foods, and the Swedish section (my personal favorite) had wonderful desserts. Our neighborhood was made up of a few of every ethnicity. That was the norm in the West End. I don’t recall ever hearing a slur against my German background. No one ever accused me of being a Nazi. I can't imagine what I would have done! But Dad decided against teaching me German. I wish he hadn't, but that was his way.

My grandparents spoke only English to all of us, except for the occasional “Mach schnell!” I was one of 14 first cousins, and I don't know of any that had a mean thing said to them. In college I was embarrassed when my history professor made his way through the chairs to stand in front of me and say, “And the Germans were all to be tall, blonde, and blue-eyed.” I wasn't very good at history, but, you see, I did remember this occasion.

In our elementary school, boys and girls, 2nd grade through 6th, were given knitting needles. At our morning recess, we all knitted squares. On Friday, one of the mothers gathered up all the squares that we made during the week and put them together. The blankets crafted from them were then sent to our “boys in the war.”

We used both sides of every piece of paper that we got too. We picked up thrown-away cigarette packs, took out the aluminum foil, and made great balls with it for the war effort. We were so proud of what we were doing to help the war effort.

I can't tell you all how fortunate I feel having been raised with no prejudices. Of course we all hated Hitler and the Nazis, but somehow our elders must have gotten across to us that the German people weren’t responsible for a madman. Anyhow, I'm delighted that I spent my young life in New Britain. I only wish that all of you could have had the same experience.

Bev (Beverlyebev@aol.com)

Suspect Heritage

During WWI and probably WWII, all aliens were required to register for United States military service. Many tried to dodge the requirement by changing their names or falsifying places of birth. My great-grandfather was born in 1864 in Württemberg, Germany, but he was still required to register. His son, my grandfather, seems to have changed his name around the time of one such registration. A connection? I'm not sure. But you can gain a lot of family information if you can establish one.

Since both World Wars were started by Germans in Europe, they became suspect, Italians because of Mussolini, and likewise the Japanese because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. One way of clearing your name and showing loyalty to the United States was to sign an oath of allegiance, just as during the Revolutionary War when Germans signed such an oath, a new one separate from the oath that they swore upon first arriving in colonial America because the original oath was sworn to the British king; many of the German religious denominations’ adherents were peace-loving citizens who didn’t believe in war.

An interesting view of the war years can be found in an Anheuser-Busch book, a story about a mother who went to Germany to visit, I believe, her daughter. When she tried to return to the USA, she was detained and questioned because her kin still owned familial lands in Germany and her son-in-law was a member of the German government. Because of friends in high places she was freed rather quickly, but many people were not so lucky. So, not only was it embarrassing for many of the aliens to be of German origin, but there could be dire consequences . . . if nothing else your mail could be monitored to see if you were sending money to your home country or expressing support to your family. My husband's family were mostly of German extraction who had immigrated throughout the 1700s. During WWII my husband’s father would threaten him, saying that Hitler was going to come down the chimney if he didn’t behave himself.

I know that the above doesn't cover every aspect of the theme in question, but I hope that it provides some insight.

Pat Morano (patriciamorano@bellsouth.net)

Relatives in Germany

Three stories of my uncles, my mother’s brothers, who were conscripted in Weimar:

Either just before or just after the siege of Stalingrad, one was captured by the Russian Army and sent to a POW camp in the Urals. Then he was sent to work in an asbestos mine for quite some time. Before the conscription he had married in Ostpreußen (East Prussia) and already had a daughter born in 1933.

Sometime after the siege broke the Eastern Front (I assume that the Russian winter broke the rest) and the Red Army began moving toward Ostpreußen and Germany itself, my uncle heard the stories and was concerned about his wife and young daughter. Soviet authorities stonewalled his questions and requests until one day, one of them told my uncle that his wife and daughter died in an evacuation ship, torpedoed in the North Sea trying to escape to England. This was total devastation for my uncle and the rest of the family who were in America.

For whatever reason, my POW uncle was released by the Soviets and he returned to what was Ostpreußen and told to leave because it was now Soviet territory.

He migrated to the Berlin area, met another woman, married her, and had a son. Later he received word that his first wife and daughter were alive and well and looking for word of him. Quite a dilemma! He and his second wife decided to divorce, and he went back to the first wife and stayed with her until her death in 1952 near Berlin. Then, he along with the child from his first wife went back to find his second wife and son to try and begin family life once again. They reunited, married again, and remained so until his death from lung cancer. Most likely, the cancer was the result of working in the asbestos mine with no protection.

Another of my uncles (same family) became a POW of the Americans in Northern Italy. He was shipped to three different POW camps in America and toward the end of the war, shipped to England. After the war he was continually denied permission to come to the USA because of his having joined the Hitler Youth in order to secure employment for himself prior to WWII. Eventually, he did obtain papers to immigrate.

The last of these brothers was conscripted toward the end of the war in Ostpreußen and was part of the home guard. By the time this uncle, his wife, and son had gotten to the relocation camps, they had taken their last valuables (wedding rings) and kept them in their mouths so as to conceal them from people who were doing each other in, searching for valuables.

The oldest brother among my uncles had died in WWI during one of the mustard gas attacks along the Belgian/Northern French border. Not a pleasant demise! He was buried in a mass grave at a German cemetery in Ypres, Belgium.

Also, seven cousins of my uncles (of the same family) also died, mostly during operations on the Eastern Front. Just total devastation!

Robert Lipprandt, South Florida (rloss@bellsouth.net)

Recent Immigrant

By the 1940s and fifty miles from you I clearly remember a newly arrived German father sitting during the national anthem in the school gym. He stood the youngest child on his knees for cover. The mother and other children stood. The family is still here and appear to be as good Americans as any of us whose ancestors came a generation or so earlier.


Feeling Suspect

During the wars my family became “Pennsylvania Dutch” instead of the Texas German that we actually are. My father believes that he was assigned by the military to the Pacific theater instead of the Atlantic due to our surname (Juch).

Bob Juch (bob@juch.org)

Understanding My German Heritage

I’ve been reading posts on this mailing list for a long time, but I’ve never posted. The stories and sentiments on German heritage have struck the chord to break my silence. I thank all who have been sharing. My German heritage is on my mother’s side. Her grandfather, Philip Maier (born 1871), emigrated as a boy or young man (date unknown). It’s possible that he was either Jewish or partly Jewish. He has been my brick wall. My mother’s maternal great-grandparents, Henry and Amelia Wolfram (about 42 years old in the 1880 census) both listed Saxony as their place of origin.

My father fought in WWII. I grew up hearing him call my mother, albeit affectionately, his “little Kraut.” Still, it gave me a sense of being somehow tainted by German ancestry. It spurred me to take some German language courses when young (mostly forgotten now), and to learn more of my German heritage. It has been extremely difficult for most of the reasons discussed already. My maternal grandmother attended German school through the eighth grade in Baltimore, and only German was spoken in her home and between her siblings; however, not a word was taught to my mother and her siblings. I think this is so sad. It was as though the “heritage” was suddenly muffled, ignored, and rather lost.

My dream is to finally trace these ancestors and then one day visit Germany. I’m proud of my German heritage and of all the good I’ve learned about it. I believe there are no good or bad people or nations, in and of themselves, but under the right or wrong circumstances, we all could find ourselves taking pride or shame in who we are. Thank you for letting me share.

Joan Richardson (poohma7@aol.com)

Dark Memories

Hi, my English isn't very good. I haven't understood all of your text. But I would like to tell you that there are some people in eastern Germany who speak about the “dark time.”

My father didn’t look upon the American people as the enemy. He did not often speak about the war, nor did my grandfather. I think that it was still too dark in their memory. My son’s great-grandfather speaks often about the war when we ask, but he has indicated that his family does not want to speak about the war. He finds it good that we ask. I think that it’s very important that older people speak with the young generation. But I can understand if they don't want to speak.

Anke Buschner, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (anke.bu@gmx.de)

Service in WWII

I’m a second-generation German-American; my father and all of my uncles were drafted into the U.S. Army, and my father and one uncle were drafted into the Army Air Corps. My father served as a waist gunner on a B-17 and flew at least seven missions over Germany. He was stationed in Ipswich, England, for almost two years. My one uncle was shot down over Bavaria, near Kufstein, Austria. He still claims that he was treated unbelievably well by the people in the town where he was a prisoner, and later when the Soviets came to “liberate” him, the townspeople tried to protect the Americans and not let them go. He’s 87 years old and still says that he would rather have stayed with the Germans. He was treated very badly by the Soviets and saw many German civilians shot by them.

Alfred Thomas Donet (trey257@comcast.net)

Origins Unknown

I've always wondered about this: My dad was posted in Newfoundland by the U.S. Army during World War II … wondering if the place weren’t actually a KZ-Lager in disguise. My grandmother still spoke a bit of German, and we spoke English with German word order (we lived with my grandparents on into the 1960s).

Dad claims to know no German, and he wasn’t terribly happy when I took it up in high school. Family legend has it that the school in my mom’s hometown (New Bavaria, Ohio) used German up until World War I. I’m really ashamed, for when I took some summer courses at the Universität Hamburg in 1969, I didn’t have any idea where my ancestors had come from. My companions and I probably rode right past some of the ancestral villages while we were bumming around. Too soon old, too late smart, as the saying goes. At least I can read (most) of the replies that I receive nowadays at the Ahnenforschung message boards.

Ken Thompson, St. Louis, Missouri (kth0mpsn@yahoo.com)


In researching my family history, I noticed that my grandfather and his family had changed their last name in the early 1930s from Zilly to Brown. I found that my grandfather is listed as Edward Brown in his high school yearbook (class of ’33). He had told me that his father was a baker and that the family owned a bakery called “Brownie’s” in Long Beach, California. In order to ease relations with the Jewish majority in the bakery/deli district and to deal with the anti-German sentiment of that time, they had assumed the name of Brown (what could be more American, other than Smith?). Eventually, my grandfather began to use the Zilly surname once again; nevertheless, resentment at his having been compelled to undergo this deceit in the first place continued to linger on into his adulthood.

Anthony Zilly (sprbudman@aol.com)

Becoming Mainstream Americans

In a book that I have, The Maryland Germans by Dieter Cunz, there’s a whole chapter dealing with the time between the two World Wars. By the 1900s the Germans in Baltimore had their own community with clubs, schools, and churches. The German language was slowly fading out by that time. But with the start of World War I, the fear and suspicion caused a lot of Germans to become more mainstream Americans: the changing of names, a lot of German papers’ going out of business, children starting to go to public school. The German culture almost changed overnight. To me it’s a shame; my parents are fourth- and fifth-generation German-Americans, but I think how wonderful it would be still to have a German community like that nowadays, how we could personally learn of our heritage. It really is a great book to read, and I’m sure that the experience was repeated in most of the bigger cities at that time.

Lynn (Lynn4604@aol.com)

Keeping a Low Profile

My mother’s Strassers went “underground” or kept a low profile in non-German communities during this time period. They didn’t talk about their ancestors in Germany. They came here in 1846 and spoke German in the home until the schools asked that English be spoken for the benefit of the younger generation. They took it seriously to the point that mother spoke the King’s English. Paul C. Strasser was German born in Backnang, Württemberg; his wife Martha was born in Doddington, Cambridgeshire, England.

The curtain that they dropped deprived their children of a knowledge of German history, but the culture held true. I know from our Christmases when I was a child that I was German to some degree by Mother’s exercise of her traditions. For family history’s sake, I’m presently collecting these via the paper trail along with the generous help of many people. “Silent Night” was popularized by the Strasser Singers who traveled through Austria and greater Europe. Three girls and a boy comprised the group.

Discrimination affects every group now or later. We can learn from our experiences when such a situation arises. Perhaps it makes us better people.

Eleanor Dobbs (edobbs@webtv.net)

Germans in England

I just want to add my views about Germans in England during WWI. My great-grandfather arrived in England from what was then Prussia in about 1880; we think that he came via America. He had left his country of birth because he didn’t want to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. He lived in Liverpool, married an English lady, and had five children. He was interned in Ware, which is in Hertfordshire, about 200 miles from Liverpool. He was 60 years old when war broke out, and he died there in 1916. My grandfather changed his name from Novak to Newell for the duration of the war, and when WWII broke out, he told my cousin that she could do the same.

valereie benson (valbenson@freeuk.com)

Alien Registration

The anti-German sentiment in America preceding and during World War I had one positive benefit for genealogists. All aliens were required to fill out a fairly extensive form in order to advise the government of their existence AND THEIR FAMILY CONNECTIONS. It caused quite a stir among loyal Americans of German descent, and many archives of these forms were eventually destroyed, BUT NOT ALL OF THEM. If you’re lucky enough to have had an alien relative in an area where the forms were kept, the document your relative filled out can be a family history gold mine.

One of the sisters of my great-grandfather was the matriarch of a large family on the Kansas frontier and probably had enough on her hands keeping her house in order and her family fed without worrying about being naturalized. It was sad to see this old lady (in her 60s) who was as much a threat to national security as her house cat compelled to suffer the indignity of completing the form, which required a photo and fingerprints, but it sure contained a lot of family information, including ship arrival data, which in her case was wrong). Fortunately for me, the State of Kansas kept the forms.

Al Toennies (altoennies@bellsouth.net)

Blending In

Can anyone tell me what the feelings toward German-Americans (particularly new arrivals in the USA) were during the years of 1910-1917? My grandfather changed his name and lost his accent, quite on purpose, and we suspect that it may have been due to the bad feelings toward Germany. Any stories are welcome. Thanks.

Karen Peterson, St Charles, Illinois (Peterson_Karen@Alum.Bradley.Edu or gogetum@sbcglobal.net)

Germans in Australia

I have a note written to my uncle by the Australian Navy, “… suggest that you change the spelling of your surname.” He did, from BRACHMANN to BRACKMAN; this was during WWII when he was a sailor serving against the Japanese in the Pacific.

My father did the same thing in the Australian Air Force by way of Deedpoll; hence I never had my real German surname – pity.

Yvonne Marshall, Melbourne, Australia (ybmarshall@bigpond.com)

German Surnames

During the Second World War my sister and I were in high school. My sister was upset that our name was Schmidt and wanted our dad, Carl J. Schmidt, to go to the courthouse and have it legally changed. My dad said, “That’s our name and it stays.” My sister said she couldn't wait until she was married and had a different name. When she married, she married JACK SCHMITT!

Charlotte Rogers (annkcm@westol.com)

Ties to the Homeland

My husband’s grandfather immigrated in 1897 with four or five brothers, arriving near that same time. About 1905 several brothers drifted back to Germany, but when World War I was looming on the horizon, one of them scooted back to the USA. He was still young enough to be caught up in the military draft in Germany and wanted no part of it.

There was no discrimination felt against the family in either war. They were dairy farmers, and people went out of their way to be nice to the family. One son eventually owned the farm, another became a police officer, and a third became a POW of the Japanese and was interred for four years while serving in the U.S. military; he nearly starved to death and was hospitalized for over a year after release.

My grandparents discussed very little with respect to what was happening during the wars; their feeling by then was that they were pretty much American. But when the excellent farmland in Langenbilau, Silesia, was wrenched from their families and ceded to Poland after World War II, grandfather, an old German farmer, became quite bitter and didn’t live long after that.

I’ve been seeking information in Saxony for many years, since before the Wall came down, and have had nothing but friendly relationships with whichever archive or persons that I corresponded with. One cousin who worked for the Communist-held TV station there was under constant surveillance and didn’t want to correspond but did send occasional messages through other persons. I think the experiences of these times will be shared for posterity.

Ida Kretschmar (famgram@hotmail.com)

German Grandmother

My grandmother and her family were here before World War I, and she married an American citizen. She was only 4'10" tall, but with a husband and sons all over 6', I don't think that anyone would have dared to say a word to her! Seriously, she was loved by everyone in her small Midwest town.

Connie Taylor (taylor@in-motion.net)

Proud to Be Americans

My paternal great-grandparents came to America during the immediate post-Civil War years, from 1865–1870, and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, a city that had considerable German immigration since the 1840s and to this day remains a municipality of very large German-American ethnicity, including its environs on both sides of the Mississippi River. Until the coming of WWI, it had a thriving German cultural community as well. Anti-German attitudes as a result of the war put an end to much of this up-to-then prominently exhibited old-country essence.

Father’s maternal grandparents were deceased well before the war, and his paternal grandfather died shortly after his birth in 1913. Great-grandmother, however, maintained communications with her Palatine relations virtually up to the time of her death in 1933. My grandparents traveled to Germany, in the course of which grandmother had attempted to communicate by phone with some of her parents’ relations, but this proved difficult owing to the issue of different spoken dialects. Some of their siblings may also have made this “pilgrimage” too. At a minimum, though, all from their generation seemed to know the towns whence their parents had originated.

My grandparents and their siblings all spoke German, and they married local German-Americans, save one out of 10 total, inclusive of one spinster. (They were all fully Americanized, notwithstanding. One of my granduncles served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and three others who were physicians performed service in Europe toward the end of the Great War.) Not so the subsequent generation, on either count. Oh, these certainly knew how to utter and comprehend any number of phrases, but not unlike their generational counterparts in the USA of just about every era, English was very much their mother tongue, and interest in things old country and contact with relations abroad were effectively nonexistent.

Speaking of the States, my father expressed more than once, “This is the greatest country in the world!” – albeit, he personally knew no others, except Canada and Mexico, and these in a very limited way. And according to his story, the Selective Service Administration had him present himself for physical examination during the first and the last weeks of the American involvement in WWII; he was rejected for medical reasons on both occasions. He worked for Lockheed Aircraft at their San Fernando Valley locations (he and his immediate family had migrated to Los Angeles, California, during the years bordering on the Great Depression) as both a security guard and an inspector.

He did tell of one troubling tale that dealt with this latter position: It was his job to inspect particular sections of newly produced aircraft, typically P-38s, before they were to be shipped overseas for combat. He was called into the office one day and presented with the situation wherein a certain part that had been installed in a space beneath his seal was found in theater to have written on it, “Suckers! You’re over there and we’re over here with your wives!” Naturally, an investigation was launched, but father was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in the matter.

Yes, we on the West Coast have always been proud to be Americans, and those of us here of the preceding generations were glad to have been able to assist the war effort. My grandaunt who lived with us until her death during my early adolescence told of how they collected metal cans and bacon grease – among other useful materials – which was refined and employed to ease automatic ammunition feed; I still have a few of their partially used ration coupon books.

Grandaunt hated the Germans and always referred to them as Nazis; indeed, despite her having been an integral part of the aforementioned German cultural milieu of St. Louis, she hadn’t been especially well disposed to Germans from her earliest days, for she and her siblings had been raised under the care of the German General Protestant Orphans Association of that city, and she ever referred to the institution’s overseers as Prussians, whether they were in actuality or not, albeit from her telling of it, they certainly ran the “home” in a quasi-militaristic manner. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t frequently converse auf Deutsch with our Russian-Jewish neighbor at the woman’s kitchen window along our driveway, where I as a little kid was happy to listen in and thus obtain my earliest German “lessons,” whilst happily munching the neighbor’s excellent freshly baked pastries of ethnic recipe.

I’m of the belief that our kin who remained in St. Louis have always been loyal Americans as well, save perhaps one: In a letter written by my grandfather (then in LA), during the early years of WWII to his youngest brother back home, one of the previously mentioned three doctors who had served with the U.S. Army years before, he stated in the course of his airing of certain familial dirty laundry how he had heard from a St. Louis acquaintance that granduncle may have been harboring Hitlerite sentiments.

I myself was born three years after VE-Day. But given that WWII had had such a profound effect on the older generations, the war often came up in conversation for years thereafter, not unlike lingering echoes of Vietnam continue to have on my generation today, and we kids were effectively raised on many of these war stories, with references such as to Billy Mitchell, the A-bomb, and B-52s, inter alia, having peppered our talk. The neighborhood parents certainly knew of my father's ethnic background —it was plainly obvious enough by our surname — and by extension so did their children. (My mother’s ancestry is essentially all European, though with a sizable German component just the same; quite a few of her forebears, including Palatine Mennonites who immigrated at the invitation of Wm. Penn, settled on the East Coast during the earliest colonial days.)

Next to playing “cowboys & Indians,” one of our favorite pastimes was, naturally, to play ‘war,’ and more often than not, when our teams were selected, I’d find myself on the “German” squad. As I became a teenager and first grew interested in genealogy, I soon came to appreciate the full breadth of my German heritage, and I wasn’t shy about expressing my pride in it either. This did elicit certain adverse reactions among some of my fellows in junior high/high school, but most, if they made anything of it at all, tended to approach it in a more good-humored manner.

It was in secondary school where I first studied the German language on a formal basis, as well as some French. I also began to pick up Spanish from my Mexican-American neighbors, friends, and acquaintances at about this same time. Spanish, of course, is the #2 language of the Southwest, where my mother’s family have been for well over a century and a half. I continued my language studies in college and university and went on to study Translation & Interpretation in post-graduate school.

Among other things, I’m a professional translator. And ultimately it came down to me to reestablish ties with our German kin, a number of whom, unknown to us, had served with the opposing forces during both World Wars. (My grandmother’s cousin whom I resemble to a striking degree was killed at St. Quentin, France, in 1915, for example). These two cataclysmic events no doubt helped to sever the ties between the family members here and abroad.

I’ve visited the hometowns of my paternal great-grandparents and was warmly received by my relations in them. I continue to communicate frequently with my third cousins whom I was most pleased to meet over a quarter century ago, and now happily with their children as well, thanks to the Net. Two of whom have since come here to visit us in our home in LA. In our conversations we’ve had occasion from time to time to kick around the effects of the World Wars too.

Peter Schuck (peterschuck@earthlink.net)

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