Oral History Project
Despite all of our different experiences, circumstances, and backgrounds, there are things that connect us. Whether it’s long-held holiday traditions or an interest in the language, the goal of the Oral Histories Project, launched in 2019, is to collect histories in order to put a more personal perspective on what it means to be German-American. We conducted more than sixty interviews with people of German descent, ranging widely from third-generation immigrants to those who moved here during adulthood just a last few years ago. Read on to learn about the diversity of their experiences. This project is ongoing – we are actively seeking German-Americans to interview. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to be a part of this history.
Birgit Kobayashi poses in Café Selmarie next to her black forest cake for German Fest (2016)
Birgit Kobayashi, (née Birgit Wiedle,) and her family immigrated to Chicago from Teningen, a town in the southeastern state of Baden-Württemberg near the border with France in 1963, when she was just nine years old. The Wiedle’s moved primarily for economic reasons, but Birgit’s aunt also lived in Chicago at that time and implored them to join her. Birgit remarked on their apartment upon coming to Chicago and how different it was than she was used to.
“[The apartment] had a big, proper bathroom with a bathtub and pink tiles, and that’s something that we didn’t have in Germany. We had to bathe in the tin tub, set it up, or go to the grammar school, as a lot of families did. They set up a bathhouse there and we would go there Friday nights or Saturday nights with everybody else and have a hot bath. It was great, but it wasn’t at home.”
Upon their arrival of her (then) two siblings, her parents, and herself, no one in her family spoke English. Birgit was put into first grade with her little brother but they both became fluent very quickly. After a year, Birgit was put into third-grade, catching up to the other kids her age. Her parents took English classes and they loved it, “...they went with their notebooks, and they came back and told stories about the other people there: this lady from Mexico, this person from Poland. They brought home these colorful stories… They prided themselves on learning.” They also bought a television, and like so many others, learned English from watching American television.
After the whole family grew more accustomed speaking English amongst themselves and within their community, they realized that they were hardly speaking German. “Because we didn’t speak any English when we landed in Chicago, in July of 1963, my father said ‘We will only speak English at home. We’re going to learn English as fast as possible.’ ” She discusses how quickly kids tend to pick up languages, and the process by which her parents learned, “...and now we were just speaking English at home. My dad immediately turned courses, he could see what was happening, and he was not educated, but he said, ‘Okay, stop. You guys are going to learn English outside, but at home we will speak German.’ ”
While they quickly grew accustomed to the way of life in Chicago, there were some things that they missed from living in Germany.
“We bought a car from a lady who lived across the street… she sold it to my dad for twenty dollars, and he thought ‘what can go wrong?’ he bought the car, and he didn’t even have a driver's license! Then he got a driver’s license here, and he got a compass and he put the compass in the car. Every weekend we would go out. He said ‘I don’t know where we’re going, but I have a compass,’ and we just drove. We piled everyone in the car and drove. And we discovered Chicago and the surrounding areas… I think he was on the quest to find something green, a green area.” (Click here to listen to the full audio)
Birgit speaks fondly of how her family adapted to life in a new country, and how difficulties like missing green space, were turned into somewhat of an adventure for all of them to share. Birgit had two more siblings who were born in Chicago, and they all spoke German to varying degrees.
At age 29, Birgit and her partner Jeanne Uzdawinis (1954-2017) opened a business together, Cafe Selmarie. The cafe upholds the German tradition of high-quality baked goods and is a favorite in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.
Birgit Kobayashi fondly recalls her family's 1957 Plymouth, similar to the one pictured above.
The Holzahackers performing at the German-American Day celebration held at Riverview Park in the late 1940's (Pauline Haas: far right)
Mike Haas’ grandparents immigrated from Niederbayern to Chicago in the 1920’s. Before that, both his grandfathers served in the German Army in the first World War before coming to the United States for greater economic opportunity. His grandmothers came to America for similar reasons around the same time. His grandparents, however, hadn’t met each other until they moved to Chicago and began to take part in German clubs like the Bayern Verein and the D'Lustigen Holzhacker Buam.
“The ‘Haas’ grandparents married at St. Michael’s in Old Town, it’s where my father was baptized. They later moved down to Lincoln Avenue to St. Alphonsus, that’s where I was baptized. Basically, the hub of the German North side was between St. Michael’s and St. Alphonsus, and we lived two blocks from St. Alphonsus, and then in the later 60’s, we moved to Jefferson Park.”
Mike’s family history has always been an important part of his life. In fact, that’s what led him to the German-American Police Association after becoming a Chicago Police officer in 1986. He is the German-American Police Association’s immediate Past President, having also served as vice president, director and editor of their newsletter, which he coined the Brennpunkt over 30 years ago. Mike even created content for the GAPA (German-American Police Association) website. To learn more about this organization, click here. For Mike, the GAPA was not only what connected him to other police officers in Chicago of German descent, but to other German-American officers across the U.S. and Germany as well.
“But what separates a club like GAPA [from other German clubs in the Chicago area], is that most of the members of the German American Police Association are second, third, fourth or fifth generation German Americans of partial German descent, and very few speak the language... [we] grew up with the post-World War II films, and the anti-German sentiment. [Growing up,] very few German Americans feel comfortable even talking about being German, that’s just the way it was.” (Click here to hear the rest of the quote)
Unfortunately, when Mike’s parents were growing up, during the 1940’s, it was difficult to be a German-American. In general, being a “hyphenated American” was frowned upon and thought to be contrary to the melting pot theory of immigrant ethics, which immigrants were encouraged to assimilate into. This term, which when referring to someone is now widely accepted, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “an American citizen who can trace their ancestry to another, specified part of the world, such as an African-American or an Irish-American.” Until the late 1960’s, “Hyphenated Americanism” was greatly disparaged to the notion of being simply “American,” this accounted for the loss of contact to countless cultures and traditions in the immigrants’ effort to assimilate.
Although Mike’s parents had learned German from their immigrant parents, once in school at St. Alphonsus they were quickly urged to speak only English instead.
“My parents spoke German, at an early age, but once they stated grammar school, the nuns told my grandparents to start speaking English in front of them, because when [my father] started school, his English proficiency wasn’t on a level that was conducive to learning. But [my parents] basically lost [their German language ability] afterward. ”
Mike even discusses his own journey to recoup some of his lost heritage. When asked about whether he’s studied the German language he responds with, “Ja, ich bin selbst gelernt. Most of what I know is what I’ve picked up on my own.” He has even travelled back to meet his German relatives on multiple occasions and reconnected to his family roots.
“And I do consider myself German American… when I die, the Verbindung, the connection [in my family], the American-German connection is probably over. And I can understand that. But, like I said, it’s always been a big part of my life and I’ve had a lot of fun with it, I have no regrets at all. With the DANK [Haus] here, it’s very difficult, but I’m all for it, I’m up for supporting it.”
Though Mike is still proud of his contributions to the GAPA, he moved on in 2017 in order to focus more fully on the German history courses he first began developing at the DANK Haus since 2014, and continues to do so, which he considers it his contribution to the DANK Haus’ efforts in preserving our common German-American heritage in Chicago.
Mike receiving an award on behalf of the GAPA from County treasurer Maria Pappas (right) and her liaison with the ethnic communities of Chicago, Pat Michalski (left), in 2005.
It was hard to find food in Bremen, which was torn by war at the time. Many people resorted to stealing and trading for food where they could. In one instance, Werner’s mother wished to trade with some friends of his father. His father was an army veteran who had fought in Russia and was later taken in as a prisoner of war by Americans. These friends were farmers and lived just across the river. “My mom worked in a soap factory, and she would steal soap and then trade it to the farmers. At one point, they had to trade with the farmers and had to go through a mine-field. My dad told my mom ‘Stay back. Let me go ahead,’ but she said, No, if we’re going to go, we’re going to go together.’ And sure enough, they made it through the mine-field to get to the farmer’s house, to get some food in the house.”
Finally, Werner flew to Chicago in 1957 when he was a little more than ten years old. His sister had already moved here and gotten settled two years before. He remembers this time saying that, “everything about the United States sounded like it was the place to go,” however as a ten year old, the move was difficult for Werner. They had to put the family dog to sleep because they couldn’t take her with them and that was very hard for him. In addition, Werner had heard about cowboys, indians, he was even aware of Al Capone and was a little less than excited about moving to their new home. Nonetheless it proved to be a good decision.