An out-of-town friend of ours was visiting not too long ago and asked me if I could take him to Chicago's German neighborhood. We went to the only German neighborhood that still looks like a German neighborhood (Lincoln Square), but we both realized that it's German-ness was hanging by a thread. In a few years it probably won't be German at all.
This is a town that was built on the backs of its German immigrants. At one time, one out of every four Chicago residents was German. If you look around the city now, you'd never know it.
The last wave of German immigrants arrived in Chicago after the war in the late 40s, through the end of the 50s. I was born in 1963. People my age and slightly younger were the last generation of Germans in Chicago to be brought up by off-the-boat German immigrants. I don’t mean to make that sound as if we were brought up by wolves or something (more like Wolfgang’s), but it is a rather unique experience that is difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced it personally.
On the surface Germans seem to be a relatively humorless and harsh people; reticent to show emotion. This is a shameful stereotype. If you had entered any of our German homes back in the day, you would have seen happy bouncing children playing a game called “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter.” This is a cute game that recreates the thrill of riding a horse. A parent bounces the child on his or her knee while reciting a little German children’s poem. It doesn’t rhyme in English, but you can get the idea of its playfulness from the translation.
Bouncing, bouncing rider,
When you fall you scream,
Fall in a ditch,
You’ll get pecked (or eaten) by crows,
Fall in a swamp,
And you’ll....uh, oh, you’re falling now!
(Parent pretends to make child fall)
This is German learning, a type of learning that may no longer exist in Chicago. The lesson is clear: if you fall off your horse, something terrible will happen to you. It’s much more effective than saying: “Be Careful, Wolfgang.” And people say Germans don’t have any emotions. Nonsense. Are you telling me that “terror” isn’t an emotion? We have that instilled in us at a very early age.
Would you like to read the German children's story of the boy who doesn’t trim his fingernails and then pokes his eyes out by mistake? No? Maybe I can interest you in the story about the boy who keeps his nose in the air when he walks outside and doesn’t see he is about to walk into a lake. This is valuable learning we’re talking about here: German-learning. Ask me how often I let my fingernails get too long. Never. How many times have I walked into lake because I wasn’t watching where I was walking? Not once. (Check out some of these stories here)
What if the end of our German community brings an end to such common sense advice?
Let me give you another example of what we may have lost. My grandparents gave me a comic book called “Max und Moritz” when I was a very young boy. It was a heartwarming tale of two bad boys who snuck into a mill to play—-even though they were warned not to do it. You want a happy ending? There are no happy endings for boys who don’t behave. Max and Moritz were crushed to death, ground up into tiny little pieces, and eaten by ducks. That’s a lesson that stays with you a very long time. I’ve never stepped foot in a mill.
I could go on and on because there are hundreds of tales like this, each dispensing practical advice and life skills. The stories I’ve mentioned here just happen to be the ones that haunt me in my sleep. There are many others I managed to overcome. The one thing that German stories all have in common, however, is a moral. It’s usually some variation of “do what we say or something horrible will happen to you,” but at least there’s a message there.
What if that kind of mental toughness is being lost along with our German neighborhoods? It’s the sort of thing that I can’t think about for too long, because I get pretty emotional.
Oh no. See? It's already happening to me. I'm getting weak.
Quick! We need a new influx of Germans in Chicago before it's too late.