In early February, the week of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House, The Economist ran an article about German-Americans entitled “The Silent Minority”. German immigrants, America’s largest ethnic group, “flavoured American culture like cinnamon in an Apfelkuchen”, the article said, yet they quietly assimilated and, because of the two World Wars and the Holocaust, tended to hide their origins rather than claim and openly display their heritage.
Times have changed. The article quoted Petra Schürmann, director of the German-American Heritage Museum in Washington D.C. that “Germany has never been as popular as it is today.”
Now, I admit I never warmed up to what I call the German-American oompah culture. I don’t really like beer except Radler (shandy). I recall with horror the few times when I was a little girl and was dressed in an uncomfortable dirndl or lederhosen. I have never been to an Oktoberfest, neither in Germany nor in America. But I do miss Germany, and I miss having people around me with the same cultural references.
Luckily there are new, compelling German-American voices out there that resonate well with me. One of them is the website of German Girl in America, whose motto is “Eating salami in a peanut butter world.” I still chuckle about two of her recent stories, one a humongous list of items to bring back to the U.S. from trips to Germany. It’s obvious from a poll German Girl in America took that I am not the only one to return with an overstuffed suitcase, or worse. I once lugged a 6-foot laundry umbrella home. And, also, her story about German windows and how easy they are to clean. I still wince when I think about my cleaning a hinged American window that closed on me, pinching a nerve in my upper arm. German laundry lines and windows – yes!
I wanted to find out more about the person behind German Girl in America so I reached out to her in sunny California and asked her a few questions.
Karen, you only started your website in September 2014. In this short time you have developed quite a following. Does this surprise you?
“I’m astonished at how many people are reading what I write. When I started German Girl in America, I thought maybe my mom or the kids would read it. Ironically, it’s strangers, who have become friends, who spend the most time on the site. I’ve been writing for websites for a few years now as a writer for hire, and I know how hard it is to get anyone to read your work, much less respond. I guess there are just a lot more people out there who are like me, living with one foot in each world, one in Germany the other in the US.”
In your introduction you describe so well how you grew up with a leather book bag and salami sandwiches on black crusted rye bread that made you stand out in the lunchroom. Besides from feeling just different, did you ever have any bad experiences or encounter hostility because of your obvious German-ness?
“Yes, when I was a kid, other kids on the playground would call me a Nazi. How does a fourth grader in the US even know about Nazi Germany? TV, movies, people throwing out disparaging comments about Krauts. My parents hardly encouraged those shows at home. I did watch Hogan’s Heros, that silly sitcom that took place in a German POW camp. But I never put together that the people in the show were in any way related to my family. And for a while, it seemed that every war movie had that stereotypical blond, blue-eyed evil German.
As I got older, I strove to blend in more. I seldom spoke German outside the home, unless I was in Germany. I know it drove my mother crazy, but I really wanted to fit in with the other kids.”
I cannot but gasp here because my experience growing up in Germany about the same time was just the opposite. My looks and name gave me away as having a Tunisian father and I wanted nothing more than thin straight blond hair to fit in better. But that’s a different story… Did you also have negative experiences as an adult?
“In college I had a horrible experience in a world civilization class about the Holocaust. One girl was particularly vocal about how evil Germans are for causing such tragedy, and that I as a German, was just as bad for having descended from such people. I completely fell apart. How could my family be considered evil? My classmate had no idea what my family story was. I tried to explain how both of my parents were refugees, how they lost everything, how my father even lost his mother when they fled from the advancing Red Army. Her response was that my family deserved it. The class went silent. I just sat and cried. The teacher intervened, and to this day I thank that wonderful man. He took me out of the room, and told me that I could go home. He covered for me with the next instructor. And then he gave me an assignment. Write the family story, as I know it, instead of writing a final exam.
I don’t know whether anything changed that day. Did I manage to convince any of my fellow students that people on both sides of a war could be victims? I doubt it. But I did learn a bit about speaking up, and sharing. I am not ashamed of my heritage.”
You write and post so much about things you love about German customs, traditions and lifestyle, have you ever lived or thought of living in Germany to be closer to all of that?
“When I was 18 I seriously considered dropping my American citizenship and moving to Germany. But I didn’t have the courage to make the leap. After that, marriage to an American, kids, job, and suddenly, moving to another country was not an option.
I also don’t know that I would really fit in. Whenever I do go over, it feels so much like “home”, and yet, there are constant reminders that I am the American cousin. As a child I was teased for my American accent, and as an adult I realize just how limiting my vocabulary is. It’s frustrating to not be able to discuss politics or current events with all of the right words. I know that these issues would be temporary, and an accent is hardly a reason to stay away.
We knew German families, as I was growing up, who moved back to Germany. Some moved back and forth a few times. Finding that sweet spot where you really feel at home is difficult.”
What I find refreshing about German Girl in America – and I think other German-Americans might feel the same, hence the great feedback you are getting – is the very personal touch and eclectic selection of information of all sorts from media, websites, blogs etc. both in English and German. Do you think it’s that mix that makes you stand out?
“Memory triggers come from so many different sources. For some it’s a meal their Oma made, and for others it’s the castles and cathedrals that took their breath away. I remember an early post I put on my Facebook page. It was a photo of a balcony with a table set for coffee. It got huge response. There was no obvious link in the photo to the exact location, but anyone who has been in Germany would recognize that setting. I was surprised at how many people share similar memories.
Other people visit my website looking to understand a past that they never really knew. They were brought up in the US, and now want to find out more about where their families came from, I guess I can thank sites like Ancestry for that. And they don’t just want the stuff out of history books. Dates and geography can be dry. People want the everyday things they can connect to.
By sharing my personal stories, I want to let readers know that it’s OK to talk about their own. I get a lot of messages to my website and to the Facebook page from people who just want to tell me what happened to their family and friends, and to them. They’ve never felt like they had anyone to tell before. I’m honored that they share it with me. Some I pass along, some I just respond to privately. I love it when someone lets me share their story as a guest post to the site. There really are some wonderful stories out there!
Germany is more than a war. Germans and German-Americans have been taught to think they can’t be proud of their culture and heritage because of twelve years in our history. That’s absurd. I’m not trying to wipe away that part of history, but I also don’t think it is the sole focus of who we are. Sharing our history and culture is vital. Once it’s lost, we can’t get it back.”
German Girl in America is also more and more becoming a German-American forum. On your website, for example, you have a list of German restaurants, bakeries and delis, which is based on readers’ recommendations. You also provide other crowd-sourced information. On Facebook you share news about events, and people who are looking for a German band to play at a party come to you and you share it with your followers. Do you have thoughts where you would ultimately like to go with this?
“Everything has happened so fast that I haven’t really focused on the future. I love the way the website and the Facebook page have become places for people to share knowledge. Now that I’m finding a rhythm, I’d like to add more community information and resources to the website; perhaps a calendar of events for celebrations and gatherings, and a page where you can find clubs or a local Stammtisch.
My problem is, I have so many ideas, and I’m really just a one-person operation doing this as a hobby. I would love to see it grow into something bigger. But I don’t want to lose the contact with my readers that I have now.”
Of course I also need to ask you what you think about German food.
“What I love about German food is that it tends to be seasonal, with lots of fruit and vegetables. Yes, there are “heavy meals” but overall, people eat well. There is less of a junk food culture, fun foods like chocolate and candy exist, but there is a balance. And Germans stand firm on keeping chemicals and GMOs out of their food.”