Maria Gutzeit | German-American Heritage Month and Learning from Others


On Oct. 9, the Santa Clarita City Council issued a proclamation naming October German-American Heritage Month. This was wonderful on many levels.

Mayor Laurene Weste shared a little bit of history that I didn’t know. She spoke of the Germans arriving in Philadelphia, including the well-known Germantown section. I was born in Philadelphia, and my father was from Germany. Originally, Germans arrived there as indentured servants, and had to work to pay their transport across the Atlantic, according to the German Society of Pennsylvania, the oldest German culture organization in the United States, per Wikipedia.

The proclamation was requested by a resident of German descent. There was a bit of news from the College of the Canyons German professor and students, and a pitch for the local Oktoberfest.

It also brought back memories for me.

My father passed away early this year. Not the friendliest man, he was decidedly German. A bit dry on the sense of humor. Hard working. A firm believer in Wanderlust…he took us as kids to more than 40 states on family vacations. Germans are huge travelers!

I have no fondness for German foods like spaezle (a kind of dumpling made by dripping batter through a colander) and saurbraten, though sweets like dominosteine, marzipan, and lebkuchen are critical to our family’s holiday season.

We loved celebrating Advent on the Sundays before Christmas. We would light the appropriate candle and have a family “nut party” of shelled nuts and eggnog, after a day in which the kids did a holiday craft.

My father also told us about the war. He was a child during World War II.

Of course Hitler horrifically murdered Jews in concentration camps. What is less frequently told is how he tried to purge all impurities from the “Master Race.” My father’s family was half Dutch and, as such, was suspect.

My grandfather worked in logistics for the army and was able to obtain falsified papers showing the family to be pure German, lest they be killed as well.

Schoolchildren were taught to rat out their neighbors. Though my father’s family lived in Dusseldorf, they ultimately decided to relocate to the countryside during the war, to avoid scrutiny. After the war, when they returned to their home, they found their house had taken a direct hit by an Allied bomb, and a family of squatters was found dead, in their basement.

Dusseldorf was strategically bombed for more than five months, including an attack of over 700 bombers in one night in 1943, when over 130 acres of the city was destroyed.

In the countryside, life was not idyllic. My aunt had her head shaved and was instructed to never speak in public, because she was pretending to be a boy to avoid being raped by advancing Russian soldiers.

Meals consisted of rabbits and scrounged greens. Portions of the family ended up on the wrong side of the wall in Berlin, and those relatives were not seen again until the wall came down in 1989. All we knew of them as kids were the stories of Checkpoint Charlie…the stories of people either valiantly getting around the wall or being shot and killed as they tried to escape.

Despite the war, with the horrible tragedies on all sides, life amazingly did go on. Twelve years later my uncle was a German national figure skating champion who competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. My father was sponsored by a relative and came to the U.S., to study engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, the city where he met my mother.

Is there, as someone snidely said, a holiday for every nationality?

Perhaps, but it only adds to our lives. I enjoy learning about other nations and their cultures. My daughter’s school is largely Latino and they featured the animated show “Coco” for family movie night. Because I loved the movie so much, I was given a ceramic skull, painted by my daughter, in honor of Dia De Los Muertos.

On that holiday I now envision having a glass of wine and “mom’s spaghetti” in honor of my late mother who, being Welsh-American, was as far from a Latina as she could be.

We are made rich by learning about other cultures. I thank the city for giving a mention to part of ours, with their proclamation of German American Heritage month.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. Democratic Voices appears Tuesdays and rotates among several local Democrats.

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