07 June 2008

New York: The German Stammtisch

For more than 60 years, a German-speaking group has gathered on Wednesdays in New York City to maintain their ties to German culture. The gathering brings together artistic, literary and intellectual types - Jewish and not.

The Forward's story on "The Longest Running Salon, Still Going Strong," is by Marjorie Backman.

In 1943, two refugees from Nazi regimes — dissident writer Oscar Maria Graf from Germany and his Viennese Jewish friend George Harry Asher — bumped into each other and dined at a German restaurant in Manhattan. They decided to meet weekly, in the style of a Stammtisch, the German and Austrian custom of gathering a group regularly at a certain table in a restaurant, coffeehouse or bar.

“These were people who refused to let Hitler take their language away,” said Janet Gerson, a member of the group.

Graf, a Bavarian Catholic, had famously complained to the Nazis during the book burnings that the authorities should burn his works, too. After he was put on a list of intellectuals to be rescued, Graf arranged the same for Asher.

The group met at several Manhattan restaurants, then at Asher's home and then at the small Yorkville apartment of German Jewish émigré and former jewelry designer Gabrielle Glueckselig.

The group - numbering 9-30 - meets weekly; each brings a supper dish to share or pastries. At the ringing of a bell, newcomers introduce themselves and everyone discusses a topic.

Wiesbaden, Germany invited Glueckselig to return to her hometown to receive a medal for tracing her Jewish family history of gold- and silversmiths back to the 17th century. “Wiesbaden tried to make up for what the Nazis did,” Glueckselig said. Since she couldn’t travel, the town came to her, filling the residence of New York’s German consul with the Stammtisch in attendance. This spring, Glueckselig again celebrated with the Stammtisch, marking her 94th birthday.

The founders - Asher and Graf - are dead. Only Glueckselig is left from the early days. As members aged in the 1980s-90s, younger visitors appeared (writers, journalists, scholars).

In 1995, Yoash Tatari, an Iranian exile working for Cologne television, was so intrigued to discover World War II-era immigrants speaking German in New York that he created a film, “Glueckselig in New York. Der Stammtisch der Emigranten.”

Over the past decade, Austrians and Germans have discovered the group; some are in New York to perform alternative military service. Since 1991, the Gedenkdienst project, or the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, has sent Austrians to help preserve Holocaust history. Some work at New York’s Leo Baeck Institute, which documents German Jewish history, while others in the German program work at Washington Heights' Isabella Geriatric Center, where some survivors live.

The elders of the group befriend the young foreigners, forming an island of intergenerational friendship.

“I would never have a chance to meet a 20-year-old from Austria or Germany,” said member Trudy Jeremias, 82, a jewelry designer. “Here there’s no age gap. We’re all friends.” Jeremias escaped to the United States from Vienna after Kristallnacht when her grandfather, a banker, was able to obtain affidavits for visas.

Other regulars include retired teacher and Theresienstadt survivor Miriam Merzbacher, 81, who attended religious school in Amsterdam with Anne Frank. Hilde Olsen was deported to Poland from Berlin, served as an industrialist's secretary, typed a list of Jews, added her name. She was on Schindler's List and could join the group. Kurt Sonnenfeld, 82, a Jewish refugee from Vienna fled on foot through Switzerland and France and became a social worker in New York.

Read more here.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:00 PM

    Schelly, thank you for this post. Do you happen to know how I can contact this group? I'm in the middle of a family history scavenger hunt that I think some members of this group might be able/interested to help me with, and it would be great if I could get a phone number/e-mail/mailing address for one of the organizers. Please e-mail me at suntzusartofmun@gmail.com if you know anything, and thanks again!

    Andrew S.