Guilt by association

Jun 5, 2013 at 5:00 am

My great-grandfather, Johann Gerhard Welp, was a German immigrant and a busy man. He was born in 1857 in Lengerich, Westphalia, Germany, which at that time was the kingdom of Prussia. He emigrated with his family from the war-torn Teutoburg Forest at age 13 to the lush Hoosier hills of Dubois County, Indiana, in 1870.

I never met him but I feel like I know him a little bit, based on stories handed down by my dad and the almost-unanimous German heritage of the small town I grew up in: We German-American Hoosiers were all crazy in much the same way.

I assume Gerhard (as he was known) was a busy man because he married my great-grandmother Catherine Striegel in 1883, and by 1902, there were 10 little Welps scratching in the dirt, including my grandfather, Ed. My grandpa and his brother Theodore both grew up to become jewelers, which was a good way not to be farmers.

While a teenager, Ed gained a reputation as an excellent watchmaker, which was a skill the terminally punctual Germans found valuable. By 1917 he had established himself well enough to buy out a jeweler named Kornrumpf, which is German for “grain hull” and has no bearing on this story other than its awesomely agricultural means of expressing disapproval. “Kornrumpf!”

What only recently occurred to me is that my grandfather’s moment to shine coincided with the very year anti-German discrimination reached a fever pitch, thanks to World War I. According to the Library of Congress website:

“When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, anti-German sentiment rose across the nation, and German American institutions came under attack. Some discrimination was hateful, but cosmetic: The names of schools, foods, streets, and towns, were often changed … Physical attacks, though rare, were more violent: German American businesses and homes were vandalized, and German Americans accused of being ‘pro-German’ were tarred and feathered, and, in at least once instance, lynched. German-language newspapers were either run out of business or chose to quietly close their doors. German-language books were burned, and Americans who spoke German were threatened with violence or boycotts.”

Well, Kornrumpf! Fifty years later, when I was a little boy, everyone on my dad’s side of the family spoke German and English and something in between. They said, “Wie geht’s?” by way of greeting. “Goodbye” was “mach’s gut.” “What’s the matter?” was “Was ist los?” While wholly immersed in German culture, my family never seemed interested in Germany itself, no doubt because of the wars. And my dad was fiercely patriotic when it came to America, which fueled my own skepticism about such blind faith.

But back in 1917, anti-German hysteria also spread through Louisville. According to the Encyclopedia of Louisville, “… many German institutions in Louisville changed names to downplay their German identity; for example, the German Security Bank became simply the Security Bank, and the German Insurance Bank became the Liberty Insurance Bank. Also, German books were removed from the Louisville Free Public Library, and the city renamed many streets that had German names.”

Streets in the Highlands (once called “New Hamburg”) got new names: Douglass, Dundee, Harvard and Yale were once Kaelin, Zimlich, Diebel and Balke. Germantown became Nothing-To-See-Here-Ville. Well, that last one didn’t happen. (It would take decades for skinny jeans and PBR to bring down Germantown.)

Humans tend to sanitize the landscape in sweeping generalities. In hindsight, it seems paranoid to hold Kaelin and Balke accountable for the actions of the Kaiser. It’s reminiscent of last decade’s “freedom fries.”

To be sure, none of the straight, white, gentile Europeans in my family experienced the cruelty so many others faced in the last century and still face in our society today, sometimes at the hands of, ahem, the descendants of German immigrants. And, of course, any discrimination against German immigrants paled in comparison to the heinous acts later perpetrated by the Nazis.

So I’ll take it as a reminder: To demean Germans or Koreans or Chechens or Muslims or Beliebers or anybody else because of the actions of others is to demean all of us. My grandpa never personally set foot in Germany, and his parents and grandparents fled that land to build a brighter future here, so I suspect his American patriotism was genuine. I do wonder what he thought about the guilt by association, though. Probably: Kornrumpf!