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THE GERMANS OF ORANGE COUNTY : Euphoria Prevails at Phoenix Club After Dramatic Events in Ancestral Land

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the 400 German-Americans crowded into their own Phoenix Club in Anaheim last Nov. 10, the night was the most joyous celebration of their lives. They cheered, toasted and cried at every image that flashed across the television screens. To them, every scene of the thousands of Germans milling around the just-opened Berlin Wall was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime sight.

They cheered again when other Phoenix members unfurled a huge banner in German, reading “Finally, Freedom for East Germany,” across one dance-floor wall. They shouted once more when Phoenix president Hans Klein announced club plans to sponsor the resettlement in America of five East German families.

And the media, including Los Angeles television stations, were there in full force, making the celebration the most visible gathering in the history of Orange County’s large German-American community.

The euphoria of that night has yet to die down.

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“No one expected it (the opening of East German borders) to happen like this--so suddenly, so completely. The wave of freedom has finally reached that part of Germany,” said club member Erwin Simons.

And Gunter Kunkel, a past Phoenix president, saw yet another impact from the Nov. 10 drama. “You’re going to see more people (in America) showing their pride at being German-Americans,” he said. “You’re going to see them coming out of the closet.”

Such public displays of German-American pride are still rare in Orange County, even though the German-American population here is one of the largest in the United States.

The county has roughly 140,000 residents of direct German ancestry--German immigrants or their immediate American-born descendants--a total second only to Los Angeles County in California, according to Phoenix Club officials. Another 320,000 Orange County residents are believed to be of part-German ancestry.

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And German immigrants have played a pivotal role in Orange County history, dating back to 1857 when a band of German immigrants established the vineyard colony that was incorporated 21 years later as the town of Anaheim.

Yet established German-American organizations--such as the 30-year-old Phoenix Club, the biggest social-cultural organization of its kind in Southern California--have long kept a low, noncontroversial, rather innocuous profile.

Before the monumental upheavals in East Germany and Eastern Europe, and the current high-diplomacy talks over reunifying West and East Germany, the German-American community in Orange County--like those in many other American regions--was usually ignored.

Or taken for granted.

“There has not been a clear-cut German ethnic identity or opinion bloc in America for generations--not like there is, say, for the Italian or the Polish communities,” said Robert Henry Billigmeier, a UC Santa Barbara sociologist and specialist on German-American history.

Indeed, the Phoenix Club, which has a membership of 3,500 families, most of whom are from Orange County, has for decades been the only German-American organization of any importance in the county.

The already small number of private German-language schools has shrunk even further--three schools in Orange County with overall enrollment of only 130 children. The only Orange County church that still offers regular German-language services is the tiny Old World Community Church in Huntington Beach.

This lack of all-out ethnic activism, social scientists have argued, is due in large part to an obvious phenomenon--the swift and thorough assimilation of most German-Americans. In that sense, German immigrants--whose overall numbers since colonial times have been surpassed only by English settlers--are among the quintessential melting-pot success sagas.

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But the stigma of two world wars in which Germany was America’s enemy is another crucial reason for the low profile of most German-American organizations. The fears of being thought of as foreign-culture militants or promoters of German nationalism are strong even today, social scientists and German-American organizers say.

“We are not talking about people denying or being ashamed of their German heritage. But we are talking about people who have found that for political or emotional reasons, you do not go around proclaiming it,” explained historian Henry Cord Meyer of UC Irvine, himself the son of German immigrants.

Yet German-American organizers hope the events surrounding the opening of the Berlin Wall will bolster what amounts to an ethnic-roots movement for their communities.

“No matter how assimilated we are, no matter how much we have been absorbed, we need to recognize our cultural past as much as any other group,” said Elsbeth Seewald, president of the 30,000-member German-American National Congress, a Chicago-based cultural and civic affairs organization.

“We need more than ever to reaffirm the great cultural, scientific and economic contributions of German-Americans in building America,” Seewald added. “We must not be so reticent about such things.”

The Phoenix Club was founded on Aug. 4, 1960, by members of the last great wave of German immigration to America.

The 15 local families, whose fathers were mostly craftsmen and businessmen, had left Germany during the 1950s, when their native country was still widely devastated from the war.

However, this core group found that Orange County in the 1950s--despite sizable German-American populations in Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and Fullerton--did not have a major gathering place for German immigrants and other German-speaking people.

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After receiving hundreds of replies to a classified ad about a German club, the core group in late 1960 held the first of its dances and other gatherings at local union and lodge halls.

The name Phoenix Club “was very appropriate because we wanted to see our native culture reborn from the ashes of World War II,” explained founding member Hans Klein, 68, a restaurant equipment consultant, who immigrated from the Hamburg area.

But Phoenix was chosen only after more Germanic titles were dropped from consideration. “We also wanted a neutral name,” Klein added. “We didn’t want a name that suggested any of the old negative political or national images.”

The 19,000-square-foot clubhouse, built on a then 4 1/2-acre site near Anaheim Stadium and the Santa Ana River, was opened on April 21, 1965. “Except for the foundation and shell, we did it all with volunteers. That is why it’s more than a clubhouse to us--it’s truly a home,” said one of those club volunteers, Erwin Simons, 56, an interior architect who emigrated from Cologne.

But the spacious club, with its dance floor, dining tables, huge bar, athletic facilities and outdoor kiddie rides, isn’t all schnitzel, beer, polkas, sports and oompah-pah fellowship. The club also offers choir groups, ballet classes, German-language films and other such cultural pursuits.

And the club not only provides its own German-language classes for adults, it also supports the German-American School Assn. of Southern California, which teaches 500 children in Saturday classes. The association’s 15 schools are in Mission Viejo, Huntington Beach and Anaheim.

The club’s current programs will remain intact even if it has to vacate its present site--which is earmarked for the city of Anaheim’s proposed sports arena complex--and move to another location in the same area.

Still, some club members believe that further erosion of the old German customs and the language is inevitable--a situation, they said, that afflicts all ethnic groups. “We know that it becomes more and more a struggle to pass the heritage on to the younger generations. But it’s our task to try and keep it alive as long as we can,” said Hans Habereder, 74, originally from Munich and leader of Die Gemuetlichen Schuhplattler, the club’s Bavarian-styled dance troupe.

The club’s own membership rolls are showing the slippage. Although 70% of the club’s families are German-Americans, the number of member families has dropped from 5,500 in the 1970s to the current 3,500.

One reason, club leaders said, is the familiar one of assimilation. Another is the sharp decline in new immigrant families, a key source of support for groups like the Phoenix Club. In 1951-1960, the number of Germans entering the United States was 345,000, the largest of any national group that decade. By 1971-1980, the total had declined to 66,000.

The sharp drop, said Seewald of the German-American National Congress, was due to a sweeping change in U.S. immigration laws and the vastly improved economic conditions in West Germany.

But one situation hasn’t changed, some Phoenix Club members said, despite the passage of nearly 45 years since the end of World War II. They argued that the stigma of the war--and the Hitler-era atrocities--still lingers, especially for those who had lived in Germany during that era.

Moreover, they said, it is an issue that shows little sign of truly fading. For example, they said, there has been a barrage in recent years of American television programs about or set in Nazi Germany. They argued that such programs have only perpetuated simplistic views of the Hitler era.

“We were, as much as anyone, victims of (Hitler’s) dictatorship,” said the former Phoenix Club president, Kunkel, 55, a print-shop operator who was born in the Saar Basin. “But too often this issue of blame and guilt is greatly simplified when applied to the German people.”

“For one thing,” Kunkel said, “critics have the habit of ignoring the crucial political and economic conditions throughout Europe that were just as much a part of that era.”

And some club members feel the magnitude of the Holocaust needs to be re-evaluated.

“It is an issue that can be too easily exploited,” said the Rev. Juergen Bless, 48, a native of Hamburg and pastor of the Old World Community Church in Huntington Beach. “There seems to be hysteria at both ends of the issue--those who claim that the Holocaust never happened and those who maintain that as many as 6 million people were killed.”

“The truth, many of us feel, is somewhere in the middle,” Bless added.

(Despite Bless’s contention, the belief that Nazi Germany exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II in death camps and other areas is widely accepted.

The 6-million figure is “based on much scholarly research since 1945, as well as on personal accounts and other documentation of that era. We consider that figure to be an accurate reflection of that tragedy,” said Sam Eskenazi, staff spokesman for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, a federally created agency whose 65 members, mostly U.S. senators and congressmen, include Gov. George Deukmejian.)

On the overall issue of stigma and guilt, Seewald viewed it this way: “There is no question of the horrors of that era. But many feel that such a debate over who was right and who was wrong can’t go on forever. They believe there should be a time to put the past behind us--and to start anew.”

Attendance at the Phoenix Club was smaller than usual this February night, but the members there were no less spirited.

The Karneval court royalty and entourage, resplendent in their formal attire, medals and feathered caps, were strolling around the dance floor. The Bavarian dance troupe--the men in somber-hued shorts and vests, the women in flowing red dresses--were high stepping their way though a rehearsal.

But it wasn’t all conviviality and clubby camaraderie. The memories of the club’s Nov. 10 celebration were proudly on display.

The banner in German--"Finally, Freedom for East Germany"--still hung on the wall. Copies of German newspapers and photographs on the Berlin Wall opening were placed in the lobby cases.

And on one table, like revered relics on an altar, were chunks of rock and cement. To club members these were more than souvenirs. They were symbols of reunion and rebirth. And of pride. These were pieces of the fallen Wall itself--chiseled by Phoenix Club members in recent visits to Berlin.


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