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June 2004

Amerika, Please

More than 300 years of Bavarian emigration

You may have seen the movies Once upon a Time in America, Heaven’s Gate and Out of Rosenheim, or perhaps you’ve read books such as Frank McCourt’s Tis: A Memoir, or Susan Sontag’s America, all of which deal, in one way or another, with emigration to North America. Such documentation of immigrant life, moving and valuable as it is, tends to concentrate on the lure of the New World. This summer, an exhibition imaginatively entitled “Good Bye Bayern, Grüss Gott America” on show in Nördlingen and Rosenheim will redress the balance by providing images not only of a German emigrant’s future in America, but, above all, of the life left behind in the Old World of Bavaria.

The exhibition’s subtitle, “Emigration from Bavaria to the United States, 1683–2003,” emphasizes this very special perspective. Roughly one-quarter of all North Americans are of German descent—including the 86,000 Germans that have emigrated over the past ten years. Approximately 25 percent of these German immigrants came from Bavaria. Their reasons for leaving the motherland were political, religious, economic, sometimes purely personal. “Good Bye Bayern, Grüss Gott America” presents their stories with objects and background information that explain and illustrate developments such as the search for religious freedom in the 17th and 18th centuries, when many Quakers and Mennonites left for America; the economic hardship that became the driving force behind 19th-century emigration; or the political persecution of minorities that forced many to leave in the 20th century. The nuances of these situations are well captured and thoroughly documented, with particular attention devoted to Bavarian attitudes towards emigration and to changes in legislation that governed this momentous move to another continent.

Among the first to leave Bavaria was Francis Daniel Pastorius from Franconia, commissioned by the Frankfort Land Company to purchase land for a settlement in America. Himself a Pietist converted to Quaker teachings by William Penn, Pastorius founded Germantown in Pennsylvania in June 1683, where he very soon drafted the first protest against slavery in America as part of a movement that ultimately led to the American Civil War. Some 200 years later, the Battle of Gettysburg was fought just a bugle call away from Germantown. Artifacts displayed in this exhibition, including a bronze monument to Pastorius alongside the handkerchief and pipe of a Bavarian participant in the American Civil War, show how closely linked the Old World was with the New. The exhibition’s special strength lies in its blending of biographical details of individual lives with general historical developments. The melancholy of departure and the excitement of arrival are presented in private and public contexts. What more moving an artifact could there be than a brooch made of one immigrant’s mother’s hair? Small and precious, it epitomizes both the craftsmanship on which many Bavarians staked their hopes of a good life in America and the intensely personal ties that they continued to feel for their homeland.

A glut of skilled laborers in the 19th century was one of the reasons why many Bavarians emigrated in the first place. The skills that many Bavarians brought with them have long since become quintessential American culture: coloring pencils and jeans produced in the factories of Anton Faber and Löw (Levi) Strauss are two of the more illustrious examples, but there are many, more mundane destinies that capture the visitor’s attention. From saloon owners in Texas to farmers who made their way to the wide open spaces of Michigan and Wisconsin; from the Benedictine monks that emigrated to provide spiritual succor for their compatriots to intellectuals such as Erika and Klaus Mann, Henry Kissinger or Bertolt Brecht—the breadth of connections established between America and Bavaria is as wide as the ocean that separates them. It is to the credit of the exhibition organizers (the Center for Bavarian History) that despite the great diversity of exhibits, the emphasis is on similarity, not difference. Opponents of globalization argue that individual traditions and customs are in danger of being subsumed, flattened by the steam roller of mainstream American culture. It is a comforting experience, and one that this exhibition nurtures, to realize just how much of that culture derives from Europe. Americans themselves are open and interested in their backgrounds. It is hoped that this exhibition will travel to the United States and help visitors there to overcome what currently seems to be a growing continental divide. “Good Bye Bayern, Grüss Gott America” will be on show at the Alte Schranne, Nördlingen, from June 24 to September 26.

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