The Carpathia Chronicles

Part I: Genesis

The first part of this multi-part series that tells the story of Carpathia’s founding and early years of growth up to the building of the Elmwood Street hall. By Richard W. Gerhardt

 

"Von deutscher Erde sind wir abgeglitten, Auf diese Insel weit im Völkermeer,

Und wo des Schwaben Pflug das Land durchschnitten, Wird deutsch die Erde und er weicht nicht mehr."

Müller-Guttenbrunn

 

The date was January 5, 1913. In the German community of Detroit’s East Side, the wind howled through the streets, adding a chill to the already bitter cold Sunday afternoon. But inside Beecher Hall on Michigan Avenue, a roaring fireplace provided warmth for 57 men who had gathered in response to an advertisement published in the "Detroiter Abendpost", a prominent German newspaper. The ad called for the creation of a German-Hungarian Singing Society and anyone interested was invited to attend. Now, they sat in the room, listening attentively to the man who spoke; the man responsible for the summons, Peter Schock.

 

Schock considered himself an "Ostschwabe", or "East Swabian", having migrated from Austria-Hungary’s eastern frontier to Philadelphia, before making his home in Detroit. He had been witness to the all too often harsh treatment of his fellow Schwaben by the numerous singing societies and other organizations prospering in Detroit’s booming German ethnic community of the time.

 

In those days, German nationalism was at an all time high as strong sentiment toward anything from the "Fatherland" prevailed among the proud immigrants of Detroit’s German community. Rightfully so, there was much to be proud of. Back home, the German Empire was at its peak, under the leadership of Prussia’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. To the South, Germany’s cousin and close ally, Austria-Hungary, ruled by the Hapsburgs for 800 years, stretched from the Alps to the Black Sea. In Detroit, the "Reichsdeutsche", immigrants from the "Reich", or Germany proper, considered the Ostschwaben to be "impure" in their German ethnicity, and often treated them as lower class. The Swabians were discouraged from joining many of the German singing societies, and even, at times, had their memberships rejected.

 

They were referred to as Ostschwaben because they came from Austria-Hungary’s eastern-most region along the Danube River, in the Pannonian Basin, a land considered to be frontier by residents of Vienna and Berlin. Because of the strong political influence of the Hungarians over that part of the Hapsburg Empire, the language of the Ostschwaben came to include many words and expressions native to the Magyars. This, combined with the fact that the Ostschwaben dialect developed as an amalgam of several South Western German dialects, made it significantly different from the "Hochdeutsch", or "High-German" spoken by the Reichsdeutsche.

 

Detroit’s Ostschwaben came to the U.S. speaking the language of their homeland, not well versed in "Hochdeutsch". The Reichsdeutsche looked on the Ostschwäbische speech more as gibberish, than a legitimate German dialect. Further, fueled by a strong national sentiment, the Detroit Reichsdeutsche often thought of the Schwaben as "being good for little else but making a mouth watering goulash". Meanwhile, the Swabians were reluctant to join local Hungarian organizations, because most Swabians spoke only broken Hungarian, at best. For that matter, the Schwaben never sought the company of the Magyars backhome, since the Ostschwaben were treated as "buta svabs" by the Hungarians and largely ignored. Similarly, the Americans had nothing in common with the Ostschwaben either, looking down on them as "hunkies" .

 

Few things kindle human resolve more than not being fully appreciated as an equal and, according to writings by Schock’s associate Peter Gänger, "...Schock would not have been Schock had he not mustered his entire oratory skills to remedy the unpleasant situation which had befallen the Detroiter Ostschwaben". It was no wonder that, on this memorable afternoon, with unanimous consent and enthusiasm, a new Singing Society was created with Peter Schock as its first President. The Society called itself the "German-Austrian-Hungarian Singing Society", and within days, established a constitution and elected its first board of directors. The Society carried that name until June 22, when it merged with the already established "Deutsche-Ungarische Fortschrittsbund", or "German-Hungarian Progressive Union". The "German-Hungarian Singing Society and Progressive Union", (GHSSPU) was born that day with Schock, once again, as President.

 

Despite the merger, singing remained the focus for the Schwaben, and Beecher Hall served as the focal point for meetings, practices, and gatherings. Mr. Joseph E. Schmitz was retained as chorus director. This turned out to be a good move, because the talented and capable Schmitz molded the untrained collection of voices with notable results. His talent and enthusiastic love for music were responsible for building a mixed chorus that was on par with the other singing societies in the area. The performances were given an added boost of professionalism by the well-trained, rich, tenor voice of Fred U. Schreiner, who became a longtime member of the group. The chorus quickly gained in notoriety, not only within the German community, but also in American cultural circles around the Detroit area. As a result, membership grew rapidly, and the Society was forced to move out of Beecher Hall in September to a larger facility at 514 Gratiot Avenue.

 

By the fall of 1913, the GHSSPU had hundreds of members, most of them Ostschwaben, and on October 26, they established an all-female chorus with 24 members. Also under Schmitz direction, the ladies chorus became well respected and soon received high praise by the Abendpost’s chief writer Maximillian Markus.

 

The mixed chorus’ rapid growth during this time period must have contributed to the rift that existed, almost from the beginning, between the Ostschwaben and their Hungarian Progressive brothers. The union was doomed from the start, first of all, because of the language and cultural differences between the Swabians and the Hungarians. Contrary to what the "Reichsdeutsche" believed, the Schwaben were, apparently, more German than Hungarian after all. In addition, both groups had differing interests, with the Schwaben focused mostly on singing. The chorus’ rapid success and expansion seemed to leave the German-Hungarian Progressive Union behind, and in February 1914, barely 8 months after their merger, the two groups split. This event necessitated another name change, since "German-Hungarian Singing Society and Progressive Union", would no longer be appropriate. Happily, simplicity won the day as the name "Carpathia Singing Society" was chosen. This name won favor among members because most could claim origins in the vicinity of this Eastern European mountain range.

 

Carpathia continued to grow in membership and success throughout 1914. Good financial management by the Society’s Board of Directors, still under the leadership of Schock, made it possible to pay several of the officers. At a meeting on July 12, the treasurer, as well as the recording-, correspondence- and finance secretaries, were granted a yearly allowance of $5.00. The hall manager of the time, Mr. G. Brenner, also received a monthly stipend of $10.00. This financial success continued, and by 1915, Carpathia began offering insurance coverage to its membership. Because insurance was less common at that time, it was not unusual for many German organizations to offer similar benefits.

 

In October, 1914, war broke out in Europe and the Carpathia Singers rallied to the cause of providing relief for widows and orphans of German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. The Society sponsored several benefit concerts, employing the help of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and some well-known soloists of the era. The first concert netted $898.50, and the money was channeled to the needy in Europe through the Red Cross. The Society continued these benefit activities until 1917, when the United States entered World War I. Since it was illegal to provide aid to enemies of the U.S., Carpathia was prohibited from holding any more benefit concerts.

 

It remains the custom today, that all German ethnic organizations have their own flag, and in the spring of 1915, Carpathia held a large flag dedication ceremony, or "Fahnenweihe". The event was massive and included all the clubs within Detroit’s’ German Community, as well as Ostschwaben from Cleveland. Among those that gave speeches during the banquet, following the dedication, was Detroit Mayor, Oskar B. Marx, Professor Emil Albrecht, State Representative Hermann Köhler, and many more. To show their appreciation for the support received from Cleveland’s Ostschwaben at the Fahnenweihe, Carpathia visited the city in June of that same year, with 138 persons. This cemented a lasting friendship between the two cities that continues today.

 

By 1915, the Carpathia Singing Society had added a theater group of its own, which also proved highly successful at raising money for the needy victims of war. Similar to the chorus, Carpathia’s largely untrained amateur actors were fortunate to be under the leadership of the once professional actor, William Vollmer. Under Vollmer’s capable tutelage, the drama company developed sufficient skills to perform some truly substantial theater plays. Performances quickly became a highlight of the Societies’ events calendar. The group won high praise from both audiences and the press, and in later years, went on the road, with performances in Cleveland. Carpathia also added a children’s chorus that year, and the group of 15 gave its first performance on October 10.

 

Carpathia’s growth continued and the club was again forced to look for a larger home. On July 1, 1915, they moved into the old home of another prominent German singing society, Concordia. The Concordia Home was located on the corner of St. Antoine, Catherine (Madison), and Gratiot Avenue, and provided the now 500 Carpathia members with several years of residence. But, not long after moving in, it became apparent that the Concordia Home could not keep pace with the rapidly growing membership, and the idea of building a Carpathia Hall took root.

 

In the Fall of 1915, traditions of the homeland were recreated with extraordinary detail, as Carpathia held its first Weinlesefest (Grape Harvest). Concordia Hall was artfully decorated and looked like a veritable Weinberg (Grape vineyard). The Weinlesefest was such a success, that a repeat of the event was demanded the following year. However, by 1920, the prohibition law robbed the Fest of its original character.

 

In 1916, the idea of building a Carpathia Hall was entertained by more and more club members and, at a meeting on October 26, the issue was discussed in great detail. First, there was the problem of raising enough money to build the new facility. Second, it was argued that coming prohibition would seriously impede the proposed hall’s income potential. Also, because of the war, there was increasing hostility among the general population in the U.S. against Germans. But, once again, the initiative and enterprising spirit of President Peter Schock led the way. For Schock, no problem was insurmountable once he put his mind to it. He dedicated himself almost exclusively to the cause of building a Carpathia Hall. That this goal was finally realized in such a grand and imposing way, can be largely attributed to Schock’s tenacity and leadership.

 

On November 11, 1916 Carpathia purchased two adjoining lots on the corner of Joseph Campau and Berlin Street for $8,250.00. However, this building site was later recognized as unsuitable and sold. A year later, in October, 1917, the Society purchased another lot at 3500 Elmwood Avenue. The architect, Henry Kohner, was retained to design the building. It took two years to complete the preliminary work and much of that time was dedicated to raising the $93,000 needed for construction. In that regard, Carpathia’s Theater Group was a major contributor. On June 15, 1919, they performed C. A. Gramer’s comedy "Ein Glücklicher Familienvater" at the Cleveland Social Athletic Hall. To augment the fundraising effort, Carpathia borrowed $35,000 on April 13, 1919, as a mortgage for the building of the new hall. Schock and 6 other board members were so committed to the building project, that they personally signed for an additional $10,000.

 

Finally, on August 17, 1919, the cornerstone was laid in a ceremony involving not only all the German organizations in the Detroit area, but Ostschwaben from Cleveland and Chicago as well. Two chorus’ sang at the huge banquet celebrating the event. The Keynote speaker was Henry Pfeiffer, who’s moving oration made an unforgettable impression on those present.

 

Construction itself took less than a year, and on Sunday, April 18, 1920, Carpathia Hall opened for business. One month later, on May 15, a dedication ceremony was held amidst a grand celebration of over 1500 people. According to Gänger, guests were speechless upon arrival at the new hall, because "the grandeur of the building went far beyond their expectations". Carpathia’s mixed chorus, now 144 voices strong, accompanied by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, gave an awe-inspiring performance.

 

The story of Carpathia’s early years, in many ways, reflects the story of the Ostschwaben as a people. Tough, hardworking, loyal to their German origins, yet unique in many respects. In the homeland, the Ostschwaben were isolated from their German roots, living peacefully among other ethnic groups with which they had little in common. Their determination transformed a wasteland frontier into the breadbasket of Europe.

 

Peter Schock typifies this Ostschwaben character. Rejected by the Germans with which he felt a kinship, and not at home with other ethnic groups, Schock established a singing society that became one of the most successful. But, he did not stop there. Schock pushed on, surmounting all obstacles that lay in his path, to build a Ostschwaben hall that was among the most impressive of its time. Today, that same Ostschwaben character lives on in all of us, even among the younger, American born, generation. The perseverance and determination, undaunted by difficulties and the prospect of hard work, is what gives the Ostschwaben true greatness of character. This is still true today, just as it was in 1913. _