Elderhostels: Teaching and Learning with Americans of German Descent

An "Elderhostel" is an educational adventure for older adults who love to be challenged by new experiences. There are no prerequisites, no exams nor grades. It generally lasts 5 days and is open to adults age 55 or older; a spouse/companion can be younger. (1)

In 1990 we were asked to conduct an Elderhostel on the German-Americans. Since then we have taught two each year with an average of 35 participants. Because of southern Indiana's strong German background, we chose the Kordes Enrichment Center of the Benedictine Monastery of the Immaculate Conception at Ferdinand, IN for our site. The nuns came originally from Eichstätt/ Bavaria to minister to German Catholics. The town was founded with support by Vienna's Leopoldinen-Stiftung and it is named after Austrian Emperor Ferdinand. From the gravestones to the mailboxes, little Ferdinand is 99% ethnically German. One can savor old time German-American cooking and find fourth-generation folks who still speak the German-American dialect of the region. The breakfast cook might greet you with "Wie bischt heit?" and "Mog'st an coffee?" At the Lindauer farm, father and son preferably speak German--although they never had it in school.

The workshops are based on the expressed needs and interests that often go beyond facts, figures and methods of heritage studies. For many elderhostelers this means getting acquainted with a heritage denied through anti-Germanism caused by two world wars.

We designed three Elderhostel programs. Their structures and materials were developed in response to feedback there and from workshops and seminars elsewhere.

  1. Exploring Our German-American Heritage provides a general introduction to the German-American experience and German-American Studies.
  2. German-American Customs, Beliefs and Traditions provides an introduction to the German-American experience with special emphasis on folkloristic aspects.
  3. German-American Genealogy, Family History and Community History is conducted jointly with genealogist Ernest Thode, nationally known authority in "roots" research in German-speaking Europe.

OVERARCHING GOALS. Participants get acquainted with: 1. "push and pull" factors that encouraged emigration from the Old World; 2. migration history of the German-speaking peoples and the tribal basis of German diversity; 3. changing political boundaries of central Europe and the resulting ethnic/political incongruences (Bayerisch Schwaben; Kulturnation/Staats- nation); 4. immigration and integration in the New World; 5. character of German-American communities; and participants will learn: 6. to recognize things German around them.

SEVERAL GENERAL PRESENTATIONS, but adapted to the individual Elderhostel theme, provide the foundation for all three programs:

1. "THE GERMAN-AMERICANS--from Jamestown to the Present," an introductory slide presentation.

2. EUROPEAN BACKGROUND--MIGRATION AND EMIGRATION. Ethno-geographic, political, socio-economic and religious aspects in the history of the German-speaking peoples.

3. HOW DO WE KNOW IT'S GERMAN? A slide presentation introduces the concept of "Ethnic Markers," those clues that dot American mainstream culture with adopted and adapted German prototypes, ranging from foods and language to customs, dress, and mores.

4. GERMAN-AMERICAN CUSTOMS, BELIEFS AND TRADITIONS. An overview ranging from Groundhog Day to Christmas and their roots in the German/Germanic past.

5. GERMAN-SPEAKING COUNTRIES OF TODAY are brought into the discussion whenever appropriate.

6. THE SISTERS OF ST. BENEDICT--FROM EICHSTÄTT TO FERDINAND (serves also as an introduction to #7).

7. TOUR OF THE MONASTERY built by a German-American architect, with woodwork from Oberammergau, stained glass windows from Munich, and religious art.

8. SUPPER with the Sisters in the Monastery dining room.

9. DISCUSSION AND ACTIVE PARTICIPATION are stressed: Imagine the niece of Rudi Dirks (creator of the "Katzenjammer Kids") in your classroom, or a descendant of General Herkimer, or an octagonarian nun recounting her arrival as a teenager at Ellis Island and her trip to Ferdinand.

10. THE BASIC TEXT, W.P. Adams' illustrated The German-Americans: An Ethnic Experience (Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center Indianapolis, 1993), is augmented by handouts and other publications for perusal or purchase.

I. Exploring Our German-American Heritage. Participants are introduced to: 1. historical, cultural and religious aspects of the German-speaking people; 2. German immigration and the immigrant experience; 3. community building in Dubois County and the contiguous area initiated by the Rev. Joseph Kundek; 4. the cultural impact of two Benedictine communities--the sisters of St. Benedict, Ferdinand, and the monks of nearby St. Meinrad Archabbey (with roots in Einsiedeln, Switzerland); 5. an Amish community; 6. German- American architecture, art and artists.

FOCUS PRESENTATIONS are slide lectures on the Hoosier Germans and a presentation on the pioneer priest/colonizer Rev. Kundek. An excursion into the history and religion of the German Anabaptists, with emphasis on the Amish, forms the counterpoint.

GERMAN-AMERICAN ARTISTS, with art historian Annemarie Springer, focuses on a) artists of the Benedictine Monastery and their relationship to the religious art scene; b) secular German-American artists and cartoonists such as Thomas Nast, Joseph Keppler and Rudi Dirks.

SINGALONGS: Old German folk songs and original German-language versions of hymns found in American hymnals.

REFERENCE MATERIALS. H. Muehr, "Help from Vienna: Father Joseph Kundek and the German-Catholic Settlement of Dubois County, Indiana," in: E. Reichmann et al., eds., Emigration and Settlement Patterns of German Communities in North America, Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center, 1995; Elfrieda Lang, "Joseph Kundek: Pioneer Catholic Missionary in Southern Indiana," in: Studies in Indiana German Americana, Vol. 2 (1995), 27-37; M.K. Scheessele and A. Springer, "German-American Religious Art in Southern Indiana," ibid., 53-60; P.C. Merrill, German Immigrant Artists in America. A Biographical Dictionary, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997; Teaching Unit: "German Immigration & Famous German-Americans."(2)

VIDEOS: The Amish: A People of Preservation; Off to New Shores: 300 Years of German Immigration to North America.(3)

FIELD TRIPS: The town cemetery and church; the Benedictine Monastery and St. Meinrad Archabbey with its Archives and an exhibit of German- language letters and publications of the Archabbey; an Amish tour and Mittagessen in an Amish home in nearby Montgomery.

II. German-American Customs, Beliefs and Traditions. Participants learn about: 1. fall and winter celebrations with special focus on the Advent Season and the "Twelve Days of Christmas"; 2. Christmas customs, foods and songs brought to America; 3. food preparation and beer and wine-making; 4. arts and crafts of early immigrants (hands-on sessions); 5. deciphering alte deutsche Handschrift und Fraktur. Participants are asked to bring old letters and documents.

FOCUS PRESENTATIONS include: "From Fall Festivals, Oktoberfests and German-American Day to Groundhog Day"; "German and American Thanksgiving Celebrations"; "Halloween and Its Relation to Winter Celebrations"; "Christmas Traditions and Christmas Symbols"; "The Gift Givers and Their Pagan Companions: The Legend of St. Nikolaus, Belsnickel and Santa Claus (Thomas Nast's Christmas), Kris Kringle and Christkindl"; "Silvester/New Years, Fasching/Karneval to Ash Wednesday." Participants learn about Christmas markets, the German goose-feather tree, St. Nikolaus Lebkuchen, German decorated candles, glass ornaments, nutcrackers, Scherenschnitte; butchering, baking, cooking and other winter tasks.

SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS by Ferdinand arts and crafts people range from "Making a Lebkuchenhaus" to "Tatting" and "Home Brewing."

EVENING GROUP SESSIONS to choose from: 1. "Handschrift und Fraktur"; 2. "Scherenschnitte; 3. "Folding Christmas Stars."

SINGALONGS: "Weihnachtslieder/German Christmas Songs"; "Deutsche Kirchenlieder/Hymns from Germany"; "Trink- und Wanderlieder/German Folk and Drinking Songs."

REFERENCE MATERIALS. George Constable, ed., A Country Christmas, Time-Life Books, 1989; R.M. Reichmann, "Hoosier German Customs and Traditions," unpubl. manuscript (4); E. Reichmann, ed., Witter's deutsch-englische Schreib- und Lese-Fibel, Indianapolis: Indiana German Heritage Society, 1987 (Reprint of 1881 school text).

VIDEOS. Alle Jahre wieder: Die schönsten Weihnachtslieder; Tchaikowsky's Nutcracker (Salzburger Marionettes); Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel; Treffpunkt: Nikolausbräuche; Karneval: Jubel, Trubel, Heiterkeit; The Amish: A People of Preservation; Old Economy Village: The Home of the Harmonists. (3)

FIELD TRIPS. Local and Amish arts & crafts; Huber Orchard and Winery.

III. German-American Genealogy, Family History and Community History. Participants learn to do German-American genealogy and family history; gathering and organizing information; using sources in America and archives in Germany; finding ancestral places of origin; deciphering old German script and Fraktur. Also: Exploring a Benedictine community and Historic New Harmony founded in 1814 as an Anabaptist celibate Utopia by Swabian religious dissidents.

PRESENTATIONS alternate with hands-on activities and attention to individual questions. Sessions include:

GERMAN NAMES. Surnames, given names, place names, and their respective predominance in certain regions; misspellings, misinterpretations, and Anglicizations. Ferdinand's town cemetery provides for exercises in deciphering Gothic lettering and the "challenge" of finding non-German names.

LOCATING IMMIGRANT PLACES OF ORIGIN. Covers family sources, censuses, church records & histories, cemetery records, death records, obituaries (esp. in German-language newspapers), military, draft, and naturalization records, passenger lists, bibliographies, and genealogical societies.

HANDSCHRIFT UND FRAKTUR. 18th/19th century passports and similar documents containing both Fraktur and Handschrift are examined and compared with standard alphabets. Steps in getting to know an individual Handschrift. Problems with poor spelling and absence of punctuation in many an immigrant correspondence.

GERMAN IMMIGRANT GROUPS: THEIR SETTLEMENTS AND GENEALOGICAL SOURCES. Germantown, PA; New York "Palatines"; Germanna, VA; the German coast of Louisiana; Brethren; Pennsylvania Germans; Schwenkfelders; South Carolina; Waldoboro, ME; Harmony, PA/New Harmony, IN; Amish; "Old Lutherans" in NY and WI; Saxon Lutherans in Missouri; Texas (the Adelsverein); Ebenezer, NY/Amana, IA; the '48ers; Germans from Russia; 1933 and political and intellectual refugees; displaced persons; German war brides.

COMMUNITY HISTORY RESEARCH. Harmonist (Anabaptist) and Catholic settlement patterns in southern Indiana are explored, with special emphasis on New Harmony and Ferdinand.

EVENING SESSIONS to chose from: 1. Handschrift und Fraktur; 2. Help with Genealogy and Family History; 3. Videos.

REFERENCE MATERIALS. Teaching Unit: "German-Americans and Their Contributions to the American Mainstream Culture: German Names and Words"(2); E.A. Brandt, et al., Germanic Genealogy: A Guide to Worldwide Sources and Migration Patterns, Germanic Genealogy Society, 1995; Sh.J. Riemer, The German Research Companion, Sacramento: Lorelei Press, 1997; E. Thode, Address Book for Germanic Genealogy, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 5th ed., 1995; Witter's Deutsch-englische Schreib- und Lese-Fibel (see Ref. Materials in II above); D.E. Pitzer and J.M. Elliott, New Harmony's First Utopians, rep. from Indiana Magazine of History, LXXV, 3 (1979); E. Reichmann, et al., eds., Emigration and Settlement Patterns of German Communities in North America, Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center, 1995.

VIDEOS. Off to New Shores: 300 Years of German Immigration to North America(3); Old Economy Village (3rd Harmonist settlement, in PA).

FIELD TRIPS. The town cemetery of Ferdinand, the Benedictine Monastery, and Historic New Harmony.


1 Elderhostel, a non-profit educational organization, offers inexpensive, short-term programs, hosted by educational institutions around the world. The Elderhostel, United States Catalog is thicker than any college catalog. The national Elderhostel office is at 75 Federal Street, 3rd Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1941, Tel. 617-426-8056.

2 Teaching Units can be found on the Max Kade German-American Center web page: http://maxkade.iupui.edu/pages/resources-folder/ /teaching.html

3 Most videos are from the German-Language Video Center, 7635 Pendleton Pike, Indianapolis, IN 46226-5298, Tel. 317-547-1257, Fax 317-547-1263, E-mail glvc@indy.net, webpage http://www.germanvideo.com/xmas.htm

4 A variety of German festivals and celebrations from this collection have been placed as culture capsules on the web page of Robert Shea.

Elderhostel: German-American Customs, Beliefs and Traditions Sep. 20-25, Ferdinand, IN

For further information, contact
Eberhard and Ruth Reichmann
Max Kade German-American Center
Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis
401 East Michigan Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204
317 464-9004 Office
812 988-2866 Home
317 630-0035 FAX

Return to German Americana Page, which features many of the items discussed above.