The Daughter Unit and I were in Fredericksburg on Thursday last, running various errands to do with the books – and one of the more enjoyable interludes was lunch (at Rather Sweet) with Kenn Knopp. He is the local historian – nay, rather a walking encyclopedia when it comes to all things doing with the German settlement of Fredericksburg and the Hill Country. He very kindly read the Trilogy in draft manuscript, searching for historical and linguistic inaccuracies, beginning it as sort of a grim duty and turning into an enthusiastic fan by the last page. I was very grateful to him for doing this, and continue being grateful since he has continued singing their praises.
When we had been in Fredericksburg the week before, for a book-club meeting, and an interesting conversation with another long-time resident, who told us that during WWII it was illegal to speak German in public, which is why use of that language – (almost universal in Gillespie County in the 19th century) was no longer common, save among the very elderly. I had always understood that it was WWI which had really put a stake in the heart of German being the common usage in schools, churches and newspapers in the US; the extreme xenophobia of that time had mellowed somewhat with regards to ethnic Germans by the 1940s. Not so, apparently – and we asked Kenn to confirm. Oh yes, he said – and related the tale of a newly ordained minister, who arrived in Fredericksburg in the early 40s – from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and could not speak English well enough to discuss theological and philosophical intricacies. He kept lapsing back into German, in spite of being repeatedly warned – and wound up interned in the Crystal City camp for those suspected of having enemy sympathies. The luckless pastor did not mind internment very much, according to Kenn; even though he did not have a speck of Nazi sympathies. He could practice his pastoral vocation to his hearts’ content, in the Crystal City camp. He had a captive congregation, in more ways than one.
And not to assume that everyone there was as innocent as the Swiss-German pastor; Kenn also told us of a contemporary of his mothers’ – who actually was a Nazi sympathizer, in the 1930s, and persisted in delusions that he could recruit like-minded sympathizers among the Fredericksburg locals – much to their embarrassment and dismay. And then when he fancied himself a spy and began trying to send information to Germany by short-wave . . . well, that was too much. The hapless would-be spy was turned in to the authorities, and sent to Crystal City.
And that reminded me of the story which I heard, when growing up in the Shadow Hills – Sunland suburbs of greater Los Angeles. Along Sunland Boulevard, which connected Sun Valley with Sunland, and wound through a narrow, steep-sided valley connecting the two, was a wonderful rustic old restaurant building. It was built in the Thirties, quaint beyond belief, and set about with terraces cut into the hillside, vine-grown pergolas, pavilions where you could sit outside and eat and drink, all connected with stone staircases and paths: it was called “Old Vienna” when I knew it – serving generically mittel-European cuisine. It was built originally as a restaurant and beer garden, and called Old Vienna Gardens – it still exists as the Villa Terraza (serving uninspired Italian cuisine, to judge from the restaurant reviews) – but it was always and still a landmark. But the legend was, that the family who built it (and their ornate family home on the tall hilltop behind it) were somehow associated with Nazi sympathizers – and they also were spying for the Third Reich. Only, their shortwave radio had an even shorter range, of approximately three and a half miles, and the local county sheriff’s department was listening attentively to every broadcast . . . so no one was ever arrested. At the time, I think they were more freaked out about Japanese spies, anyway. Just an amusing intersection of legends.
There were POW camps in Texas also – for German prisoners of war. The Daughter Unit and I wondered if there were ever any serious escape activity from them; hundreds and hundreds of miles from a neutral border, lots of desert and rough country . . . and a great many well-armed local citizens. It’s in the back of my mind that there were one or two successful escape runs by German POWs from camps in Canada and the US, but I’m thinking that generally there were too many obstacles in the way of a successful home run – like the whole Atlantic Ocean for one. (Note to self – exercise the google-fu and see what comes up.)