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The Capitol Hill neighborhood has gone through plenty of changes during the last 75 years. But on this Thursday night at the Denver Turnverein, a funky structure at 1570 Clarkson that has welcomed the city's German population since 1922, time is standing still. Put your ear to the door beneath a sign that proudly identifies the building as "German House" and you'll hear the same glorious sounds that have been bouncing off its walls for the better part of a century--the sounds of the Arion Gesangverein men's chorus using their voices to create a paradise on earth.
"Thirty seconds, gentlemen," says Larry Meerdink, second tenor and choir director for the Gesangverein. In short order, Horst Kuster, Hans Pott and a collection of comrades whose ages range from the late twenties to senior-citizen territory take last sips of beer or water before obligingly settling into a half-circle of chairs in the Turnverein's Rathskellar, or basement. With prompting from Meerdink and accompanist/co-director Oliver Ellsworth, they are soon wrapping their voices around a strange array of consonant-heavy, Deutsch-friendly phonetics that move in tandem with the notes Ellsworth plays on a nearby piano. Their throats sufficiently warmed, Meerdink calls out the title of the night's first number, taps on the music stand in front of him and offers a polite command: "Stand up, gentlemen. Let's sing."
On cue, the men rise from their seats and leap into a rousing, full-bodied unison vocal that fills the space from floor to ceiling with lush, dense chords capable of rattling the bones in a visitor's head and raising goosebumps on the stuffed deer heads looking down on them from the end of the room. The tenor section delivers the song's first line; their lower-registered colleagues counter with a stirring call and response that fortifies the melody. Several constituents of the predominantly silver-haired crowd stare straight ahead as they sing, their expressions serious and stern, while others beam over shared songbooks containing lines that mirror their splendid tones: "Wie ein stolzer Adler schwingt sich auf das Lied/Dass es froh die Seele auf zum Himmel zieht"--"like a proud eagle rises up borne upon the song that pulls the soul on to heaven."
Several verses later the tune shoots for the skies, taking the Gasangverein along with it. The next moment the singers descend, bringing the song in for a delicate landing. It's a beautiful conclusion--just as beautiful as it was decades earlier, when vocalists like Kuster and Pott first climbed its gorgeous scales. The two have been through a lot in their lives. They saw the Germany of their youth torn asunder by war and tyranny; they fought in the army of the Third Reich, largely unaware of the darkness in their leaders' hearts; they watched as friends and loved ones suffered and died; and once peace was declared, they made new lives for themselves in America. But although the passage of years distanced them from their origins, they never forgot the music that was as much a part of them as flesh and blood. Far from it: Thanks to the Turnverein, they revel in it on a regular basis.
Anyone who wonders what's important to these men need look no further than the Rathskellar itself. Amid a succession of murals depicting majestic mountain scenes are painted a series of German slogans. "He who does not believe in wine, women and song is a fool his whole life long," reads one. "An angry man has no song," declares another. But one placard is arguably the most appropriate: "Where there is song, there is tranquility."
Horst Kuster, a robust 75-year-old who is seldom without a smile, didn't come to Colorado in 1944 by choice; rather, the decision was made for him. Three years into a stint with Hitler's Wehrmacht, Kuster was captured by Allied forces and shipped to Fort Morgan, which, like Greeley and Fort Collins, hosted camps for German prisoners during World War II. He was promptly put to work picking beets for area farmers. "Some of those beet fields were a mile long," he recalls, his husky inflection evoking the land of his birth. "We had to harvest either half an acre or a ton of beets each day. If the soil was sandy, you could make a half-acre fast and we didn't worry about the ton. But if it was muddy, then you had to worry. I felt sorry for some of the older guys, but we didn't mind. We were young."
That Kuster was able to shrug off these labors speaks volumes about his hellish wartime adventures. He was drafted into the German army in 1941 and within months was knee-deep in mud, snow and despair at the Russian front. "In 1942 we were just fifty miles from Russia," he notes. "I think the Russian government was packing to leave Moscow, but then the winter came. The first week of October it was sunshine--maybe seventy degrees. The second week of October there were five inches of snow, and we only had summer clothes. Thirty-five degrees below zero and stuff like that, and carloads of soldiers coming back with frozen feet, frozen hands. And we were out of gasoline and supplies, so we had to come back.