Harmony, German Style
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.
"We didn't have any roads like we have here," he goes on. "And when the snow started melting, the roads were all mud. The only way you could move was with a little wagon and a horse. Everything was stuck in the mud: tanks, trucks--everything. Terrible. We never knew if we were ever going to get home again."
There were more horrors to come, and several of them are symbolized by one of the few relics Kuster has remaining from his Wehrmacht years--a German military commendation embossed with an eagle. Attached to the award are three smaller medallions decorated with the trademark German helmet and swastika, each one representing an injury he received in combat. But as he looks at the bauble, he thinks not of himself, but of another soldier. "I had a sergeant in Italy, and he got wounded," he says. "I knew it was fatal, but he stuck to life, and he kept swearing up and down, calling Hitler a murderer. He lived for quite a while--maybe 24 hours. It was unbelievable how much he was screaming about all these lives going to waste. It made a lot of sense." When asked how he kept his sanity in the face of such tragedy, he replies, "At first it shocks you. But you get over it, because there is not time to think about it. If you start worrying about these things, you're probably going to be the next in line."
As it turned out, Italy was where Kuster's career as a German soldier ended, too; he was captured there by Polish troops. After being shuttled through North Africa with other POWs, he was shipped to the U.S., initially touching American soil at Newport News, Virginia. Upon his arrival, Kuster says, he and his cohorts learned for the first time of the holocaust that took place at German concentration camps. "We were shocked," he stresses. "We thought it was all made up; we thought it was terrible. But some of the American soldiers we had fraternized with, they started holding back, because they couldn't believe that none of us knew anything about the camps, places like Dachau. But how should we know about them? It never showed up in the papers or on the radio. So how would we know?" Nevertheless, this news caused many Virginians to see Kuster and other German prisoners as guilty by association. "When they put us on the train in Newport News, people there were looking at us like we were animals in the zoo," he remembers.
The twelve weeks he spent housed in a Fort Morgan armory adjacent to a high school were considerably more pleasant. To keep their spirits up when the workday was done, the men would sing German songs, and before long, locals started visiting in order to hear them. "Two or three times a week they would come and sit outside the fences and listen. They couldn't make contact because of the language barrier, but I think they enjoyed it." Before the POWs left Fort Morgan, the townspeople offered proof of their appreciation. As Kuster tells it, "They would bring in a hi-fi in the afternoons and play classical music for us. We would all sit in a room and just listen. It was a way for them to make a connection with us."
Upon returning to his home, which in his absence had become part of Russian-occupied East Germany, Kuster often thought about days like these and subsequently decided to move to Colorado permanently. A man from Brush, Colorado, whom he had met on a beet farm offered to help him apply for admission to this country, which was granted in 1952. After a brief return to Germany in order to wed his sweetheart, Marianne (who died last year), Kuster settled in Greeley and landed a job as a route salesman for Pepsi. He wound up in Denver a few years later, joining the Turnverein and the Gesangverein in 1962. The fit was a natural one. "I was singing with a German choir in Germany when I was back there after the war, and we had a hell of a ball. So I was looking for something like that here. When I joined, I don't think there was an American in the whole group; they were all German or of German descent. Now it's me and Hans Pott. We are the only Germans there. The others are all gone."
Keith Buckley is a member of the Gesangverein's next generation. A hydrogeologist by day, he first learned about the Denver Turnverein in 1994 from a friend who was familiar with "this strange German chorus," Buckley says. "So I showed up, not knowing anyone here, and the singing just blew me away. I was like, 'Man, this is great.'"
Since that first mind-bending encounter, Buckley has been an attendee at Gesangverein practice sessions, held weekly between the months of September and May. This year he became the president of the Turnverein, an organization eleven years older than the state it's in.
Back in 1865, when it was founded, the Turnverein was a gathering place for Denver's upper crust, including the Coors, Tabor and Kuner families. But it was hardly the only such group in the region. During the period, untold numbers of German-speaking immigrants flooded into Colorado to work in gold and coal mines, a fact that did not go unnoticed by politicians. As Buckley confirms, "The state constitution of Colorado was originally written in three languages: English, Spanish and German."
Where Germans went, German social clubs were sure to follow. As a result, numerous Colorado burgs saw the advent of Turnvereins, or, as they were sometimes known, Turner Halls. They were based on the principles of the Turners, a populist movement begun in Germany during the mid-1800s by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who believed that "a sound mind in a sound body" could most effectively be attained through training in gymnastics. Following in this tradition, the Denver Turnverein sponsored gymnastics teams that wowed spectators at events across the country. A few years later, in 1870, the first of several mens' choruses were assembled in response to the desire to hang on to some of the most beloved aspects of German culture. Like their athletic cousins, these singers earned widespread popularity.
So, too, did the Turnverein as a whole. After outgrowing a handful of facilities in what is now downtown Denver, the group settled into its first permanent residence, on Arapahoe just north of 21st Street, in 1890. It flourished there until the beginning of World War I, when a tide of anti-German sentiment drove the confederation to near-extinction. With participants afraid to be seen at a Turnverein function or to speak in their native tongue on Denver's streets, attendance plummeted. Finally, in 1916, banks foreclosed on the building, leaving the assembly without a home. Three months later the facility burned to the ground under what Buckley describes as "mysterious circumstances."
Following the end of the war, Colorado-based Turners worked to re- establish themselves. In 1922 they celebrated their resurrection with the purchase of the Coronado Club, which remains the Turnverein headquarters to this day. The Arion Gesangverein chorus sang its first notes in 1937 and enjoyed tremendous support from Denver's German community for years thereafter. But, Buckley says, things began to deteriorate during the Eighties. "The Turnverein has had a rough time over the past fifteen years or so. The population of the group has dwindled due to age. And there aren't that many German immigrants anymore--and there's the fact that America in general has moved away from social groups and become more isolated. That's also been a factor." Although the Tunrverein once hosted weekly dances and numerous events, that's no longer the case. "A lot of the activities that used to go on here have petered out," Buckley admits. "The men's chorus is the last vibrant thread that keeps the Turnverein going."
The Gesangverein does just that. But beneath the vigorous vocalizing and Meerdink's cheery encouragement ("Keep it light and smiling inside--up in the cheekbones," he enthuses at one point) is a certain poignance. The lyrics to a Stephen Foster tune the singers deliver underline this characteristic. "Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears while we all sup sorrow with the poor," the men proclaim. "There's a song that will linger forever in our ears. Oh hard times, come again no more."
"We know misery and grief," says Uta Pott, age seventy, from the kitchen of the Wheat Ridge home she shares with her husband, Hans. "We have experienced them. So we are grateful for small things that so many people take for granted--to have a home and to have peace, and to not fear for your life or wonder if you will eat tomorrow."
"And to live in a place where you can speak up and talk without worrying if someone else is listening," interjects Hans, who's also seventy. In a delightful accent dominated by rounded vowels and ws that sound like vs, he affirms, "That's what we had to do when we were kids."
Such was life in the Potts' hometown of Freiburg, Germany, during World War II. Because the city was a target for frequent Allied bombing runs, Uta remarks, "death was included in everyday life. Sometimes I wonder how we got through it. We were ready to die at any time. You were surprised after every air attack if you were still breathing. And then you'd hear all the stories. One family friend, he came home after the town was bombed to search for his family. He dug them out, dead, from the basement of their home. And then he shot himself right there on the rubble. He couldn't take it.
"There were so many miseries," she continues. "Our milkman, who brought us milk every day--his whole house collapsed on him, and there was no machinery to get him out. For a whole day we heard the knocking under the rubble, knowing he was alive, but there was nothing we could do. By the end of the day, the knocking just stopped. It was like Oklahoma City, but it was not just one building. It was thousands."
Hans's house was also destroyed, but he was not present when it happened; he was building pontoon bridges over the Rhine River for the German army. He feels that he and other teenage draftees were seen by their superiors as little more than "cannon fodder," but somehow he survived. In March 1945, after a year and a half in the line of fire, Hans was captured by American grunts and sent to a POW camp in eastern France. The experience helped him see the enemy in a fresh light. "When I was an American prisoner of war, I got to meet American soldiers. And I saw that they were the same, like us. They were human, and alike. They sang songs, too." After a pause, he notes, "Bad people have no songs."
Even after being transported to Germany a few months later, Hans remained under arrest. But in December a German civilian agreed to lend him credentials in exchange for the equivalent of $30 sent to him by his sister. Hans rode through the camp gates, hitched a ride on a passing train and headed to Freiburg, where Uta and her kin, minus three brothers and a brother-in-law who had died in the fighting, were sharing an apartment with the Pott clan.
Times were extremely tough. Hans, Uta and the others were forced to subsist on morsels dug from trash cans and crude bread made of flour, sawdust and tree bark that was rationed by the government. "You had to barter with the farmers to get cabbage or potatoes," Uta says. "Once I went with a suitcase to a farm to beg for potatoes. I had to dig them out myself, and I put the dirty potatoes straight into my suitcase. It was like having gold. We had a saying then--'Farmers are so rich that their pigs have earrings'--because all the jewelry was pawned for food."
Uta knew how much better life was in America: Before the war, she had lived in Chicago, where her father had served in the German consulate. She ultimately returned to the Second City, and in 1952 she and Hans were engaged. They were married two years later in Denver, where they raised nine children, all of whom worked their way through college to earn professional degrees. Hans supported the brood by toiling as a metal worker for 32 years until his 1989 retirement. But quitting the Arion Gesangverein, with which he has sung since 1960, is the last thing on his mind. He plans to remain with the group "as long as I can drive and sing." But he is notably matter-of-fact when discussing German music. "A lot of the old songs are too sentimental for me," he claims. "Some of them are...schmaltzic."
As Hans offers a subdued burst of laughter, Uta explains, "Schmaltz is grease--pig fat."
Chuckling again, Hans says, "Lardy songs. We got away from those."
As for the rest of the Gesangverein repertoire, which typically includes tender odes to the Old Country and tributes to the merits of music and an occasional beer, Uta likes it as much as Hans does. But she concedes that she occasionally resented his hobby in the past. "Hans took it very seriously when he joined. And there were times when I was a little jealous, with nine kids at home."
"But Uta," Hans replies teasingly. "You cannot sing."
"Auf Weidersehen, auf Wiedersehen..."
As the Gesangverein croons a musical goodbye at the conclusion of the night's last number, the singers shake hands and trade pats on the back to the wistful strains of Ellsworth's piano. Obviously, the music is responsible for bringing these men together, but Al Eckhardt, a former attorney and basso profundo with the chorus since 1952, acknowledges that the camaraderie keeps them coming back. "I think it's the friendships," he divulges while peeling the wrapper from a cigar. "I first came here because I enjoyed it and I needed business contacts. But I retired ten years ago, and I'm not looking for business anymore. I don't think there are too many guys that come down here just for the singing. Frankly, I don't know that I'd be here if it weren't for the pinochle game that's about to take place."
Buckley concurs. "Today there aren't many things like this for mature men to do. You can sing in the church choir, but then you can't stick around afterwards and have a beer or smoke a cigar and play some cards. So it's a different niche if you like singing. And you can make friends across generations. I'm in my thirties, and I've made friends with guys in their fifties, sixties and seventies. And that's kind of cool."
Karl Lawson, who owns a local engineering firm and has been coming here since 1975, adds that a great voice isn't a prerequisite for becoming part of the Gesangverein. "With no real talent or ability, you'll be accepted here. We're fortunate to have some fellows who have studied music and are really good, but most of us are just ordinary fellows who like to sing as best we can."
"We don't audition or screen anybody out," Buckley elaborates. "Basically, it's more fellowship, with a little music and language instruction thrown in." Even a knowledge of German is not required. All the singers ask, Buckley says, is that aspirants are "men of goodwill."
Outsiders sometimes question that assertion because of the Gesangverein's militaristic logo and the "Arion" portion of its name. As it turns out, Arion is the Greek goddess of song and poetry, but that hasn't stopped a few folks from assuming that the moniker refers to "Aryan," a term favored by Hitler that is still bandied about by white supremacists. "It's enough to scare the hell out of some people," Buckley allows. "You can't blame them if they don't understand it and think, 'Oh, my God, it's some sort of fascist group.'" To Buckley, this reaction is counterproductive to what the Gesangverein is trying to achieve: "I don't like the confusion that it causes, and I hope we can change it someday. But the funny thing is, the German fellows that have been here forever have no objection to changing it. It's the Americans who are vehemently against it. They're sticklers for tradition."
This attention to detail should be apparent to everyone who attends the upcoming Liederabend festival, scheduled to take place on Thursday, November 22, at the Turnverein (call 831-9717 for more information). The Gesangverein headlines this annual fall concert, but there will also be a sing-along session in which the public is invited to participate, as well as beer, bratwurst and a polka dance starring Ron Eckharts' Dutch Hop Music Makers. The following week, the Turnverein hosts a fundraiser featuring a dozen local rock bands in the main hall and the Arion Gesangverein in the Rathskellar. The event is part of an ongoing fundraising effort now under way at the Turnverein; if the group raises $25,000, that sum will be matched by $75,000 from the Colorado Historical Society, which is assisting in funding the restoration of the Turnverein's unique facility.
The Historical Society's efforts give the Gesangverein singers hope for the future, and so does the improvement in the Turnverein's neighborhood, which Buckley credits in large part to the opening of a new police station a block away. "Before they got here, there was a lot more prostitution and drug dealing going on right outside our door," he says. "But I don't see that stuff anymore." Likewise, nearby commercial development leads Buckley to believe that "we can start bringing people back." This process has already begun; Turnverein membership has tripled in the last three years.
The association's most valuable assets in this quest are the music of the Gesangverein and the loyalty of its members. "The reward I get out of this is the appreciation of the people who come to listen to us sing," Lawson says. "And I feel I'm a part of creating something that's unique. Sometimes I grouse about coming down here, especially if the weather gets bad. But I never leave here without feeling buoyed up by the experience of the singing and the friendship. It's an emotional boost for my week. For me, singing here is a tonic for my soul.
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