Editor’s note: Many who live in the U.S. are distrustful of other citizens because they speak a different language, dress in a markedly different way, or have other attributes that cause them to be perceived as “not from here.” One such group is Muslims. And anti-Muslim rhetoric reached a point recently that prompted the Ann Arbor city council to pass a resoluton calling for tolerance. In 2010 it may be anti-Muslim talk that predominates among the range of “anti” rhetoric. But around 90 years ago, it was anti-German.
“It must have dawned upon any impartial observer that German is a mighty unpopular language in this country just at present and getting no better fast,” read the June 13, 1918 Ypsilanti Record.
The article described a Ypsilanti-area farmer who stopped in at a downtown Ann Arbor restaurant and overheard two other customers conversing in German.
“He arose and went over to the men and suggested that they make their remarks in plain United States,” continued the article. An ensuing argument turned into a fistfight in the restaurant, and police were called. “When the officer arrived, the farmer walked up to them and said, ‘I guess I’m the man you want,’ and proceeded to explain the circumstances. Whereupon the officers decided that they were not looking for anyone and left.”
Anti-German sentiment during World War I was widespread. A month earlier, Ypsilanti High School dropped German from its course offerings. “At a meeting of the Ypsilanti school board last week,” read a May 16, 1918 Ypsilanti Record article, “it was voted to get in line and accordingly the study of the German language will no longer be a part of the high school curriculum … In a short time, any messages which our German friends [many of whom were American citizens] wish to convey to Americans must be in English, and some things will sound very differently when clothed in plain United States.”
YHS was not the only school to react to the war. The University of Michigan ejected six professors from its German department for suspected disloyalty in 1917 and 1918. One of them was Carl Eggert, who was charged with being pro-German. Another was Ewald Boucke, who asked for a wartime leave of absence from the school and was refused reinstatement.
Community prejudice could even turn deadly. Neighbors of Sharon township farmer Omar Klink accused him of having said that he “hoped to live long enough to see the Kaiser running the United States,” according to the September 5, 1918 Ypsilanti Record. The article reported that Klink accused one of his neighbors of reporting him to authorities, but the neighbor denied it. Klink then allegedly fetched a rifle and shot the neighbor, hitting his car, and pursued him and shot again. While the neighbor drove to Ann Arbor to file a warrant, a report came in that Klink had shot himself.
Two months later, at 11 o’clock on November 11, 1918, Germany signed peace treaties with the Allies, a day subsequently observed as Armistice Day.
Hyperinflation in the postwar Weimar Republic was one factor that drove many Germans to emigrate to America. “The grass was greener [in America],” said 89-year-old German-born Ann Arbor resident Reinhard Wittke in a recent conversation. As a boy, he emigrated with his family in 1926 and became a UM freshman in 1939. “I had ten dollars in my pocket for room and board, and money for tuition, but that was all,” he laughs. Wittke got a job washing pots and pans in the German Inn on Huron Street, then run by Fritz Metzger, the brother of Wilhelm Metzger who founded Metzger’s restaurant in 1928.
“[Fritz] was a tremendous person,” recalls Reinhard. “He was very kindly. He had a great sense of humor,” a sentiment echoed by Wilhelm’s son Walter, who added, “He enjoyed a glass of beer; he was a happy-go-lucky guy.”
Fritz took Reinhard fishing on Island Lake and Dead Lake or on the Huron River. On one trip, the two were fishing from a bridge. It was the day before bass season. Fritz pulled up a prime bass just as a little boy wandered onto the bridge. “The boy said, ‘Gee, that’s a nice bass!’” recalls Reinhard. “Fritz said, ‘No, no, it’s a bluegill!’ And they went back and forth for some time.”
Fritz emigrated from his Bavarian hometown of Wilhelmsdorf in the mid-twenties, following his brother Wilhelm. After a few years working as a baker in Ann Arbor, a craft learned at his father Johannes’s bakery in Germany, Fritz launched the German-American Kitchen at 32 North Huron Street in Ypsilanti.
It opened two weeks before the stock market crash.
Fritz kept his restaurant open as the Depression began. He and his wife Bertha, his German-born daughter Berthilda, and his Michigan-born son Werner lived in an apartment over the restaurant. In 1936 the restaurant moved around the corner to 115 West Michigan Avenue, but trade in the small city was poor. Several establishments around the restaurant went out of business.
In 1938, Fritz and his family moved to Ann Arbor and bought a coney island restaurant at 117 W. Huron across from the onetime bus station. He renamed it the German Inn. Business improved among Ann Arbor’s large West Side German population. Eight years later, Fritz purchased the Old German restaurant on Washington from Gottlob Schumacher. Reinhard recalls, “[Fritz] loved to play cards in the Old German after closing, on Wednesday nights.” While working for Fritz, Reinhard met Fritz’s daughter Bert and married her some years later. To date, the Ann Arbor couple has been married for 63 years.
Fritz died in 1954 and was buried in Arborcrest Memorial Park. His son Werner (“Bud”), ran the Old German until its close in 1995, when the building was purchased by the Grizzly Peak Brewing Company.
Reinhard remembers Fritz as “a very modest person.” So modest that in all the years of working and fishing together, Fritz never mentioned the honor that the City of Ypsilanti had given him in 1933. That year, Fritz and another former soldier in the German Army, John Wrosch, were the guests of honor at an Armistice Day ceremony at Ypsilanti High School.
“Armistice Day with its connotations was brought vividly home to Ypsilanti High School pupils in their assembly Friday afternoon,” begins a November 11, 1933 Ypsilanti Daily Press story. “Fred A Battelle, district commander of the American Legion in a brief talk spoke of the values of citizenship . . . [h]e also mentioned the mingled feeling of joy and relief that Nov. 11, Armistice Day, signifies. He then introduced John Wrosch and Fritz Metzger, former members of the German army who today are American citizens and making their home here.”
The Press wrote that Wrosch spoke of his time in service as something that “could not be described but could only be realized through experience.” He had joined the German army in 1914. He was wounded, captured, and spent 18 months incarcerated in a French prison, “the last seven months of which he was unable to shave or wash.”
Fritz then spoke to the students. He also had enlisted in the German army in 1914, at age 20. He had manned a small field weapon. “He stated he had fought English, French, and soldiers of other nationalities but had never opposed any American troops. He described himself as being lucky in that he had not been wounded and was the only one out of his group to be so fortunate.” Fritz was in Belgium when the war ended.
“Both former soldiers expressed an aversion to war.”
Mr. Batelle gave closing remarks to the students on citizenship, urging them to “exercise the privileges and duties of good citizens, thereby preventing another war caused by the selfishness of the few.” The school band performed “Over There.”
Last, three students played “Taps.”
With the advent of World War II, local anti-German sentiment rose again. It eventually forced Wilhelm Metzger, despite his numerous supporters in the community, to publish a letter defending his patriotism in the local newspaper.
But for a little while, one Armistice Day in the Depression, the gathering of schoolchildren applauded the two onetime soldiers of an enemy army who had made a life in, and contributed to, their adopted home.
Thanks to John and Walter Metzger and Reinhard Wittke.
Clifford Wilcox, “World War I and the Attack on Professors of German at the University of Michigan,” Education Quarterly, 33 (1993): 59.
Howard Peckham, “The Making of the University of Michigan,” Ann Arbor, Bentley Library, 1967, 145-146.
The answer to last column’s Mystery Artifact and the new one may be viewed in this video. Take your best guess below in the Chronicle’s (not Youtube’s) comments!