German is fading in Hill Country

Web Posted: 07/30/2006 10:40 PM CDT

Alexandra Berzon
Express-News Staff Writer

FREDERICKSBURG — Jack Frantzen's rifle is taller than he is. At 11, he's among the youngest competitors in the 111th annual Gillespie County Bundes Schuetzenfest, the shooting festival originally brought over from Germany and held Sunday outside Fredericksburg.

Many of the mostly older men gathered around the rows of guns stacked behind the shooters grew up speaking German. But younger generations, like Jack and his father, 47-year-old Willie Frantzen, never learned the language.

So at Sunday's event, English, broken up by a few booming sounds of rifle shots and a German word here and there, was the language of the day.

When the shooters are done, the shooting king will be hoisted in the air and each of the six shooting clubs will march in a parade accompanied by German oompa music.

"When I was a little kid I didn't care, but now that I'm older I wish that I spoke German and could teach it to my son," said Willie Frantzen, his red shirt adorned with pinned medals from past shooting festival wins. "I just remember wandering around wishing (my older relatives) would speak English so I'd know what they were talking about."

The German language — a Texas-infused version with English words thrown in that once had as many as 110,000 speakers in Texas — took a dive during World Wars I and II, when children were scolded for speaking German in the schoolyard.

Yet in many homes in New Braunfels and the Hill Country, it persevered through the fourth, fifth or sixth generation, with people now in their 50s, 60s, 70s.

But it stopped there.

Fewer than 1 percent of children in New Braunfels and Fredericksburg now speak German in their homes, according to the 2000 census. Meanwhile, Spanish is growing as the preferred alternative to English. In Fredericksburg, 21 percent and in New Braunfels 23 percent of children speak Spanish in their homes.

Because of the relative isolation of the German communities in Texas, their language survived many more generations than most languages brought by immigrants to the United States, said Hans Boas, a University of Texas at Austin professor who oversees an ongoing project documenting Texas German.

But he estimates the dialect will be extinct by 2040, killed off by the stigma of speaking it during the world wars and by the changing demographics of the Hill Country over the past 50 years.

There are an estimated 8,000 mostly elderly Texas-German speakers today. They keep the culture alive with activities like Wednesday night skat — a traditional German card game — at Fredericksburg's Turner Hall, and Arion Maennerchor and Hermann Sons choir performances.

There's the Saturday morning stammtisch — a table reserved for regulars — and Wednesday afternoon kaffeeklatsch, or coffee club, at New Braunfels' Friesenhaus, and an every-fifth-Sunday German church service at Zion Lutheran Church in Fredericksburg.

But as the language declines, could the German heritage become more of a tourist attraction than a living, breathing culture?

For people who remember hearing German spoken in the supermarket and saw the culture outlast a vehemently anti-German era, such a thing seems impossible.

"I'm not saying they'll always talk German, but they'll still have the hard-headedness of the Germans," said Schuetzenfest organizer and Fredericksburg native Charles Feller, 72. "I always said if you look up 'stubborn' in the dictionary they'd have a German next to it."

Ken Knopp, 72, who researches the German history of the Hill Country, describes German culture there as a resilient mix of "beer, schnitzel, German jokes and German prayers."

He settled back in Fredericksburg after years in San Antonio. When his kids were growing up, he had a rule that when no one else was around the house, he wouldn't answer back unless they spoke to him in German. But his three kids all married non-German speakers and they haven't taught his grandchildren the language.

Knopp remembers gravitating more toward German culture in his 40s, and he assumes the younger generations will do the same.

"You didn't want to be considered old-fashioned. I generally ignored all that until I was 40, and then I began to appreciate my German heritage," Knopp said. "We know the young people are just busy with their schools and what they're going to do to make money. We don't want to bother with this stuff yet. After 40 they'll start getting interested."

But Boas isn't so sure that will happen without the strong tie of language.

"If you grow up speaking German, you have that distinct identity," he said. "The kids (who don't speak German) are more likely to get sucked into the mainstream. My guess is, I would give it two to three generations. But things like Wurstfest will survive. People like to eat and drink and listen to music."

"I blame myself, that we didn't teach our children more, and then they would have passed it on to their children," Fred Dietel, 83, said of his six grandchildren who can say only the few German phrases he's taught them, like "Ich liebe dich" — "I love you."

"Everyone gets busy and some of those important things in your life, you don't realize they're stepping away from you," Dietel said.