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German immigrant experience comes to life in free play

German immigrant experience comes to life in free play

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DAVENPORT — The German American Heritage Center's aim was brought to poignant, passionate life Sunday in a play that personified one German family's immigrant experience.

“We don't often have something that relates so well to our mission of talking about German immigration,” GAHC director Kelly Lao said in introducing “Here, I'm Hank,” presented as part of a free two-day community open house. “This is just a perfect fit for us.”

The 40-minute, two-actor play – by Janet Schlapkohl of Iowa City – was commissioned in 2016 by the University of Iowa history department, as part of a comprehensive traveling bus museum, “Germans in Iowa,” for which GAHC provided photos and artifacts, Ms. Lao said. The Davenport museum (at 2nd and Gaines streets) hosted the exhibit for 10 days last October, but Sunday was the first time it presented the play.

“It goes with our whole exhibit, our theme all year long,” Ms. Lao said. “Dramatic theater, we don't get a lot of, so it's really cool when we have it.”

The play related a story about Heinrich, a Prussian bastard who immigrated to Iowa in 1870 as a young man to avoid conscription in the Franco-Prussian war. His mother (played by Ms. Schlapkohl, an adjunct playwriting and drama instructor at University of Iowa) was scared that he would see battle.

In the costumed play (featuring hymns and other songs) she counts pennies, and kindness from shopgirls who compliment him. They face hunger. “In America, the children get fat, the grown-ups get work and everybody goes and picnics,” Heinrich (played by Michael Sotelo) says. “So many people go to America.”

He doesn't know anyone there, and his mother replies, “Half of Prussia is there.” She knows successful farmers in Iowa. He doesn't want to leave her, and wants her to come soon after.

Heinrich arrives in New York (he says “Here, I'm Hank”) after a boat ride of 18 days, and takes a train to Chicago, then Davenport. One passenger says there are “far too many Germans.” Her husband was a captain in the Union Army. “Now that the war is over, all of you Germans are swarming in to take up land and jobs while men like my husband, who sacrificed their health to keep this country together, to see their futures stolen away.”

“Here, I wonder why am I a Hank and the cattle are Holsteins?” Heinrich asks. His mother can't afford to immigrate, but with help of an Iowa butcher, she does arrive after her son gets married and has a child.

Ms. Schlapkohl based the story on her family's experiences. She had a relative Heinrich who came in 1868, and most of her family came from the port city of Husum after World War I.

“I picked kind of the peak of immigration as the time to look at,” she said of her play. “It was, why are we here and how did it impact families?”

“Conscription was a huge reason,” she said of avoiding war.

“This was the first place they came,” Ms. Schlapkohl said of Davenport. “This was the place you could say, 'We're gonna make it. That guy owns a butchering plant; that guy owns a hotel. It was an established community, and they had money. They had the German National Bank early on.

"Davenport was the thing, and the first place from the train where most people arrived, and went off to different places. It was such a huge part of the story for almost every single German immigrant.”

Laura Reich (whose husband Ed is German), of Moline, volunteered to read some lines and blow a train whistle at key moments.

“It was very entertaining. The music interspersed was nice,” she said. Of GAHC (where she's been a member for years), she said: “I come here often for the different events they have. I like the various activities; I'm really into crafts so I join a lot of their craft things,” she said. “Their different programs, I try to come to all of them.”

The center (open since 2000 in a four-story 1871 former hotel) has hosted a free open house since 2012, Ms. Lao said.

“It also brings in new people, younger people – people who've never been here before, just to see that we exist,” she said. “We have 30,000 cars pass us every day. It makes an excuse to come in the parking lot and come inside. The thing, too, with 'heritage center,' some people think it's a club, or you have to be German.”

Elizabeth Schnurbusch came Sunday partly because it was free. “I enjoy the history; I'm German,” she said. “My people aren't here. I'm from Missouri, and they came in 1804.”

“I like learning about German ancestry,” she said. “I love history.”

A new first-floor exhibit, “Butchers, Bakers and Bankers” opens next weekend, about the businesses Germans excelled at in Scott County. It will run through May 6.

On the third floor, replacing a display about 1917 and anti-German sentiment, will be “Culinary Customs” about German food, from Jan. 21 to June 11. Mississippi River Distilling Company will give a Jan. 21 presentation on how the Burchett brothers traveled to Germany to learn about distilling.

Nick Eli, a German teacher at Rock Island High School, will prepare one of his favorite dishes (Rote Grutze), berries and vanilla cream, offering samples at a Jan. 27 workshop. Ms. Lao also said there will be a mustard tasting, and a sausage-making workshop (“The Best of the Wurst”).

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