My Aunt Mary Meets Big Bertha

Big Bertha

I didn’t know my Aunt Mary. She was my grandfather’s sister, and he never said a word about her. But I do know that in May of 1916 she helped out at a 10-day bazaar raising money for the widows and orphans of German soldiers who had fallen in battle in the Great War. The Braun family was German-Americans; Mary’s parents were born in The Fatherland, so it’s not surprising she was there, in Buffalo’s Broadway Auditorium, smiling upon visitors to The Pergola of the Biedermeier Garten, an enclosure of latticed hedges and apple blossoms set aside for dancing, one attraction among many.

In hindsight, one might ask about Mary Braun’s timing. Didn’t the U.S.A. fight the Germans in the first World War? Indeed, but not until the year after Mary’s volunteer effort. Until April of 1917, the United States was neutral.

Yes, in August of 1914 the German army had occupied neutral Belgium, killing 6,000 civilians, routing a million more, and laying waste to all they touched, including the entire city of Leuven. And yes, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania had been sunk by a German submarine in May of 1915, drowning in the space of two minutes 1,198 passengers and crewmen, including 118 Americans. And yes, in October of 1915 a British nurse, Edith Cavell, was tried for helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium and shot to death by a German firing squad of eight men. (The charge was treason against the German state, of which Miss Cavell was neither a citizen nor a resident, however, the law was tailored to suit.)

But apparently these far away incidents did not dampen the spirits of anyone attending the Deutschwehr charity bazaar at the Broadway Auditorium, for which the honored guests on the opening night set the tone. Speaking in German, Louis Schmidt, president of the Deutschwehr in Philadelphia, said:

“We are faithful and loyal citizens of this, our adopted country. But nobody can blame us if we don’t throw overboard our good old mother, Germania. We can and will be true and faithful to both. And if Columbia and Germania should go hand in hand, the two could rule the world. I mean create universal peace.”

Henry Lierz, vice-president of the Deutschwehr in Philadelphia, a supporter of choral singing and said to be quite an orator, really warmed to his task:

“Hardly ever has a people which was faithful and true and helped to build up the country of its adoption, helped to make it great, been treated so shabbily and unfriendly as the German-Americans have been. Formerly we were angry over these would-be Americans. Today we are sorry for them. The time will come when the German will demand restitution for this unfair and uncalled for treatment. We German-Americans have awakened to the fact that this country owes us a great deal and that we do not need to swallow these indignities of the pro-British element which has the audacity to call itself truly American.”

Only the Rev. T.F. Bode of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church delivered his address in English, and, as if gifted with foresight, he appealed to the virtues of patriotism, love, service and sacrifice.

The speeches over, the charity bazaar gave itself over to merry-making and money-making. There were 66 booths in all, showcased in an idealized German village designed and built by Alphonse Ball, a well-known local scenery painter. While the Buffalo Deutschwehr bazaar could not match the 320-booth extravaganza that had taken place in New York’s Madison Square Garden just two months earlier, it was grand enough.

As at New York City’s bazaar, one of the most popular attractions was an “exact reproduction of a 42-centimeter gun, named by the German soldiers the Big Bertha, from Essen.” To add to the novelty, the full-scale model of this Krupp masterpiece was hosted by Keru Scholz, an African native from the German colony of Kamerun (Cameroon), who was educated in Berlin and spoke the German language “perfectly.”

A real taste of the war could be had at the Trench Field Kitchen, a replica of a field kitchen in the trenches where one could enjoy goulash, a popular dish among the German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers, exactly as prepared and served at the front. Other popular dining places included a Bratwurst Glöckle booth, a Vienna café, and weinstube conducted by the Rheinish-Prussian society and the Austro-Hungarian Alliance.

There was, of course, a shooting gallery. And a fish pond, a Turkish bazaar, a curiosity shop, and “gypsy palmistry by Miss Windrath.” At the Niagara Falls booth, “half-lifesize Charlie Chaplin dolls with sparkling eyes” were big sellers. The Ladies’ Aid Society of the Zion Lutheran church offered embroidery, pillows, hand painted vases, paperweights and other china “of exquisite design.” One of the most popular souvenirs was the Iron Cross, on a stickpin for men and as a pendant for women. Another popular booth was hosted by a local pastor who had been “compelled to flee Canada last year because of war sentiment;” his supply of carved and inlaid toys made of wood and bone by German prisoners of war in England and Scotland was exhausted by the final night of the bazaar.

For those with deeper pockets, or willing to take a chance in a raffle, one donor offered a diamond ring, Charles Kurtzmann & Co. of Buffalo donated a mahogany upright piano, and the North German Lloyd and Hamburg-American steamship lines donated a round trip to Germany. (German U-boats, sensibly, were not sinking German passenger liners.)

Music and dancing enlivened the days, and concerts brightened the evenings. The Schwabischer Saengerbund, the Paponia Liederkranz and the Tyroler Alpenchor held forth; the YMCA band played, and on the stage there was a production of Hansel & Gretel. The pageant of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was presented every afternoon, directed by Harriot Milinowski, with 150 local children participating. The perfect choice, Mrs. Milinowski had lived in Germany for 15 years, was the wife of a lieutenant in the Prussian army, and was active in the kindergarten movement. The Piper was played by well-known actress Jessie Bonstelle, who in the evening had a booth where she sold autographed photos to admirers.

Jessie Bonstelle

Also, every afternoon at 4 o’clock Mrs. Reinold-Shultz told fairy tales to children, and one afternoon a chorus of 200 children sang cradle songs of all nations. In the bazaar’s 10-day run, $50,000 was raised for the Deutschwehr charity. A disappointed German columnist in the Buffalo Express noted, “Concerning the contributions of the rich German-Americans, the bazaar was not a success. In other cities, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York, where charity bazaars for the war sufferers in Germany, Austria and Hungary were held, the rich people contributed the largest part of the fund. There were brewers who donated $5,000 and $10,000.”

Worse was to come. In March of 1917, the New York City Deutschwehr suspended its activities, citing some financial irregularities of the Berlin-based organization and “present political conditions.” The following month, the U.S.A. was at war with Germany, and posters for events such as this one from San Francisco…

…were replaced by this one…

…and this one.

German-Americans began to rethink their identity as hyphenated Americans, and there would be no more charity bazaars to benefit sufferers in The Fatherland.

One comment

  1. [...] for German war relief bazaars, 1916. And a link to a piece on the Buffalo, N.Y., Deutschwehr bazaar. Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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