The ongoing saga of Zion’s debate between English and German services mirrored similar struggles in other American, Lutheran churches. German had been the language of the church and the people. It was a part of their heritage and who they were. Many Lutherans saw the preservation of the German language as being analogous to the ever necessary battle to preserve confessional Lutheran beliefs and practices while living in the midst of a very different culture with a specifically protestant, American flavor. Some of their retention of the language was just stubbornness.
Most of the church’s earliest records and decisions remain, though extant, inaccessible to us as they were recorded in a German script which is obsolete today even in Germany. There are only a few experts who can still translate the antiquated German script, From the early days, English words and phrases found their way into the minutes, but not until the mid-1930s did English reign within the minutes. In 1935, the minutes of the voters’ assembly meetings were finally set down in English rather than German.
The German use within the worship services was a different matter. The earliest extant records of the debate date back to October 7, 1906, when Pastor Herman Meier asked the congregation’s permission to allow him to introduce English worship services again in the future every 3rd week on Sunday evenings. The minutes record that the congregation “consented with pleasure.” The reasons recorded were the necessity of reaching out to the non-German speaking element of the community. What was meant by the inclusion of the phrase ‘again’ is difficult to say. Had English services been tried before and disbanded? If so, for what reasons? Lack of attendance perhaps, or maybe some other reason.
Compromise was reached again as, for a long time, English and German were then used on alternating Sundays. This seemed a fair solution to the problem except for the fact that a great number of the young people, who learned English in school, didn’t understand German. Many recalled, when they were young, going to worship on Sunday morning and enduring an entire service without being able to understand anything that was being spoken or sung. When asked what they would do then, “daydream” was the most common response. Clearly there remained a problem.
The problem was temporarily resolved by historical circumstances. On January 2, 1942, it was decided by a meeting of the congregation to drop German in public services during the duration of the war. Anti-German sentiment never seemed to be as pronounced in Alva as in so many other communities throughout the United States. Perhaps the closeness of Alva, along with its being relatively isolated and therefore intra-dependence with the community accounts for this fact. None of the older generation can recollect serious threats during either World War. Certainly there were incidents; people on party telephone lines being interrupted by the operator who demanded they ‘speak English,’ and the like. But far more serious threats were faced by Germans elsewhere.
The people were encouraged to buy U.S. bonds, and on April 6, 1941, the congregation voted to adorn the sanctuary with an American as well as a Christian flag. It didn’t hurt to make your patriotism public. Some families still had relatives in Germany and sent what aid and assistance they could, perhaps not realizing the risk they were entertaining. When the war ended, the congregation decided in October of 1945 to resume some German services, every second Sunday of the month at 2 p.m. Finally, on March 26, 1950, it was voted to drop the German services altogether.
German Prisoners of War
The German heritage perpetuated by the use of the language was not all bad. Due to his fluency in German, Rev. Hoyer was able to minister to the German prisoners-of-war, who were assigned to the camp in Alva. One can find, in the Cherokee Strip Museum of Alva, information pertaining to this camp. The premise was to put these prisoners-of-war in Oklahoma because it was so isolated. That is to say, even upon escape, were that to occur, there weren’t a lot of places for a German to go. It’s a long way to any port towns.
Some of the most heinous war criminals, high-ranking in the German army, were stationed in Alva. Rev. Hoyer regularly went out to the camp and ministered to them. He learned the importance of not wearing a neck tie, so as to avoid becoming a target for choking.
Many memories remain about the Prisoner of War Camp. Freida Wiersig and her family lived in close proximity to the camp and were under strict instructions from Mr. Wiersig not to let any of the German soldiers, who might be out on work detail, hear them speak German. The family vividly remembered going outside early in the morning and hearing the German prisoners singing across the road which is now the Alva Airport. At times, they were alarmed when they heard the siren blow and they knew prisoners were loose. They remembered big beautiful horses that were on the Prisoner of War Camp ground. The prisoners kept the fence rows clean. They would come into the yard to get water. The Wiersig family listened to the Germans talking about the children, the place and the chickens. It was interesting listening to them because the family could understand what they were saying.
The William Kirmse family did not teach German to us grandchildren who were young children during WWII. In fact, we grandchildren were strongly discouraged from trying to learn/speak German. The adults remembered some of the fear and ill will that of those of German descent experienced as youth during WWI. The adults did talk to each other in German whenever there was something we children were not supposed to hear. With time, we were able to pick up on the gist of the conversations in particular if it was something about us. After the war when there were worship services in German, we grandchildren would stay with an adult at our grandparent’s house in Alva while the rest of the German speaking family members would attend services.
It was not until I had to be able to translate scientific journals in two foreign languages including German as a requirement for my Ph.D. degree, that I learned to read any German. As a part of my genealogy research I have learned to transcribe and translate, with difficulty, various German scripts.
I personally remember as a child that sometimes when we drove to Alva from our farm south of Alva, we were directed by the military to the side of the road to wait while German prisoners of war (POW) were moved to the Alva POW camp. The POW arrived by train and were marched from the railroad station on the north side of Alva to the POW camp on the south side of Alva while guards lined the streets and roads. We would get out of our automobile and stand at the side of the road and watch behind the guards while the POW marched quietly past. My father remembered for years later that some of the POW would begin crying when they saw us towheaded children standing and watching them.
The second World War was a major factor in the loss of the German language, but in truth it only sped up what seemed inevitable long before. However, during the Christmas Eve service of 1998, 95-year-old Frieda Wiersig could still be heard singing the hymns in her familiar German tongue.
- The image at the top of this blog is the title page of a booklet that my great-grandmother, Margarethe (Meier) Cordes, gave my father, Julius Kirmse, as a confirmation gift in 1919. Translated it reads “So Take My Hand – A Reminder and Comfort Booklet for Lutheran Confirmands”. Fred Eggers noted that Concordia Publishing House switched fonts for this book. The old Lutheraners were in Fraktur font. This appears to be a German Gothic font.
- This blog was largely taken from the Zion Lutheran Church – Alva, Oklahoma 100 year celebration book “Zion Lutheran Church 1899-1999 Alva, OK”. The text was reformatted as well as various spelling, grammar and other modifications were made.
- Timothy Egan, ‘The WORST HARD TIME’. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, New York. 2006. Chapter 4 High Plans Deutsch, page 68. In this chapter, Timothy Egan writes about the history and the German-Russian people who stayed and survived the Dust Bowl period which plagued the Southern Plains.
- The Okie Legacy, POW Camp In Alva, Woods, Oklahoma, Volume 17, Issue 3, 26 Jan 2015. provides a history of POW Camp Alva, at http://okielegacy.net/journal/tabloid/?ID=7532&iss=3&vol=17.