Visitors from Arzberg to Visit South Bend: An interview with Gabrielle Robinson.

On September 7, 2015 a delegation of visitors from Arzberg, Germany will be visiting South Bend.

Many years ago, then director of International Programs at IU South Bend, Gabrielle Robinson was vital in creating the “sister city” relationship between Arzberg and South Bend. In anticipation of the upcoming visit, International Programs intern Sara Burks interviewed Robinson.

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It is next week that the visitors from Arzberg are coming and I hear they have a very busy schedule while they are here?

“Yes, they are coming on the 7th, and we are just rushing them around. We are all looking forward to it, there are a lot of South Bend people with connections to Arzberg, and they have been over there a number of times, and they are also very excited. There are some new people coming and some people who have been before, but still, we want them to see as many of the Arzberg sites as possible. We are going to both the Riverview and Old City Cemetery, and of course we are going to see the breweries, especially the Muessel brewery. We are going to look at the plaque near the Chocolate Café for the Elbel’s who were the first family to bring music to South Bend; they had bands and orchestras and for any big event it was always the Elbel group people wanted. They will have a reception with the mayor, and a Mennonite family between Nappanee and Bremen invited us to have dinner with them where they can talk Old German. Part of the reason the sister city relationship works so well is that there are still families on both sides of the Atlantic that have roots and it was very moving the first time when people stood in front of the houses of their ancestors they’d never seen, so they are quite committed to continuing this relationship.”

Did the affiliation between the two cities occur before you wrote your book German Settlers of South Bend or how did that come about?

“Oh no, I was the director of International Programs at IUSB and every year they did a program, “Something and Us” – Mexico and Us, Japan and Us. One year it was Germany and Us, and I was always getting grants for these things. I got a grant to do research on the Germans in South Bend and Northern Indiana. I kept coming up against this name, Arzberg. I’d never heard of it, I myself am born in Berlin, way to the Northeast. Since we went to Europe every year [with IUSB], so we decided to start in Arzberg and we were welcomed like long lost family because they all knew about the connection to South Bend but they had lost touch. So the press was there, and it was a big thing and the next time we came, we brought the keys to the City of South Bend to them and they put up a beautiful plaque, its actually a picture in my book, its really a moving sort of plaque, thanking America for being so hospitable to their immigrants and so on. After that, we established a sister city and I think I wrote the book in between this, after the first couple of visits.”

What drew that group of immigrants from Germany to Indiana, or South Bend specifically?

“That’s actually a really good question, and the answer is typical really of all immigration. The first person came here by happenstance. They kept going west because they wanted to buy land, and land was still cheap in South Bend. The first family settled west of South Bend, between South Bend and Plymouth and after a few years, he came in the 1840’s, he wrote a long, long letter back to Arzberg saying what a wonderful place this was, that they had more meat to eat here than they have potatoes in Germany, that they are free, that everyone is free. In 1848 there was the revolution where they [the Germans] tried to free themselves, to have a united Germany and a federal jurisdiction but that failed and after that a lot of disillusioned people came and because of this letter, they kept pouring into South Bend. More and more came, and they would write back and tell how great it was. That is true now with Mexican immigration, a letter or news comes to one village or town where so many people come and its just true of immigration history altogether that these kinds of contacts…you know there were literally millions of letters that went back and forth, not just from South Bend, but from immigrants all over so that brings concentrations of certain groups to certain areas. Of course there were other Germans as well, but this was a predominate group – the Langs, Rockstrohs, and Muessels, in fact the last of the Muessel who still was in town just died, but many others are still in town so there is this connection.”

There was mention of a house reproduced to look like a replication of one in the other city?

“It’s a cute story really. There was another Arzberg family that immigrated with two daughters, and having heard so much about it, two brothers who owned a brewery in Arzberg thought they would come check it [South Bend] out. They met these two sisters and they fell in love. The two sisters were willing to go back to Arzberg but the older one in particular said the one condition she had was that they replicate their family house on Park Avenue in the Chapin District [once they arrived in Arzberg]. So the two sisters went over, went to live in Arzberg with those two brothers. Both houses still stand today. In Arzberg it’s a big house that is part of the brewery that was the living quarters for the family. In South Bend it’s the biggest house on the other side of the street from the Chapin house.”

What do you find to be the most important or the most beneficial experience from the relationship between the two cities?

“My honest answer on that would be that being German has been a bit of a burden for my generation in particular. In America during and after WW1, there was a huge hatred towards Germans. Many Germans changed their names. In Indianapolis, the Athenaeum was originally called the Das Deutsche Haus, and any reference to Germany was eradicated. So, it’s been difficult, but I’m very happy to have a relationship between an American city and a German city that’s so positive, friendly, and family oriented. And of course the other reason is the kind of connection of the people from South Bend to find their roots. From many of the older people, I got many moving letters saying this was the best thing that could happen that in their old age. It was wonderful that they could reestablish this connection with the country they knew they came from but really didn’t have much contact with.”

Many thanks to Gabrielle Robinson for the interview and to the citizens of Arzberg and South Bend for such a meaningful and longstanding relationship.

Interview and blog post by International Programs intern Sara Burks.

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