Born in 1939, Hertha Hetzel grew up in Bavaria and immigrated to the United States in 1952 when she was twelve years old. Her father had been a prisoner of war in England and he had two maternal uncles in Cleveland, who sponsored her family to live in the U.S. She lived in a single, crowded apartment. Hetzel did not know English, so she was placed in school as a kindergartner despite having been in the sixth grade in Germany. She relates how she attended the German Festival in Cleveland where she saw the Schuhplattlers perform and felt reconnected to her village in Bavaria. She joined the organization and played the zither, which she had learned to play at the age of nine. She attended West Tech High School before working at Pittsburgh Plate Glass for several years as a translator. After taking a break to raise her children, she worked as a secretary for a tool and die shop.
Hetzel, Hertha (interviewee)
Parcham, Deborah (interviewer)
Cleveland German-American Oral History Project
"Hertha Hetzel interview, 27 August 2021" (2021). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 195010.
Debbie Parchem [00:00:00] Yes, now, I'm recording. All right, so go ahead with what you were going to say.
Hertha Hetzel [00:00:06] Well, I was 12 when I came to the United States, and I was in the sixth grade in Germany. And coming here, they put me down to kindergarten to teach me how to read and all these little kids who are looking at me and couldn't understand why there is such a older child here. And then I have after a couple of weeks, I just learned to say I'm not coming here anymore and that, and that made the teachers be aware.
Debbie Parchem [00:00:57] That made who be aware? Sorry.
Hertha Hetzel [00:00:59] The teachers.
Debbie Parchem [00:01:01] Oh, yeah OK.
Hertha Hetzel [00:01:02] Aware that perhaps they should treat me different. See, at that time when I came, I think most teachers were not prepared that there are immigrants going to be coming to their school. So that was in 1952 and in 1953 I kept on finishing my grade school up to—I graduated with a sixth grade, then I don't quite remember how long I was in the sixth grade. But in 1954, I went to Wilbur Wright Junior High School. So at that time they just said, you know, I should give it a try. And I did very well. I was able to get a good grade in spelling, good grade in arithmetic and actually pretty good in reading. But I didn't quite understand everything that I read.
Debbie Parchem [00:02:14] What would you say you had the most trouble understanding then?
Hertha Hetzel [00:02:22] Well, the most trouble, I guess, was the meaning of what I was reading. Arithmetic, we were ahead. I was ahead, the whole class was ahead, I mean, we just learned advanced in German math. And I did graduate, I was in the choir in junior high school. And also in 1954, I was still in junior high school, my parents, we went to the German Central at a German Day Festival. And at the festival, I saw the Schuhplattlers (dance group) STV Bavaria, perform.
Debbie Parchem [00:03:23] Can you spell that? The-
Hertha Hetzel [00:03:25] S C H U H P L A T T L E R S. Schuhplattlers.
Debbie Parchem [00:03:36] Oh, thank you.
Hertha Hetzel [00:03:36] Perform. OK? And immediately I felt at home because I lived in Bavaria one hundred kilometers south of Munich, which there were the mountains.
Debbie Parchem [00:03:56] Mm-hmm.
Hertha Hetzel [00:03:58] And, I joined the club and I also played the Alpine folk instrument, the zither, Z I T H E R, which I learned to play at the age of nine. And I started to play this at the club, the Schuhplattler, and then they had a sing group, and I was actually doing very well and my parents would say, well, if you are– If you have good grades, I may go and practice in the evening. They had their dance practice in the evening. So hard time, yes, it was hard time in school because of having been having to, I mean being with the small children, you know, the six year olds.
Debbie Parchem [00:05:05] Yeah and you said you–
Hertha Hetzel [00:05:06] That was the hardest time
Debbie Parchem [00:05:07] You said you were in sixth grade and they bumped you back to what grade again?
Hertha Hetzel [00:05:12] Kindergarten.
Debbie Parchem [00:05:13] Kindergarten. Do you know why they did that?
Hertha Hetzel [00:05:15] Well, because I didn't I didn't speak English.
Debbie Parchem [00:05:18] Oh yeah.
Hertha Hetzel [00:05:19] And they thought this is the way they would teach me how to speak English, but it was the probably, not the smartest thing because it was embarrassing for me to, you know, like kept well you know how the kindergarten and first graders read. So, yeah, so I don't know how I can talk to you about an interview of forty-five minutes.
Debbie Parchem [00:05:49] No, that's OK. Um, just any kind of, I guess whatever you feel is important.
Hertha Hetzel [00:05:56] So ask, ask me some questions, go ahead.
Debbie Parchem [00:05:58] Um, OK. Why did you– Do you remember why you came to Cleveland?
Hertha Hetzel [00:06:02] Sure. My father came home from World War Two in 1948. He was a prisoner of war in England. And when we met up in Bavaria. He had to ride to work on a bicycle in this little Alpine village by Munich. There was no bus connection and no railroad connection so he, even winter and summer he would ride his bicycle. In the summer, on good days, he would ride all the way to Munich with the bicycle and then come home late. And the next morning he would get up again and go. And in the winter he would ride five kilometers to the train station. Or maybe sometimes he even walked. I don't quite remember. And, and then my my dad had an uncle here in Cleveland, actually, two uncles. That was his mother's two brothers and, and they sponsored us to come to the United States first because the living there was the living headquarters, the living. How should I say this? The apartments. It was– After the war it was hard to find an apartment or anything to live, so we lived by a farmer in Alling.
Debbie Parchem [00:07:53] Oh can you spell that?
Hertha Hetzel [00:07:57] A L L I N G. And this was a farmer and also a blacksmith shop at the same time. That's where we lived. And in 1952, we became here than the first, I believe the first. Maybe a whole year we lived with my father's brother. In one there. One apartment.
Debbie Parchem [00:08:31] Oh was it like, really crowded?
Hertha Hetzel [00:08:34] Of course.
Debbie Parchem [00:08:34] Yeah? (laughs)
Hertha Hetzel [00:08:35] It was– Of course, it was a small kitchen and like a like a like a laundry room or, not a– Where the furnace actually was, there was a little area where I could sleep and my parents, I don't remember where they slept, but there was like four of them, three of them and three of us, six people living in a small apartment, OK? And then, and then, it wasn't long after that my dad and my uncle, his brother, we purchased a two-family home. And my father's cousin, who had a tool and die shop and I think getting a loan from banks was not that easy to get then. So my father's brother loaned loaned him the money for a down payment of this to family duplex. And being, you know, a not a being a spendthrift, saving a lot, and so my dad and my uncle they were paying the mortgage to the cousin. And it wasn't long after that my father was able to buy a 1954 Chevy. And the things went pretty good and for myself, after a couple of years, I mean I graduated from the ninth grade from Wilbur Wright and then I went to West Tech High School. And I finished my– Graduated from the 12th grade and the bookkeeping teacher was kind enough to or he thought that I was capable enough or smart enough. He actually found a job for me at Pittsburgh Plate Glass. And I worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass from 1958. And in 1959, I was– No, 1960, I got married and got pregnant right away and then I worked until 1961. And at that time, Pittsburgh Plate Glass was beginning to do business with Germany. And they were the president and the vice president and, how should I say, the upper VIPs of Pittsburgh Plate Glass didn't understand the German letters that they were receiving from, so they asked me if I could be able, would I be able to translate them? And I was and they were very happy that I was able to do that. But then, like I said, I became pregnant and I quit. And that was basically the end of my career until my children grew up, and the oldest one was 18 and then 16 and then the youngest one was just 10. And then I went and worked in a tool and die shop as a secretary because the children were basically not babies anymore. They were able to take care of themselves and I had a part-time job and I needed to get out into the world, I thought not just be home and be a mother. I wanted to do a little more and then I did well, then I became I had breast cancer and that kind of, I stopped working at– Oh there's some– excuse me, can you call me back?
Debbie Parchem [00:13:32] Oh, yeah, of course. Do you know when I can call you back? [Recording stops and restarts following the interruption] And picking up from the last interview, you were talking about your work as a secretary?
Hertha Hetzel [00:13:48] Yes. And at a tool and die shop while I worked there for about. about 15, 16 years and and then I took a leave of absence because I had breast cancer, and then after that I went to Fairview Hospital and I worked at the information desk until I retired from working.
Debbie Parchem [00:14:19] What was, I guess, do you have any, like, memorable experiences from any of your jobs that, like, I guess come to mind?
Hertha Hetzel [00:14:30] Actually, I think I can say that they were all good. I learned I learned from every one of them that I had.
Debbie Parchem [00:14:39] What would you say you learned?
Hertha Hetzel [00:14:42] Pardon?
Debbie Parchem [00:14:42] What would you say you learned?
Hertha Hetzel [00:14:45] Well, I learned– I learned how to deal with people that come to the hospital look for their relatives where they are, and you need to have compassion. You need to have patience. You need to understand. And I think I did very well with that. And as a secretary, I also knew how– You have to be able to understand with getting along with people and try not to get them upset, if they are upset, you have to somehow, can just let them know that, I don't know.
Debbie Parchem [00:15:30] I got you. You said that you were able to do German translation for the–
Hertha Hetzel [00:15:40] Pittsburgh Plate Glass.
Debbie Parchem [00:15:42] Yeah, Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Would you–
Hertha Hetzel [00:15:44] That was very, very good. But unfortunately, it came at the time when I started to get pregnant, and when I when I could because I couldn't I couldn't work and have a family.
Debbie Parchem [00:16:05] Would you say there were any other times with your jobs that your, you know, experience as a German immigrant really helped you on the job or anything like that?
Hertha Hetzel [00:16:16] I think it helped me at, after I was graduated from high school and I went to Pittsburgh Plate Glass, I was an interpreter for some time and also working at the hospital. Many people couldn't really speak the fluent English. And then I asked them if they would understand German and several people, yes, they will, they lived in Germany and they were they would be able to understand or answer the questions that I was asking them, you know, like the name and what the problem was. And I think it has helped. Yes.
Debbie Parchem [00:17:05] Nice, um–
Hertha Hetzel [00:17:05] I think it's very good to know another language besides English.
Debbie Parchem [00:17:13] Mm-hmm. Definitely. Um, really quick, I think I forgot to ask last time, when were you born and what was the name of your hometown?
Hertha Hetzel [00:17:22] I was born ... 1939. And I was born in Neusatz, N E U S A T Z, in the former Yugoslavia. And at the age of three, my mother and I, my dad, was already in the German army and he was saying to my mom, we should flee because there is a big revolution and a war. And to me, my dad coming from a family of 12 and my mother coming from a family of seven. So all my, both neither my mom nor my dad did inherit anything from their parents. So my dad's just packed up and flee Yugoslavia, and it took us quite a while to get out, I really don't know. I was like three years old. And I was the only child then and we traveled from Yugoslavia. I think we landed in Austria for a while. I don't know how long, but the age of five, I was already in Bavaria. So and we, I, my mom and I didn't really go to a concentration camp like others did. I don't know, we were more, more or less in a like a big area where there was a lot of people and we had like a cot to sleep on and there was like a kitchen where you, if you had something you could cook it. I'm sorry. I don't remember much of that.
Debbie Parchem [00:19:22] That's OK. Anything you can remember is helpful. I guess what would you say was the hardest part of adjusting when you first came to the United States?
Hertha Hetzel [00:19:33] The language. The language. Yeah, the language.
Debbie Parchem [00:19:42] How did, I guess, could you–
Hertha Hetzel [00:19:44] See my father was lucky his cousin found him a job as a carpenter or cabinetmaker. He was a cabinetmaker. My mother really stayed home for a while and then she went cleaning homes to some people that had a little more money that could afford a cleaning lady. And I was at that time already in junior high school. And it's the language was the hardest thing.
Debbie Parchem [00:20:27] How did, I guess, were there any specific instances where, like, that you can think of with the language barrier kind of coming up?
Hertha Hetzel [00:20:38] I think like I mentioned yesterday when I first came over and I was 12 years old and they put me into kindergarten. To the point where I think I was getting sick. Sick that I didn't want to go to school and– It was bad memories.
Debbie Parchem [00:21:04] Yeah. Sorry, we don't have to talk about anything you don't want to.
Hertha Hetzel [00:21:09] I mean, people some people that came maybe a year or two later, they already, they had– I don't know, there was Lincoln High School that had schooling for the immigrants. But I lived so far away that it took me from West 88th Street on Denison and Clark to go down to Scranton, where Lincoln High School was, I think, it just took me an hour to get there. And then I had to walk a distance and by the time I got to school and into my class it already had started. And then my teacher would already knew that I was coming by bus and from far away, and no that was not good.
Debbie Parchem [00:22:14] Were there any places where you could talk in German pretty regularly, like at your apartment or anywhere else?
Hertha Hetzel [00:22:22] No, only after we, after we join the German Club.
Debbie Parchem [00:22:28] Oh, what was the German Club like? (phone rings)
Hertha Hetzel [00:22:32] The what?
Debbie Parchem [00:22:32] What was the German Club like?
Hertha Hetzel [00:22:35] Well, the German Club, I think I started to talk to you about that yesterday. It was, mostly consisting of immigrants. They were not 14, they were already in the upper 20s, twenty one, but still I felt at home. I could do the singing and dancing and talking in my Bavarian dialect, and I felt very much at home.
Debbie Parchem [00:23:10] Would you say that was probably the main way you connected with the German community or was there anywhere else?
Hertha Hetzel [00:23:17] No, that was, that was the main connection to the German community.
Debbie Parchem [00:23:22] So you didn't get a lot of German connection through your family or anyone that had, like, sponsored you?
Hertha Hetzel [00:23:33] Well, yeah, I mean, they did connect and we, my parents visited. And I went along because of well I, it was just the thing to do at that time. But I don't remember it being, well they were older for one thing, and their German was like a mixed English-German really kind of mixed. They used German and English words and a combination of ad libbing, a few of their own. And, and I think it was more the age and a little older than my parents. There was nobody my age in the visiting cousins or so forth.
Debbie Parchem [00:24:27] Yeah, so you mostly connected through the German Club and all that?
Hertha Hetzel [00:24:31] The German Club.
Debbie Parchem [00:24:33] So did you mostly speak English at home?
Hertha Hetzel [00:24:37] No, we spoke German all the way, even to the point when we got married and had our first child, it was a German was, the, the main language. And then when Eric was old enough to go to kindergarten, he spoke German and then he had a little bit of a hard time connecting with his children and the teacher. So the teacher advised us to try to speak English. And so for a while, Eric was able to speak both and more and more, we came into the English and then it was just English, but I never forgot the German language and neither did my husband. And, and I really was, I really can't complain anything, not really too bad memories.
Debbie Parchem [00:25:55] Yeah, were you able do you remember any kind of German traditions that you practiced growing up or that you still continue to practice anything like music, reading?
Hertha Hetzel [00:26:07] Yeah, I think about, around Christmas. I also play the German instrument, the folk instrument, the zither. And that I used in the German Club. And, for Christmas, we would always, I tried to make it like we had the Christmases in Bavaria. And while the children were small, it worked until they have grown up and left home and had their own families and they're not, they're not– I mean, it's gone, it's gone. They had their own traditions.
Debbie Parchem [00:26:58] Have you ever been back to your to your hometown? You said you–
Hertha Hetzel [00:27:02] Yes, I have been back to Germany, but not since 2008.
Debbie Parchem [00:27:09] On the topic–.
Hertha Hetzel [00:27:10] That was the last time.
Debbie Parchem [00:27:10] Yeah. On the topic of Christmas, if you don't mind me asking, what religion do you practice?
Hertha Hetzel [00:27:21] Say, say that again?
Debbie Parchem [00:27:22] What religion do you practice?
Hertha Hetzel [00:27:24] Oh.
Debbie Parchem [00:27:24] Like what denomination?
Hertha Hetzel [00:27:26] Lutheran. Lutheran.
Debbie Parchem [00:27:27] Oh, OK, cool.
Hertha Hetzel [00:27:32] And I was involved in the Christmas concerts, of course, playing the instrument and singing, playing for choirs. It usually was very, very festive. But the older people couldn't come and now since this pandemic started, it kind of everything kind of fell asleep. And, the elderly, they don't want to go to practice anymore. And well some of the older ones still want to practice, but they don't want to drive in the evening, you know, and it's I don't know if you would understand, but things change when you get older.
Debbie Parchem [00:28:26] Are there any kind of German traditions that you're still able to practice by yourself or not so much anymore?
Hertha Hetzel [00:28:34] Not so much anymore.
Debbie Parchem [00:28:37] If you have any specific memories or anything instances, can you talk more about what you did with the German Club?
Hertha Hetzel [00:28:54] German Club?
Debbie Parchem [00:28:54] Yeah, you told–
Hertha Hetzel [00:28:54] Basically it was all about singing and dancing.
Debbie Parchem [00:29:01] What kind of–
Hertha Hetzel [00:29:01] Singing or dancing. And at the Austrian Club it was mostly concerts, but they had a choir and I played while the choir sang.
Debbie Parchem [00:29:16] What kind of dancing did you guys do?
Hertha Hetzel [00:29:19] What's that?
Debbie Parchem [00:29:19] What kind of dancing did you guys do?
Hertha Hetzel [00:29:23] Well, the German Bavarian folk dance, which is the landler.
Debbie Parchem [00:29:29] Can you spell that?
Hertha Hetzel [00:29:32] L A N D L E R. And the boys did the slap, the lederhosen, and the girls had the dirndl and the boys did the slap dancing, Schuhplattling.
Debbie Parchem [00:29:48] You said you you played the instrument, did you ever dance or? You said you were in the choir, yeah?
Hertha Hetzel [00:29:54] And I also danced, yeah.
Debbie Parchem [00:29:56] What was your favorite part, would you say?
Hertha Hetzel [00:30:01] The what?
Debbie Parchem [00:30:02] What was your favorite part like, the singing, the dancing, instrument playing? What was your favorite part?
Hertha Hetzel [00:30:09] I think the instrument playing.
Debbie Parchem [00:30:15] It sounds really fun.
Hertha Hetzel [00:30:18] Yes, it was fun.
Debbie Parchem [00:30:21] Were there any specific people there that you really connected with?
Hertha Hetzel [00:30:29] Well, we were a group of unmarried boys and girls, young men and young ladies, and we had just fun together, it was different then. Dating was different than it is now. We kind of went to groups and had fun. And then after a while, they, you know, they coupled up and some of them got married and some of them from different partners, and then they brought that partner into the club and that's how it went. And then you had the children and then they were part of, active in the children groups. And some stayed, and then after some children were grown up they decided this is not for me and then they left.
Debbie Parchem [00:31:22] I forget if you mentioned, did you meet your husband through the German Club? Or was that somewhere else?
Hertha Hetzel [00:31:32] Well he immigrated in 1956 and I came in '52. And actually he met me while I was playing the zither for the club that I belong to. And from then on, it was, well, like I said, the dating was different then, but that's how we met. Then he went, he was he joined the National Guard and then he was busy with, with that. Everything there's really nothing that I complain about. We were healthy most of the time, and we had a good life.
Debbie Parchem [00:32:22] I forget if you mentioned what was the the name of the German club or was it just kind of?
Hertha Hetzel [00:32:28] Well, there were several OK. When I started, well let's just call it. It was S as in Sam, T as in Tom, V as in Victor. Verein it means club. And S C H U H, and I said that yesterday, Schuhplattler.
Debbie Parchem [00:32:55] Yeah.
Hertha Hetzel [00:32:55] Schuhplattler, yeah, that's the club we belong to. And then I started playing the zither for a sing, German singing club, which they claimed was an Austria from Austria Club. And I enjoy being with that club. And then we, the Bavaria has their clubhouse on Columbia Road, are you familiar with that?
Debbie Parchem [00:33:28] No, I don't think so.
Hertha Hetzel [00:33:32] OK.
Debbie Parchem [00:33:40] Was the, were there any kind of other German communities in Ohio that you were able to connect with, or was that the main one?
Hertha Hetzel [00:33:49] No, I did not join anything else.
Debbie Parchem [00:33:53] And how long were you a part of that again?
Hertha Hetzel [00:33:56] Since 1954, and I'm still part of it.
Debbie Parchem [00:34:00] What's it like today?
Hertha Hetzel [00:34:02] What's it like today? Well, there is hardly any German peope left they are all American born. And most of them have visited German one way or another. Or they just happen to like the camaraderie. Of being together and having Christmas parties together and hosting several dances and performing and.
Debbie Parchem [00:34:42] If you don't mind me, going back to an earlier point, you said you had been back to Germany and your hometown, 2008 yeah?
Hertha Hetzel [00:34:51] No I've, one not to Yugoslavia I never went back to Yugoslavia.
Debbie Parchem [00:34:54] Oh, OK.
Hertha Hetzel [00:34:56] I called my home town the, the little village we lived in Bavaria.
Debbie Parchem [00:35:03] Oh, Baravia Ok.
Hertha Hetzel [00:35:03] I grew up there. And that became my home. That I remember most.
Debbie Parchem [00:35:10] OK, I understand. What was it like going back there?
Hertha Hetzel [00:35:16] Surprisingly it wasn't, it. Well, you know, your friends get older, I got older, and the town got more modern and things change. So I thought it was nice to go back and to see this is where I lived, you know? And then one, the first time I went my best friend, she had planned the class reunion, so I saw my friends and then I saw them, how the kept, what they looked liked grown up, and they were not 12 or 10 years old anymore, and it was nice.
Debbie Parchem [00:36:05] I mean, I guess is there anything you'd just like to talk about with your experience as an immigrant? Any, I don't know any stories, any any lessons, just anything.
Hertha Hetzel [00:36:24] I can't remember anything, more than what I already talked about.
Debbie Parchem [00:36:28] That's totally fine. I just I just wanted to make sure. So, yeah, I guess if there's nothing else you want to talk about, that'll be all. And thank you so much.
Hertha Hetzel [00:36:41] You're welcome. So what are you going to do with that, information?
Debbie Parchem [00:36:45] Let me see. Um, I'm not exactly sure. Mostly for archival purposes. As far as I know.
Hertha Hetzel [00:36:59] Are there– Are you interviewing other people, too?
Debbie Parchem [00:37:01] Um, yes, we have a we have a list currently, yeah. Oh, yeah. If there's anyone else that you think might be interested in doing this. Um. You know, feel free to have them contact me whenever.
Hertha Hetzel [00:37:22] OK.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.