History of the Organization
The story of the American Aid Society of German Descendants is an ongoing narrative. The dedication of our forefathers to assist their Landsmen and women out of terrible hardships and a gloomy future in South Eastern Europe began out of necessity—from that devotion an organization grew that sought and STILL seeks to preserve our culture and heritage.
The fate of the Germans in Southeastern Europe was extremely precarious at the end of World War II. The communists were given the ruling power in Yugoslavia and with that came deportation of able bodied people to Russian work camps and mass starvation camps for all others--mostly young and old. Some were able to escape on foot or by horse drawn wagons before the communist took over. They fled to Germany or Austria, leaving most of their worldly possessions behind. Although they were far better off than those who were deported or in camps, they were met with rejection, finding little assistance or shelter in these regions. The Germans and Austrians viewed these refugees as a burden while trying to regroup and rebuild their own countries after world war II. Once somewhat settled, those refugees that could soon began reaching out to friends and relatives that had already made it to America in the 1920’s, in hopes of some help.
It was during this time that our German-American friends and relatives were mobilizing in Chicago and on September 17th, 1944, in the basement of a Croatian tavern, the American Aid Society was founded. Nine men in all—Nick Pesch, Sam Baumann, Math Gatsch, John Funk, Josef Mueller, John Deppong, John Kaiser, Konrad Hack and Christian Marschall. Nick became the first president, Josef Mueller vice president, Konrad Hack secretary and John Deppong the treasurer.
****Click here to read Sam Baumann's account of founding The American Aid Society.
Food drives were one of the first things that were organized in order to send care packages to those either in the starvation camps or in the barracks in Germany or Austria. As mentioned in the last article, money was raised in various ways (donations, raffles, etc.) in order to buy food for these care packages. An example of the care package was as follows: Flour 1000 grams, Sugar 500 grams, Macaroni noodles 900 grams, Lard 500 grams and lastly, 1000 grams of Coffee and Rice. Day after day men, women and children, volunteered and got together to assemble these life saving care packets. Between 1945-1947 an estimated $130,000 worth of food, clothes and medical supplies were shipped to those in need. It was an unheard of amount of money for that time and all of it raised through fund raising efforts.
Over time however, it became clear that sending care packages was not going to be enough. The barracks in Germany and Austria were overflowing with refugees and as families began reuniting after escaping their old homelands, it became evident that staying there would prove difficult. I remember my own grandmother’s frustration as she told us of their struggles in Austria. Work was scarce and what work my grandfather had paid very little. She was patching and re-patching clothes, but saw no fruitful end in site. It was HER that went to apply to come to America, against my grandfathers wishes. She had a bigger vision and wanted an opportunity to have their hard work pay off. The solution to the overcrowding was obvious; we must help these people come to America. This was however a daunting task, to try to get Germans immigrants post world war II to be allowed to come to America.
Mr. Nick Pesch and others petitioned Senators and congressmen to achieve this monumental task. Through the help of Senators Dirksen, Langer, Douglas and Congressmen Stratton and Sheehan, along with the support of the National Catholic Welfare Congress, the Lutheran Welfare League and the ongoing assistance from the Quakers was this finally accomplished!
The first wave of immigrants arrived in America on December 20th, 1950 and were welcomed by Monsignors Ferring and Swanstrom and by Sam Baumann, chairman of the assistance committee of the American Aid Society.
After The War
Between 1951-1957, the laws passed by congress allowed 57,000 people to immigrate. In conjunction with the Chicago Aid Society, there were also Aid Societies in New York, lead by Herr Wagner, Los Angeles lead by a ‘schwowischer” priest, Father Lani and also by the Cleveland Aid Society. Later, between 1957-1963, congress allowed another 61,000 people to immigrate under the “Family Unification Act”. The goal was to have up to 200,000 people come to the U.S, but that goal was never reached. In total, approximately 17,000 of the new immigrants came to the Chicagoland area. During the second larger wave, people like my Ota, Nikolaus Stein were already sponsoring families, despite only having arrived himself (and his family) in the fall of 1951. Those that did not stay in Chicago, often ended up somewhere in the Midwest, as many single people and families alike, were sponsored by farmers who needed migrant workers. This was the case with my God father, Wendel Weiner. He came as a single young man and ended up on a farm in Wisconsin. After some months, he contacted my Kleiner grandparents, who he knew from Austria and eventually made it back to Chicago. There are many such stories with members of our club.
As promised, our people were not allowed to go on welfare or to become a burden to their new homeland. Apartments and jobs were obtained for the newly arrived men and women. Children were registered for school. My grandparents arrived by army ship in New York City where they were given approximately $20.00 for food (which was expected to be paid back to the club) and then came to Chicago by train. They arrived on a Sunday and were met by a member of the club, who took them to their apartment. On Monday, my grandfather was oriented to the streetcar and taken to his first of many factory jobs. By Tuesday he was going by himself with virtually no knowledge of the English language.
Not only was the club there to support our Landsleit with the practical side of their new lives, but it also became a social support system. People gathered to help one another succeed in their new homeland. They shared their trials and tribulations of the last 10 years with one another, shared news about jobs, apartments, any news of their former homeland or they gathered just to play cards and have fun!
By 1960, the American Aid Society and Deutsch-Ungarische (German-Hungarian) organization joined together to assist with a new cause and they opened the “American Aid & Old People’s Home Society”. The current building that houses our Museum in Lake Villa was once a nursing home of sorts for people from South Eastern Europe. Another major achievement was the founding of our Kindergruppe in 1969 . This was spearheaded by Mrs. Kaethe Engert. This not only strengthened the entire Verein, but it gave new life to the Jugendgruppe by providing a constant stream of “new members”, since by this time, the wave of immigrants had begun to slow down. In 1972, the official name of the club was changed. We dropped the “Old Peoples Home” portion of the name and instead added “of German Descendants”, since at this point many of the members were already born in America.
By 1984, the number of residents at our Old People’s Home was dwindling, so the decision was made to close it and re-open it as a Heimat Museum. This project was spear headed by Elisabeth Gebavi, Joseph Stein, Richard Gunther and many more. The entire building was gutted and transformed by volunteers from our organization—this took many hours of free manpower. It was truly and still is a LABOR OF LOVE AND DEDICATION. The success of it came from the many members from near and far who dedicated personal items from “da haum”. It is a highlight at all of our picnics and was especially popular during the three Landestreffen we have hosted. We even had a “schwowischer scavenger hunt” at our treffen in 2016 for the various Kindergruppe members, where the kids had to find various artifacts, in an attempt to make history fun and challenging. Additionally, Hilde Neumayer contributes articles for out newsletter highlighting the various themes found in our museum.
Over the last 25 years, The American Aid Society has remained a vibrant and very active organization. And although many changes have occurred, most were positive. We built a large hall in Lake Villa that holds 500 people-it contains a full size industrial kitchen, toilets and indoor shower facilities, office space and a large amount of storage space. The undertaking to build such a facility was only made possible due to BOTH the financial support of our members and to those who volunteered (and still do) in the building and maintenance of such a structure. It has given us the freedom to hold our events at our own facility and has allowed us to host 3 Landesverband Trachtenfest weekends. Additionally, we added a new children’s playground and we had the front parking lot graveled in order to keep cars from getting stuck in the grass or mud.
The Chicago Kickers and Dobrudschaner Club joined our organization. They turned our empty land at the back of the property into 2 full soccer fields and built a beautiful patio at the east end of the hall.
In order to keep everything financially functioning, 3 of our members initiated an Oktoberfest geared for not only members and those of German heritage, but for the general public. It has become the most successfully attended event that we host and keeps us financially sound. It also allows BOTH the American Aid Society members to work alongside and get to know the members of the Kickers at each of these events.
Our organization continues to have a Kinder, Jugend and Senior group and we have also added a Tuesday work crew, consisting of retirees that help keep Lake Villa clean and in good working order, a Frauengruppe and and adult dance group-Noch Einmal.
Most recently, we had to rebuild our outdoor pavilion and bar to replace the original one that was over 60 years old. Again, thanks to the generosity of our members, we were able to not only reconstruct the pavilion, but to enlarge the area and make it more attractive.
Currently, our members are still EXTREMELY HARD WORKING, DEDICATED AND PROUD of our organization. We continually strive to make our forefathers proud by working diligently to continue to foster OUR SCHWOWISCHE HERITAGE.
Inevitably, we have lost most of our original members and immigrants from the 40s and 50s, but we we continually strive to keep the organization progressive and look FORWARD to a bright future.