As soon as the children conclude their routine, the 300-capacity ballroom echoes with the sound of coins hitting the dance floor. The young boys in lederhosen and girls in scarlet dirndl dresses break formation and a scramble ensues to collect the loose change and dollar bills tossed their way by family and friends. The joy is in the gathering rather than the gains; as per tradition, they obediently deposit their loot in the outstretched aprons of the dance group’s older girls.
While the movements of Die Erste Gottscheer Tanzgruppe—The First Gottscheer Dance Group—are the occasion of the day, it’s the older generation who are doing most of the afternoon’s dancing. Dozens of couples take to the floor between hearty courses of food, their turns and pivots doubled in the cloudy mirrors along the far wall. For many, this is the room they were married in.
Meticulously set tables accommodate pitchers of Hofbrau, wine bottles and cocktail glasses, leaving the family-style platters of chicken cutlet, pork loin and all the trimmings jostling for real estate. As he gets up to dance for the third or fourth time, a mustachioed man imparts, “In Germany, they call beer liquid bread!”
The first time I stumbled upon the ballroom, it was empty. A friend and I ended up at Gottscheer Hall after a cursory search for a bar in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens. A regular offered to show us around, flinging open two nondescript wooden doors like a magician to reveal a darkened space at least ten times the size of the bar. He said that the hall plays host to a variety of events, stumbling over the word quinceañera.
While a few older men flanked the wooden bar and a handful of hipsters held down a corner table, we ate goulash and potato pancakes beside a curious map. Occupying a good portion of one wall and rendered in somewhat rudimentary black, white and yellow, it depicts a territory labeled “Gottschee.” Unanchored by familiar borders or place names, the map was as baffling as the pronunciation of the land it represents.
Gottschee is the name of a German settlement that existed for over 600 years in what is now Slovenia. It is not, as I learn, pronounced “GOT-shee,” but something closer to “Goht-CHAY,” with a barely-there “t.” Gottscheers (“Goht-CHAY-ers”) first arrived in the U.S. in the 1880s, but due to quota restrictions, came over in small batches. They moved to industrial cities, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, and Ridgewood, Queens, which was at the time full of knitting mills and breweries. When World War II left the European Gottscheers homeless and stateless, Ridgewood received them by the thousands.
The dire circumstances that necessitated the mass migration of Gottscheers were the last in a string of hardships and uncertainties weathered over the settlement’s tenure. First inhabited by German farmers in the fourteenth century, Gottschee changed hands countless times, given in fief, mortgaged and purchased, elevated to the status of a county and then a district, and ruled by the powerful Austrian Habsburg Empire. Through peasant uprisings, Ottoman raids and occupation by Napoleon’s army, the small settlement of Gottschee remained resolute, culturally and linguistically intact. The Gottscheerish dialect, primarily a spoken language, developed independently from standard German due to the settlement’s isolation.
In 1918, after the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, Gottschee became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. Over the following decade, Slovenian politicians began to encroach on the settlement’s self-contained ways, dissolving Gottscheer schools, where High German was the language of instruction, and enforcing Slovenian as the official language. Gottscheer cultural activities and societies were suppressed.
Worse times were still to come for Gottschee. In 1941, Germany and Italy invaded Yugoslavia. Germany forcibly relocated the Gottscheers to a northern part of German-occupied Slovenia, as part of a movement to reunify the Reich, uprooting tens of thousands of Slovenians in the process. The Gottschee settlement was ravaged by clashes between Italian and Yugoslavian forces. After the war, when the Yugoslavs took their land back, the Gottscheers found themselves in further peril. Under Josef Broz Tito’s Communist rule many ethnic Germans in Slavic territory faced bodily harm or imprisonment in retaliation for Germany’s war crimes or for their perceived collusion with the Nazis.
The U.S. responded to the millions of displaced persons left in the wake of World War II by revisiting its quotas and opening its doors a bit wider. But it was not until 1950 that President Truman authorized visas specifically for tens of thousands of refugees of German origin. By then, most of the surviving Gottscheers had fled to Austria and were living in displaced persons camps, which remained full of those who could not be easily repatriated due to revised borders or threat of persecution.
Opened in 1924, Gottscheer Hall became the center of social activities and aid mobilization during the crucial years after the war. In the same building where I ate goulash and puzzled over the map, the Gottscheer Relief Association had organized extensive efforts to send money and provisions back to Europe and lobby for support for the plight of its people. The Gottscheers had always been a small tribe, islanded by Slavic countries and never numbering more than 26,000. The association’s tireless work to bring attention to the desperate situation of Gottscheers and remove barriers to visa processing allowed the majority of their stranded countrymen to start new lives in America.
The building on Fairview Avenue stands next to an empty lot crisscrossed by dozens of clotheslines. On a Sunday afternoon, I find two men in Jets jerseys watching the game and trading banter with Trina Fieldstadt, the bartender. Joseph Morscher, a seventy-five-year-old man who arrives by himself, takes me under his tutelage for several hours despite the fact that I have shown up unannounced.
Morscher is tall, with good posture and a healthy head of hair. His voice is reminiscent of Christopher Walken’s, without the oddly-timed pauses. He arrived with his family in 1952 at the age of fourteen. Soon after, he attended Ridgewood’s Grover Cleveland High School, tossed into the regular stream of students despite speaking no English. There, he and other Gottscheer refugees had a rapport with Jewish teachers, aided by the closeness of Yiddish to German. Morscher was drafted in 1961 but never served abroad, and went on to a career as a New York City fireman, at one time working in Harlem, at one of the busiest firehouses in the city.
He takes me through the hall’s multiple rooms and explains the multitude of artifacts, all the things I hadn’t noticed on my first visit. Plaques mounted on wood to the right of the bar list Gottscheers who served in Vietnam. Four of the names have stars beside them, denoting that the men died there. We move on to the map, which spans the 330-square-mile settlement clustered around the town of Gottschee. Morscher was born in Altlag, he says, pointing to a hub to the north.
Upstairs in what serves as a meeting room, there is the dark wood paneling present throughout the bar, a leftover Happy Birthday sign hung in bubbly letters and red streamers spiraling down from the lights. We examine a group photo of one of the clubs he belongs to, Gottscheer Vereinigung (Gottscheer United), which he tells me was founded as a sick benefit club in 1936.
“Times were tough. They paid fifty-cents-a-month dues and they would run dances or festivals and the profits went into this fund, so that when a guy went sick, they paid him a sick benefit.” Morscher confides that for the Gottscheers, going on public assistance, thereby laying their burden on their adopted country, was seen as a disgrace. So the community rallied to help its members from within.
These days, Gottscheer Vereinigung is more of a means for social gatherings. The all-male members meet monthly to schmooze and plan their annual dinner dance. In the photo, two young men hold accordions with bellows half expanded. Morscher is pictured along with his son, Joseph Morscher, Jr.
Morscher has something to say about everything we look at: “That’s my cousin…Oh, that guy passed away just last week.” We examine the studio photographs that line the walls of the entrance hallway, portraits of the young women who have held the title of Miss Gottschee since 1964. They wear monochrome party dresses and beauty pageant sashes. Morscher tells me that Miss Gottschee is expected to attend all the events thrown by the various clubs, and then points out two cousins of his among the smiling faces.
Gottschee once sought recognition as an independent state. After World War I, when the Slovenians threatened the preservation of the settlement’s culture, the Gottscheers in America drafted a proposal to be presented at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The goal was to achieve the status of a principality like Monaco or Liechtenstein.
The New York Times ran an item about the Gottschee independence movement on March 19, 1919. It describes Gottschee as “a sturdy centre [sic] of Germanism, whose national feeling runs high.” The crux of the article is the question of where to draw the line at who deserves self-determination, a concept that is “so easy to reduce to an absurdity.” If given independence, then what of the Slavic minority living within Gottschee borders, and their right to autonomy? The Kingdom of Yugoslavia had itself just been formed. At a time when national self-determination was a fiercely debated global issue, the Gottschee effort was fraught with larger political implications, despite the Gottscheers’ simple wish to continue existing as they had for centuries.
The Paris Peace Conference set the terms for a post-war world, hearing the requests of many nations and resulting most notably in the Treaty of Versailles. However, the Gottscheer request for independence failed.
“President Wilson was our only hope but he was too obsessed with his League of Nations to really care,” said Reinhard Schmuck, who was born in New York to native Gottscheers and is active in several clubs at the hall. “The short answer is it went nowhere.”
World War I had greatly hobbled the Gottscheers’ chance of maintaining cultural autonomy; the next world war required abandonment of their homeland altogether. While a small number of Gottscheers chose to rebuild their lives in Slovenia or Austria, the majority took off for America at their first opportunity.
Joseph Morscher repeatedly refers to Gottscheer Hall as “the clubhouse.” For people stripped of a homeland, it’s a powerful statement. When the hall opened, it became the headquarters of clubs that already existed, and fostered the creation of many new ones. Today, there are active clubs that revolve around fishing, hunting, bowling, dancing and singing. (Club membership is not limited to those of Gottscheer heritage.)
In 1962, Gottscheer Hall doubled in size with the purchase of the building next door. Boasting an entertaining space that could accommodate 300 people, the hall further cemented itself as the backdrop of many fond memories.
Morscher’s sister was the first person to get married there after the re-opening. He also got married there, in 1964: “We had 286 people, believe it or not. It was wall to wall.” We’re standing in the ballroom, with its chandeliers and stage. Dirtied tablecloths and a few empty beer bottles remain from the previous night’s fête, a christening.
Herb Morscher—whose great-grandfather was brother to Joseph’s grandfather—was born in Brooklyn, grew up in the Queens neighborhood of Glendale, and now runs Morscher’s Pork Store on Catalpa Avenue in Ridgewood. Herb was married at the hall in 1990. “The cocktail hour started at five p.m. with music and they played until two a.m.” he recalls. “Then we had our own family playing button accordions until four a.m. The Gottscheer Hall was never one to end a party.”
While there are fewer weddings at Gottscheer Hall these days (“There’s no parking,” laments Joseph Morscher), the different clubs’ annual events bring out the spirit of the old days in full force. In January, the Rod & Gun Club hosts a raucous dinner, serving only venison caught by its members. These evenings are especially energetic and so memorable, bartender Trina says emphatically, because “the people are so nice, the food is excellent, and it’s only once a year.”
Even on an ordinary night, the place can come alive at a moment’s notice. Somebody might walk in, see the piano and ask to play it, and when Trina consents, “people just jump around the piano and start to sing. We can have a Friday and I’ll have nobody in here and then at ten o’clock, eight, ten people come in and they all start playing.”
What began as a place to preserve and celebrate Gottscheer culture has now become a go-to locale for other communities in Ridgewood to nurture their own traditions. Along with numerous quinceañeras—rite of passage fifteenth birthday parties for Latin American girls—Gottscheer Hall hosts the gatherings of the Ridgewood Nepalese Society, and recently opened its doors to the Ridgewood Market, where artsy vendors hawk vintage wares and DIY baubles.
Beyond the hall, several community customs persist. A yearly treffen, or get-together, unites people of Gottscheer descent from across North America. Held in various cities with high concentrations of Gottscheers—estimates place the New York population at 14,000 to 18,000—the treffen has facilitated, among other things, the reunions of those who first met in displaced persons camps. The Gottscheer Relief Association’s biggest event of the year is June’s Volksfest, a picnic in Franklin Square, Long Island that has been held since 1947. Gottschee has a place every September in the German-American Steuben Parade, as club leaders and Miss Gottschee take to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Joseph Morscher is among the last crop of Gottscheers who emigrated from Europe. His age when he came over makes him part of what sociologists call “the 1.5 generation,” those brought over before or during their teenage years by immigrant parents. With knowledge of home but thrown abruptly into a new setting, scrambling to learn English, 1.5ers face an urgency to assimilate.
“I know very little of home—bits and pieces,” he muses. “I used to hear things. When my father talked about the old days, it didn’t interest me. Later, you think, ‘What did he say? What did he mean?’”
His lack of interest didn’t come down to anything psychological beyond pure teenage indifference, that universal malady. He tells me about a Gottscheer Hall regular, of the first generation born in America, who has suddenly become interested in Gottschee history and culture.
“His father passed away and he’s got all sorts of questions now and there’s nobody to ask anymore.”
When I ask Morscher if he still speaks or reads German, whether the Gottscheerish dialect was passed down, his answers strike me as deflective. He asks me about my background. We get to talking about a Chinese buffet he likes. I press, but he only responds, “I always say, you should be proud of who you are. Whoever you are, be proud of who you are.”
In 1997, the Gottscheer Relief Association scored a significant coup in establishing a permanent archive of Gottscheer materials at the Library of St. John’s University in Queens. The collection of artifacts such as cassettes, newspapers and photographs documents the language, literature, music and history of Gottschee—preservation that is particularly crucial given how small the Gottscheers number.
“When it comes down to it, we’re very insignificant,” says Joseph Morscher. There is little awareness among Germans and German immigrants about Gottschee, as it is one of many ethnic German enclaves that existed throughout Europe.
Citing the lower attendance numbers for various events, Morscher says with a small laugh, “We’re dying out, right?”
Perhaps not. Elfriede Parthe Sommer, who has managed Gottscheer Hall since 1993, has noticed a resurgence in interest from the younger generation. She has received calls from first- and second-generation Gottscheers searching for their roots. Many subsequently become more interested and involved in the activities of the hall. Now, the middle-aged and elderly members of clubs are outnumbered by their children. The coin-collecting children of Die Erste Gottscheer Tanzgruppe, a club that practices traditional Austrian folk dance, are the offspring of those who themselves once danced in the group.
And the culinary customs live on. Herb Morscher’s pork store specializes in the wursts and seasonal fare of Germany and the Gottschee region, such as reissblutwurst, a blood sausage, and smoked tenderloin used to prepare a special barley soup. On the menu at Gottscheer Hall is Krainerwurst, a garlicky smoked sausage of Slavic origin.
I had expected my foray into the world of Gottscheer Hall to yield a sadness for something lost. Instead, I realized that this portrait of the hall past and present doesn’t have to be a ghost story.
The Oktoberfest party at Gottscheer Hall is in full swing when I arrive. Hofbrau flags hang throughout the bar and people sit at round tables in the ballroom, enjoying traditional food. Trina, brown hair pulled back, dashes from the kitchen to the bar to the ballroom taking food orders, ferrying schnitzel and pretzels and pouring $13 pitchers of lager.
There’s a smattering of older couples and what look to be some of the younger generation of Gottscheers, but the crowd is overwhelmingly made up of the new crop of twenty- and thirty-something Ridgewood residents, sporting mohawks, flannel and tattoos. They’re dancing up a storm and competing in the masskrugstemmen contests, vying to be the last man or woman left holding a stein of beer with outstretched arm. Musician Paul Belanich supplies most of the night’s entertainment, DJing pop hits and showing off his virtuosity with the accordion. I spot Sarah Feldman, organizer of the Ridgewood Market and of regular pub crawls in the neighborhood, spinning away on the dance floor with her boyfriend.
Trina has mentioned how much the latest arrivals in Ridgewood respect the heritage of the hall. They’re her new regulars and they’re friendly with some of the old regulars. When I ask a cluster of the newer crowd why they like Gottscheer Hall, they fumble for words, settling on telling me that it’s laid-back. “And we like Trina.”
When they get a taste of the particular charm of the place, it’s a treat. “Someone is here playing true on an instrument, they love it,” says Trina. “They’ll start dancing polkas. They don’t know what they’re doing, but who cares?”
Trina, who is Italian-American, didn’t know anything about Gottschee when she started working at the hall twelve years ago. Now, she can answer most questions asked by her newest patrons. Tomboyish and with a commanding voice that turns affectionate when she speaks of the past, she absorbed the stories of the old-timers who visited her on Sunday afternoons. They’d show up at two or three and play cards until ten, shouting at each other in Gottscheerish, sometimes trying to teach her how to play. One of them used to call her his little bird.
“That’s where I learned so much. They would all be here, and they would just sit and tell me stories, and I would listen because it was so interesting,” says Trina. “They passed away and I miss them.”
The ones who remain, pushing ninety or already there, still show up one afternoon a week to talk and play cards, but gone are the days of imbibing and carrying on for hours at the clubhouse.
“They’re too old, they can’t drink anymore,” Morscher tells me. “So they walk down Fresh Pond Road, take in the sun.”
As midnight approaches, the Oktoberfest celebration shows no signs of slowing. The entire space is engaged, all the doors open, personalities colliding. Two weeks later, the ballroom will be electric again, with many attendees arriving from beyond Ridgewood for the annual Tanzgruppe banquet. The newly crowned Miss Gottschee, Herb Morscher’s daughter Stefani, will be there, wearing her sash and posing for photos.
Belanich puts on the “Chicken Dance,” which gets even reluctant dancers out of their seats, and follows it up with “La Bamba.” I retreat to the bar. In another universe, the Cardinals have won the pennant and the bar TV proceeds to show women’s roller derby, Brooklyn vs. The Bronx. An older man asks me why I’m not dancing.