[Ger-Poland-Volhynia] Germans of Hoboken, New jersey WWI NY Times Article

Michael & Maureen McHenry maurmike1 at verizon.net
Mon Mar 6 13:46:33 PST 2006

This is an interesting article in yesterdays Sunday NY Times about WWI
Hoboken, New Jersey. My grand parents lived within a few blocks of the piers
mentioned during WWI. They arrived in America on North German Lloyd ships.
The writer points out there were 42000 Germans in Hoboken in 1917. The
population total would have been less then 100,000 in an area of 1 square
I'm planning a visit to the Hoboken Museum in the near future.


Jitters About Who's in Charge on the Waterfront, in 1917 and Today

IN retrospect, the efforts to thwart foreign control of the waterfront seem
almost inevitable. There was, after all, a toxic brew of elements: foreign
port management in time of war, broad cultural antagonisms, the terrifying
explosions that rattled people on both sides of the Hudson and made everyone
wonder what would happen next and when.

Or so it appears now when we look back at what happened in April 1917 on the
Hoboken waterfront, where the federal government seized control of the piers
and the ships docked there from their German owners at the outbreak of World
War I.

It's not all that clear what lessons you can draw from two eras and two
threats so distant and different. That said, it's worth remembering that the
current furor over the Dubai company's seeking to manage terminals at six
American ports is hardly without precedent in American history. 

And one of the most memorable examples happened here, in the birthplace of
Sinatra, where the first Oreo was sold, where Marlon Brando coulda been a
contenda in "On the Waterfront." 

A century ago, it didn't seem remotely surprising that two German companies,
North German Lloyd and Hamburg-American, owned and operated Hoboken's piers,
which were rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1900. After all, shipping by
its nature was the most international business of its time. And Hoboken,
where as early as the 1850's, more than 1,500 of the 7,000 inhabitants were
of German origin, was known as Little Bremen, and had an elaborate network
of German beer gardens and restaurants, social clubs, newspapers, theaters
and schools.

So not only were ships like the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the Deutschland
and the Vaterland part of Hoboken's maritime history, no one thought
anything of German companies owning the piers - vast webs of maritime
commerce, with docks extending more than 900 feet into the Hudson.

And then it all began to change. Tensions ratcheted up as World War I did,
and then ratcheted up a good bit more in 1916 when titanic explosions ripped
through Black Tom Island, near what is now Liberty State Park, where tons of
explosives were stored awaiting transport to Europe. The blast shattered
windows in New Jersey and Manhattan and set in motion fears and paranoia
theretofore unimagined. Sabotage or accident? No one ever knew for sure, but
suddenly the German presence seemed much less benign.

When America entered the war, soldiers and federal agents marched into town,
took over the docks and seized the German ships. The largest of them all,
the mighty Vaterland, became a troopship, the Leviathan, and Hoboken became
a leading point of embarkation where three million soldiers sailed away to

BUT it wasn't just people and places with military potential that were
affected. According to "Destination Hoboken," an exhibition by the Hoboken
Historical Museum in 2002, German restaurants, theaters and clubs closed.
German dishes were removed from local menus, and many people of German
descent living within a half-mile of the port were evicted from their homes
or businesses. Many were arrested, including the pastor of St. Matthew's
German Lutheran Church. Others were taken to internment camps or deported or
left for less-charged places.

There were 42,000 people of German descent in Hoboken, according to the 1910
census. By 1920, the total had dropped by 12,000.

We were, of course, at war with Germany, if not necessarily with owners of
beer gardens and rowing clubs on River Street. But if there's any
self-evident truth about humans, it's that fear is the greatest motivator.
So if there were very real and valid fears in 1917 in Hoboken, N.J., they no
doubt bred phantom ones as well. 

Which brings us to today. Ever since 9/11 we've been told to be afraid, be
very afraid, in urgent speeches from Washington, in color-coded alerts, in
broadcasts and rebroadcasts of Osama bin Laden's greatest hits. And it is a
more dangerous time, where a handful of neatly dressed men with box cutters
or enough stray radioactive elements to make a dirty bomb could do damage
that a saboteur with an eye on Black Tom Island could not have imagined.

So everything's different. Hoboken is full of investment bankers, not
longshoremen. There's no formal declaration of war, no ships to seize. Our
menu alerts are about freedom fries, not sauerbraten. We're not sure who
we're at war with, if it's a war, how it ends, if it ends. But we were
scared on the waterfront then. And Lord knows we're scared on the waterfront

E-mail: peappl at nytimes.com


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