October 4, 2010 | German

The Death of Little Germany

A century ago, a German community in Manhattan was shattered.

In 1912, the Titanic was heading to New York City from England when it sank and more than 1,500 passengers and crew died. It would be hard to find people in this city who haven’t heard of the Titanic.

By contrast, it is difficult to find people who know about the General Slocum tragedy, in which only eight years earlier—on June 15, 1904—1,021 people died right here in an East River boating disaster. Until 9/11, it was the deadliest disaster in the city’s history, and it destroyed a thriving German immigrant community in what is now the East Village.

Tompkins Square Park Today, East Village

Tompkins Square Park Today, East Village

Traces of Little Germany, Second Avenue

Traces of Little Germany, Second Avenue

I first read about the General Slocum in 1990. That was the year I moved from California to New York, and the city’s history promptly became an obsession of mine.

I couldn’t understand why the events of that day were not better remembered given that they had occurred right in the city, with a loss of life on a scale similar to the Titanic’s. But the passengers aboard the ship that day were not famous. They were members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, mostly women and children from the Little Germany neighborhood that ringed Tompkins Square Park.

The General Slocum’s passengers were on their way to a day of pleasure—a church picnic on Long Island—when the ship caught fire as it headed up the East River. By the time the captain brought the ship to rest at North Brother Island, the fire was completely out of control. Decks collapsed on many would-be picnickers, while others drowned. Safety measures and equipment across the ship were, it was subsequently determined, grossly inadequate. Only about 320 passengers survived.

The tragedy destroyed the community of Little Germany. Fathers who had remained at work lost their entire families. Some survivors committed suicide, and many remaining residents moved to other parts of the city. 

Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle (German Library)

Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle (German Library)

Yesterday I went to the East Village to wander around and look for traces of the former Little Germany. 

They were not so easy to find. Fortunately, before I left home, I had located some information online about two adjacent buildings on Second Avenue between 8th and 9th streets. I made those my first stop.

German was conspicuous on the front of both buildings. On the left was what is now the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library. The old German lettering over the entrance read, “Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle” (free library and reading room).

According to the New York City landmarks plaque on the side of the building, the Ottendorfer Library “was the first building in Manhattan to be erected specifically as a free public lending library.” It was the gift of Anna and Oswald Ottendorfer, who together ran the successful, influential, and widely read German newspaper New Yorker Staats-Zeitung

Right next door to the Ottendorfer branch was the Deutsches Dispensary building, also a gift of the Ottendorfers. 

The Old German Dispensary...

The Old German Dispensary…

...Became the Stuyvesant Polyclinic

…Became the Stuyvesant Polyclinic

It subsequently became the Stuyvesant Polyclinic, though the building’s abandoned appearance gave me the impression (now confirmed through an Internet search) that the clinic is no longer open for business. 

Memorial Fountain, General Slocum Tragedy, Tompkins Square Park

Memorial Fountain, General Slocum Tragedy, Tompkins Square Park

My next task: I figured there had to be some kind of General Slocum memorial in Tompkins Square Park, so I headed east to search for it.

I wandered around the park, which was dotted with homeless people, searching for signs of a memorial. I finally found one, but it was hardly conspicuous: a modest fountain that paid tribute to the tragedy’s victims, particularly the children.

The main inscription read, “They were earth’s purest, children young and fair.” Another inscription noted that the memorial had been dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies.

Looking around, I doubted many people ever noticed it. To my eye at least, it looked almost like an oversized drinking fountain. In addition, the lettering was faint, and there were few people in that part of the park.

In fact, a sign on the gate leading to that area said that only adults accompanied by children could enter. I know I am not a threat, so I entered anyway.

They Were Earth's Purest, Children Young and Fair

They Were Earth’s Purest, Children Young and Fair

Inscription, Memorial Fountain

Inscription, Memorial Fountain

Moving from the tragic past to the vibrant East Village present, I searched for current signs of German culture. I found them in the form of food and beer.

For example, I came across a tiny restaurant, Wechsler’s on First Avenue between St. Mark’s and 7th Street, which sells currywurst (not sure what that is), bratwurst, and German beer. The moment I walked in, I could hear patrons speaking German.

Wechsler's: For Currywurst and Bratwurst

Wechsler’s: For Currywurst and Bratwurst

Wechsler's Beer Selection

Wechsler’s Beer Selection

A few blocks away, Oktoberfest was being celebrated with great enthusiasm at Zum Schneider (which I believe translates as “to the tailor”), a Bavarian bar and restaurant on Avenue C and Seventh Street that is currently celebrating its tenth birthday. There was a German band playing inside, and every table, inside and out, was packed. A bouncer the size of a German noun refused to let me in, because it was too crowded.

Oktoberfest at Zum Schneider

Oktoberfest at Zum Schneider

Zum Schneider, Packed Outside and In

Zum Schneider, Packed Outside and In

I was told I would have to wait. I don’t like waiting, and I wasn’t sure a crowded Oktoberfest celebration was a match for my interests, so I packed it up and headed north for home.

By early evening I had completed six half-hour Pimsleur lessons and conquered more of my college grammar book, including an entertaining section on what are known as “two-way prepositions,” i.e., prepositions that, depending on how they are used, require different noun cases. German definitely keeps you on your toes.

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