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Werner uncovers a New Ulm predisposition

August 3, 2008
By RON LARSEN — Journal Staff Writer

NEW ULM - Otto Werner of New Ulm is a man of numerous talents, not the least of which is being able to translate documents written in what might now be called the old German language script.

Little did Werner, 74, realize that when he agreed to take on the task of translating various old documents, including play bills from the old German Haus in St. Paul where Werner grew up, he would unearth a key element about his life that he never knew existed.

The reason for the man to want the documents translated was that they pertained to relief efforts carried out by St. Paul Germans to help those, particularly orphans, whose lives were turned upside down by the first World War in Austria and Germany.

Article Photos

Otto Werner works on some music at his keyboard in his home on Minnesota St. in New Ulm.

The project has almost literally possessed him because of the immense challenges in trying to translate those documents.

"Nobody else can read this; not even the Germans can read this stuff. The Germans can't read this. It's because of changes in the language," he says, with just a hint of pride in his voice.

As one looks at the sample he has offered, it's hard to believe those thin, clean strokes, vertically paralleling the other strokes and seemingly varying only in length could actually be written German language words.

"It's the writing of, for instance, prior to 1871, all of this. Well, like this one, you see how that's all lines ... prior to 1871. It's more lines. The letters are not even [legible] to anyone that doesn't know how to read this. It's completely illegible," he explained.

So, considering those factors, it's a miracle in and of itself that Werner was able to hang in there on the project long enough to make the discovery that he did.

"The guy that hired me - and I've got at least seventy sheets like this - he went to the State Historical Society, and he had all the information that he could get about a lady who did a lot of things for the relief programs."

That would be Mrs. Louise Dankelmann who emigrated from Austria and took up residence in St. Paul.

Dankelmann and other Germans in the St. Paul area formed the Spassvogel-Klub which Werner guesses was around 1919-1920.

"They all were [Good Samaritans]. They were sending food and money and supplies and things to Austria and Germany to the orphans and [impoverished and displaced Austrians and Germans] of the first World War," he explained.

So, the German Haus which later would go through a name change to American House became the nerve center for these relief efforts.

"We had three floors - a bowling alley and a bar and a restaurant downstairs, meeting rooms on the main floor, and a ballroom and theater upstairs," he explained.

The group called themselves the Troiler Club for an area in Austria and Germany from which most of them came, Werner said. And, the group would produce benefit shows in the theater, called a Troiler Abend [evening], "a show from the Austrian Bavarian Alps," he said.

Because his parents were involved, Werner grew up being a part of the German House action himself. However, he didn't really know or recall how involved his parents were until he dug into the translation project.

"I found out things, for instance, there's my dad. He was the director of the place. The thing that appeared was, for instance here, my mother shows up as a singer and dancer very often and by her maiden name before they were married," he continued.

"I was going through these papers, and all of a sudden in the paper there's a picture of my mother and father's wedding. Because they belonged to this club, they got it in the paper that they were putting on the show. A picture that I didn't have."

However, the clincher for Werner, who found his way to New Ulm nearly 50 years ago, was learning that the theater group also hit the road occasionally.

"They went on the road and did many, many shows. They did shows in Minneapolis, Young America, and they did one at Turner Hall, here in New Ulm."

Ron Larsen can be reached at



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