The Search for Schiller: Revisiting My German Roots in German Village

This story has been updated. 

“Life is earnest, art is joyful.”  –Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, “The Camp of Wallenstein” (1778)

I’m crouched low on my knees, reading this quote from a slab that somehow found itself among the thousands of bricks on the historic south side of Columbus.

The German translation etched below –– Ernst ist das leben, heiter ist die kunst –– rolls familiarly off my tongue, even four years after I sat in Frau Swisher’s Elementary German class.

Wincing against the September sunlight, I gaze at the man whose words are preserved at my feet, whose heritage reflects parts of my own conflicted past.

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, a long-forgotten German poet clad in bronze robes, stands over 25 feet above his permanent dominion: Schiller Park. This “poet of liberty,” as dubbed by the markings at Schiller’s Monument, was a philosopher, historian, and playwright at the turn of the 19th century. Arguably Schiller’s most famous poem, “Ode to Joy,” inspired the finale movement in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.”

But for many Americans, the 20th-century proliferation of German Nazism, ignited by Adolf Hitler in World War II, supplanted centuries of culture rooted in Das Land der Dichter und Denker (the country of poets and thinkers).

As an elementary school student, I often felt ashamed – humiliated, even – of my German heritage, especially around my Jewish friends. Every lecture on World War II was a tortuous, embarrassing reminder of my ancestors’ wrongdoings. How could I prove that I wasn’t like the “pure blood” Nazis of the 1930s? How could I be proud of a nation responsible for slaughtering millions?

Even now, in my college years, I cannot shake the sins of my forefathers. My ancestry is, in a sense, my unspoken identity.

Perhaps there is something in Schiller’s legacy, or his words, that can alleviate my burden as a 21st-century German-American. Perhaps there is something about Germany’s distant past –– not its more recent history –– that will inspire me to continue my German studies and to honor my family’s heritage.

“Everything new, even happiness, strikes terror.”  –Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, “The Bride of Messina” (1803)

I drive down South Third Street, maneuvering between left-and-right Interstate 70 exits, until it deposits me in German Village. Barely a block from Columbus city skyscrapers, this bunched-together community of brick homes and cafes has become a little haven of mine.

I remember driving these streets with my dad as a kid, too mesmerized by the quaint cottages and urban backdrop to ask much about the village’s history. Now, as a college sophomore with the promise of a weekend’s freedom, I’ve set out to explore my city’s timeless backyard.

Foregoing the familiar Sycamore Street, I cruise gently down the length of Third. After passing rows of Germanesque street signs, I dead-end into a gated, 23-acre park: Schiller Park.

The park was known as Stewart’s Grove in the mid-1800s and hosted German songfests, as well as the 1864 and 1865 Ohio State Fairs, according to Ohio Historical Society markers dotting the park’s lawn. The City of Columbus purchased the popular property in 1867, renaming the community centerpiece City Park.

Roughly a quarter of a century later, an estimated 10,000 revelers welcomed the statue of Friedrich von Schiller on July 4, 1891. Cast at the Royal Bronze Foundry in Munich, Germany, the statue was sent across the Atlantic – free of charge – on a steamer named America.

“The statue is an iconic symbol of civic generosity,” Katharine Moore, chair of The Friends of Schiller Park, said in an email. “Our early German settlers wanted to make a meaningful gift to their new community.”

Schiller’s likeness docked in Baltimore, Maryland, before it was transported to Columbus for Fourth of July festivities, including speeches from Ohio Governor James Edwin Campbell and Mayor George J. Karb.

“The monument is certainly a significant piece of public art, but the man they chose to honor is very important to us as well,” Moore said. “We have tremendous pride in having a poet in residence! Schiller wasn’t a politician or an army general; he was a philosopher and writer with keen insights into liberty and happiness.”

The park was later named after the German dramatist in 1905 –– 100 years after Schiller’s death in 1805 –– according to a text on Schiller’s significance, “Who Is This Schiller Now?”

I am intrigued by Schiller’s obscurity. For all of the school field trips downtown, never once did a class of mine explore this focal point in Ohio’s German-American history.

“There’s a reason you haven’t heard of him,” says Jeffrey High, professor of German Studies at California State University, Long Beach and one of the co-editors of “Who Is This Schiller Now.” “Things get forgotten.”

High explains how Schiller’s legacy lapsed after the U.S. involvement in World War II. But before that time, Schiller’s reputation as a beloved dramatist in early American society is well documented.

“By 1848, Schiller was already established as one of the dominant dramatists in the United States,” High says. “His prominence has nothing to do with his German-ness. It has to do with his obsession with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Schiller becomes a de-facto poet of the American Revolution.”

According to High, all of Schiller’s dramas were available in print by 1800, a “remarkable case” for someone of German, not English, ancestry.

Nicholas Martin, another co-editor of “Who is This Schiller Now?” and director of the Institute for German Students at the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, England, agrees Schiller maintained prominence in the United States during the late 1800s.

“Schiller’s impact in the U.S. has been significant – in the nineteenth century it was huge,” Martin said in an email.

But Schiller’s legacy of enlightenment was no match for war. In 1918, after anti-German sentiment spread in response to World War I, the Columbus City Council changed the name of his namesake plot of land to Washington, invoking the quintessential American patriot George Washington. In the early 1930s, however, South Side residents petitioned for the restoration of the park’s previous German namesake.

Schiller’s reputation made quite an impact on Columbus park-goers in the early 1900s, I think, circling the promenade. Then why am I still bombarded by images of German death camps and swastikas – and not of German intellectuals, like Schiller? I probably couldn’t even name a handful of German leaders – aside from Hitler – if I tried.

I see park-goers, young and old, enjoying picnics in the early afternoon sun, tossing Wendy’s french fries at the pond’s hungry flock of ducks. A man in his late 50s sits on a bench beneath the looming statue of Schiller, nods a greeting to me as I round the monument base.

There must be something more that I’m missing. Veering away from an ivy-infested amphitheater – an ideal stage for Schiller’s play “William Tell” – I decide to take my investigation to the next best place on foot: The Book Loft.

“A person’s will is their fortune.”  –Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, “The Camp of Wallenstein” (1798)

My elbow smacks into a pile of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Hard Choices” (marked down for $9.99), and I’ve somehow backed into a woman eyeing Amy Poehler’s “Yes Please” on the bestsellers shelf.

“I’m calling an audible,” says a bespectacled man, as he guides the woman in front of him around an overloaded display. “We’re making a change.”

This is what I love about The Book Loft: claustrophobic insanity. This 32-room loft-of-a-building, positioned on 631 S. Third St., boasts over 50,000 volumes, according to an outdoor banner along the Loft’s exterior.

I’ve been coming here since I could read, weaving in and out of the fantasy and western rooms to, most likely, the general fiction section. I let a woman in a floral-print dress maneuver down the stairs before me –– cradling a blue basket of at least 20 books –– as a trio of twentysomethings shuffle through the travel hallway behind me.

“There’s, like, 16 more rooms,” the lone female of the group says, pointing to the ceiling-strung map above us with a laugh.

It’s the perfect metaphor for my cluttered mind: a maze of knowledge. I figure if there’s any place to find Schiller’s most-famous poems – something to spark admiration for my German heritage, again – it would be here.

I arrive in the classic literature corner, after taking a detour through the opposite wing of the Loft. Scanning the shelves for Schiller’s “Sch,” I’m met with three and a half rows of Mark Twain. No Schiller.

Luckily enough, the poetry shelves are housed on the wall opposite. My eyes dart between the floor-to-ceiling shelves, but again, no Schiller here.

Looks like I’m going to have to ask the Loft experts.

“What one does not give up was never lost.”  –Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, “Mary Stuart” (1800)

Descending the front set of stairs, I’m dismayed to find the line snakes all the way to the door. It could be worse; there are thousands of people in here every week, according to eight-year Loft employee Julie Burgess – even more that cram in during the holiday season.

After a handful of transactions, I sneak behind the desk and ask one of the workers my question: “Are there any books in here by Friedrich von Schiller?”

The ancient desktop monitor hums to life as the Loft employee cranks in his Schiller search. After scrolling through a few pages of “SCH” authors, and a careful respelling of ‘Schiller,’ Julie Burgess comes back around the counter.

“Schiller? Oh yeah, he’s hard to find,” she admits when I ask about the statue’s namesake. “We could always order you a copy of one of his books.”

The act of ordering – therefore waiting – for a Schiller book defeats my serendipitous encounter two hours previous. I end up putting down $11 for Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sixth Extinction” (Kolbert was a stringer in Germany for The New York Times, I find out later) and exit back onto the brick-paved path.

German and American flags fly side-by-side in the Loft’s alleyway – a stark contrast to the world’s last major war, which ended 70 years ago this fall. I leave dissatisfied, convinced that a brick facade cannot mask all the German resentment still lingering in this country.

What’s more, I never found Schiller’s sense of closure – only stacks of World War II ideological texts and tales of the Holocaust.

We German descendants need to be reconciled of, not berated for the hellish tragedies we once ignored. Perhaps like an untreated wound, American society still needs time to heal from all the Nazi lies and propaganda.

But where does that leave my generation – a generation whose unlived past casts uncertainty for her future? When will I be able to claim my German heritage with honor, instead of with grim reluctance?

Looping back through the park, I resolve not to let one man’s twisted reality stain my family’s name forever.

“The Schiller statue reminds us that the pursuit of happiness is the goal of human existence,” High says. “Schiller is the most eloquent response to fascism. You should be proud to call your community Schiller Park.”

%d bloggers like this: