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German ancestry is tops in region

Sunday, June 02, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You may not attend Oktoberfest celebrations, be partial to schnitzel or have a love of Wagnerian opera, but if you live in southwestern Pennsylvania, chances are good you have some German ancestry.

German roots are by far the most common ancestral ties cited by local, regional and state respondents to Census 2000, according to material released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

And in all likelihood, German ancestry will remain the leading ethnic relationship for Americans overall, if past census figures are any indication. The final figures on ancestry will not be out until data for nine final states is released later this week.

Entschuldigen sie, you say? Excuse me? Germans are more numerous in this region than the Irish or the Italians or the Poles?

They are, and it's the legacy of the large number of German immigrants to America in the mid-19th century.

Pittsburgh's German history is celebrity-studded -- there are Pirates' great Honus Wagner; ketchup czar H.J Heinz; Bethlehem steel founder Charles Schwab -- and so is American history, with the likes of Babe Ruth, Herbert Hoover, Albert Einstein, John Jacob Astor, Thomas Nast and Levi Strauss.

Pennsylvania was home to the first German settlement in America, when 13 families from Krefeld, Germany, made Germantown their home in 1683. That burg is better known now as Philadelphia, which wouldn't be chartered until 18 years later.

The state was the primary destination of 19th-century German immigrants, who followed in the footsteps of their Hessian compatriots, who fought with the British against American independence in the 1770s.

Yet those roots haven't translated into splashy parades like the Irish and Italians' annual affairs. And except for a small pocket on the North Side, there is no "Little Germany" in Pittsburgh equivalent to the Italians in Bloomfield or the Irish in the South Hills.

Part of the reason, say demographers and educators, is that some German-Americans' feelings of pride in their heritage still suffer from the effects of the two world wars, an ignominious history that inhibits public celebration.

But Peter C. Merrill, a retired professor of language and linguistics at Florida Atlantic University, believes that there is another, simpler reason for German-Americans' low profile.

"I think part of the problem may be that Germans have assimilated very easily into mainstream American society," he said, and long ago stopped thinking of themselves as German.

Census data supports Merrill's point.

In 1980, the first year the census asked Americans about their ancestry, about 22 percent claimed some German ancestry. In 1990, that figure dipped to 18 percent.

While about 36 percent of all Pennsylvania residents in 1990 claimed at least some German heritage -- a greater percentage than any other group -- that figure declined by 2000 to 25 percent.

Still, Pennsylvania is among the leaders of states with residents claiming German ancestry, along with Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas and Missouri.

The decline in German ancestry also holds true in Allegheny County and the six-county region.

In 1990, 33.5 percent of county residents claimed some German ancestry; in 2000 the figure was less than 26 percent.

Each of the other five counties in the region -- Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland -- also showed declines in people claiming German ancestry.

Irish and Italian are the second most common ancestries claimed in southwestern Pennsylvania, the state as a whole and the United States, according to census figures, but they, too, declined between 1990 and 2000.

"One of the things you've noticed is a decrease in the number of those who are saying they belong to those traditional western European and southern European groups," said Kevin Deardorff, chief of ethnic and Hispanic statistics with the U.S. Census Bureau.

Deardorff, a Chambersburg, Franklin County, native who identified himself as "German" and "American" on his own census form, said there were several reasons fewer people were claiming their European roots.

The primary one is the country's expanding diversity, particularly with Asian and Latin American immigrants. A second is that as new generations continue to come along, their connections to ancestral homes decreases.

And third, the choice of "American" as an ancestry "has increased very rapidly," Deardorff said.

People born and raised in the United States "don't have as strong a tie with a particular country as previous generations may have had," he said. "New immigrants say, 'I'm American.' They feel some sort of civic closeness to identify as an American."

Among Pennsylvanians, 5.2 percent identified their ancestry as "American" in 2000, while nearly 19 percent fell into the "other" category.

At Shadyside's Rodef Shalom synagogue, the decline in descendants of German Jews has been dramatic, said Rabbi Mark Staitman. The congregation was founded in the 1800s by German Jews and dominated by their descendants through the first half of the 20th century.

But since 1973, the past nine congregation presidents have been descendants of Eastern European Jews, Staitman said.

German Jews "are going to be a small number of the congregation," which has 1,450 families, he said. "That's a huge shift."

It's not as if Pittsburgh is devoid of German culture, however.

The North Side's Teutonia Mannerchor, a social club that is a cultural center for Pittsburgh's German community, still boasts the Haus Kapelle band. There are German restaurants, Oktoberfest gatherings and a local chapter of the German American National Congress, the largest organization of Americans of German descent.

And there is also Ray Gratz.

The grandparents on both sides of his family came from Germany to Pittsburgh in the late 1800s. He's a longtime resident of Deutschtown on the lower North Side. He checked "German" on his census form.

"I'm of German descent," said Gratz, an army veteran who gives his age as "74.8."

"But I'm an American."

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