By Kremena Spengler
NEW ULM - The story started in the 1950s, in Herdecke, a small German town near Dortmund, where a boy was growing up amidst the devastation left by World War II.
Prof. Dr. Gerhard E. Sollbach
The times were hard, food was scarce, and toys were luxuries few could afford.
Somehow the boy, "about 10, 11 or 12 years old," got his hands on a book that kindled his imagination. He's forgotten the author, but still remembers the title, "Flames of Fire."
The book's pages teemed with Indians, battles and exciting adventures; the boy read it and re-read it avidly, finding an escape from the relative dreariness of life.
The book was set in an little town in America called New Ulm, during what was likely the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
The times changed, the boy grew up, got a job and got married, but he never forgot the book.
By the 1980s, he and his wife had saved enough money for a vacation, and considered where to go; the memory of the book resurfaced.
"America, Indians, buffalo, of course!," thought Dr. Gerhard Sollbach, a professor at the University of Dortmund, that long-ago boy.
"I wondered if the town pictured in the book really existed. I got out a map and looked it up; sure enough, there is was!"
Sollbach wrote a letter to the mayor of New Ulm, telling his story and asking advice about a visit.
Sollbach received a welcome response. Then-mayor Carl Wyczawski wrote that he would be pleased to receive the visitors, if they chose to come.
When Sollbach and his wife, Dr. Maria Margareta Sollbach-Papeler, arrived for that first visit, they were directed to a downtown cafe (probably The Ulmer), where the mayor was socializing with friends.
To the Sollbachs' surprise, they were greeted in German - quite a few people still spoke it back then and enjoyed the chance to practice, says Prof. Sollbach.
A friend of the mayor's, Denny Warta, took the visitors under his wing.
Warta procured a pass that allowed the Sollbachs to park in the no-parking zone of Minnesota Street, and showed them around town. The visit went a long way toward building good will, triggering an interest in a return.
Since then, the Sollbachs have been to the U.S. several times, getting a more thorough impression of the country. Prof. Sollbach's work gave him a chance to explore the East Coast.
A medievalist (a scientist who studies the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) at the University of Dortmund, Sollbach has done research at major U.S. universities and archives. They include Harvard University and the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
He has also visited major Indian reservations as part of research for the German government related to a cultural integration project.
An avid hiker, Prof. Sollbach has hiked in the Appalachian Mountains.
This summer, the Sollbachs returned to New Ulm, in a visit that connected childhood memory and work. Prof. Sollbach presented a research paper on German immigration, as part of events here commemorating the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War. The paper included some original findings and previously unpublished information that he had uncovered.
As part of this year's visit, the Sollbachs also traveled to the Badlands and Black Hills in South Dakota, and he camped in the Boundary Waters wilderness, with an experienced New Ulm guide. He talks wistfully of the "morning mists," "quiet" and "sunsets to cry for."
Perhaps because of their professional interest in inter-cultural interaction, the Sollbachs share especially intriguing observations; he in faultless, if slightly slower-paced, English, she in German, with his help as a translator.
They pepper the conversation with self-deprecating humor and comic details about their misadventures (losing a camera, locking themselves out of their rental car in the middle of nowhere).
A stranger returned the Sollbach's lost camera, and a nearby farmer in a pickup sent help their way when they locked themselves out, recount the Sollbachs. Another stranger found an auto mechanic for them one evening, when the lights of the car suddenly went out while driving through the countryside.
"The only thing that has changed in New Ulm," says Prof. Sollbach, "is that fewer people still speak German."
"On the other hand, it feels like coming home... We are still surprised at how people smile and say hi to us in the street... It is gratifying."
Americans are friendly and helpful, they rely on themselves and their neighbors, mused the Sollbachs. People in the U.S. do not have the same type of social safety net as Germans, speculated Prof. Sollbach; so, they depend more on themselves and each other.
This is not true, at least not to the same extent, for Germans, he continues, The feeling there is, "the state will help me." (And it does, "from cradle to grave," to quote Prof. Sollbach.)
Dr. Maria Sollbach joins the conversation to observe that she is impressed that so many people in new Ulm "still identify themselves with this community and its history."
"This community," she says, "cultivates a sense of shared identity and belonging."
The Sollbachs talk, with appreciation, about the numerous acts of volunteering they witnessed during their travels: volunteers dragging along a municipal tank and watering flowers downtown, leading history tours, selling tickets, etc.
"For us, this kind of thing, this sense of wanting to contribute a little bit to your community, is not so common," says Prof. Sollbach.
New Ulm is a blend of the old and the new: it has all the American amenities, yet, with its unique specialty shops, landscaped "boardwalks" and other features, looks like no other town, note the Sollbachs.
This is precious, something to try to preserve, they note.