“K’ekchi Am Elbe”: A German-Guatemalan Waltz
Before the internet and even before the telephone, there were ships which went between cities and continents. Hamburg, Germany’s largest port belongs to the proud confederacy of independent merchant cities on the Baltic and North Sea that had grown rich on the spice trade during the Middle Ages, and later on shipping and coffee with other parts of the world.
When I first entered Hamburg’s Museum of Ethnology this past June I marveled at ceremonial wooden ships from the South Pacific were displayed along with giant statues of forest spirits, tepees, Egyptian funerary urns, and richly designed Indonesian batiks filling its halls. There were recreations of temples and objects from Java, Sumatra and then a display of fantastic masks from the South Pacific and obscure German archipelagos in New Guinea and Samoa which had fallen under German colonial rule during the late 1800s. The Hamburg Museum of Ethnology has an encyclopedic 19th century feel about it that so often accompanies the best ethnographic collections around the world with their dusty drawers and great glass cabinets.
Between the 1860s and 1880s many Germans came to Guatemala and began cultivating coffee. An early director of Hamburg’s great Ethnology Museum, Franz Termer (1894-1968), began collecting a variety of objects (ancient and contemporary) during the 1920s after having studied with an early renowned Mesoamericanist, Karl Theodor Sapper (1866-1945), who spent 12 years in Guatemala overseeing his brother’s coffee plantation and pursuing his own ethnographic interests. Many of these Germans learned the native languages and wrote early ethnographic and archaeological monographs describing the Mayan world they found there.
Eventually the Germans came to own some of the best coffee plantations in Guatemala and given their links with Hamburg most of their crop was shipped back to Germany rather than to England, the center of the coffee trade. German immigrants not only proved adept and savvy in recording and collecting ancient pre-Columbian and contemporary Maya pieces but also showed great sensitivity and foresight in recognizing the unique importance of all expressions of Mayan art. At present the Guatemalan collection at the Hamburg Ethnology Museum consists of over 4400 pieces, about half of which is made up of textiles. Throughout the years various Germans and German-Guatemalans systematically collected Guatemala’s distinct native costumes and donated or sold their collections to this museum.
The Carlos Elmenhorst (1910-2000) collection is a substantial part of this as is that of Matilde Dieseldorff Quirin (1900-1997), whose mother was a K’ekchi Indian from Coban, where some of the best coffee and cardamom plantations were and continue to be. Matilde’s father, Erwin Paul Dieseldorff (born in Hamburg in 1868), ran and owned some of the most productive coffee plantations in Guatemala known collectively as “El Convento.” Matilde’s son, Herbert Quirin, was my father’s classmate and they shared their first clinic as colleagues near the old medical school in Guatemala City. Herbert grew up speaking German, Spanish and K’eckchi. This was not the norm as Guatemalans were (and continue to be) horribly discriminatory and racist towards indigenous peoples and the Germans and their children proved far more respectful of Guatemala’s native cultures.
By WWII the German presence in Guatemala was a powerful one. Guatemala had several German Clubs and schools. My father recalls seeing a great flag with a swastika over the entrance to a hardware store in Quetzaltenango and how he was forever bending the frames of his thick glasses which Mr. Richter, a German optician, was constantly fixing. Richter never charged him. “You can pay me when you have a career,” he used to tell my father. In Guatemala City a great clock stood outside one of the best luxury goods shop on 6th Avenue where Bavarian porcelain could be purchased, along with cutlery from Solingen and beautifully enameled Pelikan fountain pens.
During the early years of the Second World War the students of the German School in Quetzaltenango used to insult Churchill and call him “ese bulldog!” Their distinctive uniforms of short black pants, white shirt, thin black belt, knee high white socks over black shoes and a black cap dotted by a single golden button were much smarter than those worn by children from the other schools. By hurling insults at one another, these children were playing out scenes from a larger ideological battle taking place far away from the Central American theatre. Guatemala ended by declaring war on Germany owing to a lot of pressure from the U.S. government who had been trying to get their hands on German properties since WWI.
In fact, during WWII, Matilde Dieseldorff Quirin put many of her properties and assets under my grandmother’s name so that they would not be expropriated. My father never forgot a young contemporary of his named Dieter Fritz, who went off to fight in Rommel’s “Afrika Korps”, and never returned. There was also a joke of what happened when Hitler learned that Guatemala had declared war on Germany. “Und Guatemala, wo ist Guatemala?” (Where is Guatemala?) the Führer asked as a bit of ash fell from his cigar into an ashtray which was decorated with a map of the Americas. His assistant swept the ash off the bit of Central America jutting out on the map and showed the Führer the little insignificant republic of Guatemala.
Despite the war, German culture continued to be much admired. Of course, there were great friendships, even love stories, between Guatemalans and Germans, and had my father’s own marriage to a German-Guatemalan pianist not been aborted by a terrible airplane tragedy, I would not be writing this. As a young physician in the 1950s, my father worked in the Caribbean port city of Puerto Barrios, where one of the highlights of his job was to inspect the ships of the United Fruit Company’s “Great White Fleet” (from New Orleans) and Hapag Lloyd’s ships coming from Hamburg. The customary payment for inspecting a ship was $100.00 (dollars) and a bottle of whisky.
My father remembers the distinctive Gothic lettering of month-old newspapers on the German captains’ table which he’d see every six weeks or so. One year he made a special request from one of the German captains. Could the captain manage to bring him a real “Tannenbaum” from the Tyrol in time for Christmas? Then in December the captain presented my father with a beautiful fir tree. My father offered to reimburse him for his troubles, but the captain said it was a present. I doubt it came from southern Germany and probably came from the northern forests of Saxony and delighted my father.
A deep admiration for Germany remained with my father and when I was a child, he sent me to the German School of Guatemala, where I think he would have liked to have studied in his youth. All our teachers and books came from Germany and we all learned to write in precise rounded script letters with fountain pens. This is how I came to learn German hiking songs while climbing volcanoes and other classic songs from the German canon and of course, read Grimm’s marvelous fairy tales. In my youth, the best bakeries and cafés in Guatemala City and Quetzaltengango betrayed a nostalgia for a more Germanic world with names like: “Los Alpes”, the “Zürich”, the “Baviera” and the “Schubert” where you could get hot cocoa topped with cream. My mother’s favorite was “Jensen’s” where the staff knew her as doña Johanna and where you could get a fantastic strudel and chocolate sweets shaped like ladybugs, baby chicks and gingerbread houses and stollen dusted in confectioner’s sugar at Christmastime.
While in Hamburg I thought of all those Germans who had left that leafy port city and gone to Guatemala and made their lives there. Many families continue to live in Guatemala and never returned but still speak German and think of Hamburg as their cradle. Others, like the Danish writer, Karen Blixen, who found her bliss on her Kenyan plantation among the Masai, found their individual paradises in Guatemala’s fantastic flora and fauna among the Maya. Hamburg’s Museum of Ethnology’s Guatemala exhibition ended with an assessment of more recent Guatemalan history making reference to that country’s long civil war (1960-1996) and genocide of Mayan peoples and the new Amerindian consciousness which has emerged.
Over the years I have witnessed how some German-Guatemalans have changed traditional colonial practices on their coffee plantations to make it more equitable for their Mayan workers. Many of these individuals and their families probably consider themselves more Guatemalan these days than German. Collections like those of Hamburg’s Museum of Ethnology attest to the continued interest and concern for a region, which though distant, holds special ties with a small tropical republic. Meanwhile in Guatemala, the musical signature of the cultural radio station remained the melody from Johann Strauss’s “On the Blue Danube” for many years.