The Great Chicago Fire devastated Chicago in 1871, an iconic event that changed the city’s history. Further west in Harlem (now known as Forest Park), just a few years later in 1874, a male chorus formed whose legacy has survived to this day: the Harlem Männer und Damenchor.
The singing society originally met on Circle Avenue whereas today’s society can be found at 446 Hannah Avenue, in a space rife with culture, history, charm, and an unmistakable sense of old-world hominess.
The legacy-keepers have been rehearsing for their upcoming show, which celebrates 125 years of singing, camaraderie, and successful cultural preservation. A few featured songs they will be singing include: Gefangenenchor from Nabucco; Funiculi, Funicula; and their theme song, Edelweiss.
On Halloween this Saturday, Oct. 31, the men and women, who are mostly German, German-American, Swiss-German, Swiss-German-American, or some form of Germanic descent, will be dressed in costumes, but not for trick-or-treating purposes. Instead, they will uphold a fading tradition and sing vom hertz (from the heart).
The echoes of yesteryear can still be heard in these unchanged songs, and the voices that sing them, only ever-so-slightly changed — for the better, thanks to the healthier overall lifestyles of the descendants.
During the second wave of immigration in the 1800s, many German immigrants fled their homeland, not only rejecting and opposing political persecution and religious discrimination, but also to build and sink roots in a new land. For some of them, that new home was Forest Park, which started as a German-American enclave.
After such a major transition, it became vitally important to maintain a sense of identity and togetherness. The expression of that spirit through song played a big part in that effort.
While singing together builds a sense of community and has psychological benefits, it may also explain how this social society has lasted 125 years.
The Harlem Männer und Damenchor as it exists today are a lively, loquacious bunch. They are filled with individual adventure stories that brought themselves or their ancestors from Europe to the U.S., as well as love stories that brought them to music and their marriages.
The witness to much of this social club’s history is Peter Herdeg.
“I was president for 16 years, then I stopped counting. It’s a long time but we had a very nice celebration back in 1990 which was 100 [years]. At that time we celebrated in Oak Park at the Mar-Lac House, a place that doesn’t exist anymore. It was a very, very big event. It was nice.”
Herdeg said that singing “Ein Prosit” or “Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen” together helps cement bonds of love and friendship.
He called “Ein Prosit” a classic German drinking song.
“We have a lot of beer drinking songs,” he said. “I think the Irish are very similar. I was in Ireland and they had a few drinks and then they started singing and it kind of feels like you’re part of a group.”
His personal favorite? It’s hard to pin down. “I don’t know, probably ‘Du Liegst Mir im Herzen’ [“You Can’t Be Truthful”].
“Those are what you call, ‘Schunkeln,'” he explained. “If you’re around a table and you hold onto each other’s arm like a wave, a schunkeln. Since we are Swiss too we have a lot of Swiss songs. We do Italian, French, a little bit of everything.”
And maybe a little bit of something new. Recruiting new members is high on the agenda, said Herdeg.
“The main thing is we try to get new members. We actually try different things. If you’re at the bar and you talk to someone who seems to be a little bit interested, basically you invite them to rehearsal, [give them a card] and on the back it says free drink. You can come anytime!”
But Saturday, Oct. 31, is a good time to come. Doors open at 3 p.m. and the concert begins at 4 p.m. The ticket, which includes family style dinner, the entire concert, dancing, and ample parking, is $45 plus a cash bar.
The camaraderie, laughter, stories, “Schunkeln” and good old-fashioned gemütlichkeit are free.