J. Elmer Spyglass lehrt Westdeutsche über Demokratie (1947)

S36_F_06653 E Spyglass
From the F. N. Manskopf collection (ca. 1910), Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main, Sign. S36_F06653

Elmer Spyglass (ca. 1877-1957) war ein afroamerikanischer Musiker, der seine Karriere vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg in Europa verfolgte und schließlich in Deutschland landete, wo er bis zu seinem Tod 1957 lebte. Wie viele Afroamerikaner versuchte er, seinen Weg als Konzertsänger zu gehen, aber nur wenige schwarze Künstler konnten den Widerstand überwinden, als ernsthafte Musiker angesehen zu werden. Stattdessen fand er seinen Weg in Musiksäle und Kabaretts, trat mit etablierten weißen Stars in ganz Europa auf und lernte dabei mehrere Sprachen. Wie viele afroamerikanische Entertainer brachte er in seinen Auftritten “afroamerikanische” Stücke, wie Spirituals und Volkslieder, mit Werken von der Oper bis zur europäischen Volksmusik zusammen. Er war so erfolgreich, dass er sich im Alter von 53 Jahren von der Bühne zurückzog und in einer Pension in einem Frankfurter Stadtteil wohnte, wo er mit seiner weißen deutschen Partnerin Helene Patt zusammenlebte. Sie hatten auch eine Wohnung im nahegelegenen Dorf Schwalbach am Taunus, die sie regelmäßig besuchten.

Er ging nicht weg, als die Nazis an die Macht kamen. Weil er eine bekannte Persönlichkeit in der Region war und nicht besonders politisch, sagte er, dass er nie viel Ärger mit den Behörden hatte, obwohl er sowohl Amerikaner als auch schwarz war. 1944 wurden Spyglass und Patt aus ihrer Frankfurter Residenz bombardiert und zogen nach Schwalbach, wo sie den Einheimischen halfen, den Krieg zu überstehen. Als die amerikanischen Truppen ankamen, diente Spyglass als Vermittler zwischen den Bürgern der Stadt und den Besatzungsbehörden und gab Englischunterricht. 1954 würdigte die Stadt ihn für seine Verdienste als Ehrenbürger und richtete 1994 zu seinen Ehren einen Preis für Personen ein, die sich für interkulturelles Verständnis eingesetzt hatten.

Inspiriert von dem Wunsch, Deutsche und Amerikaner zusammenzubringen, kehrte Spyglass als Empfangsmitarbeiter im US-Generalkonsulat in Frankfurt in die Arbeitswelt zurück. In dieser Kapazität zog er die Aufmerksamkeit der Journalisten auf sich, die von seiner Geschichte fasziniert waren. In diesem Interview, das in der amerikanischen Zeitschrift Life veröffentlicht wurde, boten die außergewöhnlichen Erfahrungen von Spyglass die Gelegenheit zu zeigen, dass letzten Endes der Übergang zur Demokratie für die Deutschen doch nicht so schwierig sein könnte.

Jeff Bowersox (übersetzt von Lilian Gergely)


J. Elmer Spyglass: Ex-cabaret singer helps teach Germans about the U.S. and its democracy by Will Lang


The best salesman for American democracy in Germany today is an aged Negro who has not lived in his native U.S. for 41 years. He is J. Elmer Spyglass, a man whose career is as unusual as his name. A singer, Mr. Spyglass retired in 193- after two decades of concert and music-hall success all over Europe. Now, 70 years of age and unmarried, he has decided to spend his remaining years serving his country as a receptionist at the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt.

The Frankfurt consulate is one of the busiest in Europe. Tending American interests in the whole of western Germany, it is visited by thousands of Germans seeking news and help from American relatives; it has repatriated hundreds of Americans trapped in Germany during the war, and it hears to pleas of innumerable displaced persons who hope somehow to reach America.

Mr. Spyglass sees them all. His pleasant, coffee-colored face greets everyone who comes to do business with the U.S. Even the most excitable person is disarmed and charmed by the gracious receptionist who can speak to visitors in any of five languages. Mr. Spyglass often answers their queries himself, thus sparing the small and hard-working consular staff. When he cannot, he steers the visitors to the proper office in the consulate. He manages to preside over his bustling way station with the poise of a veteran actor. He considers it his function not only to be cordial to visitors but to keep the show moving.

Consul General Sydney B. Redecker says of Spyglass: “We have only 15 officers to handle all of this business, and Elmer relives us all by the way he handles visitors. More important, he is a wonderful ambassador of democracy, especially with the Germans.” Mr. Redecker is one of few who address the colored man as “Elmer.” To others he is known respectfully as “Mr. Spyglass.”

The tricks learned on the European stage are useful to Mr. Spyglass in dealing with the daily traffic of consulate visitors. Many Germans are apt to be nonplused when stopped by a Negro receptionist speaking flawless German. But Mr. Spyglass has met this situation in innumerable cabarets and supper clubs during his career. Using such old-fashioned, courtly phrases as “Dear lady” or “Pray be seated,” he flatters the most excitable into the nearest chairs, after which they calm down and tell their stories.

The Germans who confide in Mr. Spyglass would exasperate anyone with less patience. Many, wishing to write to relatives in America, come to the consulate to find the important street addresses and cities where those relatives live.

“There are more than 25 million Germans-Americans living in the U.S.,” Mr. Spyglass reminds them.

“Yes, but our relatives live in America. You are the American consulate. You should know where they live!” the Germans insist.

At this point Mr. Spyglass is kind but firm. “I’m very sorry, but we’re not allowed to search for such things,” he says and directs them to the Red Cross.

Many Germans who once lived in the U.S. now want to re-emigrate. “To those who lived in America only a short time, not long enough to take our citizenship papers,” Spyglass says, “I give some hope of getting back. But to those who lived there for 10 or 15 years without bothering to apply for papers I don’t give much hope. Of course no one has ever given me any instructions for dealing with them; those are just my feelings.”

This is the reasoning to be expected of an ambassador rather than a receptionist, but Mr. Spyglass is on safe ground; the present U.S. quota for German immigration is 26,000 a year, but in these postwar years only “petition cases” are accepted – husbands and wives, fiancees, dependent children or parents of American citizens in the U.S.

For a long while last year American soldiers wanting to take their German finacees or brides to the U.S. added considerably to Spyglass’ problems. He became adept at spotting the fraternizers – GIs who loitered bashfully in the lobby if the reception room was full or who stammered awkwardly when Mr. Spyglass invited them inside:

“I wanna see the consul!” the soldier blurts.

“What about?” asks Mr. Spyglass.

An agonizing silence, then the soldier says weakly “I wanna take my girls home.”

On these occasions Mr. Spyglass exuded an atmosphere as intimate as the confessional booth. “When they come so bashfully, I know what they’re after,” he says. “But sometimes I just have to pull the words out of their mouths.”

Spyglass claims Yellow Springs, Ohio as his home town. His blacksmith father had some Spanish blood, which may explain the unusual name. A choir boy in Yellow Springs, young Elmer went to Europe in 1906 to continue his voice studies. He had already graduated from the Toledo Conservatory of Music and was the first Negro to conduct in the Carnegie Music Hall, in Pittsburgh. Friends had raised $400 to send him abroad. That was a lot of money in those days, but it proved not enough to pay for expensive European teachers. Mr. Spyglass soon turned to music halls and cabarets and struck success with his first engagement. With a repertoire of American and European songs he toured France, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Germany, where he established a home in Frankfurt am Main.

During the war the Nazis caused him no trouble, despite his membership in an “inferior race.” Mr. Spyglass is still not sure why. “Perhaps i was because I had lived there off and on since 1907,” he says. “I knew all of old Frankfurt, from the bank directors down to the police. And I never mixed in politics.”

The “ambassadorial” work of the receptionist is not confined to his desk in the consulate. From his apartment in Schwalbach, a village within commuting distance of Frankfurt, Mr. Spyglass has attacked the “German problem” in his own way. Shortly after the armistice many Germans came and asked him for English lessons. While it was obvious that most of them wanted to equip themselves for jobs with the Americans, Mr. Spyglass saw beyond the obvious and willingly shouldered the job. At one time he was teaching as many as 200 German adults from nearby villages; he still conducts two classes in English each evening. “I think that the more people know about English, the more of a help it is to my country,” he says.

J. Elmer Spyglass has become the symbol of American democracy in Schwalbach and the surrounding countryside. At his birthday last year almost the entire town sent flowers to his apartment. Flowers filled the tables and most of the floor, and bouquets were pinned all over the walls and lace curtains. Dozens of German children, his students, trooped in with modest presents of fruit and vegetables. The Kinder then sang songs in English that the old man had taught them. There, far away from the U.S., they greeted his birthday with Swing Low, Home, Sweet Home, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean and My Old Kentucky Home.

Quelle: Will Lang, “J. Elmer Spyglass,” Life (3 November 1947), 4-11.

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J. Elmer Spyglass lehrt Westdeutsche über Demokratie (1947) by Jeff Bowersox and Lilian Gergely is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.