Erich Himmel, leader of Chicago’s German-American community, led Steuben Parade, dead at 86
In 1958, Erich Himmel and his wife Inge arrived in the United States from West Germany with $110.
Within a day they were down to $10. A dock worker who stored the trunk containing all their belongings demanded $100 to keep it overnight, according to their daughter Carol. New immigrants felt they had no choice but to pay it.
He and his wife planned to stay in America just long enough to earn some money and then return to a more prosperous life in Germany.
But Chicago has become my home. He opened and managed several Volkswagen dealerships and opened his own body shop in Niles. He and his wife raised Carol and another daughter, Diana, in Lincoln Square.
Mr. Himmel, who became a leader of Chicago’s German-American community, died Aug. 29 at age 86 at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.
When his daughters opened a pizzeria with a wood-fired oven in Rome, he lobbied to add Teutonic specialties. Himmel’s on Lawrence Avenue therefore serves breaded cutlets and Bavarian pork shanks accompanied by pizzas.
As many of Chicago’s German Americans moved to the suburbs, Mr. Himmel helped keep the community together by leading ethnic organizations for nearly 45 years, including the Rheinischer Verein Mardi Gras Society and the United German American Societies. of Greater Chicago, which includes approximately 35 groups. that nurture the culture with Oktoberfest celebrations, football matches, downhill skiing and German folk songs and dances.
In 1984, his homeland awarded him the Bundesverdienstkreuz —a Federal Cross of Merit – for his efforts to keep German culture alive, his daughter said.
George Rieg, treasurer of the United German American Societies of Greater Chicago, said Himmel was to be honored this weekend at the German American Fest in Lincoln Square and Saturday’s Steuben Parade, a celebration of German culture and heritage. .
Mr Himmel, Grand Marshal for 35 years, cut a striking figure on the parade with his resplendent facial hair.
“Some people called him ‘Monsieur Moustache’,” Rieg said.
Mr. Himmel was born in the German town of Mosbach, the son of Franziska and Michael Himmel. He was only 3 months old when his father died and described himself as having been a schlüsselkind – a child with key.
As a child, during World War II, he rode his bike everywhere. One day, the Allied bombs are raining down.
“He woke up in a ditch,” Carol Himmel said.
She said that another time, “He remembered crawling out of his house – it took days to dig – and, when he did, there were piles of corpses.”
For security reasons, he was sent to live with his cousin Shossel on a family farm about 70 miles from Munich.
At 17, he met Inge Brauer in a dance hall in Munich. He told her he didn’t plan to settle down until he was 30. Hearing this, she moved to Montreal to work as at par.
But he missed her so much, Carol Himmel said: “The only thing he had in his name was a Vespa, and he sold it so he could buy her a ticket home.”
They married in 1957.
“After the war, there was no more accommodation in Munich,” the girl said. “During their first year of marriage, they lived with my father’s mother, sleeping in the same bed as her.”
When they immigrated to the United States in 1958, they first lived in New Hampshire – where they had to pay the dock worker to get their trunk back.
“They still have the trunk,” their daughter said.
In New Hampshire, Mr. Himmel worked as a janitor at a shoe company.
They moved to Chicago, where he found work as a Volkswagen mechanic.
In 1960, he was drafted into the army. Mr. Himmel served in Germany, where he saw the Berlin Wall go up.
Back in Chicago, he participated in the opening of several Volkswagen dealerships.
In 1978, the Himmels returned to Germany. Their daughter Diana, born in Munich during her military service, graduated from Lane Tech High School but competed in – and for – West Germany in figure skating.
After several months, Carol Himmel said: “Dad said to Diana, ‘Do you want to stay if we stay?’ And she said, ‘No, I want to go back to Chicago.’ ”
When they went to meet the real estate agent who was going to help them find a house in Germany, Carol Himmel said: “Dad didn’t get out of the car. He didn’t roll down the window. And he said, ‘Let’s go home.’ ”
After returning to Chicago, Mr. Himmel opened Erich’s Lehigh Auto body repair in Niles.
At his funeral, his wife wore a traditional dirndl as she accompanied his coffin.
In addition to his wife and daughters, Mr. Himmel was “Opa” to three grandchildren and had two great-grandchildren.