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Club Sponsoring New Immigrants

HERITAGE: Second in an occasional series of stories on Orange County's diverse ethnic groups.

February 24, 1990|HERMAN WONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like others of his German-immigrant generation, Hans Klein of Orange County, who resettled in America in 1954, still lives with the vivid memories of war devastation and uprooted families.

But the 68-year-old Klein, a U.S. citizen since the 1960s, is also typical of German immigrants who say they have found postwar acceptance and a smooth assimilation in their adopted land.

And now Klein, as the current president of Orange County's German-American Phoenix Club, finds himself directly involved in a new kind of German immigration: The resettlement of families from once-closed East Germany.

To Klein and other Phoenix members, it is an astonishing turn of events, the result of the opening last November of East Germany's borders, the sweeping turnover in that regime's once Communist-ruled government, and the prospects of a reunified Germany.

The Phoenix Club's own effort, announced at the club's Nov. 10 celebration of the opening of the Berlin Wall and East German borders, is to sponsor the resettlement in Orange County of five East German families. The club has already raised $10,000 for the project.

It is a prospect that obviously delights Klein, who, like other German immigrants, has long dreamed of the reunification of their Cold War-divided homeland.

The five families are still to be picked. In all probability, they will come from among those who have recently resettled in West Germany. No matter what, said Klein, who is seeking families through contacts in Berlin, it may be at least two years before the families can come to the United States.

"They would come here under the normal (U.S. immigration) laws--on a first-come, first-served basis," explained Klein, sitting in the Phoenix Club board room in Anaheim. "We just have to be patient."

Klein, a tall, bearlike man with a hearty affability, then added with a wide grin: "But you can be sure when they do arrive, each family will get a big welcome party!"

The very first time Hans Klein saw America--and the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor--was as a prisoner of war in 1943. A member of the Afrika Korps in North Africa, he was captured by Allied forces earlier that year.

In New York, he and other German soldiers were even processed at Ellis Island--America's famed immigration station--before they were transported first to a POW camp in Oklahoma, then to one in Arkansas before being returned to Germany when the war ended.

Klein's older brothers, Helmut and Walter, also survived the war after serving in the army at different fronts. But the youngest, Siegfried, was killed in France in 1944. He was one of the teen-age soldiers who were rushed to the front toward the end of the war.

"Siegfried was buried in France," said Klein, "but we didn't realize that for years after the war. We finally found his grave there, near Epinal, with the thousands of other German boys. They were all his age--just 18 or 19."

While Klein and the rest of his family survived, they found themselves as part of the uprooted masses in the Germany of the late 1940s. He could not return to his home--the Oder River port of Stettin--which was in a region turned over to Poland after the war. Instead, Klein ended up in Niendorf, near Hamburg, where he had finally traced his parents.

Then in 1954, under sponsorship of an aunt who had immigrated in the 1920s, he made the move to live in America. His reasons were the classic ones.

"There is so much more room here for newcomers and more job opportunities, more personal freedoms. Also, Germany was still so unstable and struggling, and the Cold War was at its height," recalled Klein, who came to the United States with his wife, Brigitte, and their small daughter, Barbara.

The Kleins first lived in Glendale, where their son Tom was born. They then moved to Orange County, where the children joined a Saturday-morning German-language school and where Klein became active in a project that led to the Phoenix Club.

"There wasn't any German-American group like it then (1960) in the county. We wanted a place where we could have some fun, music, a few drinks and German food," explained Klein, who hosted the first organizing meeting in his Orange home. "But we also wanted to honor our parents and grandparents, to preserve the old ways and speak the old language. We wanted our children to share in that, too."

Still, the overall goal for families like the Kleins has always been American assimilation. And Klein, who started out as a cabinetmaker--his family's longtime occupation in Germany--became a restaurant-equipment and development consultant. One of the firm's clients was an internationally known fast-food chain.

"I mean, how more American can you get than Kentucky Fried Chicken!" said Klein, laughing.

Klein's most recent trip to Germany was in early December. Although the trip came only a month after the opening of the Berlin Wall, the trip was an especially sad one.

He was making a last visit to see his long-ill brother Walter in East Germany--in Neuruppin, a city not far from Berlin. His brother died Dec. 16.

"I'm hoping to bring Walter's sons to visit us, or maybe to live in America," said Klein. Such a move would be under his family's personal sponsorship and separate from the Phoenix Club's plan to bring over the five East German families. "It would be my nephews' choice, of course, but it would be wonderful if they could."

Under the present circumstances in East Germany, he added, anything now seems possible.

"We're all still pinching ourselves about everything that's happening back there. The changes are overnight, coming one after another, almost too fast to absorb," said Klein. "If people had tried that (crossing the Berlin Wall) just a few months earlier, they would have been shot. It's all so ironic."

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