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Ich bin ein Venturan : The folks of Deutschland and Ventura County are fostering a mutual fascination.


Klaus Scheikel's mayoral office in Ohrdruf, Germany, looks out over a typical small-town scene: There are crammed-together gray and white brick office buildings, narrow cobblestone streets winding past small shops and a statue in the middle of the town square.

But inside Scheikel's office are a few things that aren't so typical: A hat, embroidered with "Ventura, California"; a 12-star flag with the names of Ventura and Ohrdruf in the corners, and on Scheikel's desk, a small, water-filled plastic dome that contains sand from a Ventura beach.

All are symbols, Scheikel said, of a friendship he hopes will flourish.

"The contact (with Ventura) to this point has been limited to friendly letters," Scheikel told a local German newspaper. "But I can imagine now that Ohrdruf soccer players could come to a tournament in Ventura. . . . Business relationships also may be possible."

Scheikel's town, not far from Dresden in what formerly was East Germany, isn't the only German city that has developed a fondness for Ventura. Two other towns--Elmshorn and Herrenhof--have recently put Ventura on their maps as a special point of interest.

The fondness, from the look of things, is by no means one-sided. Throughout Ventura County, a variety of small but hearty groups have formed to express their mutual fascination with Deutschland:

* Genealogical societies report that interest in tracing German roots is flourishing. One recent meeting on the subject packed more than 70 county residents into the Thousand Oaks Library.

* Language classes at the county's only German-American school include many attendees who have no German background but want to learn the language and customs. Others say they consider learning German a steppingstone to their cultural heritage.

* A Ventura high school embarked on an educational exchange program a few years ago that now has German students arriving here in the spring and Ventura students living with German students in the summer. Students say the experience has opened their eyes to another culture.

* Monthly meetings of Club Rhineland, a German-American group in Oxnard, typically bring together about 250 county residents with a penchant for accordion music. The goal, according to one club member, is to "let everyone dance and experience (the music), not just people of German descent."

* Three years ago, a German-American friendship organization was formed in Ventura to foster cultural and professional exchange. In May, Ventura Mayor Gregory Carson and a small group of local businessmen associated with the organization will visit Germany to boost Ventura's profile in a former East German town.

So what's the impetus behind the groups?

Some say the recent spotlight on a country no longer divided has played a major role. But others believe there are other forces at play.

Herewith, several local Germanophiles talk about what some are calling "the German connection."

Familial Roots

Jerry Timmons was not craving sauerkraut every day, but there were these other symptoms.

There was the lifelong love of Beethoven. Her fondness for Wiener schnitzel. Her interest, in fact, with "just about anything German. I just never knew why."

A few years ago, Timmons got the chance to find out. After joining the Conejo Valley Genealogical Society, the Westlake Village resident was able to trace a great-great grandfather to a small German village.

With encouragement from other members of the group, she went to the library and looked up her ancestor's last name in a German phone book.

To her surprise, 75 people with the same last name were listed. All, it turned out, were relatives.

"I was so thrilled, I can't even begin to tell you," Timmons said. "I went out and bought a book of 500 already-conjugated German verbs and wrote letters to them. One said he was doing research on my side of the family, and he actually invited me to come and stay with him and his wife."

That trip, she said, "was one of the most incredible experiences of my life."

Not everyone who goes digging for familial roots hits genealogical gold the way Timmons did.

But many other members of the society said that since joining the group they have received enough research skills and encouragement to trace back at least a few Teutonic branches of their family trees.

Lois Burlo of Thousand Oaks said she gathered her first pieces of family history when her mother was in the hospital.

"I knew she wouldn't make it until Christmas, and I thought, 'What do you give someone who won't be around?' " Burlo said. "So I started doing research, and I put together some charts and stories and pictures about the family. It gave her a real lift. It was as if she understood where she fit in."

Since then, Burlo has learned a lot about common stumbling blocks that genealogy buffs encounter with German records.

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