Ghosts Of German Olney

March 14, 2013 | by Nicolas Esposito

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Olney | Sketch: Ben Leech

Olney | Sketch: Ben Leech

Mike was born in 1961 and spent his childhood in a house only three doors down from his grandparents. In the 1960s and 70s with American society being broadly upturned and Philadelphia undergoing a severe economic collapse, Olney’s traditional ways persisted. “Olneyites didn’t adopt the Philly accent,” he says, “they didn’t even go into Center City that often. We just kept to our border of Roosevelt Boulevard in the south to Cheltenham Avenue in the North, and Front Street in the East to Eighth Street in the West. We used to call the neighborhood, ‘Das Bund’”–The Republic.

From Mike’s childhood house we walked the two blocks to “Fis Street” to what still is the commercial center of Olney. The first building Mike pointed out was what used to be The Fern Rock Theatre, but is now a dollar store. Mike reminisced about how a local pastor would stand outside of the box office window turning away youth who were trying to see films intended for adult audiences. Although this pastor was not from the Incarnation of Our Lord Church and School where Mike’s family belonged, just his presence in this tight knit community was enough to force Mike and his friends to turn around as soon as they got close to the theater.

Zapf's Music | Sketch: Ben Leech

Zapf’s Music | Sketch: Ben Leech

We walked a bit further down the block and came to a building that now advertises Gibson School of Music, but was once the home of the legendary Zapf’s Music. You can still see the faded letters spelling out Zapf’s on the façade. “Herr Zapf would give lessons to almost every kid in Olney,” said Mike. “Back then, you’d constantly hear music coming from the living room windows of the homes. It was never unusual to see a marching band come parading down the street. Music was always important to the Eastern Europeans, and we brought that to Olney.”

Mike ended our tour down “Fis” Street by stopping in front of a nondescript brick building. He told me that this used to be Bernstein’s Books, where Mike incidentally first defied the cultural rules of the neighborhood. During Mike’s freshman year at Cardinal Dougherty the Catholic Herald had just put out a list of banned books, which in Mike’s adolescent subversion became his reading list. He went to the bookstore owned by Russian immigrant Mr. Bernstein because as he believed, “Mr. Bernstein wasn’t Catholic, so he didn’t have to follow the rules.” After thumbing through Bernstein’s collection of left-wing books, Mike came across Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray (which was originally published by Philadelphia’s Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890). Before he left, Mr. Bernstein asked if he’d like to sign up for a book club. Mike signed his name and then took the book down to Rittenhouse Square where he read it in anonymity, before destroying the evidence and returning to Olney.

He wasn’t back in the neighborhood for more than an hour before his parents and an administrative priest from Cardinal Dougherty confronted him about the book. It turned out that Mr. Bernstein had a deal with the administration at Cardinal Dougherty that they would buy textbooks from him in return from information on seditious literary acts. A rather stunning betrayal, but now Mike just laughs at this story and cites it as evidence of the tight-knit community.

We probably don’t think of any particular neighborhood in Philadelphia as German–not even Germantown. That may be because as an immigrant group–quite unlike Italian Americans of the same period–Germans lived in many neighborhoods and were relatively integrated. Olney began attracting African-Americans in the 1960s and Korean immigrants in the 1980s. Olney High School is often cited as the most linguistically diverse school in Philadelphia. The neighborhood may not be the same as when his family lived here, but Mike acknowledges it’s fulfilling to see new groups of people running the shops and living in the homes.

Before our tour was over, Mike asked me if I had ever seen “The Sound of Music.” I said that I hadn’t. He gave me a moderately puzzled look, and then went on to explain, “Well in the last scene the Von Trapps are fleeing Salzberg over the Alps and the movie ends. But you know where they went after.” He took a deep breath. “Olney.”

The Von Trapps had lost everything escaping Europe. But, said Mike with tears beginning to form in his eyes, “the people of Olney organized singing tours in all of the churches in the area, and helped them get back on their feet. The Von Trapp children made enough money to finally buy land in Vermont (which reminded them of Austria), and they built their ski lodge where people from Olney still go skiing today.”

“They were just such brave people.”


About the Author

Nicolas Esposito Nic Esposito is an urban farmer, novelist and founder of The Head and the Hand Press. He lives on his urban homestead in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Nic's new book Kensington Homestead was released by The Head & The Hand Press in November 2014.


  1. rebecca says:

    The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Von Trapp talks about their time in Phila before they moved north.

  2. Davis says:

    I am old enough to remember when Olney was still largely German – Fifth Street – Fünf Strasse – the cultural center as well as the business center. I can also remember when St Henry’s Church had their final German mass. But remember the wars did take their toll on German identity in the States, leaving Germans to forgo their old ties and traditions and especially language behind as they moved to the suburbs.

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      My grand uncle, Henry Koenes, was founder and pastor of St Henry’s in 1916 (but, died in 1953). I was also at the last German mass. The Monsignor was buried in front of the rectory and the archdiocese sold his stone and moved him to Holy Seplucre without even telling us. The students recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school, even though the church and school closed. Sad.

      1. Henry Kones says:

        Cornelia…..you are a distant relative of mine….I’m hoping you see my response in your email inbox.

  3. Lynne says:

    My father’s family grew up in Olney – they lived around 4th and Godfrey. My first apartment was at 5th and Somerville, right down the street from Zapf’s. Loved that part of town.

    1. brian duchossois says:

      I grew-up on Sommerville Ave. back in the 60’s. (558 W.Sommerville) As many did in the late 60’s my family moved to Levittown.

  4. eleanore alter says:

    I still own the house where I grew up in East Oak Llne. I was baptized in St. Henry’s and remember well the day that I heard Pete Puljer the German band leader play the violin for a Singing Society concert in the hall of the Church. The Germans were a close knit group and included many different job descriptions. Many worked in factories, or owned their own businesses. A few got very wealthy and we were proud to know them. I was so impressed at age five that I became a violinist and play to this day. Fairhill street had at least 6 German families. We dined often at Schwarzwald Inn and I bought music and worked my way through school at Zapf’s music store. I also dated the son of Walker’s Delicatessen. His name was Hans. We had wonderful times at the Catholic Kolping Society on Rising Sun AVe. It was truly a fun time to grow up. We did not have the worries of the present generation . We were happy with a far simpler life.

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      My father, Rudy Mueller, was President of the Catholic Kolping Society for many years.

  5. Joe Kelly says:

    I grew up on the 500 block of Lindley Avenue and was of mixed Irish 75% and German 25% descent. The German influences were very much apart of our everyday experience with Michelfelders , the German bakery whose name escapes me and the Schwartzwald Inn among the most obvious examples of German specialties.

  6. Sharon says:

    You’ve provided such a wonderful sense of the history of Olney and its inhabitants. Most of my German relatives migrated from the Germantown section of Philadelphia (where I was born) into the Olney neighborhood (where I grew up) throughout the 20th century. Further back, German immigrants occupied a large portion of the Spring Garden area in Center City. My German ancestors, in particular, owned a block of houses on Buttonwood Street in the early 20th century and on occasion (from what I’ve been told), ran a biergarten during festivals up at Lemon Hill. The German Society on Spring Garden still contains a wealth of information on German immigration to the area.

    The house I grew up in had an attached shed at its back where the stove was kept and an l-shaped bunker right beneath it. Now I’m curious as to what purpose these parts of the house served when it was originally built.

    Many thanks for this article and to those who contributed. A thoroughly enjoyable read!

    1. Deb says:

      My father, a Jewish boy, grew up near Olney and went to Olney High. He remembered getting beat up by the Nazi Bund – a gang of boys who ruled the neighborhood in the 1930 – 1940’s.

  7. Ed K says:

    I grew up in Feltonville just across ‘the Boulevard’ from Olney. Both my sisters graduated from Olney High School in the early 60s. In the 1950s there was still a German presence there. We called ‘The Felton’ movie house on Rising Sun Ave. the “German Movies” because on certain days they ran German language movies. (Now a Latino Club). We shopped on 5th street regularly.

    The Feltonville neighborhood then was a mix of older “empty nester” Jewish couples and young Catholic families whose kids went to Saint Ambrose and Cardinal Dougherty. “Becks on the Boulevard” and “The Schwarzwald Inn” were THE places to go.

    I do remember the stories of the “Olney (Nazi?) Bund”, a pro German group in pre WWII 1930s.

    BTW the Ben Leech sketch labelled “Coal Shoots” made me laugh. The correct term is coal chutes not “shoots”.

    1. Phyllis P Beck says:

      My parents were born in Scotland but my Dad loved the Becks on the Blvd. and Schwartzwald Inn food !

  8. Cornelia Mueller says:

    I have many of the same memories and my grand uncle, Henry Engelbert Koenes (1883-1953) emigrated to Philadelphia in 1903, studied for the priesthood at St Charles, and was the founder and pastor/Monsignor of St. Henry’s parish in 1916 when 5000 Germans petitioned the archdiocese to established a German language parish north of center city. The church was a former beer hall called Central Park Hotel and later a basement church, rectory and school were built. Neighborhoods change and the church was closed in 1993. Alumni celebrated the 100th anniversary of St Henry’s last month.

    1. Stephen Kovacs says:

      Do you happen to know of or about Rev. Louis Kovacs? He was assistant pastor at St. Henry’s from 1951 to 1956. Any info about him from those days would be appreciated!

  9. Edward Tilton says:

    Movies at the Felton Theater were in German

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      My mom loved going to the German movies with me at the Felton. Plots always involved a castle, scenery and singing…pure schmaltz. However, I am still fluent in German.

  10. Kurt Wich says:

    My parents and I came to Philadelphia in February 1953,when I was 10. We were sponsored by the Kolping Society, and lived with the Pilger family on Lindley Avenue for a couple of weeks before we moved to an apartment across the street from St. Henry’s and ultimately to 4157 N. 8th Street. My father had been a German POW in Texas for 18 months during the war and was repatriated after the war. You didn’t need to speak English on 5th Street because the merchants mostly all spoke German. I attended St. Henry’s school, Cardinal Dougherty High, and then LaSalle College. I have fond memories of the area, Walker’s delicatesssen, Bergen’s Apotheke etc. Our wedding reception in 1967 was at the Schwarzwald Inn and Frau Trautz made sure everybody was well taken care of. I still remember going there on Sundays with Corning Ware dishes to take out Saurbraten, Rotkohl, and Kartoffel Kloese and bring it home because my father wanted a beer with his meal and PA had the blue laws at that time.
    Viele gute Erinnerungen. Tschuess, Kurt Wich

    1. Cornelia Mueller says:

      Was your father in Crystal City TX? Check out Train to Crystal City by Jan Jabboe Russell. My father was taken in March, 1942 from his job at the Widener Estate and spent time in 4 different internment camps, but, luckily wasn’t repatriated.

  11. W Fred Rump says:

    Kurt Wich, we all knew the Pilgers of the Kolping well. They were good people as most were back then. My wife and I got married in our local parish at St Henry’s by Fr Brown in 1960. He loved his German music and dancing at the Kolping House. My parents were refugees who had come over with me in 1952 and quickly bought their first house from Alphonse Ellerkamp’s Real Estate business (another Kolping member) down on 5th St (& Wingohocking ?) for $8000 – 4357 N. 4th St. It was all so long ago but the house still stands.

  12. W Fred Rump says:

    This is a 2013 article somehow resurrected from the internet archives which never forget anything. I basically grew up in Olney even though I’m not sure what our neighborhood around St Henry’s was called. 5th & Olney was just a short trolley ride down the road. My paper route covered the whole area and among my first dreams of a young refugee boy was to get my very own bicycle. So I kept going to the Firestone store at 5th and Tabor just to smell the aroma. (I still love that smell). Eventually one of the sales guys and I got to talking and I walked out with a brand new Firestone bike. It was really a Schwinn and became my horse and wagon for every purpose. The strange thing was that I bought the bike with a few dollars down and the rest on a time payment basis. They trusted me to come back every week. It made me feel like a man. With my last payment I felt like I had purchased the world.

    1. Kitty Hurst says:

      I believe the neighborhood around Saint Henry’s was called Nice Town. I lived across the street from the church on Purdy Street.

  13. Tom Wilsbach says:

    when I was growing up in Logan in the 60s and taking German at CD (’66) I remember Bernstein’s fondly. My cousin was a Russian major at La Salle and bought all his books there, which resulted in a visit from the FBI (just looking). Several of the stores in that block had lettering on their windows: “Man spricht hier Deutsch”. I bought several instruments at Zapf’s and loads of sheet music. good memories.

  14. Diana Muschert says:

    I remember the Schwarzwald at 2nd and Olney Avenue for many years a great place to eat.

  15. Andrew Dunn says:

    My mother (her mother german) that during WW II the inside joke in Olney was that half the residents were of German ancestory and the other half were FBI agents pretending to be german to capture NAZI’s. My grandmother worked for Link-Belt but used her married name – Stanton but not her maiden name – Maurer .

  16. Andrew Dunn says:

    What do you know about the textile company F.W. Maurer & Sons

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