Leaving Germany to make a life in the U.S. after World War II
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Erwin Knirlberger grew up in Germany the son of a single mother. He lived with his grandmother, and she cared for him while his mother worked. When Erwin was 14, he began apprenticing as a pastry chef. He was working at his first job in the Black Forest when the war started in 1939. He was 19 and was quickly drafted into the German navy.
At the end of the war, he was captured by the Allies in Genoa, Italy, and sent to a prisoner of war camp. After a year and a half in prison, he escaped and was able to make his way up through Italy, into the Alps and home to Germany.
Knirlberger: I returned to the town where I grew up. My grandmother’s house had been hit in the bombing raids, and there was a big hole in the roof. Things were a mess. My grandmother was living there because she had no place else to go. My aunts and uncles and their families had moved in and taken the good rooms on the first floor and put my grandmother on the second floor in the room with the hole in it. This made me so mad. I told them all that we had to do something.
Money was worthless, food and other supplies were scarce. The only things we had there to barter with were coffee and cigarettes. We got food rations, but if we wanted good food it was all traded for on the black market. I remember I had a pair of dress shoes that I traded for a few pounds of potatoes.
My uncle smoked. I took his cigarettes and traded them for building materials. I had never built anything, but I got enough stuff together and I figured out how to fix the roof and the ceiling. Then I dug a well so we had running water.
I built a form and started making my own concrete blocks, because nothing like that was available after the war. With those blocks I built a laundry room and a bathroom.
Gallacher: How did you learn how to do that?
Knirlberger: Well, you think a little bit. Before long I had a girlfriend and pretty soon I had a son. Germany was down and inflation was high. I had 20,000 marks that I had saved before the war. I could only get three and a half percent of their original value. When I complained to my aunt who lived in the United States, she told me to come live with her and get a job.
I decided to go see if I could make it in the U.S. By then my grandmother’s house was in good shape. My wife and son had a nice apartment. My aunt sponsored me and sent me a ticket to come over. She lived near an air force base in Belleville, so she rented everything out. When I showed up, the only place left was the boiler room.
My uncle got me a job in a big bakery. It wasn’t like anything I had ever seen. I was trained as a pastry chef in Germany, and I couldn’t believe what they called bread in America. I couldn’t stand the fluffy stuff.
Gallacher: So you didn’t care for our spongy “balloon bread.”
Knirlberger: It was like day and night from the way I had been trained in Germany. I eventually found a job with a real baker. It was just him and me. I came to the U.S. in June of 1951 and by the spring of ’52 I had bought a building lot. I had learned that in America you can buy something by “putting a little money down.” So that’s what I did.
I didn’t know a foot from an inch or a 2-by-6 from a 2-by-4, but I was making plans to build a house. I had fixed up the house in Germany so I figured, “Why not try building a house in America?” I started going to construction sites to watch and learn what they were doing. I learned that they used 2-by-4s and spaced them 16 inches apart. It was hard because I had meters in my mind and everything here was in inches and feet.
I learned that concrete came in trucks in America and I wouldn’t have to mix it by hand anymore. I watched what the construction guys did, and I did the same. Pretty soon I was building my own house.
When the baker I worked for found out that I was building a house, he was furious. “You goddamned kraut,” he said, “I’m here all my life and I have nothing like that.” He was so jealous of me that I finally quit. I tried to get a job in the steel mill, but they wouldn’t hire me because I was a German, so I went to work for a bricklayer who thought I did good work.
Eventually I got a job in the Union Starch factory, and I sent for my wife and son. We had an apartment in town. I worked t12-hour shifts and spent any extra time I had trying to finish our house.
In 1959, I got discouraged and decided to go back to Germany and see if I could start over there. I quit my job, and we went back for three months. But when we got to Germany, we realized that we didn’t like it anymore. It had gotten too small. Germans were real bossy. The clerks in the post offices acted like they was a generals.
I bought a car while I was there, but there was no place to park. All the streets were small and narrow. Prices on everything had gone up, we realized we couldn’t afford to live like we wanted to. Germany just wasn’t what we had hoped it would be.
We came back to the U.S. after three months and made plans to move to Florida. We decided to go to the “land of sun and fun.” My wife started shopping for handbags and bikinis. When my aunt heard about our plans she said, “What do you want in Florida? You already hate the heat here. Florida’s heat is much worse. You’re crazy. Go out to Colorado where there are mountains and the weather is like Germany’s.”
Gallacher: So that’s all it took?
Knirlberger: Yes, she made perfect sense. We came to Denver and then Estes Park and eventually to Aspen. When we saw Aspen we knew it was the place we wanted to be. There were a lot of Germans and Austrians in Aspen in those early days. I remember we were looking for our motel and we stopped and asked a little boy for directions and, when he answered us in German, we knew we were in the right place.
We eventually bought a place from this Swiss guy who sold real estate. He convinced us that a piece of land with cabins was a good deal for us. He was right. We were able to rent the cabins and start building new ones. Over the years, I built the Bavarian Inn, a lodge, a restaurant and 23 units. Later on, I bought six other building lots. We did all the work ourselves. My son helped and, occasionally, a ski bum.
Gallacher: How long did it take you?
Knirlberger: It took 26 years. I started building in 1964, and I sold everything and left in 1990. Today it’s all employee housing.
Immigrant Stories run Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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