Heinrich C. Friedhoff: AACHEN FOUNDER – LIFETIME CONNECTION TO AMERICA
DATE: 19 September 2013
NARRATOR: Heinrich C. Friedhoff
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
PLACE: in Aachen-Nütheim
Q: Let’s start with your family background.
HCF: I was born in Aachen on the 2nd of August 1946, right after the Second World War. My father was a medical doctor in Aachen. My mother studied pharmacy, but didn’t work. At the time that was not the thing to do. She raised the three kids of the family. I was the one in the middle. I went to school in Aachen. One of the first really important things in my life was when I was selected to be an AFS student—that was in 1963. So, I went to school in Cleveland, Ohio, more precisely in the suburb of Shaker Heights. I attended University School there. I came into the senior class. It was really tough at the beginning, as I had to follow all the courses in English. I had studied Latin in Aachen, but only had three years of English by the time I went to America. My English was not that great, but in the long run I managed to get through.
Q: What motivated you to apply for this exchange program in the first place?
HCF: America after the Second World War in West Germany was the big thing. Everybody looked to the United States of America. That was the people that liberated us from the Nazi regime in Germany. We always thought that everything coming from American was great and we wanted to get to know it. So when I saw there was a chance to apply for a scholarship, I really wanted to do that; I really wanted to get to know America. Looking back, that was the right thing to do, because at that time America was THE world power. It was a great opportunity to get to know that country better.
Q: Did you hear a lot about the war from your parents?
HCF: Oh sure. My father was a medical doctor in the war. He served in every major European theater of the war—Russia, the western front, at the end of the war in Hungary. He had seen so much suffering, so much killing. As a physician at least he did not have to participate in that. But he witnessed it all and was all against the war. As a result, he was not one of those parents who did not talk about the whole thing afterwards. He did talk about it, though not very much. But when he talked about it, it was always negative, spliced with warnings to be aware and to be good democrats, to prevent anything similar from ever happening again.
Q: Did you also talk about the Great Depression and the 1930s?
HCF: Yes, but my father was from Westphalia and his dad worked for the Deutsche Bahn [German Railroads]. He was brother to five sisters. The family was not rich but not poor either. As the only son, my father was the first of the family to attend university and become a doctor. The sisters did not have that chance. During the depression, he was still a student or a medical assistant, so didn’t have any money anyhow, so the blighted economic circumstances didn’t hit him dramatically. Years later, when he came back from the war, they were poor again. My father married in 1942 and my sister was born in 1943. So, he came back at the end of ’45 and started his career as a medical doctor all over again. He was a general practitioner. The years between 1945-49 were really tough for them, because there weren’t many things to live on. They said I was the one who raised the family as I was a baby and my family was therefore eligible for the CARE program. My mother would go to a place in the city where they distributed food for children from the American CARE program.
Q: Was that in Aachen?
HCF: Yes. They teased me about raising the family
Q: Was the family already living in Aachen in 1943 when your sister was born?
HCF: Yes, they were living in Aachen, but my father was away. And as the front approached most of the population was evacuated, so that by the time the Americans liberated Aachen there were only 3,000 people left here. My mother took my sister to Belgium to get away from the war theater. They were not far away from Aachen, though, and experienced the American liberation there. She was 21 at the time.
Q: Has she spoken about that time?
HCF: Yeah. She was fearful. The war was raging; the bombs were falling. Her husband was away from home. She was there with her little child.
Q: Aachen was bombarded
HCF: Yes—80% of Aachen was destroyed. My mother didn’t know what to expect. She didn’t know America or Americans. She only knew the Nazi propaganda. So she sat there and waited for her fate. Pretty soon she found out that it was pretty easy to get along with the Americans. So she returned to Aachen and waited for her husband to come home. He was a prisoner of war in Hanover. He fled the Russian front for the opportunity to be captured as a POW in an American camp. They sent him home pretty soon and he was back in Aachen by the end of 1945. I came into the picture nine months later.
Q: A fitting way to celebrate the end of the war and the reunion. Let me now take you back to 1963 and your experience in Cleveland Heights. You were absorbing English on a steep learning curve.
HCF: Right. The first course I had was Mathematics. The teacher spoke about tangents, co-tangents and the other charms of Trigonometry. I understood not a word; it was really hard for me to sit there and not really understand what was going on. I flunked the first test I took in Math spectacularly. The good thing was that I had some freedom of selection of courses. In Germany at that time everything was very regulated; you had to take Latin, German, Math, Physics and the like. In Cleveland Heights I chose English literature, American history, European history, comparative government, and Math. Math was the only subject that posed a real issue, though I managed somehow to struggle through it. It was a very highly competitive school. You got a grade report every six weeks and the report always included your class rank. There were 75 students in the senior class and I started off as #73. I improved over the year
Q: Are you in contact with your Ohio family still?
HCF: Yes. According to AFS convention, they were your mother and father there, and your brother and sisters in America. In the beginning, it seemed strange, but we really got used to it. Very soon we really got to like each other. My two parents in America are dead, but I had contact with them until their passing. As time went on, the level of intensity diminished, though whenever I was in America I would go to Cleveland to see them. And whenever they were in Europe they visited us—that was three or four times over the years
Q: What sort of background did they have?
HCF: Well, it’s funny. The really important person in my family was my American mother. She was the daughter of the president of the Bank of Cleveland. That is where the family had its money. They lived in Gates Mills—half an hour away from Shaker Heights and an even richer community. My American father was from Kentucky and had graduated from Harvard with an MBA. He married this rich woman from Cleveland, but had no money to speak of in his background. My American mother was really interested in us and the children. She was souverain, involved in all the affairs of the family—involved in the country club, which was only 500 yards from the home. We really participated in the social life of Gates Mills. I got to know many people there. Looking back, my American brother was affected by the milieu—he was intelligent, but not really rich. He had all these friends, some with million-dollar inheritances at age 21 to get used to the idea of having money to prepare them for much larger inheritances. My American brother didn’t inherit much and he knew that. He attended Duke University, majoring in Psychology. He was a sociable person who made friends easily. He did not want to participate in the Vietnam War. He was pleased to become a soldier in Germany instead at age 24 or 25.
Q: Do you remember how he entered into military service?
HCF: I think he was drafted. He did what was necessary. Nothing more. I think that if he had been deployed to Vietnam he probably would have run away. Some friends of mine did go to Canada because they didn’t want to serve in Vietnam. But he was lucky. We celebrated his 25th birthday in Stuttgart. At that point he declared that he was retired—a decision facilitated by his marriage to a wealthy woman. His intention was never to work again, a goal he did, in fact, achieve. After his divorce from the first wife, he married a really rich woman. After his divorce from his second wife, he found another rich woman to marry. I can’t say whether this made him happy, but it is how he reacted to this situation of having been young and in contact with rich people without himself having similar means, compensating for that by marrying rich women. He was good-looking and nice to be with. He now lives in South America on a 70,000 hectare estate in the Andes that came to him as part of a divorce settlement. He has a big house and raises cattle there with the help of 20 gauchos that work for him.
Q: He must have learned Spanish along the way.
HCF: Mas o menos. I visited him in Argentina; he had a private plane pick me up in Buenos Aires and we flew over most of Argentina to near the border with Chile. At the time, 10-15 years ago, you couldn’t get there by car. Now there is a dirt road. I hope to visit him next year  on the occasion of the 50th class reunion at University School.
Q: Let’s fill in some of the intervening years, just briefly. You returned to Aachen and attended university…
HCF: First I had to complete my schooling, as in Germany we go longer. I then spent a year and a half in the Bundeswehr [German army]. I was not a good soldier, but then I studied law at the university in Bonn.
Q: What made you study law?
HCF: Mainly because I couldn’t come up with a better idea. What fascinated me was German literature or literature more generally, or history, but then everybody told me that with a degree in subjects like that I would become a teacher. I didn’t want to become a teacher, so I asked “what else?” I was advised that I could study law. You had to be able to talk to people and think in a certain way. “This could be a good fit for you.” So I started studying law without knowing what it was. Since I didn’t want to work for anyone else, I started a legal practice here in Aachen, hoping that my network of acquaintances would let me make a go of it.
Q: When did you finish university?
HCF: I went from Bonn to Munich and from there to Geneva and from Geneva to Münster in the end—I tried to get around in Europe. I went to Geneva primarily with the idea in mind of learning French. I returned to Münster to seriously study. That is where I prepared myself for the exams. After four years I received my law degree from Münster. Though we don’t have degrees from universities for law—it’s a Staatsexamen [state examination]. I passed it in the Justizministerium [ministry of justice] in the Land of North Rhine-Westfalia. They confer the title—it’s not the universities. Following that, you go do a Referendariat [internship] for three years, nowadays only two. I was in my 30th year when I started my law business, despite the fact that I did everything in the shortest possible time. In comparison with my American friends, I was already an old timer by the time I actually launched my legal practice. They were 25 or 26 when they started. I thought that was an advantage.
Q: What kind of firm did you establish in Aachen?
HCF: I started it all by myself, because I wanted to be independent. At that time, people expected a lawyer to know everything. You didn’t specialize. That was stupid. So I began looking for partners and grew the firm to eleven partners at present. We do what normal, middle class provincial lawyers do. Later, I specialized in insolvency law. Then I became an insolvency manager—the guy who takes over when the bankruptcy occurs. You are appointed by the court and become the boss of the failed company. It’s pretty interesting, though not really law, or not only law. You have to be a manager, sell things. You have to deal with people, a facet of the work I like very much. Much more than sitting there and giving big speeches in the court room. But since I didn’t really know what law was and what lawyers did, I didn’t have any idea of what to do. So you follow odd patterns and try to find your own way through. What ended up helping me become successful in setting up a law firm and growing the business was being politically engaged. I was a member of the Social Democratic Party [SPD] and a Jungsozialist [young socialist, JuSo] at the time. I was also a member of the ’68 generation—we were the ones who tried to change the world. I ran for and was elected to the Aachen city council, serving 8 years. Therefore, I knew a lot of people, and they came to me with their legal issues. This was not that easy. I quit politics after 8 years because it was not really possible to be both a hard-working lawyer and a member of the city council at the same time. After I married my wife and got two daughters, there was no life left over for my family or for myself. So I decided to get out of politics and concentrate on family life and the job.
Q: Which ten years was that?
HCF: That was from 1979 to 1989.
Q: Just as you completed your city council service everything in Europe was transformed. And soon thereafter the sister city relationship was born.
HCF: I was three or four years out of politics when the sister city opportunity arose in 1993. I was looking for an opportunity to do something close to politics but without the extreme time commitment politics demands. Through a sister city relationship I could be in touch with America once again. The motivation was personal. I still thought that America was a great country, a sentiment no longer shared by my generation. That was tragic. In the 60s when Nixon took over and America was so out of the question in Europe, no one wanted to have anything to do with it. When I was young, everyone was a fan of America and then with the Vietnam War and Nixon and the assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King and the racial problems and all that changed the whole way of looking at America. By the time I was a young man, the esteem was not that great anymore. I thought that was not the way to look at the United States; I had personal experience there and liked the Americans very much because they are free people and really live differently than us. They have another way of looking at things. It’s not always a better way, but it’s another way. So the possibility of forging a sister city relationship would provide a good way to reestablish contact with Americans and also demonstrate to my fellow Aacheners that America is more than Nixon and the Vietnam war and Ronald Reagan.
Q: Where did the initiative come from and how did you find out about it?
HCF: The initiative came from the Arlingtonians. They were looking for a German town. There was a committee working on it. Three or four towns were on their list. A delegation arrived and had an appointment with the Oberbürgermeister [mayor] Jürgen Linden, who was a friend of mine. He invited me to help talk to the Americans, as I had experience with them already. By then OB Linden was favorably disposed. They came with a check-list. They wanted to find out what kind of town Aachen is. Subsequently, they decided upon Aachen. Later they told us that one of the main reasons was that at that time we had started rebuilding a Synagogue that had been burned down by the Nazis in 1938. In 1989, when the city council majority shifted from CDU [conservative] to SPD and Green, one point in the coalition agreement was to rebuild the synagogue on the original site. So the town bought the site and began a program to bring it back. Some members of the Arlington committee were Jewish and for them this effort at reconciliation was a key point.
Q: Can you recall who was involved?
HCF: [referring to his scrapbook] It was Walter Eisenberg, James Hunter, and Robert Ramirez. I think these three people constituted Arlington’s delegation on this exploratory visit.
Q: Do you remember when that visit occurred?
HCF: That was in early 1993. Subsequently they decided that Aachen was the right city for the relationship with Arlington and applied for relationship status. The Aachen city council has to vote on that. It was a difficult matter. Some said, while they had nothing against Arlington, “we already have relationships with Toledo, Reims, and Halifax. Let’s concentrate on these three.” So, initially, it was difficult to convince the city council. If another relationship were to be entertained, then it was agreed that Arlington would be a good candidate.
Q: The majority was SPD-Green…
HCF: Yes. From this quarter the sentiment originally was to concentrate on the city partnerships Aachen already had. But it was not a political question. In the run-up to the vote, members met in small groups. Since I knew them all, I was able to lobby for an affirmative outcome. From Aachen’s point of view, when you start a sister city relationship, it is the town that is the actual partner, but the Partnerschaftskomitee is run by private persons. They take care of it; it is not the city administration that can breathe life into it. It must be engaged citizens. That’s why we started the Verein [eingetragener Verein = civil association] to run the sister city partnership. I was elected to be the first chairman to run this small group, the Aachen-Arlington Partnerschaftskomitee. After that, the Americans visited us in 1993 to sign the treaty establishing the relationship. We received an invitation to pay a return visit for a signing in Arlington in May 1994. Then we went over and started this in America. The signing of the treaty in Aachen involved a small group of four or five in a ceremony at the town hall. It was not a huge affair; it was just getting started. The Arlington event was much bigger than the first step here. So for me, the relationship really started in 1994. If you take a look at the program for our visit you will see what I mean. We received exceptional hospitality in Arlington, were shown around the county and around Washington—White House, Congress, Library of Congress, Old Executive Office Building, Arlington House, county facilities including the jail, the schools—a huge program. We were young at that time but the schedule was exhausting nevertheless, since it started at 8:00 a.m. and went to 7:30 p.m. and beyond. After the official program we went to Georgetown for a beer to discuss things amongst the German group and got to bed at 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock in the morning and had to get up early again in the morning for the next appointment
Q: What were your accommodations?
HCF: We stayed at two different hotels, which supported the visit by the provision of rooms free of charge. That was a lot of fun. It really was. As far as the Germans were concerned, the relationship started with a real ‘bang.’
Q: So you have four or five officers?
HCF: Right. Dieter Bischoff was the vice-president. The board was deliberately politically balanced. Bischoff was with the CDU. Then there was Margaret Ortstein was from the Greens, a teacher and former city council member. There were also Hubert Gronen, a teacher, and Traudl Kősters. In addition there was the city manager, Dr. Heiner Berger, who had joined the travel group headed by the then Oberbürgermeister, Dr. Jürgen Linden
Q: You were the officers?
HCF: Yes. Traudl was involved from the very beginning. We were friends. Hubert Gronen is also a friend. I tried to get people involved whom I knew and people I assumed to be interested in America and who would be able to carry a project like that. You need strong personalities to be able to do something important. I think we were a pretty good team.
Q: Evidently! So now you receive a delegation and sent one back to Arlington. What did you do next?
HCF: I am not the sort who does things forever. I did this for six years
Q: That’s what I am asking: in those six years, what did you do? How did you decide what to do next?
HCF: It was clear to us that we needed to launch specific programs. You’re a teacher—start a school program. The student exchange is one of the first things we did. Our idea—since borne out—was that if you have school children participating in a program every year, you have new people coming in and getting involved in the whole thing.
Q: You asked Hubert Gronen to do that?
HCF: Yes, Hubert was the first one to coordinate the school exchange, then we had Sabine Schierp, who, unfortunately, has passed away since. Later we had Helmuth Feuerriegel. For a while, Traudl did that, too. At least two people on the Partnerschaftkomitee were always involved. We tried to set up something similar with the universities: that was more difficult. The first person in charge was Walter Huber, a professor at Aachen University and one of the earliest Komitee members. Later on a relationship developed between Marymount University and our Fachhochschule [technical college]. Mr. Joeppen who has been managing that ever since. There was an initiative to link Aachen University to Georgetown University, but it did not go so well. We had a program with George Mason University—it worked for a while, but it was not one of the big hits. That was the pattern: have people employed in a certain field initiate a program with an Arlingtonian counterpart. We had an art exchange right from the beginning. Traudl handled that during the early years. German and American artists have been drawn into our exchange programs. We had an exchange of musicians. Mr. Ramirez took the lead on that program from the Arlington side. At one point John Melnick was here with a group of lawyers. I accompanied them, providing a survey of the German law system. Then we returned to Arlington and enjoyed a program put together by John Melnick. The main idea was to bring people together sharing interests. Later on, Bernie Chapnick came along with the SisterBike program. That was at the end of my presidency of the Partnerschaftkomittee. It was a great idea and I personally participated on the bike ride. I actually did several of them. It is always a great experience and a real achievement to do it every year and with a different cast of characters with some regulars.
The other thing we did, which was not so common in Germany, was to pick up American customs. For example: we stage a Thanksgiving dinner every year. That still is a great success. Traudl has demonstrated a talent for organizing events like that; she is assisted by Inge Marquardt, also one of the founding members of the committee. Every year over 200 people participate in this simulacrum of Americana. In the early years of the association, attending this dinner was a distinctly trendy thing to do.
Q: When did you start this practice?
HCF: From the beginning, 1994 or 1995. We also celebrate the Fourth of July with a cookout with burgers. We always invited football and baseball players. Frisbee and square dancing were organized. Sometimes the weather was good; sometimes not. But for a while it was novel and attractive. Repeated too often, the attractiveness wanes. The Thanksgiving event survives as a brunch on the Sunday morning following actual Thanksgiving Day, since it is not a holiday here in Germany. The American consul posted in Düsseldorf was always invited and regularly attended, so we got to know them. We engaged in some interesting discussions with them. They were interested in us as a success of German-American people-to-people initiatives.
Another factor in our success has been Paula Niemitz, an American expatriate living and working at the university here in Aachen. She connects the cultures: she is a German, kind of, and she is an American, kind of. In her person she combines the two nationalities. She has been one of the fixed points in our development. We enjoyed substantial continuity of our team.
Q: All this came in the first six years of your association?
HCF: yes, it was all there in the first years.
Q: What is the nature of the relationship of the Komitee to the city of Aachen? I recall you mentioned OB Linden was a proponent of the relationship at its origin. Then there is the big festival around the Karlpreis [Charlemagne Peace Prize]. Did that play a role in the development of the association?
HCF: Jürgen Linden was always very interested in partnerships. He speaks both English and French. He loves to travel outside Germany. He always attended the Thanksgiving dinner and came prepared to make a speech. We always invited the Arlington County Council chairperson to attend the Karlspreis ceremonies. Almost all of them traveled to Aachen. We showed them some hospitality. Mayor Linden always had a reception at the town hall.
The biggest thing was when Bill Clinton got the Karlspreis.
Q: Tell us about that.
HCF: That was in the year 2000. It was the biggest Karlspreis event ever. But it took some convincing to bestow the honor on an American president. After all, what is the connection to Europe? In Clinton’s case, the consideration was not so much about the particular president, but what America has done over the years for Germany. After the Second World War it was the Americans that took control of Aachen. They started our democratic life here. Many things were founded right after the war in Aachen, like the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [German Confederation of Trade Unions], with American help. The first German newspaper was printed in Aachen, again with American support. Licenses were given to important outlets. Hence, we owe a lot of our political life to the Americans. Looking back to the postwar years, it was the Americans more than the British or French that helped us improve our lot. The British and French weren’t against us, but they were closer at hand and were victims of Nazi Germany in greater measure than the Americans. Hatred is too strong a term, but we in Aachen experienced a succession of occupiers from 1945. First it was the Americans; then after two years the British took over. After that, the Belgians had responsibility. It was more difficult with them. But the Americans did a lot to get Germany started as a democracy. And that is why we thought it would be a good idea to confer the Karlspreis on an American president.
Bill Clinton accepted the prize. When he came to receive it, there was a huge crowd. It was a beautiful summer day, perfect weather. I consider the event one of the highlights not only of the sister city relationship, but also of the relationship between Aachen and America. After the Nixon and Reagan years, Bill Clinton was once again somebody to look up to. He was an American leader who had an understanding for Europe and was well regarded in Europe. So that was a wonderful day. For me personally, that was one of the highlights of the whole thing.
Q: Can you recall who some of the American participants were?
HCF: John McCracken from the Aachen Committee and Jay Fisette from the Arlington County Board. They were the two most important people after John Melnick’s time. About the time I gave up the leadership role on this side, John McCracken took over on the Arlington side. Jay Fisette is a wonderful guy who embodies much of the spirit of our endeavor.
Q: I facilitated his visit to Aachen to participate in the Karlspreis ceremonies last spring.
HCF: Yes, he was here this year and on several other occasions. I have the impression that he was already in the group when Bill Clinton received the prize.
Q: It was about then that you gave up your Aachen-Arlington Partnerschaftkomitee responsibilities.
HCF: Yes, it was right around then, perhaps a little earlier, maybe it was in the immediate aftermath of Clinton’s visit. I asked Traudl to take over. She had been serving on the Komitee since the beginning. She accepted the nomination and has done a wonderful job since then—at this point continuously for almost 14 years.
Q: We talked about how 9/11 changed the tenor of the relationship, which is destined to be reactive to big events like that. That provides a way to your evaluation of the performance of the sister city connection. What has been achieved?
HCF: My impression is that we really have a relationship. It is not only on paper. It is because people meet people. That’s the whole idea behind it. People know each other, talk to each other, and understand more about the partners than they would otherwise. Americans have an opportunity to know us in ways precluded by just reading newspapers or the web. This is a good result for two decades of work.
The other dimension is the student exchange. Like me when I was 17 and first got into contact with America, it changed my life. I wouldn’t overdramatize this: my interest in America and its politics grew. President John Kennedy was killed when I was there. That was personal for me. I also took part in the civil rights movement. When I arrived in America I was from a conservative, Catholic family. My parents voted for the CDU, Konrad Adenauer. When I returned from America, I was a Democrat and became a Social Democrat here. Similarly, by organizing year after year of student exchanges between Aachen and Arlington, we are changing lives. Their impression of America is better informed; they are away from home sometimes for the first time and can see things in a different way. We are proud of how it works.
Q: What about the challenges? What remains to be done
HCF: It is always necessary to find new people who are willing to carry on.
Q: In this era of globalization, is the whole idea of sister cities obsolete?
HCF: Personal contact is the most important feature of the sister city concept. You can write e-mails, you can talk on Skype, you can use the phone or whatever, but if you don’t know the person, if you haven’t met him and talked to him, if you haven’t had the chance to drink a glass of wine together or share a meal, then it is not the same kind of relationship. I believe in the personal contact of people in a steady relationship. Aachen has nine or ten sister cities. You can’t participate in all of them. If you try, you spread yourself too thin and know people only superficially. The pay-off comes from meeting people regularly, knowing each other, liking each other. That is more important than knowing everything in the world.