October is rich in German festivals. Many of us will be visiting one of the local Oktoberfests in North Texas in the coming weeks. Additionally, October 6 is German American Day, commemorating the founding of Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1683. But did you know that the origins of the holiday are linked to Dallas and a man named Gershon Canaan, who had a vision particularly inspiring of what that meant to him?
Far from Dallas, Gerhard Kohn was born to a Jewish family in Berlin in 1917. In the 1930s, his family being persecuted by the Nazis, they fled to Palestine, where Gerhard Kohn became Gershon Canaan. When war broke out, Canaan joined the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, serving on multiple fronts and ultimately helping to liberate the concentration camps in 1945.
In 1947, Canaan moved to the United States to study with Frank Lloyd Wright, before moving to Austin to pursue studies at the University of Texas. In 1958, he took a job in Dallas, where he would meet his future wife, Doris, and start a family of his own.
Canaan worked tirelessly to promote Dallas as a cosmopolitan city with an international flair in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. He was Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1962 to 1987 and traveled frequently to West Germany on behalf of the Mayor of Dallas and the Governor of Texas, facilitating reparations for Holocaust survivors. Despite his war experiences, Canaan was never ashamed of his German origins. He felt it was still part of who he was.
Canaan saw no contradiction between his German identity and his Jewish identity. Asked about Germany’s representation as a Jew, according to an obituary in the Dallas Goethe Center archives, he replied, “Times are changing. People change. I find satisfaction in the modest role I play in strengthening peace, friendship and understanding between our two countries. Now is the time to move forward. “
And Canaan did just that, highlighting what he believed to be the most positive aspects of German cultural identity. Canaan lobbied for a celebration of German culture in Texas, which was made official in 1963. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made the celebration a national affair, declaring October 6 German-American Day, honoring the contributions of German-American immigration.
In 1982, Dallas Mayor Jack Evans proclaimed September 14 Gershon Canaan Day. In the same year, Germany presented Canaan with the Federal Republic Order of Merit, one of its highest civilian decorations. These honors were in part a recognition of the ideals that fueled Canaan’s 1962 plan to build a German cultural organization that became the Dallas Goethe Center and its language school.
Canaan envisioned an organization that would celebrate not only German culture as represented by the greatest German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but also an organization that, through its renewed cultural values, would help address the chauvinist, nationalist and racist elements of the past. He and his co-founders often wondered how such an organization could promote democracy, tolerance, peace and understanding.
Today, the Dallas Goethe Center continues that conciliatory tradition that Canaan so longed to establish. As a non-partisan, non-profit organization, it is dedicated to the promotion of the German language, lifelong learning and cultural dialogue.
In these times of political and social upheaval, we would all do well to consider Canaan’s positive, community-based commitment to mutual understanding. In October, when you raise a beer in honor of German American Day, also think about the man who helped inspire it and his wish to celebrate the human spirit that resides within us all, no matter what. be our origins.
As Goethe once said, “We can safely achieve truly universal tolerance when we respect what is characteristic of the individual and of nations, while clinging to the belief that what is truly meritorious is unique.” in that it belongs to all mankind. “
Jacob-Ivan Eidt is President of the Dallas Goethe Center and Associate Professor of German at the University of Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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