The Weissgerber Story
Weissgerber’s Share ‘American Dream’
Condensed from 50 plus – July 1991 article by Cindy Lindstedt – Feature Editor
Our family is very fortunate and proud to have shared, at least in a small way , in the American Dream, starting with nothing and accomplishing more than we had dared to hope for … we are grateful for your loyal support an invite you to enjoy fine dining in the Weissgerber Tradition. – From the Weissgerber’s Third Street Pier Menu.
Many Milwaukee area residents have savored a splendid meal at the Third Street Pier, the Seven Seas on Lake Nagawicka, the Golden Mast on Okauchee Lake or the Gasthaus in Waukesha. Some have enjoyed the Milwaukee River dining on the Edelweiss Plaza.
But few are familiar with the story behind these prestigious dining establishments, particularly the five-foot matriarch who preserved the Weissgerber family during World War II.
You may have been warmly greeted by her at the Golden Mast, where she is often hostess. Perhaps you’ve heard her sing “Edelweiss” at the Weissgerber’s annual Oktoberfest.
Maria Weissgerber, 71, is a woman of poise dignity and Gemutlichkeit. Dressed exquisitely, brunette hair fastened up, she speaks softly and deliberately. Acknowledging her fortitude is the product of war-related hardship, a lifetime of hard work and commitment to her family; husband, Hans Sr.,73 and sons Jack, 54, and Hans Jr., 48.
That commitment began with an arranged marriage in northern Yugoslavia when she was just 16 years old.
The year was 1936. “For me it was very hard to leave home because I was an only child,” she explained during an interview at her geranium-bedecked home adjacent to the Golden Mast. “It was arranged by our parents, like it was done in the old days, to bring some property together.”
Her hometown was now 70 kilometers away – a day’s horse and buggy ride through the woods and longer by train.
As a bride, young Maria was expected to manage the Weissgerbers’ large farm, including preparing daily meals for 20 – 35 migrant workers. Her in-laws lived in town and her mother-in-law sometimes helped. “I was supposed to lead that operation, and I was not old enough to do that. I had respect for my husband and the Weissgerbers were very wealthy, but, the work had to be jus so, and there was not, you know, the love like I was used to from home.
My first letter, to be very honest, I could not send home – it was full of grief. It was very hard,” she recalled.
Maria gradually adjusted to her duties, but two years later her husband was drafted, leaving her with their one-year-old son, Jack. After his service he returned home, but in 1941 World War II broke out and he was called back, leaving his now-pregnant wife.
As Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito’s partisan forces rallied against the Axis powers, Maria often feared for their lives.
One morning she awoke to a tapping sound on the shutters. Thinking someone was attempting to awaken her, she discovered to her horror it was gunfire from the nearby partisan soldiers.
“I didn’t know what to do. I thought, if they get me in the house they will kill us – and it happened a lot of times. So I got Jack and we hid in the garden in the bushes.” People were killed on a nearby farm. Maria and her son remained undetected.
Terrified, she moved to town until she gave birth to Hans. “Even on our farm, there were several people (workers) killed. I was sad,” she remembered. The Weissgerber’s crops, were used to supply the Croation/German forces. “Then we saw from our house – about seven kilometer, the flames going up. The partisans came and they burned everything (on the farm).”
Captured by the partisans
Her husband was granted leave when Hans Jr. was born. But while he was surveying the ruined farm, partisans captured Maria and at bayonet-point forced her to surrender her husband’s machine gun, demanding to know his whereabouts. A farm worker ran to inform Hans Sr., who turned himself in to save Maria.
“For almost two weeks, he was between life and death,” Maria recalled. That is the reason why he never wants to go back to Yugoslavia – so many were killed.”
But close friends who were secretly communist party officials, came to his rescue. “You didn’t know. You thought they were just, you know, citizens, but they were on the other side. If it wouldn’t be for them, my husband – and there were several with him at that time who were friends of his – they were the first ones (the partisans) ever let out and they didn’t kill.”
Hans and the others had to pledge not to rejoin the army, but a month later when the Germans regained control of the area, they had to report. All but four were executed. Hans was spared but remained in custody with the German Police.
Maria and her children were ordered to leave Yugoslavia, escorted by German soldiers. They left everything except what could be taken in three covered wagons.
As refugees, they traveled from Yugoslavia through Hungary, to Czeckoslovakia, were they remained for six months. “We were forced to give up our wagons and horses for nothing – a slip of paper,” she said.
Lived in refugee camp
When the war ended in 1945, they were ordered by the Russians to return to Yugoslavia, but after traveling through Austria with other refugees “in a big truck” were refused admittance by the partisans and forced to remain in camp in Hungary. “Just in the open, from May until September, with no roof over our heads, not even food,” she said.
During this period of “hardly surviving” whatever valuables she still possessed were bartered for food.
Hans was two and Jack was seven years old. “I know they had the whooping cough at that time. I had my last gold piece; my other gold was gone, and I had my wedding ring and you know, I gave that for one little milk,” she lamented, dabbing her eyes. “You gave everything. You cannot see your children starving to death.”
Maria was 26 and strong enough to earn a bit of food from the Hungarian farmers by knitting or sewing “or whatever they needed done.” She would “steal away” from the camp and bring sustenance back to other family members.
Some farmers were generous; many were not. “They were even choosey,” she said, noting she had once been forced to exchange the dress off her back for a loaf of bread.
She recalled a childless Hungarian family killing a 17-year-old refugee boy for stealing grapes from their vineyard. “And he did not do that just to steal, but to survive. They should go and give him some grapes,” Maria said indignantly.
“Every morning when I wake up, I see it was (those) between 13- and 17-year-olds who are dead. Thy could not survive. They needed more nourishment at that age and it just wasn’t there. It was tragic. You could call it like a holocaust,” she said.
The mortality rate became so rampant officials relocated refugees with local families, “and then it was better,” she said. But in 1946, the Germans ordered everyone of German descent back to Germany.
“There was only the freight trains. It took us an entire month because the cars were always disconnected and left to stand.” The Weissgerbers had lost all their belongings and survived by eating food thrown to the children by soldiers. Seven people were crammed in one room in Robern, Germany, including Maria’s father, children, in-laws, and a nice. Maria’s mother had died of “a broken heart,” during the war, she tearfully explained, because Maria was not allowed to cross the German/Austrian border – “a distance of less than a kilometer” – to visit her. So in this way, I feel responsible for my mother’s death.”
Germany brought brighter times. After two years separation, Hans SR. located his family via communication with an uncle in Pennsylvania.
They moved to France so Hans could work, but were not welcome with a wife and two children to feed, so they returned to Germany, settling in Offenburg in the Black Forest near the French border.
They lived in a refugee camp and both Hans and Maria worked for the French occupation troops while the youngsters were kept in a children’s camp.
One day Maria took Jack for a walk and met a German soldier who had been a doctor friend of the family.
When he learned they were sharing a hall with 38 others, he obtained a private room for them and brought food and a burner on which Maria could cook.
They eventually obtained a small room in the home of a German couple who were reluctant to house children. But Maria’s diligence, kindness and tact and Han’s ability to bring home a bit of meat from the butcher shop where he now worked, won favor with the couple.
“They had vineyards, and one day they gave us a bottle of wine. I told them that wasn’t necessary but that was so good,” Maria remembered with a smile. Things were looking up: the Weissgerbers were also granted an upper portion of the house, with their own bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.
When the woman’s husband suddenly died, she gave the Weissgerbers most of the house and moved to a small room. Hansie then was in kindergarten and she would watch him like a grandmother so I could work in the French officers’ kitchen,” Maria said. “Everything was rationed then and it helped me, again, with the children, food-wise.”
Built first house
Their doctor fried obtained a lot for them and the Weissgerbers were the first refugees in Offenburg to build a home.
Maria was employed by a large department store. She started a custom drapery service on the side.
They applied for immigration to the U.S., Austria and Brazil and in 1955 were accepted by the U.S., sponsored by Maria’s Tanta Anna who invited them to live with her in South Bend, Ind.
They visited Milwaukee in 1956 and “felt right at home here,” Maria said. There was no work in South Bend, so they moved to Milwaukee and Hans got a job at Uncle August sausage company later the Elk’s Club.
Maria attended English classes at the vocational school for four hours each morning and worked at the Schroeder Hotel “wherever I was needed” the remainder of the day.
She passed the civil service exam and worked at the courthouse in the tax department “because, you know, figures are figures,” she said with a laugh. She later worked for Mutual Life Insurance Company.
They rented an apartment on 23rd and Vine after a year bought a house on Hampton and Fond du lac Avenues. On weekends, Hans Sr. cooked spahnferkels (pig roasts) for friends. He dreamed of owning his own business.
In 1961 the former Lacy’s Resort on Okauchee Lake, where they sometimes held their picnics, came for sale. The Weissgerbers traded their Hampton Ave. home and adjoining lot for the dilapidated building.
Started at the bottom
Despite efforts to restore the old dance hall, it eventually had to be razed. Over a five-year period they constructed the Golden Mast over the tavern. Hans Jr. assisted while obtaining a business degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
When the structure was completed, Maria and Hans moved to the third floor. Only then could they obtain a mortgage to equip the restaurant, she explained. The dining room opened in 1967.
Hans Jr. joined the family business full-time in 1971 after serving as a commissioned officer in Vietnam for two years.
Jack joined the restaurant business in 1977 after being employed as an electrical engineer at Allis Chalmers.
The rest is history. The Golden Mast was expanded to include a two-story dining room, fireplace and balcony, banquet room and patio in 1977.
The family purchased the Seven Seas on Lake Nagawicka in 1981. It had once been a successful restaurant, but had changed owners and names five times in 10 years. The Weissgerbers decided to restore the original name and splendor.
The former Frank’s Supper Club, just south of I-94 at Highway T in Waukesha, was purchased in 1982 and the magnificent Gasthaus opened on the site in 1983.
The Weissgerbers returned to the Old World – Milwaukee’s Old World Third Street, for their next project, the Third Street Pier and Hans Jakob Milwaukee Tavern and Grill (named for the brothers). The family leases the building but procured all interior furnishings and equipment.
The $700,000 Edelweiss dinner riverboat was added in 1988, with Edelweiss Plaza hobnobbing now as a popular Milwaukee River-front pastime.
Maria emphasized, “I never had a problem with my children. I think because they came up the hard way, they saw and they always helped along. I had a nice childhood but my children did not, moving from one refugee camp to another.
“I always say to them, you can loose everything, but never your knowledge. I wanted them to finish their schooling.”
Hans Sr., dapper and looking younger than his 73 years, oversees the Gasthaus or wherever he is needed.
Jack works at the Seven Seas with his wife helping on weekends, and also at the Third Street Pier. Hans Jr. usually works at the Golden Mast and the Gasthaus.
As for the future, “I hope the family will continue to work together a long time, respect each other and honor the Weissgerber name,” said Maria.
There was a time I said I would be happy just to again have a bed and a roof over my head. Now, we are never satisfied with our accomplishments. Always we try to do a little more and a little more.”