Lately it seems like every week another local institution goes under, and with each, something intangible is lost: an era ends, a dream dies. Zum Deutschen Eck went in January.
The front-page report in the local Booster paper said that the owner, Albert Wirth Jr., had sprung the news on guests and staff during a speech at the end of a birthday party given for him. According to the story, he thanked the staff for their years of service, then announced that this was the last meal Zum Deutschen Eck would be serving. The property had been sold for condo development.
The attitude behind the announcement didn’t surprise me. I’d worked at the Zum off and on between 1986 and 1992. I’d always thought the place would go on forever, like some mean sonofa-bitch who outlives all his enemies.
On the outside the Zum was a Black Forest music box, all wooden frills and curlicues. Hidden behind the gingerbread were speakers that frequently flooded Southport Avenue with marching tunes and Bavarian drinking songs. Inside, the place was huge: a restaurant, a bar, three banquet halls, dressing rooms for the musicians who performed on weekends. Upstairs were apartments, including the one where Wirth’s aged mother lived.
I lived directly across the street before I worked at the Zum. My neighbors didn’t like the place. Those damn songs played late into the night, and you wouldn’t want to make the mistake of leaving your car in their lot–they’d tow you, even after hours. And there were rumors that a second parking lot it shared with the neighboring church was illegal, that police and politicians gave the restaurant a pass on violations. When I started working there I heard other rumors from the employees, like that the liver dumplings were made with table scraps. I never saw evidence that any of the rumors were true. But I didn’t try the dumplings either.
I’d never seen any place like the Zum, except maybe on SCTV. A duo in lederhosen would play and sing German drinking songs in the restaurant, while back in the banquet rooms I distributed song sheets titled “Songs You Love to Sing.” It was part of the back bartender’s job to lead the sing-along: “OK everybody, turn to number 32. ‘Auf Wiedersehn!'”
Friends and relatives asked me repeatedly how a Jew could work in such a place. I was working parties, I answered, not joining the party. I wasn’t prejudiced against Germans. It was a job, the location was perfect, and being a Jew didn’t make any difference.
Then one night in April 1992 I was heading for the banquet rooms when the front bartender called me over. “Have to talk to you,” he said.
“They gave a birthday party for Hitler in the Bavarian Room the other night.”
“No, I’m serious,” he said sadly. “There was a group in there with a bust of Hitler on the bar, and they sang and drank all night long. They even had a birthday cake.”
He swore he was telling the truth. If I didn’t believe him, I should ask one of the banquet waitresses who’d worked the party.
So I did.
“Oh, ja,” she said, nodding, adding that it had been a very distasteful event. Hitler’s birthday was no occasion for celebration, she said, reminding me that among his many evil acts, the fuhrer had wrecked Austria, her homeland. “I don’t understand why Americans would celebrate this man,” she said. “They must be crazy.”
At that point I had only about an hour to set up for the evening’s party, a wedding for which a portable bar had to be wheeled into the Oakdale Room and fully stocked. I was still debating whether to work or walk when the manager came in.
He looked around and smiled when he saw me. “There was a birthday party for Hitler in the Bavarian Room the other night.”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“So, what are you going to do?” he said, smirking.
That was the question. He didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him. He would have loved to see me walk out. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “I’m setting up, OK? Give me the key to the liquor room.”
I grabbed two fold-up tables and tablecloths, six racks of glasses, a full bar’s worth of liquor, juices and mixes, two full CO2 tanks for sodas, limes, lemons, a cutting board and knife, clean bar mops, and a tip jar.
The wedding party entered, and I showed the bride to the changing room upstairs, pointed out the gift table, and loaded the tape of Mendelssohn’s wedding march into the tape player. I turned it on and played a few bars to make sure it was the right tape. A couple of years before, another bartender had grabbed a tape without checking its title. When the wedding party entered she punched the play button and out of the speakers blared “Daddy’s Little Girl.” Wirth had raced for the machine, yelling, “Shut that off! Her father died last week!” Such a thing, we all understood, must never happen again.
My last bit of preparation involved setting up a microphone on the stage so that Wirth could run his usual spiel: “Good evening, meine Damen und Herren, and welcome to the Zum Deutschen Eck, home of good food and good service….Dining tonight will be family style, so forget about your diets, throw away your diet pills.”
I opened the door and let the guests in. It wasn’t a big event, only about 100 people, so I was working the bar alone. The party was scheduled to start at 7, with a cocktail hour before dinner, liebfraumilch and champagne–J. Roget, about 99 cents a bottle then–served with the meal, and then an open bar until 3 AM.
As usual, Wirth had informed the guests that all tips were included in the price of the party, and it was one of my jobs to disabuse them of this notion. I was paid only $35 cash for the shift–standard for shifts that run from 5:30 to 3 or 4 AM–and any tip noted on the final bill went to the restaurant.
As soon as I had a moment I went to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, lit a cigarette, and sat down. Piped-in music played softly while I equivocated. All right, give ’em the benefit of the doubt. Anyone can rent a banquet room under any name or for any legal purpose, and once the party is there, what are you going to do? I recalled working a party for a group named “The Lost Chords of Evanston.” I thought it would be some kind of choir, but it turned out to be a group of people whose vocal cords had been removed. What, I wondered, had the Hitler’s-birthday-party people called themselves? The Unhappy Wanderers?
I felt pretty sure that Wirth had no political affiliations other than those that would benefit his restaurant. And I was positive that once any group was inside the restaurant and the manager had a check firmly in hand, nobody would be turned out into the street, no matter who they were.
I stood up, tossed the cigarette butt into the toilet, and paused to listen to the piped-in music. “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. We’d sing and dance, forever and a day…” Yeah, said a sardonic voice in my head, forever and a day–as in the thousand-year Reich.
The voice of reason said the Hitler birthday party was probably an anomaly. The thought of bad publicity would be enough to persuade someone that it must never happen again.
You can’t bargain with Hitler, said the sardonic voice.
Wirth isn’t Hitler, said the voice of reason. Go back to work.
The next day I called another bartender to tell her about the Hitler birthday party.
“Oh yeah, they’ve done that before,” she said. “I think this is the third year in a row.”
So I quit. I told friends and neighbors to avoid the place and told them why. I never formally resigned. I just signed up to work parties and then didn’t show. I figured they’d get the message. They did.
I didn’t confront Wirth either, though sneaking out the back door wasn’t like me. I said to myself, it wouldn’t make any difference. But that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was that I was spooked. For the first time in my life I’d felt the fear that comes from being a Jew in a place where Jews aren’t wanted.
Now, I suppose, there’s one fewer of those places. Hitler’s birthday is in April, and it’s a little late to go looking for a new site. I’m sure the party will go on, but I’m happier not knowing where.