Stories from the Archive

Remembering “The German Dances Downtown” : The Importance of a German Canadian Archive

Why do archives exist? Simply put — no archives, no written history! Thankfully, the German-Canadian Studies program is setting up an archive of German-Canadian documents and is calling for collections of personal papers, diaries, photographs and letters of immigration stories to fill that historical gap.

“The University Archives is pleased to be working with German-Canadian Studies on this important initiative,” says Brett Lougheed, the director of the University of Winnipeg Archives. “Many German-Canadians lived harrowing immigration experiences only to go on to make many important contributions to Manitoban society.  It is important that the stories of these German-Canadian immigrants, as reflected in the personal records of these individuals and related associations, are preserved for future generations. By creating this archive at the University, not only can we fill an existing gap in Manitoba’s documentary heritage by assuring the long-term preservation of German-Canadian immigration records, but we can ensure their widespread access and use by students and faculty in the German-Canadian Studies program, those within the local German-Canadian community, and the general public.”

One such collection that was donated is called the Sickert Collection, graciously donated by the Sickert family. In one section it has an extensive selection of the goings on of the German Society of Winnipeg.

When groups of immigrants came to Canada, they often set up societies to help one another, offer services, and reminisce about the old country through cultural events and gatherings. The Germans that came to Winnipeg were no different. They created the German Society of Winnipeg.

Founded in 1892, the German Society of Winnipeg was created “to cultivate German culture, language, customs, and sociability etc.”, as written in the 1954 bylaws under the heading “Purpose and Aims”.

Sickert Collection, Box 1 File 30

And cultivate they did.

A Society booklet, which is part of the Sickert Collection, lists numerous events, accompanied by pictures, event calendars, and newspaper coverage. Dances were particularly popular and included masquerade balls and Sadie Hawkins dances, Valentines’ dances, Halloween dances as well as your regular run-of-the-mill standard dances. There was a German choir, there were gymnastics teams and table tennis tournaments, a library, informational evenings discussing intellectual topics such as diseases and medical advances, German Literature lectures, scientific presentations, teas and wine festivals, shared recipes and advertisements for local German companies. These booklets and pictures give us an invaluable insight into the types of activities German immigrants organized in Winnipeg in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sickert Collection, Box 1 File 27

When I told an older friend of mine about my findings in the new German-Canadian Archive, she exclaimed excitedly: “I met my husband at the German dances downtown!” There are countless similar stories. Currently those folks are still alive, but imagine the change that will have occurred in one or two generations time, when we can no longer listen to the stories first hand from people who were at “the German dances downtown”, and the younger population will have no conception of what that time may have been like. It is then, that we can rely only the preservation of archives like these to give us an insight into those swanky dancing times of the German Society of Winnipeg.

Sickert Collection, Box 1 File 28 

“Despite their long history in Canada, the lives of German immigrants and their descendants are largely absent from public archives,” says Alexander Freund, who is a professor of history and holds the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg. “That is why we want to build an archive that collects German-Canadian diaries, letters, photographs and other documents. We are excited to see what is out there.”

If you have a collection of personal papers, letter correspondence, diaries or pictures that cover German immigration to Canada and would like to donate it to the University of Winnipeg, please contact, Claudia Dueck at cl.dueck@uwinnipeg.ca or call 204.258.3837

Claudia Dueck pictured in U of W Archive

Blogpost written by: Claudia Dueck