U.S.-German bond crosses the pond for 50-plus years
By Jennifer Strobel | The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. | Published: July 16, 2013
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of the 1960s, people had to make do without instant messaging and camera phones.
Their only phones plugged into walls; long-distance rates were way too expensive for casual calling.
It wasn’t easy to keep in touch with faraway friends, but the Kruppas in Bamberg, Germany, found a way to make their voices heard.
From home, the Kruppas would record newsy reports on reel-to-reel tapes to ship to Don and Bernice Kenneweg in Fredericksburg. The Kennewegs supplied their own reports to the Kruppas.
They’d trade chitchat about everything from family happenings to politics.
Little Sebastian, the Kruppas’ oldest child and Don Kenneweg’s godson, took it it all in.
Reminiscing for this column via a recent email, the now grown Sebastian Kruppa wrote, “I remember my father sitting in our living room and recording his report—in English of course. So I got in contact with this language very early, age 5 or 6, maybe.”
In 1968, when he was 7, he and his father, Hans, made the first of many visits to see the Kennewegs in Fredericksburg.
“All in all there are so many details and remembrances, I can’t count,” Kruppa wrote. “Over all the years, there is a strong relationship as very close and familiar friends. Whenever I’m in Fredericksburg or with the Kennewegs, I feel home.”
Kenneweg was far from home when he first met Sebastian’s father, Hans.
A physician, Kenneweg was a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps stationed in Bamberg, when they were introduced through a mutual friend, a German physician.
They were eventful years for the two young men.
Kenneweg had earned undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Virginia, then completed his his internship at the University of Kansas Medical Center. There he’d met Bernice, a nurse.
He began his service in Germany in 1959. Thirteen months later, she joined him, and the next week, on Aug. 6, 1960, the two were married in the military chapel.
Hans Kruppa and his wife, Ursula, became parents on April 4, 1961, with the arrival of Sebastian, their first of four children.
Kruppa asked Kenneweg to be the baby’s godfather, a rather bold proposal when scars of World War II were still very raw.
“I guess the idea of making me godson of an American hit them during a relaxing evening with good Franconian [an area of north Bavaria] wine or beer—both are very famous here,” Sebastian Kruppa recounted.
“At the end: I got a real American as godfather, no relative. No uncle. This was very uncommon in Germany at all, and, don’t forget, World War II was ended only 15 years ago. My parents grew up in the late ’30s under the influence of the Third Reich, thank God too young for anything worse or lasting. Until today I love to tell anybody about my ‘real’ American godfather and the relation for over half a century. Everybody ’til today is impressed here.”
A year after Kenneweg’s first godfather role at baby Sebastian’s baptism in a Lutheran church, the Kennewegs returned to the United States. Kenneweg completed his residency in radiology at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and in 1966 settled down to career and family of two offspring, a son, Gill, and daughter, Bronwyn.
Sebastian vividly remembers the first trip he and his father made to see the Kennewegs.
“What a privilege for a young boy,” he wrote in his email.
Dressed in his lederhosen, standard attire for German children of the era, the little boy was shepherded to Fredericksburg “must-sees for tourists”—Mary Washington’s House and Meditation Rock, the Rising Sun Tavern, the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop.
His hosts made sure he had plenty of kid time, too.
He sampled all-American fare at McDonald’s, then unknown in Germany.
He swam in the Fredericksburg Country Club pool.
He saw peppermint plants, his first ever, growing in the family’s Argyle Heights yard. “What a privilege for a young boy,” Sebastian recalled of that visit, a prelude to more than a dozen.
Before long, he knew the town as well as any old-timer would.
He devoured the huge steaks served at the Sheraton Motor Inn, a hotel built out of a barn with its silo visible from the highway, State Route 3 west of town. The highway was on the cusp of development that would make it the busiest road in town.
He rode his bicycle on Route 3 east of town, pedaling from his host family’s home, down the then-sparsely traveled highway to 7–Eleven for Slurpees.
He stood in lines that wrapped around Carl’s, the cinder-block ice cream stand supplying chocolate, vanilla or strawberry cones.
He took day trips to the nation’s capital, the state’s landmarks, even a tractor pull in nearby Culpeper.
“Only a few Germans might have seen this,” he wrote of the tractor pull.
Sometimes his American journeys took him even farther afield. In 1978, the Kenneweg and Kruppa clans piled into the Kenneweg family’s roomy Bonneville station wagon for an iconic American-style road trip to Florida.
“A trip so close to the people and your country, you only can do with Americans at your side,” he wrote.
“I’ve seen a lot,” he said.
The American Kennewegs have seen a lot of Europe, with the Kruppas at their side, too.
As fellow travelers, they’ve collected many memories, and some inside jokes, too.
In 1976, for instance, when Sebastian Kruppa was 15, the families toured south Bavaria. They visited the castles of King Ludwig II, drove through Austria, enjoyed evenings in Grinzing, a Viennese area noted for its wine-restaurants—“a lot of fun,” Kruppa recalled.
On this trip, the families stayed overnight at Zell am See in Austria where they reserved rooms in a very old hotel—so old that one of the beds was broken and had to be fixed when the families were having dinner.
They joked that the hotel might have been from the “King-Ludwig-II-Times” and to this day, Kruppa said, “if we talk with the Kennewegs about something really old, we say ‘it’s like King-Ludwig-Hotel.’”
Time passed. The families’ lives continued to interconnect. As a university student in Germany, Kruppa traveled to Fredericksburg every year or two on his own. Now, he and his wife, Geraldine, are architects. He has a special love of Thomas Jefferson’s architecture at the University of Virginia, his godfather’s alma mater. In various family configurations, he has visited many times, and even took in a U.Va. football game, enjoying a “well-set picnic” beforehand and “people having fun.”
Kenneweg became a “grand-godfather” with the birth of Kruppa’s son, Severin, in 1994. Soon, little Severin and his dad were traveling to U.Va. and Monticello, Jefferson’s home. Sebastian wanted the tyke to see “Mr. Jefferson’s butterflies” at the estate.
It wasn’t long before Kenneweg was attending his “grand-godchild’s” soccer games in Germany—“No other American tourist would do this. Just family!” Kruppa wrote.
Kruppa remembers plenty of conversation, too, recalling “a lot of discussions about ‘the German,’ ‘the American,’ politics and so on. I remember a special few in your country and society, although in Germany you hear and learn a lot more about the U.S. than vice versa. The Kennewegs always were very interested in Germany. So we could hear and learn a lot from each other.”
Sebastian’s father, Hans, died in the early 1980s. Kenneweg retired as radiologist with Mary Washington Hospital in 1998.
When Kenneweg turned 80 this spring, Sebastian Kruppa, his wife and mother came to Virginia to celebrate. Kruppa brought along some DVDs he’d made of those long-ago reel-to-reel recordings.
This summer, Kenneweg will travel to German to celebrate the 80th birthday of Sebastian’s mother, Ursula.
Not that the families have to wait for special occasions to visit.
“We don’t need excuses,” Kenneweg said.