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Friday, June 29, 2012

Hope for PA Dutch Culture

With attendance waning, organizers of the Berks County Fersommling worry that the area's young are abandoning their Pennsylvania Dutch cultural heritage.That's a valid concern, but Frank Kessler offers some hope that the culture is holding its own in Berks County. 
Kessler, who's president of the German-Pennsylvanian Association in Germany, sees some positive trends in census data. In 2007, for the first time, Berks replaced Lehigh as the county claiming the largest number of Pennsylvania Dutch.While the number of Pennsylvania Dutch dialect speakers declined in other Pennsylvania counties, Kessler observed, Berks bucked the trend.
"In Berks, the number of dialect speakers has risen slightly," Kessler said in a recent email. He cites two reasons: Berks is a major hub for Pennsylvania Dutch events and it hosts a large Old Order Mennonite population.
The Kutztown Folk Festival, which opens its 63rd run tomorrow, has certainly played a role in preserving Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.Thanks largely to the visionary scholars who started the festival in 1950 - Alfred L. Shoemaker, Don Yoder and J. William Frey of Franklin & Marshall College - the nine-day event has become the longest-running folklife festival in America.
Not to be overlooked is the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. The center, now under the direction of Dr. Robert W. Reynolds, has amassed an extensive cultural library and a collection of Berks County farm life artifacts. Its recent release of Patrick J. Donmoyer's translation of "The Friend in Need," Johann Georg Homan's classic treatise on folk healing, has opened a new chapter for the center in publishing.
Teachers of the Pennsylvania German dialect, including Francis D. Kline of Robesonia and Ed Quinter of Allentown, are passing on the language to a new generation. And the region's Grundsau lodges, Granges and groups that hold fersommlings, each in their own way, contribute to keeping the culture alive.  
The Pennsylvania German Hour, which recently observed its 30th anniversary on BCTV, broadcasts hymns sung in the dialect by a choir whose family roots go back 300 years.
A lot of people sharing the same ideal, it seems, are working toward the same end. After all, isn't that what a culture is?
Ron Devlin, Reading Eagle columnist

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