I am told my first impression of Munster, the city from which Kurt Vonnegut’s great-great grandfather Clemens emigrated, is a common one. As I stepped out of the train station, I heard the sound of a bell ringing before being pulled backward. “Stay out of the bike lane if you want to live,” said Chris Wahlig, our helpful guide (and a Carmel, IN, native) from the American Studies department at the University of Munster, Ball State’s sister university. Munster is a gorgeous city that feels much like a small college town, only with many more bicycles. Munster has more bicycles than cars. In fact, Munster probably has more bicycles than people. Everyone rides, no matter their age or occupation, rain or shine. (As we were told repeatedly, “If it’s not raining in Munster, the church bells are ringing. If both, it’s Sunday.”)
My second impression was that the city looks like it came out of a storybook. Munster is a unique blend of old and new, with modern designer shops and centuries-old churches lining cobblestoned streets. The city has a rich history of both conflict and passivity, which was revealed to us by Martin Korda of the German-American Club. Mr. Korda also gave us a personal tour of the city as he escorted us to dinner, sharing with us his favorite bits of history and his excitement for the city’s beautiful architecture.
After dinner with Mr. Korda and Lori Herber, a talented Ball State alum who later wrote about our project for Deutsche Welle, Mr. Korda revealed that he had a surprise for us. As we made our way to our first speaking engagement at the University of Munster, we learned that four of Kurt Vonnegut’s German relatives would be in the audience. Mr. Korda had personally contacted all of the Vonneguts in the Munster area to find Vonnegut family and invite them to our presentation. After a reading from Slaughterhouse Five in both English and German by Ball State student Kyle Royse and graduate student Linda Hess (from the Westfälia Wilhelms-Universität Munster), we delivered our presentation about Kurt Vonnegut’s German heritage and its influence on his life and work to an audience that included members of the original German branch of Vonnegut’s family. The Vonneguts later shared with us their own version of the Vonnegut family tree and photos of the farm that the Vonnegut family inhabited for many years, going as far back as the time when they were known as Funnegut. The whole experience was wonderfully unexpected and completely unforgettable.
Our second day in Munster was just as great as the first. We conducted a seminar at the request of Professor Sarkowsky called “Teaching Vonnegut” at the University of Munster in which we discussed six themes that permeate Vonnegut’s work and how Vonnegut’s commentary on those themes is still relevant. The audience consisted of Vonnegut novices and experts alike, including Professor Peter Presse, a German Vonnegut scholar. Three Ball State exchange students attended the event in Cardinal gear to show their support. With each theme, the audience generated lively discussions from which we all benefited, further supporting our belief that Vonnegut’s work is both important and relatable to Americans and Germans alike. We know that the attendees left the seminar as invigorated and excited as we were.
After the seminar, the faculty took us out for dinner, where we got to know more about them and their interests as students and professors of American Studies. Amidst a traditional German meal and a few German beers, we formed relationships that we hope will last for many years to come. Probst (Cheers), to all of the amazing people from the University of Munster, the German American Club, and countless others who made our experience in Munster one that we will never forget.