Cole Camp/Missouri: The Low German Theater | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.10.2001
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Culture

Cole Camp/Missouri: The Low German Theater

Low German is an archaic form of German. The residents of Cole Camp, a village in west central Missouri, are certainly doing the utmost to keep it alive.

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Leonard Brauer: One of the founders of the "Plattdütsches Theoter"

Cole Camp is a small village in west central Missouri. Its community emblem very much resembles the state emblem of Lower Saxony, one of the German federal states: It shows a white horse against a red background. This clearly indicates: "Lower Saxons live here".

Cole Camp was founded in 1834 by northern German immigrants, who had left their desolate homes in the barren moor region between Hamburg and Bremen. When they came, they brought a distinctive heritage with them - the Low German dialect and its repertoire of traditional stories and poetry . The dialect has been passed on from one generation to the next, and is still alive in Cole Camp. About two hundred of the 1,000 town inhabitants speak to each other in Low German.

When Cole Camp celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1989, some of its residents wanted to mark the occasion by putting on a play. They formed the Plattdütsches Theoter, the Low German Theater Group.

Today their performances are one of the town's main attractions. Since 1989, the thirty amateur actors have staged a play almost every year in October. Their shows usually contain skits and songs they write themselves. The actors also make their own costumes, props, and scenery.

Like its renowned German 'big sister', the Ohnsorg Theater in Hamburg, the Plattdütsches Theoter stands for popular entertainment: simple fun, music and good hearty laughs. The plays always revolve around love and hate, fools and failure, first and final kisses. Every year busloads of spectators come to Cole Camp to see the most recent productions.

The Plattdütsches Theoter also keeps a sharp eye on political matters. A recent production even featured a somewhat risqué song about a fallen girl by the name of Monica and her affair with a man called Bill.

The Theater is very popular among German-speaking Americans in the nearby states Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, and Iowa.

Mildred Heimsoth

Mildred Heimsoth, President of the Low German Club in Cole Camp

Amateur actress Mildred Heimsoth believes that the audience understands what is taking place on stage very well, although they might not always be able to speak Low German themselves:

"De künnt dat verstohn. Wenn wi da Theater mogt, dann weit wi, dat se dat verstohn, wenn sie good laafen dot und handklappen dot, dann versteht sie dat."

If you are able to read and understand that - congratulations. If you had problems , here are some hints: verstohn is to understand, dot is to do. If you read laafen and handklappen aloud, you will surely notice that they sound rather familiar: laafen is to laugh, handklappen is to clap hands. This is because Low German is actually closer to the English language than to modern standard German.

But beware, Low German does not mean bad German! In this case, low means "lying-low" in the geographical sense. Low German and its various regional dialects are originally spoken in the "low countries": the Netherlands and northern Germany. Although Standard German is the official language in Germany and Low German dialects are slowly dying out, Low German poetry and theater are still very popular in the old country.

However in Cole Camp, Missouri, most children can hardly understand Low German, much less use it in everyday conversation. German is not taught at school here. Nevertheless, there is hope that the Low German dialect will not disappear completely. The Cole Camp children's choir Kinderchor was formed in 1998, and there is even a Plattdütsches Theoter children's group to keep the Low German language and traditions alive in the US.

Notice: The Platt Deutsche Corporation and the Liederkranz Society of Grand Island, Nebraska will be hosting the US’s 4th Low German Heritage Days (Platt Conference) and Genealogical Workshop from Oct. 19-21, 2001, in Grand Island, NE.

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