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Local uses 

German heritage 
to share culture 
and language
By JAN HOLST
German roots run deep in Alpine Township
and Belmont resident Bernard Siehling is an
excellent example. Last month he was the
guest speaker at the Historical Commission’s
“All Things German” event. He shared German
traditions and traded stories with a German
foreign exchange student, Wilma Kost.
Although Siehling was born in the United
States, tragic circumstances brought him back
to Germany when he was only 6 months old.
His father Bernard Siehling, spelled Silling in a
local newspaper clip, died from injuries
received in a car-train accident and was
buried at Holy Trinity Church Cemetery in
Alpine Township.
Siehling’s mother, Hedwig, waited for the
birth of her son, before returning to her
family, who resided in Borken, Germany, close
to where the Rhine River runs into Holland.
There she was married for a second time to
her first husband’s brother, and so Siehling
grew up on the family farm.
He has recorded boyhood experiences of
living in Germany during World War II as well
as details of his family ancestry.
“I love to tell stories, and they would say,
‘Grandpa why don’t you write this down?’ and
so I have been writing my own story for the
last four or five years,” said Siehling.
His story includes childhood memories,
such as a fight with a St. Bernard dog, raising
pigeons, and not wanting to learn English, but
it also includes fascinating details of World
War II from a young boy’s perspective.
“Much of the action could be seen from the
farm just 4 km west of Borken,” says his
memoir.
“I took the horse and wagon using roads
that were not blocked, bridges not blown up…
to get as close as possible to my aunt’s
apartment to carry out and load on the
horsecart--any furniture and household goods

that could be salvaged.…A British tank rolled
down the meandering entrance to our
house….We were exposed to different cultures
when Polish, Russian, Yugoslav, French, and
Belgian prisoners of war came to live on farm
to help with chores.”
Looking back, Siehling’s perspective of the
events as an American is especially
interesting.
“After the war, Germans could not ride a
bicycle without permission…my American
citizenship was temporarily of little practical
use,” he wrote.
One event has been immortalized in a 1943
edition of Life magazine. Siehling was “likely
the only English speaking eyewitness” to the
bomber’s crash.
In just the last few years, Siehling was able
to share his memories of the crash with family
of one of the pilots killed in the incident. Not
only had he lived in the area of the crash, but
he was also an American citizen and he now
lived here. Since that time he also has
received a copy of the Life magazine that
contained the story of the dam busters.
“It was a mission specifically operated to
blow up German power dams, called dam
busters,” said Siehling. “Basically it was a
failure. Nineteen planes took off and only six
returned.”
The glider pilots used in the mission were
manufactured in Greenville and Grand Rapids,
said Siehling, noting another interesting tie
with his story.
“The girl (Wilma Kost) I conversed with at
the historical meeting lives right where the
dam was blown up,” he said.
Siehling eventually returned to the United
States and since he was a citizen registered
for the draft. “I had hoped to be stationed in
Europe but I didn’t pass the German test, so
they sent me to Korea,” he said.
He and his wife Gitta, of 49 years, are
settled in the northern Kent County area and
he spent 48 years working for Hill Machinery.
The couple has five children and 15
grandchildren. They like to return to Germany
as often as they can and recently returned
from a silver wedding celebration.
“It was wonderful because they did it like
the first typical farm wedding,” he said.
They also went to Berlin for the first time
and took a river cruise through the city.

In addition to writing and traveling, Siehling
spends time teaching German at local
companies.
“They (German run company officials) feel
they should know a few German words, so
they give me about five hours to make them
fluent in German,” he said.
When organizations are trying to solicit
companies to move here from Germany, they
call on Siehling as well.
“There are very few people who can speak
high German (without distinct dialect),” he
said.
Traditions such as Schuetzen Fest, a
hunters’ festival, and duties of the First,
Second and Third neighbors are also favorite
topics. The memoirs include interesting
details of his marriage to Gitta.
With all the people of German descent
settled in the area, Siehling should have no
problem finding an audience for his stories.