Sunday 4 July 2010


California already lying behind me, here lies a station for brief resting on my journey back to the old continent. You cannot guess which city is alluded to in the citation given in the title? I think it is enough to mention the name Sandburg, our famous Swedish poet (at least his parents were) and continue citing him to rekindle your intellect.

“HOG Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.”

Now I think you got it: we are talking about the city built on a swampy shallow hill, which so happens to lie on the continental divide; waters running down its one side find their way to the Pacific, those swishing towards the East, soon passing a gigantic lake, belong to the Atlantic. Again using Sandburg’s expressions, I have arrived in “the place of the skunk, the river of the wild onion smell, Shee-caw-go”.

Why on earth did I choose to come to this place, reeking of raw capitalism, aptly underpinned by scholars advocating unleashed market forces as the main driver of progress? And this after my sophisticated séjour at the ivory towers on the Pacific coast!?! Well, there are two reasons for this: a prosaic and a more profound. First, the Windy City is a convenient stepping stone on a flight from San Francisco to Stockholm, if one wishes to make the trip in stages, to minimize the travail of time change. More importantly, Chicago was the residence of my granduncle Ludwig Fassl, an interesting personality, and I wished to retrace the visit Alice and myself paid him back in 1977.

The trip from SF to Chicago was uneventful, if one disregards the fact that there was considerable delay due to a tremendous thunderstorm, moving from the prairies towards Chicago, and stopping all traffic with destination thither. Once arrived, I had to deplore the minimal information service provided at O’Hare, leading me around in circles for forty minutes before finding the station for the shuttle service to downtown.

After a good night’s sleep I undertook the pilgrimage to 2304 Orchard Street, Ludwig’s former residence. My granduncle had emigrated to Chicago from his birthplace, Stegersbach in Burgenland (the easternmost province of Austria), in the ‘thirties. With only short primary education as luggage, he seemed nonetheless to be the right person for that unruly city. Starting out as handyman, he eventually found his calling, to be engineer of a respectable apartment building in a fashionable living area north of center, but close to the lake. Engineer without formal education? Make no mistake; the word denotes, in the US, the profession of caretaker of large apartment buildings. By and by, through diligent investments of his meager savings, he managed to build up a small fortune and eventually became owner of the same building.

Alice and I visited him on our trip back to Stockholm from Berkeley in 1977, after having crossed the Sierras, the great desert basin of Nevada and the Great Plains with our trusted Toyota Corona, filled to the brim with moving goods. It was a memorable experience to meet him and his wife Mary. They received us in style and housed us in their large apartment on top of the building. Both were in their eighties then, but in reasonable health. Notably, Ludwig was still active as caretaker of his own building. Although not very well versed in English, he nonetheless enjoyed the respect of people in the narrow community. I still remember him sitting at the street corner of the small greens surrounding the building, graciously receiving the “Good afternoon Mr. Fassl” of passersby on their way to the lake. He knew everyone in the neighborhood and everyone knew him or of him. Walking the streets with him gave me an excellent opportunity to study the mentality of the inhabitants. The area reeked of raw capitalism, everyone was rushing to make a buck, in particular the most recently arrived immigrants, of which there were aplenty.

Granduncle Ludwig on the right, visiting us in Austria. My mother standing in the middle

Ludwig’s eldest son Richard, after whom my brother got his name, died in WWII as war hero (on the American side). Ludwig, whose personality did not accept defeat, had long pestered the City Council to name a street after him. Since this request was recurrently denied, he finally got the folks in his neighborhood to support him in an improvised ceremony, whereupon the street corner opposite his house was renamed “Richard Fassl Square” and a street sign put up, already in the ‘fifties, which the city authorities did not dare, or care, to remove. So, when sitting on his chair at his small greens, he had the pleasure of reminiscing about his son, with the help of a square, in plain sight from the greens, with Richard’s name on it. You don’t believe this? Well, I have an old slide, taken there, to prove it. Furthermore, the fact is known back home in Burgenland, and the story has also been printed in one of its publications, Burgenländische Gemeinschaft 9/10 1992, nr. 319. You can look it up on internet by searching for “Richard Fassl Square”.

So it was with some trepidation that I took the metro to Fullerton Station and continued on foot from there the 15 minutes to Orchard Street. Would I still find Ludwig’s old house, or would the city’s raw progress have swallowed it already? Furthermore, would the good old street sign with his son’s name on it still be there to honor the war hero?

Well, to my great surprise, the street did not look a bit changed. It was still the same quiet residency area I remembered, with large trees shadowing the sidewalks and the houses all in good order. Even Ludwig’s house stood almost as I remembered it, which means that it must have been refurbished since then. Houses do not keep their appearance without aid for 35 years. I could not resist venturing closer and ringing the bell of one tenant after another, in the hope of finding someone who could still remember my granduncle, deceased since at least twenty years back. After several trials a young man answered my call, at long last, and we had a brief conversation. Apparently, none of the tenants from yore were left in the building. It had been sold soon after Ludwig’s dead and recently been reformed into a condominium: only new apartment owners were living there know. The young man was intrigued by my stories about uncle Ludwig, but could not respond with information of value for me.

Somewhat disappointed, I took nonetheless some pictures of the house and, not to keep you too long in suspense, of the street corner opposite to it, located just in front of a church. Was the sign with Richard’s name on it still there for me to admire and document? To my great regret, nothing remained; sic transit gloria mundi! If it weren’t for me and Burgenländische Gemeinschaft, the interesting story about war hero Richard and his square would now already be buried and forgotten.

You can imagine that this did nothing to keep me in good spirits. To counter a beginning depression I decided to walk back to the hotel along the lake, a nice walk of about two hours. This turned out to be the right way to get rid of my broodings. The walk went first along a large expanse of greenery and glades, called Lincoln Park and followed thereafter the lake shore in streets bordered by elegant high-risers.

Along the walk I could observe some interesting weather conditions. Although still early summer, the late morning had brought with it rather high temperatures, clearly felt on Orchard Street. Coming to the border of the lake, you could suddenly feel the air getting cooler, as the rising heat more inland was sucking in air from above the lake, bringing with it a huge amount of cool humidity, which started to build up as light fog. Just before arriving at the lakefront, the air was still relatively warm and calm and I had a clear view of the skyscraper skyline far in the distance. Close to the lake, the skyscrapers almost disappeared in the build-up of the fog; but this did not disturb me since I was comfortably cooled off by this air current from the lake.

Of course, the closer I hiked to the skyscrapers, the more firmly they stepped out of the haze and, once I was ambling between them, a clear view could again be obtained. And an interesting and educational it was at that. I am not especially fond of these monster buildings, but feel forced to concede that Chicago seems to have mastered the art of placing them out in an interesting and esthetically pleasing context. They never appear overpowering as they do in New York’s canyon-like streets, in short, they are a pleasure to behold.

After a long hike through Lincoln Park and its adjacent greens, I started to approach the downtown again. The path led me down to the lake, on the front of which some pretty impressive conservative looking residences were sitting, a bit like dowager ladies, deploring the departure, long ago, of their beloved relatives. When looking closer at the doorways and accoutrements of these elegant, albeit aged beauties, I suddenly saw that all of them stemmed from the “Roaring twenties”, some even having been finished just in time before the stock market crash of 1929, after which new buildings were hard to conceive for a long time to come. Will we, ninety years from now, have as beautiful a witness of our own excess decade to show for, as the doorway you are looking at in the picture?

As a last challenge in Chicago I decided to take the elevator to the top of the John Hancock Building, the largest scraper way back in 1977, but since then well surpassed by several others. Relatively modest in size as it is, it still provided an excellent view of its brethren, and underpinned my earlier appreciation of this ensemble of monster buildings. There was an interesting exhibition on the history of Chicago all the way up on the viewing gallery. Reading this exposé, I started to understand the reasons for this city being so brutally boisterous, but at the same time welcoming. Among the things I learned was, to my great surprise, that the city was founded by a prominent black citizen, born in Haïti, with a French father, who harkened to the impressive name of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable.

As far as is known, Jean Baptiste left Haïti for New Orleans, then journeyed up the Mississippi River to Missouri and, eventually, settled along the north bank of the Chicago River in about 1773, building a home, trading post and farm on land east of present-day Michigan Avenue, the main downtown thoroughfare. Du Sable, who was married to a Potawatomi Indian woman, presided over a frontier settlement for more than 20 years that in some ways mirrored the diversity found in the sprawling city that exists today. Du Sable's settlement welcomed American Indians as well as Canadians, British, French and Americans.

In the true spirit of white supremacy, this historical fact was conveniently suppressed in the passage of time and various white candidates were put forward as founders in du Sable’s stead. It took the city fathers until 1999 to officially acknowledge the true founder of the Windy City.

That’s about it folks; you can learn only that much on a brief stopover, even in a city plenty of excitement, such as, Chicago.


Lena from Sweden said...

Hej Emil,

tack för alla dina berättelser. Jag har imponerats av ditt uttrycksfulla språk och de fina fotografierna.

Det kanske känns svårt att lämna USA efter alla upplevelser, men känn dej välkommen till sommaren i Sverige.

I morgon tar jag båten till Almedalen, och ska medverka i ett seminarium, som handlar om betydelsen av innovationer i utgången av finanskrisen. Jag gör givetvis kopplingen till de stora makrovariablerna, employment, capital formation and potential output. Kommer att kommentera på engelska, för vi får gäster från USA. Du skulle säkert fascineras av Almedalsveckan. Kanske nästa år?

Vi hörs.

Din gamla vän, Lena

Lorenzo Brown said...

Hey, Emil,
Now ya talking, buddy! I could not relate to much in your blogs from California, but this one was right down my alley. You're a really good writer. As I think you know, I came to live in Chicago at 16 and lived there until moving to Stockholm at 27 in 1969. Although I have lived in the Washington area since 1978, I still call Chicago home. It'll grab you if you stay too many days. Happy ride home.

Emil Ems said...

Dear Lena,
What a pleasant surprise to find you here among the commentators, and welcoming me back to Sweden at that! I wish you a pleasant stay in Almedalen where, I am sure, your comments will be highly appreciated.

Dear Lorenzo,
I am glad to hear that my little story about Chicago is to your liking, the more so since you are an expert on the Windy City!

Carole and Klaus Bröning said...

Lieber Emil
Danke für Deine vielen erfrischenden und interessanten Reisesberichte aus der Neuen Welt. Zum Glück half Google uns hier und da mit Übersetzungen für uns leider nicht immer geläufigen englische Worte. Dazu lernen konnte man nicht nur engl. Vokablen sondern auch viele kulturelle und geschichtliche Details, die uns bis dato unbekannt waren. Die schönen Bilder und Texte sind perfekt – wie wir es von Dir auch nicht anders erwartet hatten. Sie lassen die wohlwollende Neugier eines Reisenden erkennen, der unbekümmert und mit offenen Augen durch die Welt reist und sich von Mensch und Umwelt immer wieder neu beeindrucken und mitreißen lässt, mal wie ein Journalist und mitten im Geschehen, dann als kenntnisreicher, beschreibender Analytiker von aussen - eben unser Emil.

Wir nehmen an und hoffen sehr, dass dies der Anfang eines Buches des Weltreisenden Emil werden wird, der seine Berichte mit qualitativ hochwertigen Bildern aus ungewöhnlichen Perspektiven, geschichtlichem Detailwissen, interessanten Eindrücken und besonderen Kenntnissen aus vielen Wissensgebieten verweben kann. Besonders freuen würden wir uns als Ex-Skandinavier über eine Fortsetzung - Berichte in lockerer Folge über ungewöhnliche, persönliche Eindrücke aus insbesondere Stockholm wie aus Schweden und Finnland. Dürfen wir darauf hoffen??

Deine Carole und Klaus

Emil Ems said...

Dear Carole and Klaus,
Thank you kindly for your encouraging comments, although I am not sure whether I have earned all the praise. However, your comments have certainly kindled my ambition to continue working on this topic, and possibly making a book out of the blog. Let's see if I will be able to carry through.

As for future blogs, I have to admit that the present projcect has exhausted me and that I will need a "holiday from holiday" before even starting to think about doing similar work again. Best to consider the present blog as the "project of my lifetime" for the time being and let ourselves be pleasantly surprised if there would be a continuation after all.

skj said...

While taking a rest from serious work, I was doing a little Kremsner/Fassl googling and was amazed to find your piece about Richard Fassl square, which is what I was looking for. Mary Fassl was my grandfather's sister. My late husband and I visited her and Ludwig in 1979 before visiting Stegersbach. They gave us names and information and the directive to stay at the Hotel Novocel where everyone knew him-and did. We went with them across the street to see the memorial to Richard, who was named after MY grandfather, who had just died before he was born. Wow, I am blown away. You're Ludwig's nephew?

Incidentally, my daughter majored in Swedish in college, went to school there and loves Sweden!!!

s. kremsner/johnson

Emil Ems said...

Dear Skj,
I am thrilled to hear from you. I would have reacted to your comment sooner, but have not yet learned how to get automatic notice of new comments.

This week before Christmas I was going through this old blog prior to my work on preparing the manuscript for my forthcoming book, based on the blog. This is when I saw your intriguing comment.

Ludwig was my grandmother's brother, like Mary was your grandmother's sister, so this is a marvelous mirror relationship. I am thrilled to learn about the origin of the pre-name Richard, since my brother was also baptized Richard, after Ludwig's son. In fact, my other brother was baptized after Ludwig himself. So you see that my parents kept Mary and Ludwig in high regard.

let me add that I highly appreciated them both when visiting them back in 1977. They made us warmly welcome and we had a marvelous week with them, living in their apartment part of the time and moving to that of a friend of theirs thereafter.

I am born in Neudau in Steiermark, the neighbour village of Stegersbach on the Western side of the old border river Lafnitz. I moved to Sweden when I was 17 years old and live in Stockholm. It would be nice to hear more about you and your family. Dare I ask you to contact me via e-mail? My address is

Anonymous said...

Dear Emil Ems:

Please take a look at your photo of the street corner just in front of the church (which is St. Pauls UCC). You will see a concrete post (right next to the lamp post). At the top of the concrete post is a small memorial plaque with a gold star and the inscription “Richard Fassl, WWII KIA.”

In 2000, the Mid-North Neighborhood Association put up a new marker to replace the old one, which had been destroyed by the weather.

I was in the USAF (1969-73). Every February 3 weekend for the last six years, I have tied a bouquet of flowers to that post and given a salute to Lt. Fassl to honor the man and his sacrifice. And again, I will be out there this coming Sunday (Feb. 3, 2013).

William Dodd Brown
(Member, St. Pauls UCC)

Emil Ems said...

Dear William,

I am terribly sorry that I missed that sign on my visit in 2010. But I am grateful that our family is honored by your recurring remembrances of our important son. A heartfelt "Thank You" to yourself and the US Airforce!


rick said...


I am most glad to be able to respond to your blog. My name is Richard Fassl. Mary and Ludwig were my grandparents, and I lived down the street on Orchard St. Ludwigs building is in good shape, as he had several hardworking grandsons to elp out. I know every inch of that building. Ya!

I would be glad to correspond to you if you would like addditional info.

Best regards,

Rick Fassl

Emil Ems said...

Dear Rick,

I am very pleased to get in contact with you. I probably even have met you on our trip to Chicago in 1977. Your father, Joseph, invited us home to your family for a luncheon, if I remember it right. Unfortunately, I don't recall details of that meeting, other than that your fanily lived in another part of town and that your mother was of Italian origin.

When I returned to Chicago in May 2010, I tried to locate your father in the telephone register, but was unable to find the right phone number and address. I was staying only one day, so there was not much time for more profound research. I had hoped to get some more information from tenants on Orchard Street, but – as I mention in the blog – was unable to locate anyone there who knew of the Fassl family.

It may interest you to hear that my brother, Richard Ems, also got his name from your uncle, as did, indirectly, his son, young Richard!

It would gladden me to keep contact with you through e-mail. My address is

Yours sincerely

Ann-Marie said...

Dear Emil

My name is Ann-Marie Fassl Hartline. I am a 2nd cousin of yours. I live in the Chicago area. I recently visited with our cousin Rick Fassl up in Wisconsin and it was the first time I became truly acquainted with the story of his uncle Richard Fassl. Rick did not relate to me your story, but last evening we Googled "Fassl Square" and your blog came up. I wanted to find the exact location of Fassl Square so I could take a photograph. It was surprising to find your blog.

Here is our family connection -- my father was John Fassl (well probably Johann) who was born in Stegersbach. His father was also John. John Fassl (my grandfather) was a brother to Uncle Ludwig (and also apparently to your grandfather or grandmother). My father came to the US in the 1930's with his younger sister Hedwig. Their parents had come to the US a few years earlier. My grandfather settled in NY and in what is probably more than a coincidence he too was a "building engineer" and wound up owning the building -- like Uncle Ludwig.

I have one sibling -- John. He still lives in Maryland. My aunt Hedwig had four sons, 2 have passed away. I have one daughter and 2 grandchildren; my brother has four grown children.

Best regards,

your cousin Ann-Marie

Emil Ems said...

Dear Ann-Marie,

I was very pleased getting to know you. You have of course read my blog post on Chicago and I don't have to repeat what's in there. I know about your grandfather, but have, unfortunately, never met him. But my brother Richard Ems (4 years younger than me) has met him back in the 'sixties, when he worked as ship cook and visited his grand uncle every time the ship landed in New York. He told me about your grand grandfather, who had always receive him very cordially. Unfortunately, we don't have any pictures of those meetings, so there is only my memory of Richard's tale to vouch for it.

By the way, my brother Richard got his name after Ludwig's son. Ludwig was visiting Stegersbach regularly in the 'fifties, and there is also a picture in the blog where he visited my mother in Neudau (Neudau is the neighbor village, but lies already in Steiermark, whereas Stegersbach lies in Burgenland (which used to be part of Hungary until 1921).

My other brother, Ludwig (13 years younger than me), got his name after our grand uncle, who indeed was half- or stepbrother to my grandmother on mother's side. Her name was Leopoldine Tschar and, if you are interested, I can send you her ancestors some generations back.

If you look at the comments to my Chicago blog post, you will also find there a niece of Ludwig's wife, who also googled after "Ludwig Fassl square" and found my blog. I have not heard from her for some time now so am unsure, whether she is still alive.

More information about myself you can find on my website

I would love to meet yourself and your relatives. Unfortunately, my years of visiting the US are passed and I am more or less limiting my trips to Europe nowadays. But should you, or other relatives plan to visit Austria or Sweden at some stage, you would be very welcome by me in Stockholm and, I am sure, by my brothers back home, who still live in a village and town close to Stegersbach.

Yours sincerely