How Many Berlins Are There In The U.S.?

21 February 2014 NPR BERLIN

Berlin is well-known as the capital of Germany, but as it turns out, there are dozens of towns named Berlin all over the United States.

To document the history of these towns, the German-American Heritage Museum in Washington D.C. decided to create the exhibit “Berlins Made in USA.”

Carl Anderson, an employee at the German-American Heritage Museum, began researching all of the towns, villages, and cities named Berlin last May.

“Just driving down the road, it’s one of those things you think about when you see a town name like Paris or Berlin or Rome. And…doing the research behind it, we found out, ‘How did that sign name end up on the side of the road there?’ You find out that, through hundreds of years, these names popped up all over the country,” Anderson says.

The state of Ohio, he discovered, has the most Berlins of all U.S. states.

“Berlin Township in Delaware County, Ohio, Berlin Township in Erie County, Ohio, Berlin Heights, a village in Erie County, Ohio, Berlin Township in Holmes County, Berlin Township in Knox County, a Berlin Township in Mahoning County, and a Berlin Center, an unincorporated community in Mahoning County…”

Anderson says that while 15% of Americans claim German ancestry, most of the Berlins have populations that are at least 40% German.

“There were even some in the Dakotas that were over 80%, so there is still a very thriving German American community in many of these towns…most of them were named after settlers who migrated into the frontier area of the United States, places like Ohio and Indiana. Most of the settlers named their town [Berlin] because they came from Berlin, Germany.”

However, some towns dropped the name Berlin during World War One. Many changed their names back after the war and those that did are still Berlin today.

While researching for the exhibit, Carl Anderson heard many stories, but he says he thinks the most unique Berlin story involves Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana.

“Svetlana Stalin came to East Berlin, Pennsylvania out of an act of rebellion when she was living in the USSR. Svetlana Stalin actually burned her Soviet passport and sought asylum in the United States, and at a barbeque in East, Berlin Pennsylvania, this is where she burned her USSR passport. The joke in East Berlin, Pennsylvania at the time was that someday they would be the only East Berlin and that came true in 1990,” Anderson says.

And then there’s the anecdote he heard about New Berlin, Pennsylvania.

“There was a shopkeeper back in the 1960’s who would ask people who came into his store, ‘Kannst du Micke fange?’ which in a German dialect means, ‘Can you catch the flies?’ And if you were a local from that town, your response was, ‘Ja, wann sie Hocke blieben,’ or ‘Yeah, when the flies sit still.’ It was also interesting that this Berlin had a lot of German native speakers through the 1960’s. And today over 50% of the residents claim German ancestry. So you can still see the connection that many of these towns have had over the centuries and even up to the present with Germany.”

Petra Schuermann, Executive Director of the German-American Heritage Foundation, says the entwining histories of the United States and Germany inspired her predecessor Rudiger Lentz to develop the “Berlins made in USA” exhibit.

“Last year on the 26th of June, we celebrated the anniversary of JFK’s famous speech when he said, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ He wanted to express his solidarity with the people of Berlin at the time. It was the height of the Cold War. That’s why we were celebrating last year, and part of this exhibit, ‘Berlins Made In USA,’ is also dedicated to JFK’s visit in Berlin in 1963.”

German politician Frank Henkel even came to the opening ceremony of the exhibit, and later laid a wreath at the grave of John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery.

And although the exhibit has completed its time in Washington, D.C., it will be on the road again soon.

“It will travel to various Berlins in the U.S., but it will also travel to Los Angeles, because Los Angeles in is the sister city of Berlin,” Schuermann says.

And while Anderson wasn’t part of any scheduled trips to various Berlins across the United States as part of the exhibit’s planning process, he happened upon a few Berlins on random road trips, including Berlin, Maryland, East Berlin, Pennsylvania and even Berlin, Vermont, where he was caught off guard.

“I had no idea I was going to be passing a Berlin, and I immediately had to stop and check the place out for myself,” Anderson says.