A Germans'-eye-view of life in 19th-century America

''There are close to 300 churches here, the streets are very dirty and not to compare with our south German cities, and also dirt in the houses and plenty of bugs.

''You don't find any comfort at all. If you want to have your shoes shined, they say, shine them yourself, here each one is told to take care of himself. . . .

''Little Louise can risk [the transatlantic boat trip] by spring, she would get a job immediately, $10 a month and could wear a hat. Everybody runs around with them here.''

So wrote new New Yorker Mariane V. on Nov. 13, 1849 to her uncle near Heidelberg. She was one of 5.5 million Germans who emigrated to the boisterous New World between 1820 and 1920, and would help make Germans today the largest single ethnic stock in the United States.

In this 300th year since the first German emigrated to America, Prof. Wolfgang J. Helbich of the Ruhr University is starting to tap the rich vein of their letters back home for a man-in-the-street view of American (and German) history.

Hardly any settler in the US told his relatives that the streets were paved with gold, Professor Helbich writes in the newspaper Die Zeit. He also issued a public plea that old letters be sent to him and not thrown out. Most of the people in this huge outflow tried to describe honestly the hardships as well as the opportunities.

Typically, Joseph R. in Detroit wrote to his brother in the Sauerland in 1855 :

''We are getting on very well in America, it shouldn't again occur to us just to say to you come to America, that we couldn't do, nor could we say stay in Germany.

''We discussed this with your three brothers-in-law, but they also (said) it would be a burdensome undertaking for you to take on the big voyage. For the voyage . . . costs you 1000 thalers and if you stay in Detroit and want to have a house . . . that costs you 1600 thalers . . . and six hours away from the city , that costs 400 thalers, but there one must live alone and there is no church and no school.

''And then it's also the worst with the language, for here in America English is spoken and written everywhere. But for your children it would be much better here in America.''

Many Germans got swept up in the Civil War. Alexander D. lost his officer's position in the Navy when the foreign-born were barred and only native Americans allowed to be officers - a discrimination that Alexander thought disastrous for ''the cowardly Americans.''

''There has never been such poor war leadership in the entire world history, '' he wrote home. ''Just think that Sunday a week ago right in the environs of Washington at Bull Run a battle was fought where entire regiments threw away their muskets, sabers, and revolvers.''

Albert K., on the contrary, felt himself a real American after four weeks in the Union Army under ''the best general of the North,'' General Siegel.

''The states took me in,'' he wrote. ''I have been able to find wages and shouldn't they (the states) be defended with flesh and blood when they are in need?! I do not want to come back to Germany and especially not to Prussia - I have tasted freedom, and it tastes too good to trade in for the dungeon. . . .

''In the military it's arduous but only during duty hours, afterwards the general isn't any better than the comman man; he eats with the common man, plays with him. . . .

''Ceremony is absolutely nothing here, if you want to speak to an officer, you talk with him just the way you would with a buddy.''

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