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Hartselle High hosts 19 German students

German exchange students at Hartselle High School pose for a group picture in front of the oldest building on campus. | Clif Knight

Thanks to a lifeline that overcame tremendous odds to survive over 60 years ago, 17 German exchange students are spending two weeks in Hartselle with host families and attending classes at Hartselle High School.

Their adventure in Alabama began April 17, when they arrived at Huntsville International Airport and will end Sunday, May 1, with a Going Away Banquet at the Fine Arts Center.

In the meantime, they have attended classes with Hartselle High students, visited the Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, sunbathed on the beaches and swam in the ocean at Gulf Shores, toured the state capitol and Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery and tasted Hartselle’s warm hospitality and traditional southern food.

“They are paired with Hartselle High students who will be going to Germany in June,” said Hartselle High Principal Jeff Hyche. “We have planned their visit so they will have the opportunity to experience the lifestyle of our students both during and after school.”

Had it not been for a starving German family that reached out to their relatives in Alabama for help after World War II and a postmaster who took his job seriously, a student exchange program between Hartselle High School and Robert Koch School in Clauthal-Zellerfeld, Germany, would not have happened.

A letter arrived at the post office in Cullman in May 1947, addressed only to The Children and Grandchildren of the Illgen family. Fortunately, the postmaster had knowledge of the Illgens and took the letter to William Oscar Buettner, a relative of the lllgens. He translated the letter into English, discovering that his relatives back in Germany were suffering for lack of food and other basic necessities. Food was sent and a line of communication was established.

Subsequently, the letter was handed down in the family to Jeff Buettner, William Oscar Buettner Sr’s great-grandson, a Hartselle resident. His wife, Sabrina, is assistant principal at Hartselle Junior High School. When Sabrina learned that Hyche was interested in starting a student exchange program she put him in contact with Karl Kahda, deputy principal of Robert-Koch School.

It didn’t take the German students long to recognize differences between their school and hometown and Hartselle’s.

“The first thing I noticed is the landscape here is very different,” said Max Junge. “Houses are spaced apart; they’re closer together in Germany. The hospitality here is great. The people may not be as serious-minded as they are in Germany. Athletics are much bigger here.”

“I’ve been to the states before, two years ago, Seattle, Washington,” said Anna Liznar. “I wanted to see the difference from north to south.  It’s colder there, not as green as it is here. The people are pretty much the same. Another difference is the food.”

“I’m a vegetarian. It’s a problem. People here eat a lot of meat,” stated Marlena Helsch. “Yesterday (Tuesday) we had a cookout. I had bread with ketchup. I think there are more vegetarians in Germany; however, my student host is also a vegetarian.”

“Our schools are quite different,” Jonas Boppert pointed out, “We have more subjects—Latin, French and Russian; teachers, not students, change classrooms and our desks are a lot bigger. We don’t have a lot of sports at school, but private clubs sponsor teams.”

“We’re located in the Harz Mountains region of central Germany,” said deputy principal Kahda. “Our students come from upper middle class families and we have about 500 students enrolled in our school. Our curriculum stresses language and science and about 80 percent of our students attend college.”

“We’re happy to be here,” he added. “Mr. Hyche and Beth Long have turned out to be great hosts. This is an experience from which the students will benefit and they’ll carry it with them for the rest of their lives.”