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McClellan: For German music show host, the notes linger on

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In August 1926, Alfred Goerlich was born in the German village of Naasdorf, which is situated in the eastern part of the country, near the Polish and Czech borders.

History tells us that times were tough for Germans in the years after World War I, but in Goerlich’s telling of things, Naasdorf seems like a timeless place. Its economy revolved around some nearby granite quarries. His parents, Emanuel and Marta, had a grocery store that had belonged to Marta’s parents.

Times were harder for one of Goerlich’s classmates, Hedwig Sinnreich. Her father, Karl, worked in the quarries. One hot summer day in 1932, he and some friends went swimming in an abandoned quarry. He drowned. Hedy, the oldest of three daughters, was 5. The girls’ mother, Maria, found work on a farm just outside the village.

Adolf Hitler and the war changed everything. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Goerlich. “All flags and stuff.”

Emanuel was drafted in 1939. When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, he was sent to the eastern front. He would never return.

Goerlich turned 17 in August 1943. He was drafted. He was soon on the eastern front. He did not see his father. By the time he arrived, the army was retreating. Still fighting, but retreating. They were soon in Hungary. His unit spent the Christmas of 1944 in Budapest and got out of that city just as the Russians encircled it.

When the war ended, Goerlich was in Czechoslovakia. His unit went to Bavaria and disbanded. Goerlich headed home. Naasdorf was in the Russian zone. He was sitting in a train station when some Russian soldiers spotted him in his uniform. He was put on a train headed to Russia. He jumped out of the train in Austria. He worked for a farmer for three months.

When the harvest was over, he headed back to Germany. This time, he was wearing civilian clothes. He decided to avoid the Russian zone. He went to what was then West Germany and found a job in a noodle factory.

In 1954, he emigrated to the United States and joined a cousin and her husband who had come here and settled in St. Louis. Goerlich got a job as a baker.

Hedy was in West Germany. Along with most of the residents of Naasdorf, she and her family had fled to the west as the Russians approached. She and her family were in the Harz Mountains in central Germany when they ran into Goerlich’s mother. She wrote her son about the meeting. He wrote a letter to Hedy and asked if she had thought about coming to America.

There was no hint of romance.

She came to St. Louis in 1958 and found a job in a photo shop. Hedy and Goerlich got married a year later.

They moved to the Los Angeles area for five years and then moved back to St. Louis. They had three children, two daughters and a son.

In 1965, Goerlich bought a German sausage shop on Manchester Road in Des Peres. Eventually, it morphed into Goerlich’s Imported Delicatessen and Gifts. A single table with 10 chairs was crowded into the deli area, which featured a wide variety of sausages, cheeses, pickles, soups and German beer and wine. The gift shop was jammed with beer steins, music boxes, nutcrackers, records and figurines.

A business like that can keep a couple busy, but Goerlich had a hobby of sorts.

He had a weekly radio show. He played German music. He started in 1971. First, he was at a station downtown. He moved to a station in Columbia, Ill. That station went out of business in 1973, and that would have been the end of Goerlich’s hobby except that one of his regular customers at the deli was Chuck Norman, who owned WGNU.

We need a German show, Norman said, and Goerlich moved his show — the German Hit Radio Program — to WGNU.

From 2:30 to 4 every Sunday afternoon, Goerlich would spin records and make a few comments. Usually, he’d say something first in German, and then in English.

The station went through a number of changes, but Goerlich’s show remained a constant. He retired from the deli business in 1992 but kept his Sunday show. Norman died in 2004, but new management kept the German Hit Radio Program.

Last year, the local German-American Committee honored Goerlich for his work, and this January, the Federal Republic of Germany gave him a Friend of Germany Award for his radio show.

Last Sunday was his final show. After 41 years, 39 of them on WGNU, he signed off for good.

I visited the Goerlichs Friday. Both said this Sunday would seem strange. It was time, Goerlich said.

I called WGNU. Station manager Dirk Hallemeirer said Goerlich’s show would be replaced by gospel music.

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