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German Shop Owner Escapes Communism, Survives Capitalism in Lincoln Square

By Patty Wetli | January 23, 2013 8:02am

LINCOLN SQUARE — They come to Lincoln Square by the busload from places such as Milwaukee, Detroit and Nebraska in search of the kind of authentic German shops that have disappeared from their own communities.

Along with Salamander shoes and the Chicago Brauhaus, International Fashions by Ingrid is always on their itinerary.

"Fifty people come in, touch everything, then say, 'I have to decide,'" said Ingrid Kaltenbach-zum Brūnnen, who's operated the clothing store since 1978, taking over from her former mother-in-law.

But nowadays, patrons of her German-themed shop increasingly arrive searching more for wares to impress at their Halloween parties than authentic outfits showing pride for their homeland.

It's a long way from the days when Ingrid's thrived on a steady stream of foot traffic from the neighborhood's German immigrants, who flocked to the shop in search of the styles and brand names to which they'd become accustomed.

They were customers, Kaltenbach said, who "came over and didn’t know anything but German clothing."

It's a mindset she understood intimately, having been born and raised in communist East Germany prior to escaping when she was 18.

Kaltenbach eventually made her way to Chicago in 1965 with her young son, Michael, now 48 and living in Louisiana, lured by the promise of opportunity, high-rises and stories of Al Capone.

“It’s the city,” she said.

She learned English along with Michael when he entered preschool and by watching television, but her German roots are still evident in her voice.

“Ach, look at my accent,” she said of her pronunciation.

In those days, Lincoln Square was a magnet for German immigrants and language was less of a barrier. “Everybody spoke German here," she said. "It was just great.”

The neighborhood's demographics have changed dramatically since then, and its retail mix along with it. Stores such as Northern Home Furnishings, which specialized in European products, gave way to the Lincoln Square Athletic Club, and Enisa's European Bakery is now home to Yogurt Square.

"A few people retired, most passed away and the kids don't take over," Kaltenbach said.

Where Ingrid's once did a booming trade in German-made sportswear, water-resistant loden overcoats and sweaters, Kaltenbach said that the last 10 years have brought a shift in demand for traditional items, which are often treated as costumes: Bavarian-style hats, lederhosen and skirt-and-apron dirndls.

Dirndls, the traditional dresses most people associate with St. Pauli Girl-style barmaids, are “my bread and butter,” said Kaltenbach, with their accompanying blouses — "Made in Germany, not in China" — a close second.

No longer daily wear, the frocks, which typically retail for nearly $200, are purchased by women to add some kitsch to events such as Oktoberbest or Lincoln Square's annual German-American festival, Halloween parties and even weddings.

Most of the buyers have tenuous ties to Deutschland, at best.

"We found Ingrid online," said Natalie Stolarski, a River North resident of Polish and Ukrainian descent, who paid a visit to the store last fall in advance of a trip to Munich's Oktoberfest.

"We knew we needed to get completely in character."

Marianne Schultz is a member of Milwaukee's D'Oberlandler Bavarian folk dancing troupe and wandered into Ingrid's last December in search of a dirndl, her 17-year-old daughter having raided most of Schultz' closet.

"You have different inventory here," she told the shop owner.

Patrons such as Stolarksi and Schultz, who purchased a dirndl with a skirt length guaranteed to repel a teenager, don't make for the kind of repeat customers Ingrid's once enjoyed.

“I have to reach out all over,” said Kaltenbach, who's taken to shipping her inventory across the U.S.

Yet, she isn't yet ready to give up the store that bears her name.

“My husband says, ‘How long do you want to do this?’”  she said. Her answer? “Until I have one foot in the grave.”

If running a small business that caters to a dwindling market sounds stressful, the vagaries of capitalism have nothing on the difficulties Kaltenbach faced in her youth, she explained.

She grew up poor in the East German village of Eisenach, with her mother, widowed in World War II, the sole support for Kaltenbach, her three siblings and a grandmother.

“We had no money at all,” she recalled. “If I needed something for school, my mother would say, ‘I have only one mark left.’”

The East German regime, particularly the Stasi — the country’s secret police — created a climate of fear, recruiting citizens to inform on one another.

“As a child, I was very quiet and depressed. We lived like in a prison,” she said. "We were afraid. We always had to be quiet, quiet, quiet.”

A teenaged Kaltenbach dreamed of a life free of poverty and oppression, longing “to go on the street and talk and say whatever you want to say.”

It was her grandmother who ultimately urged her to make a break for it.

“[She] said, ‘Go, the world is open for you.’”

With the address of an elderly couple in her pocket, an 18-year-old Kaltenbach traveled more than 200 miles by train from Eisenach to East Berlin, leaving in the afternoon with just the clothes on her back and no way of notifying her family of her plans. (Kaltenbach is fuzzy about the exact year of her escape and tends to be cagey about her current age.)

“I arrived [in East Berlin] at six in the morning,” she said, and knocked on the couple’s door. “They said, ‘Ingrid, what are you doing here?’” Dropping her voice to a whisper, she replied, “I want to escape.”

The couple helped arrange her transport to West Berlin, hiding her in a car. She simply describes the ordeal as “terrible,” blocking most of the details from her mind.

“I’m surprised the car didn’t go ‘boom, boom, boom,’" she said, "because my heart was.”

After spending a month in a camp in West Berlin, where she was routinely questioned to make sure she wasn’t a spy or a criminal, Kaltenbach was sent to Hanover, Germany, and yet another camp. Coming from a strict upbringing, “I saw a different world,” she said of her roommates, who smoked and drank.

“I have to close my eyes,” she said. “I don’t see it, I don’t hear it.”

Eventually, she found work as a sales clerk and got a room of her own. She also met Karen Steiner, who became her lifelong best friend.

“We did everything together,” she said. “We even shared our bra — we were the same size.”

Married for the last 14 years to John zum Brūnnen, whom she met at the Chicago Brauhaus, a mecca for German food and music, Kaltenbach now splits her time between Lincoln Square and her husband's Kansas home.

“That’s why it works,” she said. “No arguments.”

As content as she is in her adopted country, there’s a part of her that will always belong to Germany. Her surviving siblings —  a brother and sister — live in Cologne and Frankfurt, respectively.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kaltenbach went back to visit her old home in Eisenach.

"I was in tears," she said. “I still know every bush and every stone."