Being custodian of N. Side’s German legacy Is a full time job Monica Jirak was born for

By Patrick Butler

When Monica Schulter Jirak became executive director at DANK Haus about two months ago, she already knew her way around the 58-year-old German cultural center at 4740 N. Western Ave.

After all, she practically grew up there.  Not surprising considering her father, former 47th Ward Ald. Eugene Schulter was a member of a number of German-American groups, was instrumental in bringing the German Day parade from the Loop to Lincoln Square, and even had a piece of the infamous Berlin Wall set up at the Western Avenue Brown Line CTA station.

Early on she was learning German, going to German language movies, performing (and later teaching) with one of the German mardi gras dance groups, and more recently served three years on DANK’s board of directors.

Even so, life is still one surprise after another, Jirak said between making the rental arrangements for a Bosnian cultural group and trying to find retail tenants for the first floor of the DANK building.

 “We’ve talked to a day care center, dance schools and physical therapy clinics.   But it would be really nice of we could get a German restaurant in here” especially since the popular Brauhaus at 4732 N. Lincoln Ave. is expected to close later this year.

Jirak can remember a time when Lincoln Avenue was dotted with German eateries like the Schwaben Stube and Café Berlin, but suspects the reason most have disappeared in recent years might be because the younger generations didn’t want to take over those labor-intensive family businesses. “It’s a very tiring job,” she said.

But probably Jirak’s main focus at this point will be to make the DANK “the epicenter of German culture” or “nonstop shopping for all things German.”

Her current efforts to that end range from developing closer ties with the Chicago Fire soccer team and the soccer community in general at a time when what may be the world’s most popular sport is catching on here in America.

She’s also planning a 90th anniversary celebration of the DANK building, designed by German-American architect Paul Gerhardt as a multipurpose center, complete with a still-existing Olympic size swimming pool.  DANK took over the building in 1967.

Bent on offering as many options as possible for everyone from toddlers to seniors, she said, DANK Haus also rents out space to the German-American Police Association, and the Schlaraffia Club.   Now down to about 15 members, the “secret society,” as Jirak described the nearly 160-year-old group founded in Prague is open only to German-speaking men.

Because the group’s symbol is an owl, kids touring the building call Schlaraffla meeting hall the “Harry Potter Room,” Jirak said.

Other activates open to the general public include German-language movies, cooking classes, including a now sold-out pretzel-making course,(the class fee includes a drink from the bar), a children’s summer camp, a 6,000-volume library, and a “Lost German Chicago” museum containing mementos from the 1892 Columbian Exposition, Meyer’s Deli, a steamer truck used by an immigrant from Hamburg in 1871, items from restaurants like the Red Star Inn, Schulien’s, Math Igler’s, and the Golden Ox, and flags and other regalia from World War I German veterans associations.

Chicago’s first riot is remembered through newspaper clippings detailing the outrage in the German community when the unpopular Mayor Levi Boone closed the beer gardens on Sunday.   Also detailed in the display is the story of German-American participation in the Chicago’s early labor movements.

As far as Monica Jirak is concerned, she’s only getting started.

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