The history of the Austrian Donau Club is inextricably linked with the history of the city of New Britain. New Britain by the late 1800’s had become a rapidly growing center of manufacturing. These factories needed more and more workers to fill the expanding plants. Immigrants from Europe migrated to New Britain to fill these positions
One of these immigrant groups among the many who came here, was from a region of then Austria-Hungary called Burgenland. Prior to 1918, Burgenland was officially under the administration of the Hungarian part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The Burgenlanders who came here, were mostly ethnic Austrians (who spoke German) but were forced to learn Hungarian in the school system under Hungarian administration. After World War I, the victorious Allies broke up the Austrian-Hungarian empire. The Burgenland province was a disputed area between Austria and Hungary. A plebiscite was held in 1920 and the people who were mainly ethnic Austrians, decided to join with Austria rather than Hungary.
It is believed the first Burgenland immigrant to arrive in New Britain was John F. Knaus who came from the village of Muhlgraben. Herr Knaus was a farmer and eventually brought over many Burgenlanders from the small villages of Mini-Hof Liebau, Muhlgraben, and Neuhaus in southern Burgenland. These Austrians eventually settled in the Arch and Glen street areas of New Britain, and over the decades, Arch street became the center of the Austrian and German community, culture, and business life in New Britain.
The humble beginning of the Donau Club began on Feb. 6, 1906 as the Gesangverein Österreich, consisting of 10 singers who practiced in the home of their conductor, A. Kuhn, on Arch street. By 1908, the Verein grew to 24 singers and even won a prize at the Staats Sängerfest held in Meriden of that year. The present day Donau Club came into being on October 1, 1920 when four clubs came together to form the Österreich-Ungarischen Gesang und Krank Unterstützungs-Vereins “Donau”. The four clubs that joined together were the Franz Joseph Verein, the Radfahrer Club, the Militär Verein, and the Gesang Verein Österreich. The total assets of the combined societies was $9,928, of which a large portion consisted of Austrian government war bonds which became worthless. The purpose for forming the Sick Benefit Society was to provide work disability and death benefits for members, as Social Security did not exist in America in the 1920’s. Amazingly, the Society still provides these benefits to eligible members today. The first president of the club was John Ruck, who came from Mini-Hof Liebau. He later was a local businessman who owned the Ruck Shoe store and Steuben’s restaurant. He died in 1974 at the age of 95. The present clubhouse was built in 1920 and still remains the center of all our activities. In the twenties, Prohibition was in force. Of course, the Austrians and Germans after a hard day's work in the local factories wanted a glass of beer or wine or perhaps something a little stronger to slake their thirst. Being ever resourceful, they started to brew their own beer and wine and these libations were served at the clubhouse and became a very important source of revenue for the building of the club and society in the early years. Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Donau clubhouse was a major social center for the Austro-German community. With the arrival of World War II, the club’s German school was shut down by the FBI and the activities of the Club were monitored by the government. Many of the club’s younger members volunteered or were drafted to serve in the war. There are even cases of a few of the younger members who were stuck in Austria or Germany and were forced to serve with the Wehrmacht. With the end of World War II, another wave of immigration came to New Britain, a wave of Germans trying to escape the aftermath of the war’s economic devastation. Some of these new German immigrants joined the Donau Club and added to the ethnic Austrian mix. The club continued to thrive after the war up until the present day.
Many traditional events were held over the years, the most popular were the Schlachtfests and Bauernballs. The Bauernball is still held during the early spring and remains a popular festival. The Schlachtfest is still held, although a live pig is no longer slaughtered, a delicious roast pork dinner has taken its place and is usually a sold out event.
The Donau Clubhouse remains the only center of Austrian and German activities in New Britain today, and is still a beehive of activity. On Tuesdays, the Singers carry on the tradition of choral singing. On Thursdays, the Alpenland Dancers and the Kindergruppe practice the traditional folk dances. Two Fridays each month, (the first and third Fridays) our members, families, and friends get together to enjoy classic German and Austrian music, eat some German food, drink a few German beers, and enjoy the Gemütlichkeit atmosphere in the Rathskeller of our Clubhouse.
Many people today are rediscovering their Austrian or German roots and want to reconnect with their immigrant past. Parents and grandparents wish to introduce their children to the German or Austrian experience of their youth. Recent German immigrants, exchange students, or visitors miss the Heimat and wish to socialize with their fellow countrymen. If you fall into any of these categories, or are interested in the German Austrian culture and experience, the Donau Clubhouse is the perfect place for you to satisfy your Heimweh. Come on down, have a cold Spaten or Hofbräuhaus vom Fass, spricht ein bischen Deutsch, and enjoy a little bit of the Heimat here in New Britain. You will receive a hearty and friendly Willkommen!