Immigrant finds happiness in lively Southgate neighborhood
By Paula Neuman
Ursula Zugschwert, 88, has lived in three countries, in big cities and small towns, in war and in peace, but when she and her family came to Southgate in 1963, she knew she was home.
She’s still there in the Oakdale Street house she and her husband, Hermann, a journeyman cabinet maker, bought when he found work at the Williamson Lumber Co. in Wyandotte and they immigrated to the United States.
The city, carved out of the former Ecorse Township in 1958, always has been known as a place of friendly neighborhoods and a good place to raise a family.
Ursula’s neighborhood in 1963, like many of Southgate’s neighborhoods, comprised many young first- and second-generation immigrant families like hers, and fast friendships were formed and remained strong for decades.
“It was very interesting,” she said. “We all had a lot in common. We had a lot of kids then. We were like a very close family. I miss the lively neighborhood we had.”
The neighborhood and the people who love it have aged now. Most of the members of her generation have passed on. But the children who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1960s have kept their ties, even as they’ve grown up, scattered to other communities and raised families of their own.
“We all still see each other and hang out,” said Ursula’s daughter, Susan White of Allen Park. “Everybody’s mom in the neighborhood was mom to all the kids. If you got in trouble at (a neighbor’s) house, you got in trouble at your house. We would play dress-up and make a parade and march around the block. Any excuse. It was an idyllic place to grow up.”
The same year that the Zugschwerts and their four children moved to Southgate, a new strip mall, Southgate Plaza, opened on Fort Street near Pennsylvania Road anchored by Korvette’s and including a Chatham grocery store. Southgate was known then as “shopping city.”
“My in-laws came to visit from Munich in 1964, and they were just amazed at how beautiful the stores were,” Ursula said. “On Friday nights, we went shopping there, and I could get my hair cut. You could get anything there.”
As the neighborhoods aged, so did the strip mall. Korvette’s closed in 1980. The entire site was vacated by 1987 and demolished in the summer of 1993. A Super Kmart was there from 1998-2014, and now a Kroger superstore occupies the site of the former Southgate Plaza.
Things change, and no one understands that better than Ursula.
She was born in 1930 in Munich, Germany — the seat of Hitler’s following.
“Hitler came to power in 1933,” Ursula said. “My father was very anti-fascist. It wasn’t good to grow up in an anti-fascist family in the city of the movement. When I was 6, I remember a friend came to visit my father and he had just been released from Dachau. He was one of the first inmates. I listened when he told my father all the things that go on there. Even at 6, I knew not to talk, that the moment I opened my mouth to say something, there would be an investigation.”
Hitler opened Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, in 1933 on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory about 10 miles from Munich. Initially, Dachau held political prisoners.
One of Ursula’s saddest memories dates to just before Christmas in 1937.
“That’s when my mother got all the belongings of her uncle, who had been incarcerated in Dachau,” she said with tears in her eyes.
In 1940, the bombing of Munich began, and eventually 80 percent of the city was destroyed. Ursula didn’t talk about those times.
All her life, she has cared deeply about education. So when the schools in Munich were closed in 1943, it was hard for her. Mothers, including hers, and young children were evacuated to the country. Girls in school in Germany in the 1940s learned home economics and similar trades, and were strongly encouraged to be good housewives and mothers when they grew up.
In 1944, “Hitler decided to close the eighth grade early, and the girls had to go to help mothers with children and the boys had to go into the Army,” said Ursula, who had been taking English lessons, never dreaming she’d one day be living in an English-speaking country.
Her future husband was a year older than she was, and he was drafted into the Army, captured and taken as a prisoner of war at the age of 15, she said.
Ursula had learned expert tailoring skills, and went to work at 14. After the war, she ended up in a couture salon, specializing in making ladies’ suits and coats. That skill has served her well all her life.
After Hermann’s release, they, like nearly everyone in Munich, now ruled by the Allied governments, struggled to find housing. “Everything was demolished,” Ursula said. “Munich was bombed out. There were so many millions on the streets in 1945.”
Her family was luckier than many, because her father was a building expert. He rehabbed a house so her pregnant older sister and her husband could have an apartment to live in. When Hermann’s older brother got married, his parents split up their own apartment so the newlyweds would have living quarters of their own.
Three years later, Ursula and Hermann, now engaged, wanted to get married, but could find no housing. They waited.
In 1952, sparked with a “spirit of adventure,” Hermann found a way to get the fare to sail to Canada, where his skills led him to employment in Sudbury, Ontario. He arrived in January after a rough crossing. Six months later, Ursula, too, sailed to Canada to join him.
“That’s where we got married, and where we stayed for 11 years,” she said. “That’s where all the children were born.” A series of events led to the end of her husband’s work in Sudbury, so he went to the United States, where his skills were in demand. He found a job quickly, and encouraged by Ursula long-distance, bought the Southgate house that became the family’s beloved home.
Getting the paperwork organized for the family to move to a new country was a time-consuming chore.
“We had Canadian citizenship, but we were also considered German,” Ursula said. “We had to get Canadian papers and German papers. The children were Canadian. But as soon as I had all the papers together, we picked up our visas in Toronto, and I went back to Sudbury and got packing. A week later, we moved.”
The young mother and her four little children took a train to Detroit, arriving at the historic Michigan Central Train Depot. In a place of honor in her Southgate home, she has a framed picture of the depot where her family was reunited in their new country.
The Zugschwerts thrived in Southgate. The children were all involved in Scouting. Josef was an Eagle Scout and Andreas a Life Scout. They played sports, and musical instruments in their school band. All attended Schafer High School.
Family members from Germany visited often, and the Zugschwerts traveled to Germany to visit, too, and for family weddings and funerals. Ursula made all of the children’s clothes, including Susan’s wedding dress.
Ursula grew vegetables and herbs and was active in a garden club. She went back to school and earned an associate’s degree from Wayne County Community College District. It was a good life.
In 2008, Hermann died unexpectedly, and the four children helped support their mother through her grief. “We just kind of surrounded her and did what we needed to do,” Susan said.
And now, as Ursula, who still has a lively intelligence and an enviable memory, faces her own health struggles, the children rally to her again, as befits a close family from a close neighborhood in a city still known as a community of strong families. And she reminisces about coming to Southgate and finding home all those years ago.
“I don’t think there’s a neighborhood in the world like this one was,” she said.