YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It’s Friday night and Wolfgang and Helga Wengler are dressed in traditional German garb and holding court at Rhine Haus Bier Hall in downtown Youngstown.
As host and hostess for the evening, the couple will greet guests at the restaurant and bar, with Helga also lending her expertise in the kitchen.
But more important, the Wenglers – who emigrated from Germany in the 1950s – bring an air of authenticity to the establishment.
The couple has been involved in all things German in the Youngstown area for the past 60 years, usually at the forefront.
With their German accented speech, they maintain the culture of their homeland in several ways.
The Wenglers host the weekly “German Melodies” radio show on WKTL-FM 90.7, a volunteer role they’ve filled since 1982.
The couple also has a long history with the area’s two maennerchors, which are social clubs founded as singing societies. Helga is choir director at Apollo Maennerchor in Sharon, Pa., and Wolfgang is an officer in the national organization.
The energetic Helga also is a host of a local television cooking show that airs Sundays on WBCB -TV. She is known as “the Kitchen Witch,” a moniker that comes from the German custom of keeping a witch doll in the kitchen, a folklore superstition that’s said to keep a home full with food.
In an interview at the Wenglers home – yes, there is a kitchen witch, and many other German curios on display – Helga and Wolfgang shared their life story.
The couple has been married for 54 years, and started at a young age. “He was always chasing after me,” Helga says, recalling her teen years.
Wolfgang and Helga both recall living through World War II, especially the final months as Allied forces entered their country.
Wolfgang was born in 1934 in Schlesien, in eastern Germany, and moved to Frankfurt with his family as the war was ending. He witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a passenger on a train that his father, a locomotive engineer, parked on a siding near a hill outside that city that afforded some protection from the bombers.
Helga, who was born in 1935 in Frankfurt and grew up there, also has vivid memories of the war.
“During 1944 and 1945, I spent most nights in a bomb shelter because our apartment lost its roof due to the bombing,” she says. “We slept under sheet metal sheets that were fastened over beds.”
Helga was the first to come to America, arriving in 1955.
“My sister had married a U.S. soldier [and moved to America] and when she came back to visit us in Germany, she talked me into coming to America,” she says. “Wolfgang was my boyfriend in Germany then. I met him when I was 14.”
Helga moved to her sister’s house in Vienna (her husband was from Farmdale) and got a job at Packard Electric in Warren.
Wolfgang came to America in 1956.
Neither could speak English when they arrived.
“It took me two hours to order a hamburger and a Coke in New York,” Wolfgang says. “No one could understand me.”
Wolfgang had training in painting and wallpapering in Germany, but his first job in his new country was working as a carpenter for the man who would become his brother-in-law.
“He asked me if I knew how to put a nail in and saw wood,” Wolfgang says. “I had never done it. But I built an entire kitchen [for him].”
Wolfgang built the kitchen cabinetry for his home after he and Helga married.
He soon moved on to a job with a painting contractor in Niles.
“We were working on a job one day when an FBI agent came in looking for a [crew member] named Scotty, who was from Scotland, because he hadn’t registered for the draft,” Wolfgang recalls. He got nervous because he hadn’t registered either.
“I didn’t know [I had to],” he says. “I went and registered and four weeks later, I got drafted. For two years, I was in the [U.S. Army] 101st Airborne division [as a paratrooper].”
In 1958, the U.S. military intervened in a political crisis in Lebanon and Wolfgang’s unit was set to be deployed.
“I was five minutes away from taking off,” he says. “We were combat-ready with live ammunition, sitting in the airplane that was to take off to Lebanon and the last minute they called it off. But that was the start of the problems [that continue to this day] over there.”
After his military service, Wolfgang came back to Youngstown and started his own business as a painting contractor and wallpaper hanger.
In 1960, Rita was born, the first of the Wenglers’ three daughters. The others are Sonia and Charlotte.
The couple joined the Youngstown Maennerchor in 1964. Wolfgang served as an officer with the choir for 30 years, including 13 as president. Helga was in the women’s choir and was very active in preparing meals for club functions.
Helga also became president of the Ladies Auxiliary and was elected to the board of the Central Ohio Ladies Singing Societies.
She was a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, a host on the local “Home Plate” television show from 2010 to 2016, a member of the Youngstown Saxon Club and of the Apollo Maennerchor mixed choir while serving as president for two years.
Wolfgang was appointed to the Board of Officers of the Central Ohio German Singing Societies in 1971, serving 40 years including six as president. He was chairman of the society’s statewide concerts in 1972 and 2002.
In 2007, he was elected to the board of the North American German Singing Societies, serving as archivist and historian. As part of his duties, he is compiling and archiving antique songbooks, some of them dating to 1848, for a German-American museum. Boxes of the books occupy a corner of his home.
Wolfgang explains that singing clubs are a tradition of German society.
“In every little village in Germany there is some kind of choir,” he says.
The Youngstown Maennerchor choir disbanded in 2010, so the Wenglers joined the Apollo that year because Wolfgang is required to be a member of an active singing society so he can maintain his national office.
“We were the last two singers left [at the Youngstown Maennerchor],” says Helga.
The Apollo choir is thriving, she adds. “It has over 2,000 members,” she says, noting that this year marks its 150th anniversary.
The Wenglers took over as hosts of the “German Melodies” radio show on WKTL in 1982. The show, which features traditional and pop German music, airs Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon as part of the station’s weekly lineup of ethnic music shows.
Wolfgang recalls how they got started.
“There was a gentleman there who was German, and I asked him one day if I could look at the studio,” he says. “He showed me how to [operate] all of the dials. Then one day I walked in and he said, ‘It’s all yours, goodbye.’ We’ve been doing it ever since.”
It’s another volunteer post and the Wenglers are required to supply their own records and CDs.
They’ve amassed a large collection that keeps growing.
“A lot of people donate them to us,” Wolfgang says. “Last summer, someone brought us 50 CDs. They were her mom’s and she had just passed away.”
As for their latest roles as host and hostess of the Rhine Haus Bier Hall, it’s another case of being the right people for the job, with a bit of serendipity.
“We were at O’Donold’s [Irish Pub and Grill in Austintown] with our daughter and her son having lunch and [owner] Christian Rinehart heard my accent and stopped by and said, ‘Hmmm, somebody here is German.’ His mother is German, and I said, ‘Sit down and join us.’
“He said he was thinking of opening another restaurant and I said, ‘You need to open a German restaurant. You can’t find any nice German food around here.’ ”
That is exactly what he did.
“I met them when they were having lunch and we talked about my family history and theirs,” says Rinehart. “I told her I would open a German restaurant one day for them and they were my first call once we did.”
Helga remembers that call well.
“In September [of 2018, Rinehart] called me and said, ‘Guess what, Helga – I am opening a beer hall downtown and I want you to be the fest meister to tap the beer.’ That’s how it started. We were fest meisters and had a good time.”
The Wenglers continued to visit Rhine Haus. After a discussion with Rinehart about the food, he asked Helga if she would lend her expertise to his kitchen staff and if the couple would work as host and hostess on weekends.
“I showed them how to make schnitzel, red cabbage, my mom’s potato pancakes… they are excellent and getting famous,” Helga says.
Helga has been cooking traditional German favorites for her family and social clubs most of her life. It’s a skill she learned from her mother as a child.
Wolfgang has also left his mark at Rhine Haus in other ways. He painted on the walls the crests of German cities and provinces.
When the Wenglers are not busy bringing their heritage to Youngstown, they can often be found on the golf course.
Wolfgang, who has a 9 handicap, enjoys teaching the game to the couple’s six grandchildren.
Helga also golfs and plays bocce and spends time baking cakes, tortes and cookies.
Pictured: Helga and Wolfgang Wengler are clad in a dirndl and lederhosen at Rhine Haus Bier Hall in downtown Youngstown, where they serve as hostess and host every weekend. The couple also hosts “German Melodies” on WKTL-FM.