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Genealogy: Family Histories

Norbert and Karl Berschdorf Family

1866 LISBON, WWII, SIBERIA, GERMAN ARMY TOUCH SUSSEX

By

Fred H. Keller

Some multi-different situations are tied up in a doctorsí office in downtown Sussex.

The cream brick Sussex Wheaton Franciscan Medical office on Main Street, Sussex has been the domain of Drs. James Davis and Terrace Hughs since 1988. They acquired the former 1866 built Lisbon Town Hall, remodeled it and added onto it to what it is today.

When the Lisbon Town Hall was built on one acre of land in 1866 the entire construction and land cost was $1,100. It would be used by Lisbon as their meeting hall, and a community building from 1866 to 1955, when it became something of a derelict, being sold for about $5,000.

Norbert Berschdorf, (1919-2003) a one-employee pipe organ rebuilder working as at his organ repair shop in the old Lisbon Town Hall 1962-1986. He has a major education in Germany, became an organ maker, was a member of the WWII German army, prisoner of Russia, released POW in 1946, and immigrated to the USA in 1950, ending up doing business in Sussex out of the former Lisbon Town Hall in November 1962 servicing pipe organs until 1986.

Now for the story behind the story:

From 1962 to 1986 this former Lisbon Town Hall was a "secrete" local small business with a national following, for the repair and rebuilding of enormous old pipe organs, by a highly educated European craftsman, from a famous German pipe organ manufacturer, a Herr (Mr.) Norbert Berschdorf (1919-2003).

He ran this Berschdorf Organ Co. in the former Lisbon Town Hall. He had purchased it from Sussex (who had gained ownership). The transaction, worth an estimated $5,000 was handled by the Sussex Village President John Karner.

Berschdorf was not well known in Sussex as he labored away in the old town hall, as he did not mix with the village in any shape or manner. He was something of a recluse, and very few knew what he was doing. He had a one man business, only occasionally hiring for some heavy lifting or transportation situations.

It was as if he wasnít there, but he was, although at times he would be away to all pints on the compass to repair/rebuild huge historic pipe organs, mostly in churches, but also in concert halls, and similar locations.

Originally he stated that he thought it would grow to a 10 man business in the future. He did have a grand opening in November 1962 that was sparsely attended.

This author had a long talk with Berschdorf in June 1979. It showed that he was a master craftsman of his trade, a philosopher, linguist, artist, family man (lived in Brookfield), former German army member, former Russian Siberian prisoner and deeply religious man. He was also a fearful man, and there were a lot of things he did not want to talk about. There were things in his past that he just did not want to talk about, and he had a horrific fright of the long reach of Russia.

To try to understand this genius one must start at the beginning, more than 125 years ago with his grandfather, Paul Berschdorf (1859-1933). As a young German in Neisse, upper Silesia (today part of Poland) Paul was trained under Remhold Hundeck to become a master organ maker.

Hundeck hired the 18-year-old Paul Berschdorf, but went bankrupt 11 years later which so unnerved him that he committed suicide. Berschdorf and some other workers then took over the organ works and were so successful that they moved to larger quarters in 1900.

Karl Berschdorf (1887-1950) followed in his fatherís footsteps after several years of training and apprenticeships at other firms. In 1905 he started to modernize and broaden his fatherís firm.

World War I came and went. By 1928 expansion had created jobs for 50 employees. Karl then started to produce his own organ pipes and consoles, which the company had previously bought from outside suppliers.

In 1937 the third generation, Norbert Berschdorf, entered the business. He had been intensely educated, and groomed to carry on the family specialized business. He graduated from the Breslau Conservatory and held a masterís degree in organ building from a Regensburg, Bavaria apprenticeship. He has also been educated in Latin, Greek, English and French.

However, the start of World War II on September 1, 1939 swept him up into the German army. Like all armies, Norbert was a round peg who was placed in a square hole. The German army sent Berschdorf off marching into Russia where he was eventually captured and sent to Siberia.

The cream brick Sussex Wheaton Franciscan Medical office on Main Street, Sussex has been the domain of Drs. James Davis and Terrace Hughs since 1988.

Now back home as the war ended in Europe, before the advancing Russian army, the lower Silesian organ plant was looted and the business transferred to Eastern Germany where the Berschdorf family tried to restart the organ plant. This was after an employee escaped to East Germany in October 1945 and settled in Regensburg, East Germany.

Luckily, Norbert Berschdorf was released in 1946 from the Russian POW camp. In March 1946, father Karl and now son Norbert tried to make a new start, taking over the Binder and Son Organ Factory. There was some success, but: Germanyís 1949 big money crash destroyed their chances. They immigrated to the United States in 1950.

Norbert started rebuilding organs in Duluth, later moving to Brookfield to carry on his trade on a small scale and then came to Sussex in 1966 to continue his trade.

As he aged he wound up his business life, and in 1987 Drs. Hughes and Davis bought the old town hall for $73,000, and Berschdorf went into retirement.

The doctors remodeled the Lisbon Town Hall, using University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee architects Harvey Rabinowitz and Jeffery Ollswang to remodel and build on.

These two professors from UWM, Milwaukee did so well that shortly after, the Village of Sussex hired them to remodel the Sussex Main Street School into the Sussex Village Hall in 1988.

The odd thing about Norbert Berschdorf...After I interviewed him for a Sussex Sun feature in June 1979 he and his family in Brookfield called me by phone to "stop the story", as they were mortally afraid that the Russians would reach out and do damage to the Berschdorf family, so I sat on the story for 24 years...until Berschdorf died on September 30, 2003.

Today the former 1866 built Lisbon Town Hall in old Sussex, is the "waiting room" which occupies about one quarter of the Dr. Davis/Hughes medical office (Wheaton Franciscan Medical Clinic). You are invited in to look at the historic pictures and maps that hang among its walls.

 

 

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