Walk anywhere in Germany and before long you’ll stub your toe on a stolperstein, a tiny brass “stumbling stone” intentionally raised above ground level that’s inscribed with the name and life dates of a victim of German Nazism.
A commemorative effort begun by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, the work’s creation marked the 50th anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s 1942 “Auschwitz Decree,” the order that officially began the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps.
The stones’ purpose is to provide a constant, intentional reminder of the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
The name evokes several wordplays in Deutsch, the first of which alludes to the ancient anti-Semitic practice of saying “A Jew must be buried there” after stumbling over a protruding stone. In Deutsch as in English, to “stumble upon” something also has connotations of discovering a profound truth by accident. As a result, when pedestrians trip on a stolperstein, they stumble upon, both literally and metaphorically, a reminder of the Holocaust. In January 2015, Demnig set the 50,000 stolperstein in Torino, Italy, to commemorate the murder of Eleonora Levi.
On a vastly less macabre note, San Antonio has its own set of stolperstein. Riddled across the city like so many cobblestones are cultural and architectural reminders of the city’s vibrant German history. Whether it’s the Beethoven Maennerchor Halle Und Garten on Pereida Street or St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on East Commerce, German landmarks dot the San Antonio urbanscape. One such Deutsch landmark is the Grand Lodge of the Texas Order of Hermann Sons, located at 525 South St. Mary’s Street.
Named after Hermann the Cherusker, a German hero recognized for his leadership and valor, Hermann Sons’ history began in 1840 when a handful of Germans founded the order as a brotherhood in New York City. In July of 1875, the National Grand Lodge mandated the purchase of life insurance as a requirement for membership, and since then the focus of the Hermann Sons’ insurance program has been to help provide financial protection to its members and their families. The Texas Order of the group was founded in San Antonio in 1861, and still boasts more than 73,000 members.
Naturally, where you find Germans, you’re bound to find beer.
Whether it was Hessian Wilhelm (later William) Menger’s 1855 establishment of the Western Brewery, the first commercial lager brewer in Texas; Mainzian Adolphus Busch’s (of later Anhauser-Busch fame) pioneering of the Lone Star Brewing Company, which currently houses the SAMA; or the Hanoverian Otto Koehler and his Pearl Brewery, German immigrants have played a pivotal role in the history of South Texas beer.
The San Antonio chapter of the Hermann Sons, not be outdone historically by their Deutsch brethren, boasts the designation of being the oldest continuously running bar with a Texas Alcoholic Beverage license, as its Rathskeller Bar will turn 80 years old in 2017.
Like everything else German-Texan, the Rathskeller is steeped in history. The word, which means “council’s cellar,” describes any bar located in the basement of a city hall. If you, like most humans, are having trouble picturing the basement of a German town hall, raise a stein to Quentin Tarantino for portraying one in his 2009 film Inglorious Basterds
. Though the political sensitivity of the phrase is dubious, Brad Pitt and a Nazi soldier engage in what Lt. Aldo Raine refers to as a “Mexican standoff” while in a French rathskeller.
Similar in charmlessness to Tarantino’s depiction, San Antonio’s Rathskeller Bar is primarily a practical institution, in that it is practically impossible to find, there is practically no ambience to speak of, and the beer is practically free.
For a limited time, the somewhat claustrophobic bar is running a “Manager’s Special” on Lonestar, Miller Lite and Pearl as they attempt to burn through an overstock. One man’s logistical oversight is another man’s treasure though, so get the $1.50 cans while they’re still available. The Rathskeller also offers $2.75 domestics, $3.25 premiums, and a sign outside the building that no one could account for offered “$1.50 beer from 5-7.”
Here’s the rub(s): First, the basement bar is only open Wednesday-Friday from 4:30 to 11 p.m. ; second, they are regrettably cash only (though an ATM is on-site). The bar offers no food outside of bagged chips, and the frugality of their drink selection brings to mind scenes of Weimar Germany’s bout of hyperinflation that forced hapless citizens to burn their money for fuel.
Despite the lack of frills, the Rathskeller was packed during my visit. With a “gypsy jazz” ensemble playing period-specific live music, museum-worthy historic photos tacked haphazardly to walls, a derelict building that begs to be drunkenly wandered, and drink prices so low that they attract everyone from local lawyers to passing vagrants, the Hermann Sons fixture is without a doubt unlike anything else in the city, perhaps in the state. With its history, inclusiveness and rock-bottom prices, the Rathskeller is a bar you’ll be very happy with yourself to stumble upon.
Hermann Sons Rathskeller Bar
525 S. St. Mary’s St.
4:30-11 p.m. Wed-Fri