May 03, 2023

The Three Founding Fathers of Democrats Abroad in Berlin

The origin story of the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad written by the Rev. Roger David Aus, Ph.D., one of the Berlin chapter founders, in February 2023.


Since the first two founding fathers of Democrats Abroad in Berlin, Germany, have now passed away, it may be helpful to recall the earliest days of the organization before I, the third, also bite the dust. 

The main initiator was William E. Downey, affectionately known simply as “Bill.” He was born on February 28, 1931, in Washington, D.C. Since his mother died very early, he was brought up by his aunt and grandmother. He did a B.A. in history at Brown University in Rhode Island. During this time he also worked as a journalist for the newspaper. He then studied theology at Boston University (Methodist), where he met his future wife, who came from Berlin, Sabine, who was studying theology at nearby Harvard Divinity School. They married in 1970. From 1971-1977 Bill was the pastor of a congregation in Rhode Island, concomitantly earning a doctorate at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. It was also there that their two children were born.

In 1977 the Downey family came to Berlin, where Bill first was a pastor at the Apostel-Paulus Congregation in Schöneberg. After five years there he entered the hospital ministry in 1982, this time sharing a position with his wife Sabine. His final pastorate was at Haus Schönow on the Teltower Damm, where he remained until his retirement in 1996. Bill passed away on March 24, 2018, his funeral also attended by many, many friends from Democrats Abroad.

In 1997 Bill tried to find out whether there was a chapter of Democrats Abroad in Berlin. When he learned that this was not the case, he called the central headquarters in Washington, D.C. Tom Fina, then head of Democrats Abroad, strongly encouraged him to found such a group. This he promptly did. Together with the journalist Jerry Gerber (see below) and me, our first meetings were at the beginning of 1998 at the Downey home at Fűgener Weg 9 (12209 Berlin). While Sabine Downey was a very gracious host, each of us also brought something, for example a large bottle of Coke or some chips / crackers. Then we began to meet at the homes of others too. I had the small group numerous times at my home in the Winterthurstrasse in Reinickendorf. George H. Kamp (see the Appendix below)), the Rev. Paul Hoffman (d. February 25, 2017), and Martin Bailey were some others who also hosted us.

It soon became apparent that there were too many participants to fit into the average apartment, and traveling to many different places within (West) Berlin was also strenuous. Thus we began to meet in restaurants: Le Gerette (Lorenzstr. 72, 12209 Berlin), Capo d’Arco (Kaiserdamm 24, 14057 Berlin), Gambrinus (Meerscheidstr. 9, 14050 Berlin), Kullman’s Diner (Theodor-Heuss-Platz 5, 14052 Berlin), as of 2004 at Max & Moritz (Oranienstr. 162, 10969 Berlin), and now at Eschenbrӓu (Triftstr. 67, 13353 Berlin – Wedding). 

From the start, DA Berlin has been a diverse group, including many underrepresented and marginalized Americans. Among them were early members, Joel Thomas and Nancy Green (later chair of the Berlin chapter from 2009-2013).

Jerry I. Gerber was born on June 7, 1930, in New York City – Brooklyn. Even as a child he had an excellent memory. He studied literature and history in New York and law in Harvard. In the 1950s he came to Germany first as a soldier, then studied German and literature in Munich, finally finishing his German studies in New York. In 1963 he moved to Berlin, lived for a while in Cologne, but as of 1976 again in Berlin – in the Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, to the very end. Jerry was primarily a radio journalist, describing in his “Letter from Berlin” life in Germany for an American public. A colleague who worked with him in the “Deutsche Welle” remarked that Jerry was just as funny in German as in English. His humor was appreciated everywhere; it often helped to calm down a heated discussion. Jerry came from a Jewish family and he understood himself as a Jew, yet was not religious.

Jerry was very active in Democrats Abroad in Berlin from the very outset. He often acted as the press officer for events, and he was for some time a member of the Executive Committee of Democrats Abroad Germany.  He also represented the Berlin chapter in public debates and was often interviewed on television and radio. In 2013 Jerry unfortunately suffered a stroke, making it very hard for him to speak. Reading the “New York Times” up until his death, showing his great interest in world affairs, he passed away at 92 on November 8, 2022.

Roger David Aus was born September 26, 1940, in Jamestown, North Dakota. He attended high school in Fargo, and when the family moved to Richfield, Minnesota, a suburb on the south side of Minneapolis, he attended St. Olaf College in Northfield. There he finished English and German Studies in 1962, taught English for a year at a German Gymnasium near Heidelberg, and then studied theology at Harvard Divinity School and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He had done his intern year at the English-speaking Lutheran congregation in Geneva, Switzerland, concomitantly working full-time for the Lutheran World Federation there. He finished his academic work with a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies at Yale in 1971 and in the meantime has published some fifteen volumes in this area.

At this point he moved to Berlin with his German wife and at that time two children (now three boys), serving German-speaking congregations in Neukölln and in Reinickendorf. He retired from the active ministry in 2003, continuing, however, to substitute, for example both in his local German-speaking congregation and in the American Church in Berlin at the Dennewitzplatz in Schöneberg (Bűlowbogen).

Roger is a very political person and gladly actively helped Bill Downey and Jerry Gerber to get the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad off and running at the outset. As mentioned above, at the very beginning the still small group met a number of times in his own apartment. He then also greatly encouraged the group to meet in a more easily available place, like the section of a restaurant, to quickly expand, and to welcome in all sorts of people, regardless of their sex, color or sexual orientation. Because of the great commitments at his own parish, where he was the administrative pastor, and because he wanted primarily younger people to take over leadership positions (those most active at the outset were already getting on in age), he gradually withdrew from active participation in the monthly meetings. Now at the age of 82, his work for the Democratic Party is primarily of a financial nature, yet he actively also signs petitions on the computer for progressive causes.

Bill Downey was appointed chair of the Berlin chapter at its outset by the Washington D. C. headquarters of Democrats Abroad. When he stepped down in 2004, Michael Steltzer was also still appointed. Having chapters be able to elect their own chairs meant changing the bylaws of DA Germany, which took some time and effort and a vote at the Annual General Meeting. This resolution had been proposed by the Berlin chapter.  When the bylaws had been changed, the Berlin chapter appropriately changed its rules so that the chair could be elected locally. This then happened for Michael, who served until 2009. Nancy Green was then chair until 2013. She was followed by David Knutson, Gwendolyn Lynch, Diego Rivas, and now Constance Chucholowski.

Of the three founding fathers of the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad, two have now unfortunately already passed away, its primary founder Bill Downey, as well as just recently Jerry Gerber. Primarily for this reason I thought it was appropriate at this time to describe the earliest beginnings here in Berlin. Someone else should now continue this brief sketch before such details about the individual chair periods become blurred or even lost. It is my fervent hope that our Berlin chapter continues to grow and to become a major voice for the Democratic Party not only in Germany, but also on the international scene.


Photo: Rev. Roger David Aus, Ph.D

(My sincere thanks to Sabine Downey, widow of Bill Downey; Lisa Rehmann-Zauner, daughter of Jerry Gerber; George Kamp; and Nancy Green, for some of this information.)

Appendix:  George H. Kamp joined the still very small group in the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad already in 1998 when he retired from the John F. Kennedy School in Zehlendorf. He was elected as a delegate from Democrats Abroad Germany to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000. He notes about this experience: “The first day at the convention center was as follows: The voting for the candidates was done alphabetically. This meant that Democrats Abroad had to wait until everyone had voted and we gave our 11 votes. Most important was the TV coverage which took place at Prime Time on the Pacific Coast. Probably at 8 PM. Protests took place behind the fence at the center. Most of the protesters didn’t like the candidates. I spoke to them and heard their complaints. I called in my report about the convention by telephone to Democrats Abroad Berlin."

Get in touch with Roger at [email protected].