Members of the Die Erste Gottscheer Tanzgruppe children's group wait...

Members of the Die Erste Gottscheer Tanzgruppe children's group wait for the crowning of Miss Gottschee 2012 during the 66th annual Gottscheer Volksfest in Franklin Square on Sunday. (June 3, 2012) Credit: Michael Cusanelli

Leora Zach, 24, stood beaming before the crowd after being crowned Miss Gottschee 2012 at the 66th annual Gottscheer Volksfest in Franklin Square on Sunday.

As the representative of the Gottscheer people, Zach will be the figurehead at all of this year’s Gottscheer community events.

“It’s a great honor to represent such a wonderful group,” said Zach, a Glendale native. “ I’m very proud to be a Gottscheer.”

Over 1,400 people gathered at Plattdeutsche Park in Franklin Square on Sunday to celebrate their shared heritage as members of the Gottscheer people.

The Gottschee are Germans who began immigrating to the United States in the late 19th century from the former Yugoslavia, what is now known as Slovenia. During World War II, the Gottschee people sought refuge in the west from the German army.

The festival, which draws people from all over the country, was sponsored by the Gottscheer Relief Association, which was founded in 1946. The Relief Association is comprised of nine Gottscheer clubs and organizations, some of which date back to 1901. These groups were formed to help fellow Gottscheers adjust to life in the United States.

“This is a very old German group,” said Helga Zender, 69, of Middle Village. “ Some of us went to school in Europe and now we meet here.”

According to Sonia Juren Kulesza, 54, of Glendale, the yearly gathering is a way for the Gottscheers to help pass on their heritage to younger generations and to instill pride in their shared pasts.

“We’re doing what we can to preserve the culture, but the language will probably die off in a couple of generations,” said Juren Kulesza, the vice president of the Gottscheer Relief Association.

The Volksfest included traditional Gottscheer dishes, such as Krainerwurst, Bratwurst, and apple strudels. Members of the Die Erste Gottscheer Tanzgruppe children’s group also performed traditional dances to Gottscheer folk music.

“I love the atmosphere and the getting together of old friends, and the meeting of new friends that come to the festival,” said Christine Schukat, 41, of Sound Beach.

For many attendees, gatherings like the Gottscheer Volksfest are not just a way to reconnect with friends and family members from their youth. They are a way to keep the past alive.

“The older you grow, the more friends you have,” said Albert Belay, the president of the Gottscheer Mannerchor. “It’s always nice to meet and to talk about the times past.”

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