Brookfield, Seligenstadt, Germany, strengthen their sister-city ties

Thorsten Bonifer, Mayor Steve Ponto and Harry Farchmin stand together in the Seligenstadt Conference Room at Brookfield City Hall.

Thorsten Bonifer, Mayor Steve Ponto and Harry Farchmin stand together in the Seligenstadt Conference Room at Brookfield City Hall. Photo By submitted photo

Aug. 5, 2014

The city of Brookfield is saying goodbye to the latest envoys from its sister city of Seligenstadt, Germany.

The visiting group, led by Seligenstadt Sisters Cities Committee chair Thorsten Bonifer, arrived in Brookfield on Saturday, July 26, and spent more than a week exploring the Milwaukee area before heading to Chicago for a few days to conclude their trip.

Bonifer and his German contingent are only the latest in a biennial set of visitors that make the trans-Atlantic trip to continue strengthening the relationship between the sister cities. Brookfield-area residents, including Brookfield Sister Cities Committee chair Harry Farchmin, also make trips every other year to Seligenstadt.

This time around, Farchmin, Bonifer, and the European visitors spent the fortnight exploring a variety of sites and sounds offered by the Wisconsin summer. The visit kicked off with a visit to Milwaukee's annual Germanfest at Henry Maier Festival Park. Other highlights included a visit to the EAA Festival in Oshkosh, a tour of Madison, and a visit to the Wisconsin State Fair.

"We try to make it fun and enjoyable. We're just people getting together with people," Farchmin said. "The most important thing is to just connect with (each other)."

During Farchmin's last visit to Seligenstadt, in February 2013, he and Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto took part in the festivities for the city's annual Carnival.

During a previous visit, Farchmin recalls Bonifer taking him on a wine tour through Germany, Italy, and Austria.

Establishing relationships

The relationship between the pair of municipalities stretches much deeper than Farchmin and Bonifer's friendship. Elmbrook School District participates in a student exchange program with schools in Seligenstadt, which Bonifer says is the most important part of the sister city relationship.

"It's important for people to connect with each other, (and) even more important for students because they are the future," Bonifer said.

In the exchange with Seligenstadt, host families take turns hosting each others' children. In this way, not only do the students create a bond, but so too do their relatives.

Brookfield and Seligenstadt formalized their relationship as sister cities in December 2008; however, the initiative goes back further, as a document of intent for pursuing the partnership was published in 2004.

The relationship was a natural one, as Seligenstadt is in the district of Offenbach, which is sisters with Waukesha County, and in the state of Hessen, sisters with Wisconsin.

"(Former Mayor) Kate Bloomberg was really interested in this and she went over there with Matt Gibson, who was then superintendent of Elmbrook School District," Ponto said.

Not just sisters by name

Seligenstadt and Brookfield were honored by the Steuben-Schurz-Gesellschaft, the oldest German-American friendship organization in Germany, with an award labeling them as the most active German-American partnership in 2012. The award came with 1,000 euros, which the municipalities split.

"The last time I was re-elected, I sent a picture to Thorsten and he got it into three German newspapers," Ponto said. "I have friends in Seligenstadt. Whenever I post something on Facebook, there might be eight people from Seligenstadt that 'Like' it."

The relationship between the cities has touched the hearts of even those who reside far from either municipality.

A Washington woman whose grandparents had been a Jewish family living in Seligenstadt during World War II wanted to rediscover her roots, but was unable to reach anyone in the German city.

"She Googled and after a little bit called Brookfield and they said call Thorsten," Farchmin said.

Bonifer was able to get in touch with the woman and eventually arranged for her to visit Seligenstadt.

"Our mayor officially said sorry for what happened to her family and I gave her a tour and showed her her grandparents' old house," Bonifer said.

Stretching the relationship beyond Brookfield and Seligenstadt is both a goal and a reward for the two cities. Citizens interested in going on trips to visit the other municipality are not limited to city residents. Farchmin noted that two Waukesha residents accompanied the last Brookfield visiting party and Bonifer said a pair of the current German visitors are not from Seligenstadt.

While Bonifer and his company finish up their trip in Chicago, they are also going to be visiting with a Chicago resident now in his 70s who moved from Seligenstadt when he was 29.

"It was President Eisenhower who really sought to promote international understanding," Ponto said.

"We have great chemistry between our citizens. As we've been evolving, we've found that when we visit, it's almost like we've come home," Farchmin said. "It doesn't feel like we're tourists."

Bonifer noted that Seligenstadt and Brookfield are similar in being upscale communities a short distance from a bigger city. In Seligenstadt's case, that city is Frankfurt, which many Seligenstadt residents commute to for work.

The friendship between the cities can be symbolized by an exchange of jerseys that took place during this year's visit that saw Ponto don a German World Cup jersey and Bonifer wear a Green Bay Packers' jersey.

"I love the Packers. I host Super Bowl parties," Bonifer said.

Looking ahead

Farchmin, Ponto, Bonifer, and all those involved in trips from either side of the Atlantic must either raise funds or pay their own way during their respective visits. No municipal funds are used on either side.

The Brookfield Committee has recently been using its new annual German Christmas Market to raise money for their trips. The committee to plan that event is still chaired by Bloomberg, who remains actively involved in the relationship between the cities.

Seligenstadt has two other sister cities: Triel Sur-Seine, France, and Piedemonte Matese, Italy. Farchmin says that he is working on establishing a sister city relationship with a city in China, but believes that such a goal is at least a few years away.

Bonifer and his colleagues will be back in Germany soon, but many will be back in two years, or even sooner. Likewise, Farchmin won't have to wait longer than a year to see his transAtlantic friends. That's just how Ponto thinks it should be.

"I hope the people in Seliginstadt feel that Brookfield is their home in America," Ponto said.

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