Interweaving family memoir with scholarship, I uncover a language born of migration and hybridity, a witty and resourceful spirit of tolerance that remains essential today.
Centuries ago in Middle Europe, a coded language appeared, scrawled in graffiti and spoken only by people who were “wiz” (in the know). This hybrid language, dubbed Rotwelsch, facilitated survival for people in flight--whether escaping persecution or just down on their luck. It was a language of the road associated with vagabonds, travelers, Jews, and thieves that blended words from Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Romani, Czech, and other European languages and was rich in expressions for police, jail, or experiencing trouble, such as “being in a pickle.” This renegade language unsettled those in power, who responded by trying to stamp it out, none more vehemently than the Nazis.
As a boy, I learned this secret language from my father and uncle. Only as an adult did I discover, through a poisonous 1930s tract on Jewish names buried in the archives of Harvard's Widener Library, that my own grandfather had been a committed Nazi who despised this “the language of thieves.”
Reviews and reactions:
- "Puchner brilliantly integrates the personal and the professional in this intriguing account . . . Rich with insight and vivid character sketches, this moving and well-informed cultural history deserves a wide readership." Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "Puchner [is] never less than intriguing . . . A compelling mixture of memoir and philology." Kirkus Review
- "A deeply personal project, one that probes the meaning of language and family, inheritance and debt. . . . [Puchner's enthusiasm] inspires illuminating detours into subjects like the history of Esperanto and the birth of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg trials. What endures is his fascination with the resourcefulness and resilience of generations of travelers, like the ones who came to his childhood home in Nuremberg, drawn by a hidden zinken." New York Times Book Review
- "An unusual, intriguing project . . . While Puchner’s scholarly interests remain in focus, he writes clearly and thoughtfully, using history to examine past, present and future." BookPage
- "This fascinating account of Rotwelsch — a mix of Hebrew, Yiddish and German used for centuries by itinerant Europeans — draws on the author’s family history and delves into Nazi efforts to stamp out the language." New York Times Editors Choice.
- 20 books we're excited for this fall, Boston Globe
- "Puchner’s dive into the history of Europe through Rotwelsch, a story of intermixture and mischief and survival (with mini Rotwelsch lessons throughout), is as much a revelation to a reader as it no doubt was to the author." Harvard Magazine
- "Puchner reveals the power of archives and language in preserving the cultural record in this newest work. . . His expertise and dedication to a language all but eliminated by World War II is impressive, with his family's work almost exclusively documenting this underresearched language. Verdict: A puzzling family mystery uncovers a forgotten language and its ties to Nazi Germany in this probing literary history." Library Journal
- "With admirable insight and erudition, [Puchner wields] his knowledge with a light touch. A fascinating family memoir whose mysteries circle around the Third Reich and the study of language." Berlin Journal
- "The Language of Thieves is fascinating." Shepherd Express
- Podcast (American Academy)
- Bookshop (preferred bookseller)
- Apple Books
- Barnes & Noble
For engagements, please contact my publicist Kyle Radler.
- October 14, 8pm: book launch, NYPL Live. Register for this (virtual) event here (for free).
- October 16, Harvard Club of Naples (not public).
- October 20, Public Voices Salon.
- October 30, New York Institute for the Humanities.
- November 1, Phoenix Book Club (not public).
- November 5, Museum of Jewish Heritage.
- November 10, with David Levine and Shonni Ennelow.
- November 11, Harvard Book Store.
- Book launch, New York Public Library; click here.
- Novel Podcast, with Catherine Lacey.
- Translating the Future: conversation sponsored by Pen World Voices, Cullman Center NYPL, Center for the Humanities, and Martin E. Segal Theatre. Live recorded July 23, 2020.
Read and excerpt on CrimeReads.