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:
- Long-listed for Wingate Prize.
- "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 tells us a good deal about the history of Rotwelsch… absorbing’
Times Literary Supplement.
"A poignant, challenging essay on belonging and displacement, on brittle margins and dominant centres." Mika Provata-Carlone, Bookanista.
- "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
- "Professor and memoirist sees parallels to nation's current turmoils . . . The Language of Thieves . . . [sent] Puchner on an ancestral journey, one defined by generations willing and unwilling to reckon with deeply personal family history in the World War II era." Harvard Gazette
- "The Coolest History Books You Didn't Know Existed," Thirdplacebook.com
- "The Language of Thieves is fascinating." Shepherd Express
- "When Martin Puchner was a child, tramps would turn up at his family home in Nuremberg to be fed by his mother. His father explained that they were drawn by a zinken (sign) associated with Rotwelsch, a language spoken by vagrants and criminals whose name is derived from two terms: Rot (beggar) and Welsch (incomprehensible). The zinken, a cross within a circle carved into the house’s foundation stone, told them that lechem (bread) could be had there. Rotwelsch became Puchner’s key to unlocking a cupboard of family skeletons." The Spectator
- "Journeying into the heart of Europe's darkness, The Language of Thieves uncovers a mysterious set of traces connecting Luther to Hitler and three generations of the Puchner family. What emerges is a unique story about the promise and perils of citizenship, the resilience and resourcefulness of state-evading communities, and the uses and abuses of history. As questions about the exercise of state power gain a new urgency across the world, it is hard to imagine a more vital and compelling book for our turbulent times."
Peter McDonald, Oxford University.
- "Puchner uses the sociolect of Rotwelsch as a stimulus to delve into his own family history, dissecting the problems of post-Nazi Germany and its generational conflicts, along with discussions about history and race, and including homage to many distinguished intellectuals and scholars. . . . [H] skillfully spins a wider net . . . In the hands of a lesser writer the connections . . . may have felt pretentious. It is testimony to Puchner's self-critical style that it never feels either clumsy or pompous. . . . this is a wonderful book about Rotwelsch and more generally about spoken language forms that provide identity to their speakers and ensure tight-knit networks based on shibboleths." Dr. Esther-Miriam Wagner, Woolf Institute, Cambridge University.
- "a wonderfully gripping story that ventures fearlessly into some pretty dark family secrets to tell the story of a Europe you won’t find in conventional history books." New New European.
- Barnes and Noble Best Books of 2020.
- Bookshop (preferred bookseller)
- Apple Books
- Barnes & Noble
For engagements, please contact my publicist Kyle Radler.
"It's a vivid, compelling blend of memoir and academic sleuthing," Daily Mail.
"A book about history, language and culture wrapped up in a detective story. . . It feels as if the writer is peeling back the skin to reveal Germany. I found it fascinating." Michael Rosen, The Guardian, June 5, 2021.
- "Puchner’s book is much more than the history of an obscure dialect, however, even if that’s a fascinating story in itself that encompasses Franz Kafka, The Golem and an international brotherhood of vagrants that gathered in southern Germany in 1929." The New European.
- "A fascinating blend of linguistics, history, and autobiography which offers a powerful new approach to humanities research." Bart van Es, author of The Cut Out Girl
- "The Language of Thieves is worth reading; you will be in capable hands, the hands of a good writer and sensitive scholar. The book raises tantalizing, compelling issues." The National Review
- "Martin Puchner explores both Rotwelsch and the experience of uncovering his complicated family history . . . revealing the Jewish linguistic contribution that Martin Luther had protested in the 16th century." The Jewish News.
- "Fittingly, for a book dedicated to generations of wanderers, Puchner rambles through all sorts of subjects . . . The meandering storyline and descriptions of pubs is nevertheless something that Puchner manages to pull off. . . .and Puchner's affection for Rotwelsch is obviously deeply felt." Tibor Fischer, The Oldie.
"A globetrotter of literature . . . for whom literature is flesh, blood, and life." Pagine Ebriche.
- "A rare find. A journey through language and family, revealing lives lived on the margins and on the wrong side of history." Rachel Seiffert.
- 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.
- December 3: Shelagh Shapiro, Write the Book
- December 3: Tom Sumner Show
- December 20, BYU Radio.
- January 5, Ira Woods Show.
- January 12, BBC.
- April 13, 2022, Child Memorial Lecture, American University
- Book launch, New York Public Library; click here.
- Public Voices Salon.
- Write the Book Radio Show.
- Novel Podcast, with Catherine Lacey.
- Ricardo Lopez channel.
- 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.
Related op-eds in L. A. Times here and here.
- Op-ed on the last four years, LA Times.Short take, Lit Hub.
Short take, Zocalo.
-Podcast (American Academy)