Centuries ago in Middle Europe, a coded language appeared, scrawled in graffiti and spoken only by people who were “wiz” (in the know)—vagrants and refugees, merchants and thieves. This hybrid language was rich in expressions for police, jail, or experiencing trouble, such as “being in a pickle.” And beginning with Martin Luther, German Protestants who disliked its speakers wanted to stamp it out. The Nazis hated it most of all.
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, that my own grandfather, a historian and archivist, had been a committed Nazi who hated everything his sons and grandsons loved about “the language of thieves.”
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.