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.”
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.
Podcast (American Academy)
- "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
Book supported by:
Cullman Center at the New York Public Library
American Academy in Berlin
- TAZ article (in German)
- 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.