October 13, 2020

The Language of Thieves

By Martin Puchner
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As a boy growing up in Nuremburg, Germany, Martin Puchner was fascinated when vagrants came to their house, asking for food, guided by secret signs scratched into the house’s exterior—related, it turns out, to similar signs used by American migratory workers during the Great Depression. His father explained that these signs were part of an underground, mostly spoken language called Rotwelsch, a mixture of German, Hebrew and Romani languages. Puchner’s early fascination eventually led him to become a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University.

His father, uncle and grandfather had all been equally obsessed with this mysterious language, and exploring this fixation became key not only to understanding his family heritage but also to making peace with his German roots. After carting around boxes of his uncle’s Rotwelsch archives for 25 years, he finally began to investigate. An unusual, intriguing project, The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession With a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate is the result.

Puchner traces Rotwelsch’s roots back to the days of Martin Luther and finds modern-day speakers of a closely related variant in Switzerland. While such sweeping history is interesting, the crux of his story is personal. When his father enlarged a 1937 photograph of Puchner’s grandfather, he discovered that he wore a Nazi button on his lapel. Puchner tracked down his grandfather’s dissertation in Harvard’s Widener Library. He was shocked to discover that his grandfather had studied Rotswelsch as it related to the origins of Jewish names and recommended a registry of such names.

In later years, Puchner’s uncle tried to reinvigorate Rotswelsch, publishing translations of the Bible, Shakespeare and more—a project Puchner felt was a “doomed translation exercise.” Still, somehow the Rotwelsch “virus” continued from generation to generation.

While Puchner’s scholarly interests remain in focus, he writes clearly and thoughtfully, using history to examine past, present and future. While speakers of Rotwelsch have long been persecuted, he concludes that we should use its existence “as a reminder that our settled lives are not always possible, that there are people who are unsettled, whether from necessity or choice.” This and similar nomadic languages, he says, as well as their speakers, deserve our utmost respect.

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The Language of Thieves

The Language of Thieves

By Martin Puchner
ISBN 9781324005919

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