I seem to have had a peculiar loyalty to the German language from about as early as a child can have articulate views. I was told by my parents that when they urged me as a three-year-old to learn Turkish, so that I might communicate more effectively with my playmates in Istanbul, where we had come in our flight from Hitler, I would have none of it. Let them learn German, I supposedly said; Turkish ‘ist eine häßliche Sprache’, an ugly language. German was my mother tongue, partly in the usual sense – my first language was German – but also because I spoke it almost exclusively with my mother, my grandmother and their women friends. Only certain words and phrases are spoken by or to men in my linguistic fantasy life. German is almost entirely a family language for me, but it is also the language of a world – real, remembered and misremembered – that my parents lost, a world that now exists almost entirely in my imagination, but which I maintain as a way of mourning them.
I spoke only German until we left Turkey in November 1949. A stop in London with relatives was still all German, as were a few weeks in New York. My mother’s brother – my Onkel Otto – and his wife lived in Manhattan near Fort Tryon Park, in the middle of a German-Jewish ghetto. Later, when we had settled in West Virginia, my mother visited them periodically and came back complaining how insular their world was. I think I understand what she meant: one couldn’t forget that one was living in exile there, among one’s countrymen on the cliffs above the Hudson. In contrast, my family’s relationship to its native language could not have been more cut off from its roots than ours was in the coal villages and towns where I grew up. I don’t think my parents thought of themselves as living in a diaspora because they had no one with whom to share their loss.
After New York, we lived for a few months in my Tante Eli’s boarding house near the University of Texas in Austin. She specialised in housing foreign students. She and her husband had gone to Yugoslavia when Hitler came to power. When he attacked Belgrade, they made their way south to Albania, in the hope of being captured by the possibly benign Italians instead of the certainly murderous Germans. They succeeded, and spent the war in a Calabrian internment camp until they were liberated by the British Eighth Army and headed north with it as translators. By the time they had to earn a living in Texas, they had Italian and Serbo-Croat and colloquial English, in addition to very good school French, and Latin. This was my first sustained exposure to English.
I remember being grumpy about learning a new language while in Austin. My parents claimed my first words in my new language were: ‘Me no eat fruit.’ I find this unlikely, as I have no memory of ever not liking fruit. After three months, my mother, paternal grandmother, younger brother and I joined my father near Montgomery, West Virginia, where he had secured a job as a pathologist in a coal-field hospital. A friend from Istanbul, also a pathologist, had found a job nearby the year before. I have no memory of speaking English during our months in the h0llow near Montgomery, just down from a railroad track. I think my mother’s English was not very good, so we didn’t see much of the neighbours. Tante Biba and Onkel Peter, the friends from Istanbul, lived twenty or thirty miles away, and with them I spoke German. Then on to Bluefield, the ‘air-conditioned city’, where coal poured in from the bituminous fields. It was here that I started to learn English seriously. I remember no hostility this time, although I do remember being teased about my German accent for many years to come. Unlike my brother, who is three years younger than me, I never acquired the mountain accent, and I still sound foreign in those parts.
In Bluefield I discovered that German was a language spoken by people other than my parents and a few friends. It was not, as I had unself-consciously assumed, a family code. This revelation came as follows: I was having a screaming fight in German with my brother, in front of the Pen Mar Grocery, a half-block from our house; he was three and I was six. The issue was how much of a two-barrel popsicle I was going to share with him. A lady came up to us and said, in German, that she would give us a nickel so that we could each have a treat of our own. I don’t remember buying a second popsicle, but I do remember being very excited at finding someone else of our linguistic species. I rushed home with the big news.
Frau Bressler, as she was called, had asked where we lived; I told her. She visited. She had married Herr Bressler, who was many years her senior, after a long courtship. He had some sort of disease that had caused his hands to shrivel into reddish, claw-like appendages, and he worked repairing small electrical appliances and meters. The Bresslers were poor; she was a southern German Catholic. (This I deduced on a visit last summer, from books about a Papal visit to Bavaria I saw on the coffee table in her house.) Frau Bressler became one of my mother’s close friends despite their very different circumstances. She also became our regular – indeed only – babysitter when my parents were away for more than an evening.
There was a third German in Bluefield, Frau Snelling, who had married – after the war, I assume – an alcoholic West Virginia forester. I associate her, however, not with making German a more public language for me, but rather with my first noteworthy failure in my efforts to be a good little German boy. The traumatic moment came when her mother, Frau Wöppekind, visited from Germany. On meeting her, I remembered to address her by the formal Sie, as I’d been told to do. I did not, however, remember to bow. ‘Mach eine Verbeugung,’ said my mother, not pleased with my lapse. I don’t recall what Frau Wöppekind said, but I do remember that she seemed taken aback by der Bube’s bad manners.