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.
So now there were three strangers who spoke German in my world. I knew they were strangers because I addressed them as Frau or Herr instead of Onkel or Tante, which is what I called almost all other German-speaking adults. The fact that, following local custom, I called American adults who were close friends by their first names made our linguistic isolation palpable. Eddie and Janie and C.O. and Hazel were from another universe, where other laws pertained.
I was in my late twenties before I could comfortably address grown-up Europeans by their first names, and even then it was not easy. The crisis came when I got a job at Berkeley and was placed on a committee with two older colleagues: Paul Alexander, a saintly, extravagantly learned Byzantinist who was on the fringe of my family circle (the best friend of a cousin by marriage), and Nicholas Riasanovsky, a Russian historian. We were to give out money for graduate research projects. I couldn’t call Alexander ‘Onkel Paul’, as I might otherwise have done; ‘Onkel Nick’ was out of the question. And I couldn’t address colleagues as ‘Professor’. So ‘Paul’ and ‘Nick’ it was, but not without a mental gulp. I still find this blurring of boundaries difficult.
There were two exceptions to this first-name rule: my mother’s closest friends from Istanbul. Both were known by their nicknames. One, still alive, is ‘Dicke’ or ‘die Dicke’ (‘the fat one’), who was supposedly once fat; the other was ‘Schweinchen’ or ‘piglet’, whose nickname is a corruption of her maiden name, Schwerine. Schweinchen was sometimes Tante Paula; Dicke was always Dicke.
German, in other words, constituted a world that I knew intimately but also not at all. Although I spoke it fluently, I got things having to do with the public/private distinction seriously wrong. The du/Sie question was never easy. In our family, of course, I used du; likewise with family friends. I could use Sie, but it did not come naturally. I had to be coached and reminded, a formula for screwing up, a sign not so much of bad character as of cultural cluelessness. Dicke’s husband, Wiegand, was said to be vornehm (‘refined’). I don’t know on what this view was based, but when he visited it was said to be important that I, age seven, not duzen him. I think I succeeded. But there were embarrassing lapses. When I was 11 or 12, we visited Boston and made a pilgrimage to the butcher shop of Herr Thyssen, who was my parents’ long-distance purveyor of German food. It came every few weeks to Beckley and Bluefield, packed in ice, via Greyhound bus: Kaiserjagdwurst, Leberwurst, Blutwurst, and other wursts I can only say and not spell; Stinkerkäse (my name for Limburger cheese); every kind of dark bread. At Herr Thyssen’s shop, introductions were made and I lapsed into du; he was clearly taken aback; my mother was appalled. There was nothing to do but try to disappear.
The same problem came up in regard to my tone of voice and the distance I stood from interlocutors. ‘Mami’ Putschar, the German-speaking wife of a Hungarian pathologist in Charleston whom we visited occasionally, always said that I sounded like a Feldwebel or army sergeant. I didn’t know what this was, because it isn’t the sort of word that comes up in family life; I didn’t play soldiers with anyone who knew the language. But it was clear it wasn’t a good way to sound. In college, where – in the person of émigré professors – I met another set of ‘stranger Germans’, my first as an adult, I knew I was somehow standing too close to them when I spoke. It took time to find the right range.
My family’s German was entirely cut off from Germany and from everything that had happened to the language since the 1930s. There were lots of German speakers in my life, but they were an odd assortment of émigrés, some native speakers, others part of the German cultural penumbra. In Beckley, where we had moved in 1956, there was only a Ukrainian Orthodox couple who spoke German. He had studied medicine in Germany after escaping from the East; she was a self-consciously romantic woman who spoke a hyperbolic, soulful, Russian-accented version of my mother tongue.
During the summers there were also my uncles and aunts, who came to visit our cottage in Virginia; there were my mother’s buddies from Istanbul, and even some from her late twenties and early thirties in Germany; there was, early on, my grandmother’s sister-in-law, who spoke a Polish-accented German; there were several Hungarians, including a voice teacher from Juilliard who had the deepest voice of anyone I knew; there was an Austrian nurse who had somehow linked up with a West Virginia dermatologist named Locksley, who spouted Shakespeare at the slightest provocation. And there were Max and his wife, who owned a bakery in the small town of Pulaski, near our lake; both had tattoos on their arms from Auschwitz. Why they wanted to speak German with my mother is unclear; I didn’t wonder about it at the time. They also spoke Yiddish with my Onkel Otto when he visited.
I dwell on these childhood memories because German is, above all, a connection with a pre-sexual me. I have never made love in German; I know no sexual slang words, and few slang words of any sort. I wouldn’t know what it would mean to feel sexual in German. My German is frozen, amber-like, not only in prewar history but in childhood; with some few exceptions, it is emotionally fixed. The word for caraway seed, Kümmel, is an adjective for a kind of bread on which one eats corned beef or chopped liver; for me it describes a man who terrified me as a small child, der Kümmelman, a beggar with a pock-marked face who stood outside our Istanbul apartment. Too little has happened to me in German to make the regular uses of words mean what they should.
Powerful words generally feel as if they come from my mother; phrases, or dicta, from my father. Sanft, ‘soft’ or ‘gentle’, I associate with her, although the phrase in which it comes back to me in the first instance is not hers. In my mind’s ear it is from Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ – Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt (‘where your gentle wing may come to rest’). I think of the word in connection with my birthday. On the evening of 6 September, from as early as I can remember until I was ten or so, my father and I would lie on a couch and listen to a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth. For the first years in West Virginia, it was the old 78s of the Furtwängler recording that would clack-clack-clack down until the whole stack had to be turned. Sometime around second grade, we switched to the Toscanini LP version that, miraculously, played for 25 minutes without a clack and went by, with its wild tempi, considerably faster than Furtwängler’s more Germanic version. The ritual, however, did not change with conductors: lights were dimmed; during die Neunte there would be no talking or interruptions by other family members; we were alone. I wonder how, before record-players, Germans of my parents’ class and generation learned their reverence for ‘the Ninth’, which can only mean Beethoven’s. In German, or at least my parents’ German, one puts just a little bit more emphasis on the die – lingering just an instant on the Neunte – than one would in a phrase like ‘the ninth symphony of Schubert’ or ‘the ninth symphony of Mahler’.
Geboren, ‘born’, is a mother word. She, and only she, and no one since she died, would address me on my birthday with the redundant silliness of mein einziger Erstgeborener (‘my only firstborn’). The diminutive suffix –lein is also my mother’s: my father might occasionally have addressed me as Thomaslein – I don’t remember – but my mother always did. Tommy, which is what they called me in West Virginia, has always sounded silly; Tom is just a name; Thomaslein is very sweet. Traurig (‘sad’) is a mother word, although I think my mother was in fact far happier than my father. She loved to sing a song called ‘Die Lorelei’, the lyrics of which were by her favourite poet, Heine:
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
‘I do not know what it means, that I am so sorrowful; I cannot get out of my head a tale of the most ancient of times.’ This is roughly how I feel about things German in general: a fairytale built of projections, fantasies and memories that I can’t erase and which leave me melancholy.
In my family, we spoke German at the dinner table until I left for college because my grandmother claimed that she neither spoke nor understood English. This was clearly false – she read English papers and watched English TV – but feigning ignorance allowed her to maintain the fiction of otherworldly incompetence that she seems to have cultivated all her life and which kept her out of public view. She didn’t venture outside family circles during her 23 years in America.
My grandmother could do all sorts of needlework, but she couldn’t – or at least didn’t, in anyone’s memory – so much as boil an egg. She stayed in Germany until December 1939, on the grounds that she didn’t want to leave her Bechstein grand. In America, she dressed and acted like a lady of a distant century, seemingly unaware that the world around her had changed. The first of my fantasy Germanies is hers. The words I associate with her are es geht rapide bergab – ‘things are going rapidly downhill’ – something she said about herself from when she was in her late seventies to when she went gaga in her late nineties.
With my mother I spoke German exclusively until she died; I have not spoken it regularly since 1992. With my father I spoke only English, the grown-up language, the language in which I talked of science and medicine and politics. He spoke English much better than my mother, but it was only much later, when I heard him on a Dictaphone summarising an autopsy, that I realised how heavily accented his English was, almost parodically so. The few bits of really grown-up German I know, and the minimal sense I have of the rhythms of the language, are from sayings or maxims, Sprichwörter, that come from my father. (I wish I could rattle off those wonderful torrents of dependent clauses and finish up with the verb, as grown-up German speakers do.) Cursing, too, comes through him. Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens (‘With stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain’) was a big one, while Kant’s categorical imperative was recited with a special tone of reverence. I loved its sounds and the fact that there was only one such rule, even if it took me a while to understand what it meant: handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, daß sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde (‘act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,’ which I understood in the still grander form, ‘act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature’).
Donnerwetter (‘thunder weather’) was the prelude to an explosion of anger and was often followed by noch ein mal (‘once again’). This malediction was frequently associated with the threat that if we continued to misbehave my mother would call my father, who would then say ein Machtwort: literally, a ‘word of power’, but really more like the definitive warning of the superego. Since one of the other big sayings in my family was Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi (Latin sayings had the authority of German ones), which meant ‘What is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to the ox,’ the ‘thunder weather/words of power’ combo carried a certain terror. The Latin saying itself was used mostly to explain why I was mistaken in thinking the categorical imperative might apply to some action of my father’s. So, if it was OK for him to be late when we all knew that lateness was indefensible as a universal principle, the old Jovi exception was adduced. I thought that this was fudging on the universality principle but got nowhere with this line of argument.
The only curses I know are my father’s, and they are ridiculously quaint. He would reproach my mother with Was glaubst du daß ich bin, ein Ducatenscheiser (‘What do you think I am? Someone who shits ducats?’) every month as he was paying the bills. He was terribly anxious about money, having no one to back him up if he failed, but he must have known full well that his wife was frugal and extremely efficient at household management. Leck mich am Arsch (‘kiss my ass’) was another such, always attributed to Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen. I have never used these phrases in public because I have no idea whether they mean anything in the outside world.
Two words belong to both parents and have universal resonance for me: Unsinn and vernünftig. Unsinn (‘nonsense’, ‘absurdity’) had many applications, was often used as an expletive, and was one of the few words from childhood that carried over into adolescence. Macht keinen Unsinn (‘Don’t do anything stupid’) was the standard caution before I went out on a date. It didn’t apply to my driving, which was impeccable, but to parking on one of the hundreds of miles of strip-mine roads around where we lived and necking the evening away. Unsinn and sei vernünftig (‘act reasonably’) are the only German words that have any association with sex for me. Being vernünftig meant being governed by reason in life generally, but in the absence of any other post-pubescent words, it still has a peculiar ring of sexual danger.
I felt strongly as I was growing up that my father simply didn’t understand what it meant to live in another culture. My mother, whose English was wildly ungrammatical and full of Germanic neologisms, got on well with the locals. She made a joke of her misunderstandings, as when at her citizenship examination she answered that ja, ja, she ‘had been and was still a member of the Communist Party’. She had been told by friends that if she didn’t understand a question – she often missed what people said if they spoke quickly or with a thick mountain accent – she should simply answer ‘yes.’ Beckley and Bluefield abounded with Toni Laqueur malapropisms; but she fitted in. My father was clueless. He somehow translated my high school graduation as Abitur, an occasion for much ceremony and for a punch bowl of champagne and alcohol-soaked fruit. This did not go down well with my high school friends. He tried at New Year’s Eve parties to have everyone wear tuxedos and listen to Beethoven’s Ninth. This also did not find wide acceptance.
And he seemed to have no sense of what his own past meant after Hitler. We had a record of German student drinking songs. He knew all of them; even I knew them. He had a picture of himself and his university fraternity wearing their uniforms and displaying sabres. He had a small duelling scar above his hairline. None of this struck him as odd or ironic. Perhaps it was just an instance of the strategy my parents shared, of attempting to mitigate the pain of having lost their homeland by neither assimilating nor living in a diaspora community, among others who had been displaced. They lived as much as they could in a bubble, eating food and speaking a language and listening to music that no one around them appreciated or understood. My German has inherited something of their cultural autarchy.
My father never went back to Germany; my mother went back once, in 1955, to visit an old friend who had returned. She chanced on central casting’s nightmare of a taxi driver, who went on about all the good things the Nazis had done and how Americans misunderstood die Hitlerzeit. Never again. So both of them remained passionately German, but without any real contact with Germany. They drank only German wines; they staged an elaborate German Christmas, complete with candles on the tree (until neighbours told them that American trees, cut a month in advance, would go up in flames); they listened almost exclusively to German music – Parsifal was put on for Easter. They thought the French were wrong to occupy the Rhineland in 1920, and wrongheaded about much else besides. So I lived a childhood produced by the children of 19th-century Jews, who imagined the land of Goethe and Schiller with little of its reality or recent history.
I went to Germany for the first time in 1992, when I was 47. I was there as a tourist and spoke of little but hotel rooms, food and schedules. The first time I actually said anything in German that was not about travel or the sorts of thing one talks about in families – that is, the first time I felt that German was for me a public language – was in the summer of 1995 at a conference in Frankfurt. I asked a question in German of a journalist; he understood and answered; I asked a follow-up. I translated in whispers the lectures of colleagues for my wife, and found that I was good at it. On subsequent trips I have given my own lectures in German, sometimes at the request of my hosts but sometimes just because I wanted very much to reclaim the language for my parents.
I love being in Germany among my friends; it is a return to a place and a language and a cultural tradition that my parents never ceased to mourn. The people I know there are to a person cultivated, intelligent, liberal and welcoming. But I have no illusions about the phantasmic – arguably delusional – attachment I have to place and language. In 1995, my wife and I visited my mother’s home-town, Holzminden an der Weser, a town of about 30,000 inhabitants not far from Hannover, in what was once the heartland of Nazi electoral support. My grandparents’ house looked exactly as it did in pictures, almost entirely unchanged. The river Weser ran swiftly less than a hundred metres from the meadow where my grandfather, a grain merchant, kept a few cows and chickens. I knocked on the door of the house, and an old woman appeared at the window. I asked her if she had lived there for a long time. Yes, she had always lived there. Well, I said, my grandparents had lived there. No, not possible, she said before she relented: who were they? Their name was Weinberg. ‘Ach ja, die Juden. Feine Leute.’ (‘Ah yes, the Jews. Fine people.’) Her father, a carpenter, had bought the place from my grandfather in the Hitlerzeit. This must have been in the early 1940s, just before he was deported to Theresienstadt and on to Auschwitz. She shared with me what she knew about where one swam in the Weser (swimming was my mother’s great love, and I had heard a lot about the river’s quick currents and what one had to do to navigate them). She told me the location of the Catholic girls’ Gymnasium that my mother had attended. I then asked her whether my wife might take a picture of me in the window in which she was sitting. Suddenly, she ceased to understand my German. I could reclaim only so much.