The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate

Martin Puchner. Norton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324005-91-9
Puchner (The Written World), a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard, brilliantly integrates the personal and the professional in this intriguing account of his quest to learn as much as possible about Rotwelsch, a mash-up of German, Yiddish, and Hebrew spoken by itinerant people in Europe since the Middle Ages. Puchner’s interest in the subject goes back to his childhood in Nuremberg, Germany, in the 1970s, where his uncle Günter was an authority on Rotwelsch and the Puchner family adopted it as a secret code. Following Gunter’s death, the family stopped using Rotwelsch, but the practice influenced Puchner’s decision to study linguistics. In his dogged research into the history of Rotwelsch and his family’s connection to it, Puchner discovered that 16th-century Protestant theologian Martin Luther viewed the language as a link between three groups he despised (Jews, foreigner beggars, and vagrants), and that Puchner’s paternal grandfather, a historian of names, had sought to advise the Nazis on how to distinguish between Jews with German-sounding names and Germans whose names sounded Jewish. Puchner concludes that the persistence of Rotwelsch, despite centuries of determined opposition, is a testament “to the endurance of generations of ultimate outcasts.” Rich with insight and vivid character sketches, this moving and well-informed cultural history deserves a wide readership. (Oct.)
Reviewed on : 07/08/2020
Release date: 10/13/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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