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

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

by Martin Puchner


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Tracking an underground language and the outcasts who depended on it for their survival.

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, Martin Puchner learned this secret language from his father and uncle. Only as an adult did he discover, through a poisonous 1930s tract on Jewish names buried in the archives of Harvard’s Widener Library, that his own grandfather had been a committed Nazi who despised this "language of thieves." Interweaving family memoir with an adventurous foray into the mysteries of language, Puchner crafts an entirely original narrative. In a language born of migration and survival, he discovers a witty and resourceful spirit of tolerance that remains essential in our volatile present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781324005919
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 57,543
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Martin Puchner is Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, author of The Written World, and general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He lives and works in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Language Games 1

Chapter 1 Camouflage Names 9

Chapter 2 The Book of Vagrants 26

Chapter 3 A Picture Comes into View 38

Chapter 4 The Rotwelsch Inheritance 54

Chapter 5 The King of the Tramps 76

Chapter 6 The Farmer and the Judge 97

Chapter 7 An Attic in Prague 119

Chapter 8 When Jesus Spoke Rotwelsch 134

Chapter 9 Igpay Atinlay for Adults 149

Chapter 10 The Story of an Archivist 160

Chapter 11 Judgment at Hikels-Mokum 177

Chapter 12 Error-Spangled Banner 196

Chapter 13 Your Grandfather Would Have Been Proud of You 212

Chapter 14 Rotwelsch in America 222

Chapter 15 The Laughter of a Yenish Chief 237

Acknowledgments 247

Notes 251

Illustration Credits 261

Index 263

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