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

Norton. Oct. 2020. 256p. ISBN 9781324005919. $26.95. LIT
Puchner (English, comparative literature, Harvard Univ.; The Written World) reveals the power of archives and language in preserving the cultural record in this newest work. As a child growing up in Germany, the author heard Rotwelsch, a bewildering hybrid of Hebrew and German often spoken by persons of Jewish descent. Puchner’s uncle Günter amassed a significant personal Rotwelsch archive, perhaps as “atonement for a regime that had tried to eliminate the language and its speakers.” Tracing back further, Puchner’s grandfather Karl was an archivist and National Socialist Party Member. The Nazi Party was grappling with racial identification as many Jewish families held German names. Puchner explains how Karl believed targeting Rotwelsch speakers was an additional identifying tool for the Nazi Party. What innocently began as family research turned into an uncomfortable confrontation with past secrets. Puchner thoroughly documents Rotwelsch’s history and its connections to Hebrew, Yiddish, and German. His expertise and dedication to a language all but eliminated by World War II is impressive, with his family’s work almost exclusively documenting this underresearched language. Each chapter ends with drawn zinken, a pictographic component of Rotwelsch, and an assortment of vocabulary.
VERDICT A puzzling family mystery uncovers a forgotten language and its ties to Nazi Germany in this probing literary history that will attract linguistics enthusiasts.
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