I Harbor a Stillborn Scribe of the German Tongue in Me

On Germans and Jewishness

Peter Wortsman
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Once, after heartily and gamely shooting the breeze over Russian bubbly at a congenial gathering in the former GDR, the Polish wife of a German friend asked me what, in fact, my mother tongue was. The conversation, in which I took a lively part, vigorously affirming and defending my points of view about this and that, was conducted entirely in German, while I communicated shreds of the essential gist in French to my French wife, and every now and then scolded in English my young son, who, two years of German instruction notwithstanding, made not the slightest effort to exchange a few German words with the neighbors’ delightful little daughter.

Reflecting for a moment, I gave the following answer: My mother tongue is actually a kind of linguistic wrap, with German, the language I spoke for my entire life with my mother, enveloped by English, whereby I am quite sure that there are forgotten Yiddish sentiments slipped into my eccentric German; the Yiddish, in turn, still studded with Hebrew longings smuggled out of the desert, the whole generously salted with tears and seasoned with screams.

Given that I learned German as a first language, albeit only orally, from my mother, German is and remains for all intents and purposes my mother tongue. But I grew up in English. And since I only learned to read and write German much later, as an adult, it remains for me a language of childhood, or rather a delinquent dialect. As such, he who bears the name Peter Wortsman keeps stumbling on a second I in the clang of German syllables, the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll, a shamelessly impertinent creature who allows himself to take liberties that my well brought up, adult, English-speaking I would surely have censored.

Let me lay it on the line, even if it sounds a bit bizarre.

I harbor a stillborn scribe of the German tongue in me, who, despite everything, belongs to the literary tradition from Kleist to Kafka. As a translator I have a very intimate relationship to that tradition. Every word is an air bubble, every sentence a breath, an exhalation burdened with meaning. With his ear pressed to extinguished lips, the translator acts as a kind of medium who literally derives inspiration transmitted by strange syllables. Translation from one language into another, particularly the words of the dead, is a kind of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in which you breathe new life into expired thoughts.

But German for me, if I can be perfectly frank, also harbors a dark subtext. The language of the Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), to whom I, in my own modest way, feel a certain kinship, is also the language of the Richter und Henker (judges and executioners). In Auschwitz and Buchenwald they not only murdered people, they also once and for all time erased the tenuous borderline between nightmare and reality, and thereby devised a new marginal tongue in which consciousness and the subconscious blabber like undivided Siamese twins. Sayings like Jedem das Seine (To Each His Own) and Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) and concentration camp jargon like Muselmann (a walking dead man) and Kanada (the depot in Auschwitz-Birkenau where the last possessions of the slaughtered were saved and stored, thus the epitome of limitless riches and boundless possibilities) bespeak a black humor that arouses a tickle in the throat that can never be stilled by easy laughter. I am also heir to this German tongue.

A word about my conflicted identity.

Once upon a time there was a turbulent cultural melding, a marriage of two peoples that exploded again and again in outbursts of violence, nevertheless bearing rich fruits, a marriage that finally fell apart in a terrible divorce. This German-Jewish union, in the braded double helix of which the souls of the North Sea and the Mediterranean, of mountain climber and nomad met, a union dating back to Roman times, when the Jews first established small settlements along the Rhine, led to some of the heights and the depths of our modern era. One can only imagine a Marx, a Freud, a Kafka, a Wittgenstein, or even an Einstein, among many other pathfinders of modernity, at the crossroads of strict German syntax, logic, and idealism coupled with Talmudic justice and idealism, qualities that on the one hand tend to Messianism and on the other, in the case of some Jews, is bound with a seemingly contrary readiness—namely, systematically to break all rules. An elective affinity perhaps. I would rather call it a productive symbiosis, like that of the bird that lives on the back of the bison and feeds on the insects in its fur before flying on. Only the fleas lose out in the deal.

The Biblical term Ivri (Hebrew) means to cross over. Abraham left his birthplace Ur to seek his fortune elsewhere. Moses led his nation of slaves out of Egypt through the desert and rolled-back waves of the Red Sea to find freedom on the far shore.

I belong to a tribe of wanderers. Perhaps I carry the nomadic drive of my ancestors in my toes and retain their anxious breath patterns in my lungs. The Germans were also once a wandering people, or group of peoples. Modern movements like the Wandervögel and the Kibbutzniks are essentially not all that dissimilar. Perhaps German and Jewish Wanderlust came together in the joints of my knees. Already as a young man, my father, a native Viennese, was often underway somewhere, preferably Paris. Later my parents were expelled from their homeland. My father, who spoke seven languages fluently, turned his refugee status into an art de vivre. From early on he raised us to be travelers. But beneath the pleasure of experiencing the big wide world and of rediscovering oneself again and again in foreign climes, there was always the underlying notion that we had to learn to leap like a cat, since you could never know when it would once again be time to pick up and go.

For me being Jewish means above all bearing a deeply engraved question mark in my brain as a badge of honor, to be certain only in uncertainty, and as soon as I arrive anywhere to look around already for the exit door.

It always seemed to me as if I’d been born in the shadow of the flames that engulfed my parents’ world, as if everything meaningful and significant had already happened before my birth, and that, in fact, I had no right to my own experience, because it would always be held to be inconsequential in comparison to what my parents lived through.

Then in 1973 I landed as a Fulbright fellow at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg im Breisgau, to study fairy tales, the literary love of my childhood. And the following year, as a fellow of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, I went to Vienna, where I conducted interviews with survivors of the concentration camps. Today they comprise The Peter Wortsman Collection of Oral History at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Back then I tried to seek out the ghosts in the shadows. These interviews inspired a few songs, and many years later I wrote my first play The Tattooed Man Tells All.

My father died in 1979. Despite the heavy burden of grief, his death also freed me, as if a second umbilical cord had been cut. Only after his death did I one day begin to write short texts in German. I dedicated my first book of short prose A Modern Way to Die (1991), parts of which I composed in German, and then translated, or rather adapted into English, to my father, and as an epigram graced it with the Viennese saying he was fond of repeating: Nichts dauert ewig, der schänste Jud wird schäbig. (Nothing last forever, the nicest Jew grows shabby.)

Strangely enough, it was only on the now canonical date of September 11, 2001, when the great peril appeared to draw near and I saw the towers tumble outside my window, that I was freed from the phantoms of the past. The geopolitical ground rules of the game seemed to be changing all around me.

My mother, with whom I spoke mostly German, died in 2007. After that I fell into a great depression and for a time stopped sleeping, which also had serious consequences for my state of mind. On the verge of madness, I contemplated giving up on everything, my marriage, my profession, my middle-class life. I wrote next to nothing. Fortunately, I am blessed with the love of a wise woman, who suffered my caprices until they played themselves out.

Then in 2010 everything suddenly changed again. As a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, I had the opportunity to experience, not only the city of Berlin in all its cultural complexity, but also to sound the depths of my prickly relation to German culture and to the German language. I collected and worked up my observations, experiences and memories in the book Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray (2013), in which I finally got to dance with the ghosts of my childhood.

Do the Jewish and German pieces of my puzzle of self actually still fit together at all?

If one can and may still speak of national characteristics, a supposition that I sometimes doubt, one runs the risk of falling into empty clichés, as, for instance, that the Germans are hardworking, dreamy, and idealistic, somewhat like the dwarfs in Snow White. Normalcy, either of the European or whatever variety, is a quality I wish on no individual and no nation. The norm draws downwards. Let us rather remain abnormal, eccentric, quirky, and odd, each in our own way, a gathering of harmless lunatics who take pleasure in everything and anything.

Perhaps we Germans and Jews of the postwar generation, as children of that shattered cultural union, can still achieve something productive together; perhaps we can pick a few rags of reason from the ruins of the past and therewith pitch a tent big enough to hold all our dreams.

Peter Wortsman is the author of A Modern Way to Die, Stimme und Atem/Out of Breath, Out of Mind, and Footprints in Wet Cement.
Originally published:
May 13, 2019


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