Learning a New Language

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

My father is teaching me German.
He still speaks fluently, even though he
escaped from Nazi Germany almost
seventy years ago when he was seventeen.

We study nouns and verbs.
We study when to use the formal pronoun, Sie, you
and when to use the more familiar, Du.
One must be offered permission to use the familiar.

We study dialects.
The word Ich, I.
The Berliners pronounce it Ick.
Those from Frankfurt am Main, Isch.
Those from Schwaben, Ich or I.

He tells me when he was a kid he and
his friends used to say in a Berliner dialect,
“Berlin jeweesen Oranje jejessen und sie war so süss jeweesen.”
I was in Berlin and ate an orange, and it was very sweet.
“And then we added, dass mir die brüh die gosh runterglaufe is,”
with the juices running down my mouth.
He explains: “It is in our Schwäbisch dialect.
I should say, it was our dialect.”

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007), a collection of poems about her family and the Shoah. Her poems and essays have appeared in several journals such as the Connecticut Review and Limestone, as well as on Beliefnet. She is a teaching fellow at Clal.

This poem has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

For more about Kirchheimer’s work, visit: http://productsearch.barnesandnoble.com/search/results.aspx?WRD=janet+r+kirchheimer&page=index&prod=univ&choice=allproducts&query=Janet+R+Kirchheimer&flag=False&ugrp=2

And to read Kirchheimer’s recent piece on observing Kristallnacht this year, the first without her father, who died this past July, visit: http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/kristallnacht_without_my_father_20111102/


Filed under American Jewry, Family history, poetry

4 responses to “Learning a New Language

  1. Chaim

    The father-daughter language-bonding described in the piece would be more beautiful if it happened over any other language.
    The language exclusively spoken by men, women and children who heartlessly massacred the Jewish people still makes my skin crawl.
    I am fully aware that many in the cultured, sophisticated world, including Israel, have no problem with Germany or its language.
    More’s the pity.

  2. Chaim,
    You scare me: should we Holocaust Survivors simply
    abjure speaking Polish, French, Danish, and other European languages
    of countries under German occupation because so many of their citizens betrayed those of us lucky enough to make it to the Aryan side? Without
    their collaboration – the natives knew who their Jews were – many more of us. especially women would have survived.Long ago Nietzsche knew that
    European Jew hatred was inspired by envy of a cultured,successful,polyglot
    people who before the word even existed, envisioned a multicultural
    future transcending national boundaries. You don’t extirpate evil by language burning.

  3. Chaim

    Yes, Lili, we should absolutely abjure speaking languages of any country that sometimes gleefully aided in the systematic destruction of our people.

    Try to wear Chassidic garb in Poland today or Hungary, or even France. My wife’s students, who make the annual March of the Living trek and openly wear their kipot, were spat upon last year, and the years before young Polish citizens pounded with their fists on their bus. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t rush out to learn or use languages spoken by such citizens as they curse the Jews even today.

    I cannot imagine that my family members who were destroyed in German concentration camps would have wanted us survivors to speak the language containing those harsh guttural sounds which were most likely the last sounds they ever heard.

    Learning a language together with a parent is beautiful, indeed, but not if that language belongs to the creators of the worst Jew-killing machinery in the history of mankind.

  4. Janet R. Kirchheimer

    Chaim, I understand that hearing German makes your skin crawl. Nothing can take away from the fact that six million are dead. Yes, German was the language of some of the perpetrators, but it was also the language of many of the victims. It was the language that both my parents grew up speaking, and spoke when they came to this country, as did other German refugees who knew no English. The German I learned from my father contained many Hebrew words that were incorporated into their daily speech.
    The issue is very complex – yes, there are some Jews who have no problems with Germany, and others who do; Germany has done more than many other European countries to confront its past, and yet there is a neo-Nazi presence; and the list goes on. The point of the poem is that we all need to learn to speak a new language after the Shoah. By condemning an entire country and its language, there is no opportunity to explore new ways of speaking or for meaningful conversation about the deeply complicated and painful issues surrounding the Shoah and its legacy.

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