My aunt Heidi, Günter’s widow, had trouble finding the right boxes, as she moved erratically around the attic, trying to read labels. Then she crouched down in a corner and said, quietly, “Here they are. Take your time.” She briefly looked at me as if to gauge my reaction, and left, eager to go back downstairs. I stood for a moment, disappointed. Just a bunch of boxes. The labels, carelessly scrawled with Magic Marker, were illegible.
I had come to the apartment that used to house the commune to find out more about Rotwelsch, my uncle, and his attitude toward his father. Three people had been around at the time and could tell me more. The first was my mother, but in the aftermath of my father’s death, she was holding things together from one day to the next and was in no condition to delve into the past. I knew that I would have to wait to speak to her.
Then there was my aunt Roswitha. She would have been a teenager when Günter became fascinated by Rotwelsch, but perhaps she would have some insight, an overheard conversation ages ago about her older brother and his new interest, a snide comment about Rotwelsch made by my grandfather. I would have to find an occasion to draw her out. And finally there was Heidi, the person most likely to know things about Günter, Rotwelsch, and the strange family history connected with it, which is why I had come to her first.
I dragged one box into the middle of the attic, where a small window let in some light. It contained folders of correspondence and manuscripts as well as books. The next three boxes were similar, but then I came across one holding 4-×-6 index cards, neatly arranged in wooden drawers. I took one drawer out, surprised by how heavy it was, and started flipping through the entries. The cards—there must have been hundreds of them—bore expressions and idioms, most of them typed, some corrected by hand. The last box, equally heavy, held dictionaries of Romani and Yiddish, pamphlets on hoboes and vagrants. They had seen a lot of use, their spines cracked and their covers coming off the binding. One book, almost torn to shreds, was entitled Rotwelsch. Yes, this was what I had been looking for: my uncle’s fabled Rotwelsch archive.
Combing quickly through the boxes, I saw that this was an archive that, at least superficially, looked similar to archives created by the police against Rotwelsch, complete with vocabulary lists, names of vagrants, and police records. I was fascinated by the figures that emerged from this extensive collection. Here were the ancestors of the people who had come to our house when I was growing up—escaped convicts, runaway apprentices, deserters, itinerant peddlers, tramps, professional thieves, beggars, hoboes, journeymen, knife grinders, tinkers, migrants, and anyone at odds with the authorities and without a fixed address.
Some members of the underground were organized into large gangs of robbers, especially in the eighteenth century. They would send a messenger, a baldower, to scout out a promising target (in Hebrew, baal means possessor, owner, and davar, word; in Yiddish, bal-dover means the person in question). Once the leader had received enough information to proceed, he (almost always men) would call for a gathering of his associates, the kochemer, or wise ones, to plan the robbery.
Short summer nights weren’t ideal, and snow made it difficult to get away quickly, which meant that long, moonless nights in the spring or the fall were best. The gang would split into small groups to infiltrate the area and then meet up at a prearranged point. Usually they would sneak up on their target or else walk openly into a village singing French songs, pretending they were French soldiers looking for a good time. If they met anyone along the way who made trouble, members of the gang would tie them up and leave them on the side of the road. If he felt cocky, the gang leader would march at the head of the column, ceremoniously holding a crowbar like a scepter, approach the targeted house, and break down the door. The inhabitants would be bound and forced to reveal where they kept their valuables. If the baldower had exaggerated their possessions, the family was in a tough spot and needed to produce the expected goods somehow, though gangs usually avoided bloodshed. After the goods were discovered and collected, a code word would alert everyone to meet in front of the house and beat a hasty retreat, which often meant a forced march lasting several hours. When they had put enough distance between themselves and their victims, they would stop, divvy up the loot according to rank and function, and go on their separate ways.
Planning and executing a robbery of this magnitude, and keeping discipline among outlaws, was difficult, even more so to keep successful heists secret afterward. Concealment was everything. To avoid detection, gang members would blacken or otherwise conceal their faces during the robbery. Once the victims had given up their hidden valuables, they would be covered with their own bedsheets so they couldn’t observe what was going on. Code names and passwords offered additional protection.
In addition to these measures, robbers had developed their secret language precisely so that they could speak in front of victims or bystanders undetected. So highly regarded was this language that some of the largest gangs deliberately added words to it and sent out emissaries to other regions to make sure that the new words were widely used. They knew that Rotwelsch was their most valuable weapon against the authorities and were eager to perfect it. Parents beat children until they stopped using the standard language and spoke exclusively in Rotwelsch.
Sometimes, the speakers called this language not Rot-welsch (beggar’s cant), the pejorative word used by most people, but kochemer loshn (in Hebrew, khokhem means a wise person and loshn, tongue, or language): the language of those in the know; the lingo of the wise guys. This insider talk created a bond among the outcasts because it distinguished those who belonged to the road from those who didn’t, the wise ones from the know-nothings.This insider talk created a bond among the outcasts because it distinguished those who belonged to the road from those who didn’t, the wise ones from the know-nothings.
A notorious member of this underclass was a woman called Grinder Berbel. Like many women of the itinerant underground, Grinder Berbel often worked as a baldower, scouting out possible targets for robberies (other women would act as market thieves or smuggle tools to prison inmates to help them escape). If Berbel couldn’t communicate with a gang directly, she would use elaborate zinken to mark a target and to communicate other essential information. A zinken might even include information about when the robbery would take place.
Even though Berbel was married to a knife grinder, hence her name Grinder Berbel, she had other lovers, and this led to frequent physical fights with other women. By all accounts, she was an unusually strong and willful woman who did as she pleased.
This attitude led her into a liaison with the much younger Konstanzer Hans. Born Johann Baptist Herrenberger (1759–1793), Konstanzer Hans had drifted into the underground in his teens. Grinder Berbel inducted him into the higher echelons of robbery, including Rotwelsch and zinken, skills that Hans ultimately parleyed into an illustrious career as a thief. He would become one of the most notorious robbers of the eighteenth century, earning him the street name Konstanzer Hans.
Grinder Berbel and Konstanzer Hans preferred to rob civil servants and other representatives of the state, guaranteeing them support from the poor. This did not help Hans when he had the misfortune of falling into the hands of an experienced detective, Jacob Georg Schäffer, in 1782. Schäffer wasn’t fooled by Hans’s forged documents and aliases but still needed to prove the identity of his catch. Cunningly, he arrested Hans’s father. Usually the father would help his son—in one instance, he and Hans had exchanged secret information in Rotwelsch in front of a judge—but the two had recently quarreled and the father, now worried about being implicated in the son’s crimes, identified Hans in court. Hans was stunned and protested that he didn’t know the old man, but to no avail.
Forced to confess, Hans revealed an entire underworld of crime, including safe houses, secret meeting places, and the identities of more than five hundred criminals, in addition to a small dictionary of Rotwelsch words. For centuries, the police had been trying to decode Rotwelsch, prying these secret words out of its speakers, word by word, captive by captive. Hans’s confession provided a breakthrough. Instead of going down in history as a latter-day Robin Hood, he became a turncoat who gave the police crucial insight into the secret language of thieves.
Hans was only one of many Rotwelsch speakers whose stories emerged from the archive, but his story was embellished and published by hacks for a broad market. Konstanzer Hans had been popular, and his tale was too, especially since it was couched in a moralizing tone, “written as a warning,” a note said, which meant that upright burghers could enjoy the tale of this outlaw without qualms.
There was little information in my uncle’s archive about the ultimate fate of Grinder Berbel. Apparently Hans had abandoned her, refusing to help his former lover and teacher when she was arrested and imprisoned; perhaps they had quarreled again and Hans had decided to make a clean break. Rumors emerged she hanged herself in prison. Other sources reported that she was freed and continued with her colorful life until well into her seventies. If she lived to that ripe age, unusual for someone constantly on the road, she would have had plenty of time to regret what she had taught Konstanzer Hans, one of the greatest molsamers (traitors) of the underground.
After looking through my uncle’s boxes, I asked Aunt Heidi about Rotwelsch. We were sitting in the old-fashioned kitchen, which hadn’t been renovated since the days of the commune. My aunt lit a cigarette and looked at me, but she was reluctant to talk about Günter and Rotwelsch. I knew that he had studied music, had become an accomplished pianist, and had started to make a name for himself as a composer. One of his compositions, an oratorio, had been performed by a well-known orchestra and broadcast on national public radio (at my father’s funeral, my brother Stephan had selected one of Günter’s compositions to be played). All this was before Günter caught the Rotwelsch bug and devoted himself more or less exclusively to researching the language.
It occurred to me that I had always taken my uncle’s single-minded study of Rotwelsch for granted, unaware that there was something odd, something mysterious and troubling that might require an explanation. I had never asked myself why he had given up on music. What had he hoped to achieve by studying Rotwelsch? And what were the costs of his fascination?
My aunt took one of the handwritten Rotwelsch dictionaries out of my hand and waved it in front of my face. “Do you know who made this?” “Uncle Günter?” I said. “Wrong. I did. He would dictate to me night after night, and I had to write everything down, dead tired because I was also bringing up your three cousins.”
I had always regarded my family’s infatuation with Rotwelsch as a male affair, something my uncle had taught me and that I had traced to his father. Now I was beginning to see that women played a central role. My aunt Heidi had been a reluctant collaborator in my uncle’s life project, just as my mother had interacted with vagrants drawn to our house by a Rotwelsch zinken. I made a mental note to approach my other aunt, Roswitha. What had she known of her father’s past and her brother’s dedication to a thieves’ language that her father had hoped to eliminate?
Meanwhile the boxes were upstairs and my aunt sat across from me. I had a million questions for her. Above all, I wanted to hear about the strange relationship between my grandfather’s hatred for Rotwelsch and my uncle’s dedication to it: “Did my uncle and his father ever fight about Rotwelsch?” “No. Why would they?” The thought seemed never to have occurred to her, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her why I was asking. But it was clear that Rotwelsch was a highly charged matter even after all these years.
Pointing upstairs, to the attic, she said: “You can have it all. I don’t need it anymore. Take it.”
This was how I came into possession of my uncle’s Rotwelsch archive. (My cousins also agreed to let me have the archive.) I shipped it to Massachusetts, where I could sift through it more carefully, hoping to learn not only about Rotwelsch but also about why my uncle was so drawn to the language. The archive contained my uncle’s manuscripts and correspondence, his field notes, his index cards full of Rotwelsch expressions and idioms, his published work, and books he had collected (some of which my aunt kept, not wanting to leave Rotwelsch behind entirely after all).
I felt sure that my uncle’s archive was the key. But the key to what? I have now been dragging this archive around with me for twenty-five years, and I read around in it when I can’t sleep at night, when I think about the past, when I miss my father. I have come to think of it as my other inheritance, the one that didn’t end in bankruptcy: my Rotwelsch inheritance.
Initially, the archive didn’t say much about my uncle or my father, but it took me deep into the history of Rotwelsch. By the time Martin Luther published his Liber Vagatorum, Rotwelsch had already been around for hundreds of years. The earliest sighting of the term dated to CE 1250, when the term Rotwelsch was used to describe deceptions, a usage that dovetailed with my grandfather’s coinage of so-called camouflage names almost seven hundred years later.
My uncle’s archive revealed something else: the Hebrew terms, which Luther had taken as proof that Rotwelsch “comes from the Jews,” were there primarily because of Yiddish. My uncle had spent considerable time reconstructing the story of this Germanic language spoken by Jewish communities. When my grandfather had made a connection between Yiddish and Rotwelsch, however hate filled, he was not entirely wrong.
The story of Yiddish was a story of migration. Future Yiddish speakers arrived in western Germany from France and Italy during the early Middle Ages, speaking a distinct version of Old French and Old Italian. Once they settled in the western part of Germany, and then established outposts along the Danube, they adopted German as the language of everyday communication. Hebrew was used in the context of the Bible and its interpretation, a loshn koydesh, or sacred language (as opposed to the Rotwelsch kochemer loshn, the language of those in the know).
But what kind of German was it? Because Jewish settlers lived in distinct communities (though not yet in ghettos), their version of German was different from that spoken around them. It contained words specific to Jewish life, from kosher foods to religious institutions as well as phrases and expressions useful to the specific needs of these communities. This early Yiddish would have been a variant of Middle High German, the German preserved in medieval epics.
Life for these settlers became harder with the Crusades, which recruited soldiers to liberate the holy land by whipping up anti-Semitic sentiments across Western Europe. These campaigns of hate laid the foundation for a second wave of anti-Semitism prompted by the arrival of the plague in 1348. Desperate populations were looking for scapegoats, and the Jewish communities, already branded as foreign, became convenient candidates. Faced with increasing persecution, German-speaking Jewish communities in Central Europe, a territory they called Ashkenaz, found themselves driven east and settling in Eastern Europe. Surrounded by speakers of Slavic languages, these migrants stuck to their distinct form of German. While the German spoken in Germany evolved from Middle High German into Modern German, in part through the efforts of writers such as Luther, the language preserved in these eastern Jewish communities continued on its own path, slowly becoming a distinct tongue. Its speakers mostly referred to their language as taytsh (German), yidish-taytsh (Jewish German), or undzer loshn (our language). Only toward the end of that process, in the nineteenth century, was that language routinely labeled as Yiddish (which simply means Jewish), a shortening of yidish-taytsh.
A third set of boxes in my uncle’s archive contained material on generations of policemen who had tried to decrypt Rotwelsch, colleagues of Schäffer, the detective who had hunted Konstanzer Hans. I was skeptical of these policemen, the natural enemies of Rotwelsch, in league with Rotwelsch haters such as Luther. Luther was part of a large-scale attack on vagrants as more and more towns, municipalities, and countries passed laws and directives against them. Each person now had to have “papers,” as Luther had demanded, different types of permission to pass through lands, to be on the road, to seek apprenticeships, or to work as a peddler. Large, territorial nation-states, created by the Peace of Westphalia, asserted their authority and secured their borders. Not having the required papers meant being vulnerable to arrest and punishment. Being a vagrant, not having a fixed address, was becoming illegal. This was why there were dozens and dozens of Rotwelsch words for prison, including school, sugar house, hell, box, hungry tower, potato palace, and paradise (having a life sentence was called “sky blue,” presumably because you remained in prison until ascending to heaven).Luther was part of a large-scale attack on vagrants as more and more towns, municipalities, and countries passed laws and directives against them.
There were even more Rotwelsch words for police, in part because there didn’t exist a single thing called police, only a patchwork of forces ranging from palace guards and arms-bearing aristocrats to night watchmen, soldiers hired by local rulers to keep the peace, and all kinds of auxiliary forces of law and order. And yet, despite this patchwork, various local police departments had, over time, assembled the record on Rotwelsch that was now sitting in the boxes of my uncle’s archive.
Not only were these hostile policemen writing down all kinds of things about Rotwelsch; they were the only ones doing it. Rotwelsch itself was purely a spoken language (except for a few dozen zinken). Its speakers didn’t need to write it down; in fact, many didn’t know how to read and write. The world of the road, from the Middle Ages deep into modern times, did not favor literacy.
The oral nature of Rotwelsch was understandable, given its function. No one felt that it was a problem that Rotwelsch was not written down, except for the unintended consequence that the entire written record on Rotwelsch was therefore written by its enemies, people like Luther and my grandfather who wanted it eliminated. And producing a record of this language, for most of them, was precisely the way in which they wanted to eliminate it. Writing things down, fixing words and names, registering vagrants: all these were connected.
I was becoming suspicious of archives. My grandfather was an archivist. I could see him in my mind’s eye working hand in hand with the police. How could I ever hope to understand Rotwelsch through such tainted documents?
There was one policeman I encountered through my uncle’s notes who seemed different: Friedrich Christian Benedict Avé-Lallemant (1809–1892). Of French extraction, Avé-Lallemant grew up in an impressive family. Two of his brothers became successful merchants in Brazil, a third had a Tchaikovsky symphony dedicated to him, another, a singer, attracted the attention of the celebrated writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and a fifth became a famous explorer and author. Friedrich chose a different path. After gaining a Ph.D. in law, he joined the police, but he quickly found much to criticize. Living at a time when the first modern police forces were emerging in Germany, he analyzed the influence of the social environment on crime, attacked the criminal justice system as antiquated, and argued for prison reform. He became an advocate for modern criminology.
In his spare time, Avé-Lallemant published novels that portray police corruption and ineptitude—and also the sending and decoding of secret messages. He devoted a book of nonfiction to the topic as well. Given these activities, it is perhaps not surprising that Avé-Lallemant became interested in the secret language of the underground. He, too, wrote as a policeman, but as a modern policeman who wanted to understand this itinerant milieu from a “social-political” vantage point, as he put it in the subtitle of his three-volume tome, which also promised to pay particular attention to the “literary and linguistic” aspects of the underground. He was the first to study the history of Rotwelsch, its grammar, its uses, and the people who spoke it, with something approaching scientific rigor. This didn’t mean that he was on their side; but it meant that his observations could be taken as something more than propaganda.
Avé-Lallemant confirmed the view of Rotwelsch as a strange mixture of German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. He noticed that these itinerants were adept at schmusen, a word borrowed from the Yiddish shmooze, “to converse,” but among Rotwelsch speakers it meant speaking Rotwelsch. A prison was a schul, an ironic twist on the Yiddish term shul, meaning a religious school. Vagrants might be caught by a schlamasse, a “policeman,” adapted from the Yiddish shlmazi, meaning unlucky. Truly, for the shiksas (Yiddish for non-Jewish women, in Rotwelsch any women) of the road, encountering a schlamasse could only mean bad luck. Vagrants had borrowed Yiddish words, just as they had borrowed German words, and changed their meanings.
But Avé-Lallemant also recognized that some Rotwelsch terms derived from different, non-Jewish sources, including Czech, Latin (because of itinerant students), French, and Romani, the language spoken by Europe’s oldest itinerant groups, the Sinti and Roma. In Europe they were sometimes called Gypsies because they were mistakenly believed to be from Egypt. Since there are no historical documents about the origin of these two related groups, their language is the best source of information about them we have, and that source points toward India. How the Sinti and Roma wandered across Asia to the Balkans and then to Central Europe is not known, but somehow they maintained their cohesion, in part through their language. Even more so than Jewish immigrants, Sinti and Roma were seen, in Europe, as the quintessential wandering peoples.
On the European road, the Sinti and Roma tended to keep to themselves, but clearly, they must have interacted with Rotwelsch speakers. In order to track this mysterious influence, Avé-Lallemant befriended a Roma woman, who helped him detect many Romani words in Rotwelsch, such as hachner for farmer, after the Romani hacho. The association made sense since both groups, Roma and Rotwelsch speakers, were chased from district to district, country to country, always violating the modern world order based on fixed settlement and borders. For all their differences, they shared a common experience, and that commonality led to an exchange of words.
In many ways, Avé-Lallemant did what generations of policemen had done before him: he decrypted a criminal language. Rotwelsch had shown up in studies of ciphers and decryption, as well as in manuals on how best to send secret messages through code, and he continued that tradition. As a policeman, he regarded Rotwelsch as a hostile force, a weapon that needed to be disarmed.
But I sensed something else in Avé-Lallemant’s writing: a certain understanding for the people of the road. Perhaps his second identity as a writer (and as a critic of police corruption) helped him empathize with Rotwelsch speakers and appreciate their wit. But the most important feature was his lifelong passion for language itself, for Rotwelsch. He was more than a policeman, and something closer to a linguist. He correctly identified Rotwelsch as a sociolect, the lexicon of a distinct subgroup, and he wanted to understand it and the world from which it had emerged. Avé-Lallemant approached Rotwelsch as a historical phenomenon, one that deserved careful and systematic study. (I also learned that underground languages such as Rotwelsch could be found in many parts of the world.)
It is thanks to his studies that the old story of Rotwelsch as a “Jewish” language, promoted by Luther, my grandfather, and many writers in between, has now been effectively disproven. While Yiddish was spoken by an ethnically and religiously identified community, Rotwelsch was not primarily spoken by Jewish vagrants. Both Grinder Berbel and Konstanzer Hans, for example, had grown up in Christian families before drifting into the underground. There might have been some Jewish scouts, or baldower, and in the Netherlands there were Jewish gangs that extended their reach into Germany, but Rotwelsch, even if it had partially “come from the Jews,” as Luther insisted, was now firmly in the hands of Christians. Or rather, it was used by people who were united not by religion or ethnicity, but by a particular form of life: the life on the road. If Yiddish (and, via Yiddish, Hebrew) played a larger role than the other languages, it was because vagrants would have interacted with Jewish peddlers and Jewish gangs and borrowed from their way of speaking. Perhaps the fact that most Christians wouldn’t understand these borrowed terms was a welcome by-product. But there was nothing specifically Jewish about Rotwelsch speakers. The confusion of Rotwelsch and Yiddish was primarily the work of anti-Semites for whom speaking a Jewish-inflected German and speaking a thieves’ language was pretty much the same thing.Tt was used by people who were united not by religion or ethnicity, but by a particular form of life: the life on the road.
Avé-Lallemant also confirmed that the mixture of languages present in Rotwelsch was built on a German base. Various German dialects provided the grammar as well as most of the small, grammatical words such as personal pronouns (you, I, they) and prepositions (after, toward). This was why Rotwelsch drove so many people crazy: it sounded like German, but was incomprehensible to an outsider.
As I was appreciating all Avé-Lallemant had done for the understanding of Rotwelsch, I wondered whether I had been wrong to think of the police as the enemies of this language. Perhaps the police were just doing their job decrypting an underground language, and Avé-Lallemant had simply taken things one step further. The true enemies were ideologues such as Luther and my grandfather, those driven by anxieties about the mixing of languages and peoples, about the purity of speech and blood. They had turned a police affair—how to deal with vagrants and their words—into a crisis of national importance, using Rotwelsch to spread panic.
Where did this leave my uncle? I tried to remember as many aspects of his life as I could. He was notorious in the family for hanging out in dive bars and other places of ill repute, which I had always chalked up to a kind of bohemian slumming. (My father had similar tendencies, though didn’t indulge them quite to the same extent.) But now, while going through the cards and dictionaries from his archive, I wondered whether he had been doing fieldwork, trying to find the last Rotwelsch speakers still alive. Painstakingly, and with the crucial help from his wife, he had filled index cards and dictionaries with Rotwelsch words and expressions. Some he had gathered from sources like Martin Luther and police files on figures such as Grinder Berbel and Konstanzer Hans, but others he had found by chatting up or even befriending low-life characters. I began to see aspects of his life in light of his interest in Rotwelsch. The language was much more than a hobby or the professional interest of a writer: he was obsessed with it.
The only thing I didn’t know was why my uncle had become obsessed with this language in the first place, or what my father thought about it, and it was too late to ask them.
As I was going through my uncle’s archive looking for answers to these questions, I came across a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It had belonged to my grandfather. Why did Günter feel that this book should be part of his Rotwelsch archive? I had never read this book, which, along with swastikas and other Nazi paraphernalia, was forbidden in Germany until 2016.
Once, of course, it had been available everywhere. Hitler had written it while imprisoned for a failed putsch in 1923. The book was long, convoluted, full of details strung together by a skewed theory of history collected from random sources, interlaced with autobiographical fragments. After the Nazi party rose to prominence and seized power, Mein Kampf was promoted in what must have been one of the great state-sponsored vanity publishing projects in history and often given by local officials to newlyweds. With the power of a totalitarian state behind it, Mein Kampf ended up going through 1031 editions, which amounted to around twelve million copies. Every sixth German owned one.13 This didn’t mean that they read it. Did my grandfather ever read it? His copy certainly looked well worn.
Mein Kampf didn’t present itself in the first instance as a treatise on race but as an autobiography of young Adolf growing up in the Austrian provinces and arriving in Vienna without means of support, hoping to gain admission to the arts academy. In Vienna, he found himself confronted with cosmopolitan life and failed miserably in his professional plans. He was clearly overwhelmed by the city, which was then the capital of an empire stretching deep into the Balkans. The diversity of peoples and languages was confusing for Hitler, a feeling he quickly turned into hatred, describing it as a “disgusting mixture of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs, Croats, etc. in between which, as eternal dividers, Jews and Jews again.”
It wasn’t just the people who overwhelmed—or disgusted—Adolf. It was the languages they spoke. He calls it a “tohuwabohu of languages.” Was he aware that he was using a Hebrew term, from the opening of Genesis, one I knew well from school? Was this an attempt at linguistic sarcasm? It is difficult to tell. It’s one of the very few Hebrew terms he used. For Hitler, tohuwabohu had to be eliminated by imposing a “pure” German and getting rid of those people who used words like that one.
Bracketing what became of him, I even found some of Hitler’s travails affecting—for example, his failure at the entrance exam to the arts academy: he was so naïvely confident that he would get in. Then came the time of poverty and struggle. He didn’t write about it at great length, but it was clear, even in his reticence, that this time of hardship was humiliating for him. But just at the moment when the story was at its most affecting, Hitler would digress into a political rant. He had taught himself all kinds of facts about history, which he turned into a half-baked worldview. The themes were always the same: purity against mixture; Aryan versus Jew; German versus tohuwabohu.
During his time in Vienna, Hitler developed the theory that Jews assumed the language of their hosts to disguise themselves. For Jews, “language is not a means of expressing ideas, but a means of hiding them.” Jews never really speak German; they fake it. Hitler used the term mauscheln, the derogatory term for speaking Yiddish, which was associated with secrecy.
As with so many other of his ideas, Hitler didn’t invent this idea of Yiddish as a secret language. Such a view had accompanied Yiddish from the beginning. That Yiddish was written with Hebrew characters, which were not accessible to most Christians, seemed to confirm this idea. In reality, Yiddish was simply the dialect of a distinct community of speakers who had retained their religious and ethnic identity over time, partly to preserve that identity and partly because the surrounding Christian culture kept its distance. In a kind of paranoia born from this suspicion, Christians had started to circulate dictionaries of Yiddish expressions, written in the Roman alphabet, so that Christians would be in a position to decipher this supposedly secret language. These dictionaries treated Yiddish as if it were Rotwelsch. Even one of the words for Yiddish, jargon, which was borrowed from French (before Yiddish became the standard name for the language), meant incomprehensible. Calling Yiddish jargon was like calling the language of vagrants welsch.
Hitler wasn’t done with his theory of Jewish languages. The first stage was disguise—perhaps this was where my grandfather first got the idea of camouflage names. Then came the second stage, which was world domination. “The Jew” would force mankind to adopt a universal language such as Esperanto to rule more effectively.
Hitler developed his theory of language during a time when he himself was homeless, often without food, and sometimes reduced to begging, spending his nights in homeless shelters. There he befriended other drifters and itinerants, including a Jewish one. Among them was Reinhold Hanisch, who had spent time on the road and in various prisons. In his own account, Hanisch described himself as a wanderer and itinerant artisan who met the hapless young Hitler and took him under his wing. Soon, he was peddling Hitler’s painted postcards, which allowed the two of them to live without begging.
After Hitler had become chancellor, it was discovered that Hanisch was selling forged Hitler paintings, trying to profit from his former business partner. Hitler moved to get these pictures out of circulation. When he annexed Austria, he had his henchmen purge the local archives of traces of his work and time in Vienna, including in halfway houses. But Hanisch wasn’t so easily deterred, and he published a report on his time with Hitler (it was translated into English and published by The New Republic in April 1939).
There were several works on the Viennese variants of Rotwelsch in my uncle’s archive. Vienna had developed a distinct form of Rotwelsch, as had other cities such as Berlin and Prague. Even though Rotwelsch had long been a language of the road and of the countryside, it had migrated into the underworld of large cities, spoken precisely in the milieu into which Hanisch and Hitler had drifted. If Hitler didn’t encounter Rotwelsch through Hanisch, then he would likely have heard it spoken through any of the hundreds of itinerants with whom he had casual contact, and among whom he had slept every night for two years. Some of these occupants of halfway houses must have exchanged words in the jargon of the road or referred to zinken in his presence. Perhaps Hitler even picked up a few words himself, before he spat them out again, at least the ones he could identify—for Hitler, too, was probably unaware how many Rotwelsch expressions had already been absorbed into German.
Increasingly, I couldn’t help but read Mein Kampf as a struggle against Rotwelsch. While Hitler experienced Vienna as a place of racial and linguistic mixture, he imagined Germany as a place of Aryan purity and Prussian militarism. This was where Hitler would end up, via Munich, in charge of Berlin and the Prussian state. And in 1938 he would return to Vienna and declare, triumphantly, “the incorporation of my homeland into the German Reich.” At that moment, he also began the “purification” of Vienna, the purging of his homeland of the multicultural mixture the Habsburg Empire had created. I felt that I finally understood just how much Mein Kampf belonged in my uncle’s Rotwelsch library, and not only because it was my grandfather’s copy. It was a book whose purpose was to eliminate the world that had made Rotwelsch possible.
WAYS TO SAY POLICE IN ROTWELSCH
Blauer = (blue, also in combination with: blue helmet, blue collar, blue hat)
Bulle = (literally, a bull)
Deckel = (literally, a top, here used to refer to a helmet)
Gansel = (Yiddish gazlen, rogue)
Greifer = (someone who grabs)
Huscher = (someone who sneaks around)
Laterne = (lantern: someone who sheds light)
Mondschein = (moonlight)
Naderer = (secret police)
Polente = (possibly from Yiddish palats, for castle or palace)
Säbelhut = (saber-hat)
Schmiere = (guard, from shmire, to watch someone)
Spitzkopf = (“pointy head,” based on the shape of a military helmet)
From THE LANGUAGE OF THIEVES: MY FAMILY’S OBSESSION WITH A SECRET CODE THE NAZIS TRIED TO ELIMINATE by Martin Puchner. Copyright © 2020 by Martin Puchner. Reprinted with permission from W. W. Norton and Company.