As a young boy growing up in Germany, Martin Puchner loved to hear his family use Rotwelsch, an obscure argot of slightly suspicious words, colorful-sounding phrases, and even rudimentary symbols used for centuries by itinerant outsiders. To his delight, an hasn machn, which translates literally as “making a rabbit,” meant a quick escape. Saure-Gurken-Zeit, which literally means “a time of pickles,” became being in a pickle, a very old idiom that trickled down to English.
It was only years later in the stacks of Widener Library in 1995 that Puchner, then a graduate student, discovered more dangerous turns of phrase in manuscripts penned by his grandfather, a historian of names, and, much to Puchner’s surprise, a Nazi. In them, Karl Puchner made the argument in Nazi-favored font for distinguishing German names from Jewish-sounding ones. In a 1934 article titled “Family Names as Racial Markers,” Karl also made the case for the creation of a registry of Jewish names and for Jews to be stripped of German first names, actions that could prove useful in finding an answer to the “Jewish question.”
“It has been haunting me for many years. I didn’t know how to write about it,” said Puchner, of the project that would become the just-published “The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate.” “It was always in the background, a periodic drumbeat, and then perhaps five or six years ago, I felt like I needed to deal with this.”
What “The Language of Thieves” did for the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature was send Puchner on an ancestral journey, one defined by generations willing and unwilling to reckon with deeply personal family history in the World War II era. And the locus of his inquiry would be his father and uncle’s unlikely embrace of Rotwelsch, alongside his grandfather’s denunciation of it.