THE LANGUAGE OF THIEVES
My Family’s Obsession With a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate
By Martin Puchner
When Martin Puchner was growing up in a rowhouse in Nuremberg in the early 1970s, strangers would show up at the door asking for food. His mother served them water and sandwiches, standing in the doorway while the visitors made conversation in a language the boy could not understand, even though the words were mostly German. Later, his uncle pointed out to him what it was that drew these strangers to the house: Carved into the foundation stone was the sign of a cross inside a circle. To those in the know, it signified that the house’s occupants would give you food.
Those in the know were all manner of vagrants: tinkers, knife grinders, peddlers, journeymen — people without a fixed abode. The pictograms they carved into fence posts or chalked on houses were called zinken, after the Latin signum, for sign. The language they spoke was Rotwelsch, a mix of Yiddish, Hebrew and repurposed German that had been used for centuries by members of the itinerant underground. Puchner’s father called them “people eternally on the road, escaping to nowhere.”
Today Puchner is a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard and the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. A previous book, “The Written World,” investigated the origins of literature. But with his latest work he turns his attention to a language that has no literature, a system of communication designed to evade capture by scholars. As his title — “The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession With a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate” — suggests, it is a deeply personal project, one that probes the meaning of language and family, inheritance and debt.
Both Puchner’s father and uncle were drawn to Rotwelsch and sprinkled words from it into their speech. As a boy, Puchner delighted in zesty phrases like “making a rabbit,” which meant making a quick escape. On hikes, his father taught him to spot zinken on roadsides and farmhouses. Though his parents were solidly middle class, Puchner writes, “I grew up feeling that I had a special connection to the road and the itinerant underground.” In his family, he felt, “Rotwelsch became our special possession, our secret.”
But there was another secret that connected Puchner to Rotwelsch. As a graduate student at Harvard, he looked up writings by his grandfather Karl Puchner in the university’s Widener Library. The grandfather had been a historian of names in Germany, and Puchner thought he would make a good case for testing the scope of the library’s famed collection.
Sure enough, Widener had Karl Puchner’s doctoral dissertation from 1932 and a few scholarly articles. But along with dry histories of the patron saints of Bavarian monasteries, Martin Puchner discovered something that shocked him: an article showing that his grandfather had enthusiastically embraced Nazi ideas, including Hitler’s fantasy of racial purity. The article, which was based on a lecture, proposed eliminating Jewish names that were indistinguishable from German ones — a sign, to Karl Puchner, of Jewish shiftiness and criminal intent. Linguistic mixing, he argued, was “disgusting” and never more so than in the “muddy waters” of Rotwelsch, the Yiddish-inflected language of criminal gangs.
This troubling discovery spurred Puchner to learn more about Rotwelsch and his family’s relationship to it. He soon realized that the study and the persecution of the language were deeply intertwined.
Rotwelsch developed in the High Middle Ages and spread across Central Europe in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War. “Welsch” meant “incomprehensible”; “rot” was derived from a word for “beggar.” Rotwelsch was thus the incomprehensible language of beggars.
Technically, Rotwelsch is not a language (because it doesn’t have its own grammar) but a sociolect — a system of communication that binds members of a community together and keeps outsiders in the dark. Among the many Rotwelsch terms for police are the German words for bull, lantern and moonlight. But a substantial amount of Rotwelsch is derived from Hebrew and Yiddish, such as gannef, for thief. This infusion probably reflects the large number of Jews forced into itinerant professions in the Early Modern period because of laws banning them from landownership and many trades. According to Puchner’s research, however, the great majority of Rotwelsch speakers were in fact not Jews.
That didn’t stop anti-Semites from associating Rotwelsch with Jews and crime. The most influential example was Martin Luther, who nourished a zealous hatred of Jews as well as of fraudulent itinerant monks who preyed on the gullible and the pious. In 1528 he republished an earlier anonymous screed against false beggars, the “Liber Vagatorum,” adding a glossary of words in Rotwelsch, a language Luther said “comes from the Jews.” The list included the words sefel, for dirt; and molsamer, for traitor.
The intended message was clear: Rotwelsch was a thieves’ cant peppered with “Jewish” words because the Jews were by nature deceitful. Puchner shows how Luther’s screed set the tone not only for his own grandfather’s portrayal of Rotwelsch as a language polluted by Yiddish that threatened German racial purity. It also laid the groundwork for centuries of linguistic engagement with Rotwelsch by people intent on eradicating it. His research is complicated by the fact that most historical sources on Rotwelsch come from police archives. Often, such records contain translations of words and phrases extracted under interrogation, in an effort to understand how a gang might have planned a heist or defrauded a villager. The speakers of the language were frequently illiterate, and in any case had no inclination to teach it to outsiders.
“No one felt that it was a problem that Rotwelsch was not written down,” Puchner writes, “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.”
Even so, Puchner finds distant allies who share his fascination with Rotwelsch. A 19th-century jurist and policeman named Friedrich Avé-Lallemant studied its sociological context. Kafka saw the literary potential of a language predicated on estrangement and mobility of meaning. In this respect, he found Rotwelsch similar to Yiddish, an invigorating force that could “rake up” German — “as if the language were a lawn that needed to be aerated,” in Puchner’s astute phrase.
That seems to have been the motivation that drove Puchner’s uncle, Günter Puchner, to study Rotwelsch and lobby for its literary rehabilitation. Having taught himself as much as possible through records and by befriending vagrants who spoke it, he published a primer, wrote poetry in Rotwelsch and even translated literary works into the language, including a synoptic Bible, passages from “Romeo and Juliet” and the text of the German national anthem.
Puchner shares none of his uncle’s optimism. Without using the word “appropriation” he recognizes that his initial hope to pay homage to Rotwelsch, “mitigating as best as I could the centuries of prosecution inflicted on these speakers by settled society,” was ultimately a self-serving story designed to exorcise his grandfather’s guilt.
With his emphasis on persecution and exclusion, Puchner bathes his subject in a rose-colored tint. The incidents of fraud or theft often associated with Rotwelsch seem to belong to a Robin Hood world of victimless crimes. When he presents the zinken for “a woman open to sexual contact” — bare breasts and arrow — he shows no concern for the safety of the person branded in this way.
While Puchner’s enthusiasm sometimes leads him to overstate Rotwelsch’s significance — Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” becomes a struggle against the language — it inspires illuminating detours into subjects like the history of Esperanto and the birth of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg trials.
What endures is his fascination with the resourcefulness and resilience of generations of travelers, like the ones who came to his childhood home in Nuremberg, drawn by a hidden zinken.
“Their words for police, for being arrested, their zinken about begging and stealing, the rich vocabulary of food, drink, sex and lice, all this spoke volumes about their lived experience,” he writes. “Rotwelsch was like a worn tool that bore the traces of its earlier use. By studying it closely, one could tell a lot about the bodies that had wielded it.”