Is your German Hebrew?


Honigmann family, 1984, photo taken a few days after leaving East Berlin and the GDR © Ruben Honigmann


It’s the same scene every time. I’m in a Parisian square and people ask me what language I speak with my children. My “Jewish face” throws them off the trail with two wrong answers: either it’s Yiddish or Hebrew. In either case, they don’t recognize my mother tongue, spoken by one in five Europeans. So I tell them that their mistake is that they only know the caricature, Hitler’s barking or the grotesque onomatopoeia of the soldiers in Louis de Funes’ Grande Vadrouille. That this version is the one that defiled the language once spoken by Freud, Zweig, Einstein and even the inventor of Zionism, and by so many other great Jews.

I also tell them that the Berlin German I speak is a fossil. That even there, in Berlin, nobody speaks it anymore, that my parents took it with them when they left Egypt and crossed the wall. It was the beginning of the 1980s, the vice was slowly loosening in the Eastern bloc, and the GDR was paying for the departure of its undesirables to the Federal Republic. Would-be “escapees” had to fill out hundreds of documents, submit their applications to the authorities, and prepare to be stripped of their citizenship. It could take years before one day you were told you had to leave within 48 hours. There were two conditions: never to return and to leave all one’s belongings behind. The only wealth that my parents took with them was immaterial: this Berliner that I still speak with my children.

On the square my French interlocutors almost systematically retort that it doesn’t resemble the German they claim to know. I tell them that it is a language that has been crushed by the globish steamroller, a city that was once popular, torn and tormented, but has become the trendy capital of cool, where people drink and shoot up between the rows of the memorial to the greatest crime ever committed in Europe.

Throughout my childhood, my parents’ German friends laughed when they heard me express myself in the frozen state of a language that, since their departure, had naturally mutated. It was as if the French kids of today expressed themselves exclusively in the slang of Renaud’s songs[1] .

Phonetically, Berliner resembles Dutch: the chs are pronounced k, the gs become ys, the ss turn into ts and the rs go out the window. As for the vowels, they are twisted in all directions, producing the same effect as the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew to the ears of a Sephardic Jew or an Israeli.

In Berlin, one would not say “Ich bin ein Berliner” but “Ick bön een Be’lina”, just as one would not say “was willst Du” but “wat wöllst De”, preferably punctuating each sentence with an “ey”, which is the trademark of the “berliner Schnauze”, literally the “Berlin mug,” the most concrete manifestation of this popular, irreverent language which always seems to signal to the interlocutor that he can go and see elsewhere if he is there.

To the French people in the square, I am careful not to say that, without their knowledge, they are not wrong to assimilate it to Yiddish, so much so that my Berliner has been infused by the language of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. That at the time I was born there, we still referred to someone’s girlfriend as his ische[2], that we spoke of his makke[3]to say that he is toked or that one was asking to speak ta’hless[4] to demand a frank explanation.

So what is the reason for their misunderstanding, why do they always get it wrong?

That a Jew today speaks German is inconceivable. It is an ontological impossibility. In their minds, Yiddish somehow lives on, if only phantasmatically.  It is the maximum amount of German that one is allowed to imagine in the mouth of a Jew. It provides a tolerable threshold for the repression of the crime, for if Yiddish still lives it is because the destruction could not have taken place entirely. Hence the imperative to keep it alive, even by means of an artifice in which no one believes. But we don’t go as far as the German. No, that’s going too far. That would be indecent, one would almost fall into Holocaust denial. The German Jews are dead, once and for all, and their language with them. There can be none left. As speakers, only the executioners and their descendants remain.

At that moment, in the square, I feel that I am a statistical error in the psyche of a post-Holocaust European. Whether they are second or fourth generation doesn’t matter. They are Europeans, they live in a world where the Holocaust took place, which is both unbearable and incomprehensible. They can only live with this reality with mental patches that combine rote learning of grief and Levinasian catechism. But then, all of a sudden, the guy with the cap and the Semitic profile who tells his kids to get off the slide in his own German grabs the whole program.

As a child, at the Jewish school in Strasbourg, my classmates used to mock the “Nazi language” that I spoke with my parents and brother. I was seized with a feeling of revolt and an irrepressible – but unmentionable for the child that I was – urge to answer them that it was an insult to call a German Jew a Nazi. But the characteristic of Jewish groups is that they erase the Jewishness of each of their members.

Today my children are in public school and I am asked if my German is Hebrew. Things have turned around. Am I a winner? I doubt it, but it is less painful.

The other day, as I was encouraging my son to listen to the German version of the French children’s TV show C’est pas sorcier, he told me, in Berlin, that it was difficult for him because he only speaks “Paris German”.

Ruben Honigmann


1 Translator’s Note: Renaud is a very popular French singer
2 From the Hebrew ischa: wife, wife
3 From the Hebrew makka: blow
4 From the Hebrew ta’hlit: objective

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