Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life

COALITION SPEAKER SERIES: Martin Puchner – “Why Words Matter: The Story of Rotwelsch and One Family’s Secret History”


December 12, 2021    
10:00 am - 11:30 am

Join Professor Puchner for a discussion of his family memoir which probes the meaning of language and family, inheritance and debt, and the power of words to destroy and rebuild community. Centuries ago in middle Europe, a coded language appeared, scrawled in graffiti. A blend of Yiddish, Hebrew, and many European languages, it facilitated survival for people in flight—whether escaping persecution or just down on their luck. The Nazis tried to erase it. 

During his childhood in Germany,  Martin Puchner learned about this secret language which is called Rotwelsch. Now a Harvard University Professor of Comparative Literature, Puchner’s later research into Rotwelsch’s history revealed a surprise in his own history: his grandfather’s connection to the Nazis. 

Professor Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, is a prize-winning author, educator, public speaker and institution builder in the arts and humanities. His writings range from philosophy and theatre to world literature and have been translated into many languages. He has brought four thousand years of literature to audiences across the globe – from the Arctic Circle to Brazil and from the Middle East to China. His latest book, The Language of Thieves, interweaves family memoir with a reflection on Rotwelsch, the underground language of Central Europe, which he learned from his father and uncle. He is a member of the European Academy and has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Cullman Fellowship, the Berlin Prize, and the Massachusetts Book Award. 

Professor Puchner’s just-recently released book is described below.

With gratitude to our generous Coalition sponsors.


Tracking an underground language and the outcasts who depended on it for their survival becomes “a deeply personal project, one that probes the meaning of language and family, inheritance and debt” (Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times Book Review).

Centuries ago in middle Europe, a coded language appeared, scrawled in graffiti and spoken only by people who were “wiz” (in the know). This hybrid language, dubbed Rotwelsch, facilitated survival for people in flight―whether escaping persecution or just down on their luck. It was a language of the road associated with vagabonds, travelers, Jews, and thieves that blended words from Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Romani, Czech, and other European languages and was rich in expressions for police, jail, or experiencing trouble, such as “being in a pickle.” This renegade language unsettled those in power, who responded by trying to stamp it out, none more vehemently than the Nazis.

As a boy, Martin Puchner learned this secret language from his father and uncle. Only as an adult did he discover, through a poisonous 1930s tract on Jewish names buried in the archives of Harvard’s Widener Library, that his own grandfather had been a committed Nazi who despised this “language of thieves.” Interweaving family memoir with an adventurous foray into the mysteries of language, Puchner crafts an entirely original narrative. In a language born of migration and survival, he discovers a witty and resourceful spirit of tolerance that remains essential in our volatile present.

28 illustrations


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