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Learning German


A few weeks ago I went on my regular online search for a way to learn Yiddish. I keep looking for a program that will start where I am (at the beginning), and maybe give me some idea of why Yiddish seems to be filled with words I still feel too young to use. But none of the free language learning sites offer Yiddish, and the sites that charge a fee for each lesson are often too advanced for a beginner like me. Then I came across someone who suggested learning some Hebrew and German first, before starting one of the difficult Yiddish classes. So I added German to my Duolingo and Lingvist accounts, and tried to reassure Cricket that she would not have to learn yet another language along with me. She was not convinced.


“Je ne comprend pas.”

The first time I heard German words coming out of the speaker on my phone, though, I felt like I needed to lower the volume, to hide some hideous crime; I didn’t realize how emotionally loaded the German language would be for me. Like when they taught me the word for “work”: Arbeit. My mind automatically finished the sentence to Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will make you free,” the motto on the gates to Auschwitz.

So many German words were familiar to me, even though I was sure I knew no German ahead of time. Some were familiar because they are pretty much the same in English, like perfekt for perfect, Haben for have, ist for is, etc. Some were familiar from the last names of so many Jews: Blume (flower), Berg (mountain), Stern (star), Baum (tree), Schreibe (write).

Essen and Fressen were also familiar words, because some time in my childhood my father tried to make a joke about people who eat like animals, and I didn’t get it, so he had to explain that Essen is eat, for people, and Fressen is eat, for animals. I don’t remember who he was trying to insult at the time. Schmutzig, for dirty, was familiar too, as in, you have some schmutz on your face. Then there was schmuck, which Duolingo said was the German word for “jewelry,” despite the fact that, for my whole life, I knew it as the Yiddish word for a part of the male anatomy.

One early discovery was that in the German language words can be capitalized in the middle of sentences. I used to get in a lot of trouble for throwing in unnecessary capital letters in High School English classes (this was back when assignments were handwritten, and not spell checked and grammar checked and emailed to the teacher). I realized that I may not have been making up my own rules out of thin air, as one teacher had suggested, and instead was just using the grammar rules of the wrong language.

I may have taken in more German than I’d realized in my childhood. My father did have a habit of speaking to our dog in his high school German, and I heard random Yiddish words whenever I was around older Jewish people (which was often), and I watched plenty of Holocaust and WWII movies over the years.


“Ich bin ein Doberman Pinscher?”

It’s a funny thing. Politically, Germany has managed the aftermath of the Holocaust better than most other countries (certainly better than Poland, where they recently made it illegal to even suggest that Poland had any connection to the Holocaust). In Germany they educate their kids from an early age about what their grandparents and great grandparents did, and why it should never happen again. Yes, they still have neo-Nazis and white supremacists and fascists, but so does the United States. But despite all of that, I can just barely listen to a computerized voice speaking simple German words, and I’m still overwhelmed with words that remind me of things I wish I could forget.

I grew up with kids whose parents would never have bought a BMW or a Mercedes, because they were German-made cars, and Germans would benefit. I grew up with Holocaust survivors telling their stories, at school, and synagogue, and in books. This is my history. But maybe learning some German will help me come to more peace around this history, or at least help me to articulate what still resonates in my bones. One thing I know for sure is that German will give me a bridge to Yiddish, which is worth a lot to me.




About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

88 responses »

  1. Cricket does not look excited at all about learning German.

  2. I learned Yiddish at YIVO in New York City. My husband grew up speaking it and I wanted to learn. German is similar- but different. I love that there is masculine, feminine and neutral when speaking, it is a colorful and expressive language. I really enjoyed learning it- conjugating verbs and all the irregular ones. I hope you can find a place to learn it. Also, Fressen is to overeat- to gobble down- I suppose that is why your father said it was for animals 🙂 Zeit gesundt! 🙂

  3. I’m not Jewish, but I was reminded by your post how evil this world can be. Don’t know very much Yiddish but I love the word schlep.

  4. My husband speaks a fair bit of German to get by for some of the work he’s done over there and hearing conversations to me sounds like someone dropping bits of metal onto glass or cracking Brazil nuts with their knees. No matter what is being said it sounds harsh and like someone is being sentenced to death but my daughter assured me it wasn’t just me… or unfair… or uncommon.

  5. At 70, I still have trouble hearing German. I also can never bring myself to buy German manufactured goods. Despite my best attempts to change my associations with Germany and the murder of millions, I find I am unable. I commend your attempt to see German through present eyes and to recognize Germany’s acknowledgement of its past.

    • I grew up in Jewish environments, so it took me a long time to realize how differently people can see the world. I decided that if I can only see things the way I was taught to see them as a child, then I can’t complain when other people are limited in their own views of the world. And I really like being able to complain.

      • I grew up right after the War, so I absorbed a lot of prejudice against both Germans and Japanese. I agree that it does help us cut others some slack recognizing how hard it is to expand our view of the world.

  6. I hope that learning the language will help you find peace. Reconciling the Holocaust is not possible but letting go may be a possibility. I understand and appreciate your words and feelings.

  7. You are brave, I think.

  8. That is so funny! My good friend only speaks German to his dog, apparently told by some animal specialist that this is the language the animals understand best. Go figure.

  9. When I was growing up in London, we often spent time with Jewish people in the east of the city, where most Jewish people lived. (The very rich ones lived in a leafy suburb in the north) We picked up a mixture of words, and used them in perhaps the wrong context; like ‘schlep’, (a tiring or traffic-heavy journey) and ‘schwartzer’ (used derogatorily, to refer to black people). Later on, I became very interested in the music of Al Bowlly, a London-based crooner popular in the 1930s. He sometimes sang songs partly in Yiddish or German, including this one.

    This was another of his big hit records. (Lyrics)
    Best wishes, Pete.

  10. Mark Twain wrote about the impossibility of speaking proper German as an appendix to his INNOCENTS ABROAD. (I stumble in it, but took some consolation from knowing Twain’s take on the language.)

    • Here are some great one-liners from Mr. Twain about the German language. My favorite?

      “The Germans have an inhuman way of cutting up their verbs. Now a verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when it’s all together. It’s downright inhuman to split it up. But that’s just what those Germans do. They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German.”

      Case in point: Ich möchte Ihnen meinen Freund vorstellen meaning I would like to introduce you to my friend with the verb möchte meaning I would like and the verb at the end of the sentence, vorstellen, means to introduce.

      What an interesting grammatical structure. Good luck.

      • After spending two and a half years there in the army, I spent enough time speaking German that I subconsciously used German word order for a time while speaking English. It was very distracting!

      • Oh wow. I can only peoples faces when they heard that. I’ve been flooding myself with audios of the languages I’m learning. I find myself forgetting simple words when I switch back to English. The brain is a crazy thing.

      • Best wishes for gaining on it! Of course, if you are in a situation where you are speaking the language with native speakers who don’t speak any or much English, you’ll gain confidence and proficiency. I think we English speakers find the language especially difficult since we don’t have to deal with gender (which is crazy and has no logic to it that we can discern…!) I found, though, that native speakers are aware of our difficulty with their language and are generally very polite when we screw up on grammar, etc. (Perhaps they wet themselves laughing later, but I never found any German who was anything but tolerant with my lousy German. I think they just are amazed that anyone tries to speak it, Elina!)

      • Thank you. Learning gender agreement in Spanish was hard enough, and then I realized German even throws a neutral gender in there to further my confusion. That’s good to hear. I find that English also has its difficulties such as our pronunciation “rules”, homophones, and all the contradictions. When anyone speaks English no matter how choppy, I’m always understanding.

        Here are some great examples I found of why English can be a pain:
        -There is no ham in hamburger.
        -Neither is there any apple nor pine in pineapple.
        -If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?
        -If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
        -“Overlook” and “oversee” have opposite meanings, while “look” and “see” mean the same thing.

      • Love it! Thanks for a very entertaining comment, Elina!

  11. Cricket does NOT look impressed, but I am. Glad that you are willing to learn some German. To be honest, not being Jewish or knowing anyone who is, I had never thought about current generations being so “biased” (not the right word) against the German people. I understand why they would be. Just never thought about it before. I must say that your story reminded me of my French professor in college. She was Russian, her and her husband had lived in Germany for many years, she was currently living in the United States, and of course, spoke French. When she got upset, you never knew which language was going to come out of her mouth. LOL

  12. Learn something new all the time! Growing up, we called people ‘schmucks’….quite a bit. I thought it just meant they were a jerk. Thank you for the German/Yiddish lesson, Rachel! I have just officially stopped using that word. Cricket….she is so funny.

  13. It’s been almost 75 years since that regime ended. Anyone who had the power to stop it is most certainly deceased. All we have are their progeny. Should the living be responsible for the sins of their forefathers? If so, we should all be guilty because there was probably a jerk in all our family trees. You can’t get someone today who had an ancestor who murdered a fellow caveman. Yes, I lost family also-not to Germany but to the Soviets (Lenin and Stalin). I cannot in good conscience, hold today’s Russians guilty of stuff that happened before they were born or weren’t adults when it happened.

  14. I took German for two years in high school. (1964-65) I did not do well with languages. The logic that the powers that be was that German was a language of science. Bah.

  15. I learned something. Cricket gave me a chuckle as she always does. And you’ve given me some new ways of thinking, that’s a good thing. Thank you so much for sharing this. Take care, suzanne❤️

  16. Living in Germany for four years opened my eyes to a lot of perspective outside the US, as well as their environmentalism and work ethic and rule-abiding. And their education is on-point — never forget the past, so as not to repeat mistakes in the future.

  17. My dad grew up in an area with many Jewish families. As a result, he learned Yiddish even though he wasn’t Jewish. I know an older Jewish man in the Bronx. Perhaps he knows and could help you with some Yiddish.

  18. Learning new languages is definitely not my thing, but I hope learning German provides a good bridge for you to learn Yiddish. And, who knows, if you learn to say “chicken treat” in German and Yiddish, Cricket may be more inclined to help you study. 🙂

  19. Hi Rachel,

    You know what? You have expressed in words the exact sentiment I first felt when I started learning German.

    At first, I was overly excited because I realized the similarities with English. Then, I noticed that some words by themselves held enough power (or I was giving them enough power) to trigger uneasy feelings. Words like arbeit and krieg caused a slight pinch in my gut. Then, I realized that a lot of German words I knew because of my schooling in the Holocaust nearly every year and my college courses on WWII.

    It’s astonishing how much power we give our words. It reiterates the fact that we must wield them wisely.

    Good luck learning German. Have you heard of Mango Languages? As a beginner, it might help you out.

  20. I forgot to mention that Mango Languages also has a beginners course for Yiddish. It’s a free website and there is an app as well. Let me know what you think.

  21. Best wishes for your language studies. They’re not my thing, either. 🙂 BJ and I have something in common. 🙂

  22. I learnt German for a year at school then did a bit at night-school as I so prefer it to French, though it is not as sexy obviously. I want to go to Berlin, not for the wall history (though I will take a look) but more for the fact it is the vegan capital of Europe 😀

  23. I understand you… for ages, no German volunteers were allowed on my kibbutz, because hearing the language was just too painful for people who had been through the Holocaust. Now, my sister-in-law lives in Berlin and studies German. Her German wife is a fantastic person and we all love her to bits. My father in law has even visited Berlin which he swore he would never do. The language gets less loaded as you hear it more, and it has some great literature too. Good luck! 💚

  24. My partner is a native English speaker and German translator by trade. We often disagree about the German capitalisation rules. Me: “But EVERY noun??” Him: “Well, it’s easy to remember!”

  25. I love languages, or at least hearing them, not so good with speaking them. One of my favorite ways to learn is to sing along to songs or watch movies. You can get a feel for what the subject is by the tempo of the song or by the action in the movie. There seems to be a handful of Yiddish movies and songs on Youtube. Have fun learning!

  26. Maybe that’s where the phrase “the family jewels” came from. Speaking as a gentile, I gotta say, I love Yiddish. I think it’s one of the most evocative languages and it strikes me as very grounded. Hope this isn’t insulting, but on Rosh Hashanah, I have been known to send my Jewish friends a yiddish version of Auld Lang Syne…

  27. I have worked for a couple of German companies and was always impressed with how the current generation has been educated about the Holocaust and their own history. They were constantly aware of how the unimaginable could happen anywhere to anyone, and thus vigilant. Perhaps something that we should keep in mind as well.

  28. How exciting to learn a new language!

  29. German was one of my languages in high school and I still speak it, but nur ein bisschen. I still remember how the odd structuring of the sentences was hard to “get”…and I so understand your reaction. And Cricket’s.

  30. Thank you Rachel, for another very thoughtful post. Some of these comments are interesting…

  31. After learning all the botanical names of plants in my first career and the names of medications in my second, I always wished I had taken Latin. Instead I have to be satisfied being 57% fluent in Spanish on Duolingo. I am terrible at learning languages so I was fascinated to be working with a linguist in Nepal. He would break the language into pieces and was picking it up so quickly. Good luck with your studies!

  32. How terrific that you are learning German – congratulations on your determination! Pip and the boys

  33. Pingback: Language Barriers? Tear Down the Wall! (And Keep Your Inbox Tidy) - A. JoAnn

  34. My rabbi tells me Yiddish is more German than Jewish. I think he might be right. Do you read hebrew? If so, you can read the yiddish. LOTS of good yiddish literature out there. I would start with something from here: See their children’s books.

  35. My maternal grandmother’s parents were both German and German was their language of choice until their children learned English in grammar school (which was the only schooling they ever had). Every summer my great-grandparents came to stay with us for a week, and I heard them speak German to each other and to my grandmother. I tried to learn words, but everything sounded like unusual grunt sounds so I gave up.
    Later on after my awareness of the Holocaust, I was so afraid my ancestors participated that I was too ashamed to ever try to speak the language.
    I hope you have more success.

  36. Really quite an interesting situation.

  37. So brave to start learning a new language! Best of luck with your learning. I never knew there is a difference between Yiddish and Hebrew. It is such an eye opener to read your posts.
    On the other hand, I can feel for you towards your feeling in German. Some of the older generations in my family hates Japanese because of what happened in WW2 but I love this country and many things and people there. I think we need to learn history to have a clear mind of what happened but no need to continue the hatred with people who have nothing to do with those horrible historical events.

  38. Yes, German capitalises nouns whatever they’re doing. We used to do that often enough in English. I’ve seen lots of text from the 17th century with capitals sprinkled around like that. In the 18th century when grammatical experts appeared, they strove to standardise the spelling and other things. Capitals went out except for names and to start the sentence.

    German is a beautiful language, though with some ugly sounds. It’s great for dreams and serious poetry: “Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blumen?” One thing I notice is the tendency for the voice to rise at the end of a sentence, which in English only happens with a question or otherwise (for certain speakers, Australian, Jewish, Welsh for instance) to indicate surprise or incredulity without a question. This question-like intonation can make German sound unsure, especially in a foreign language: “My name is Klaus” said with rising intonation on the “Klaus” and it sounds like he’s not sure what his name is.

    I have no German ancestry I know of, but I learnt some in school (In the UK, at least in England, it tends to be the second foreign language) and have done classes to keep it up. I went to Auschwitz and the Polish tour leader (whose grandfather was a non-Jewish Auschwitz inmate) asked at one point if anyone in our tour party understood German. Bound to be someone, I thought, and mine is quite basic. No-one else volunteered, so I did. It was to read a notice on an old photo of the dormitories. It said, “SEI EHRLICH” (literally “be noble”, but in effect, be well-behaved, be good. What irony, what arrogance.


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