Studying German in a Plague Year
History exists in a constant state of revision as we learn more about the present and the world that preceded it.
-Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker
I was listening to a NY Times Daily podcast by a Berlin based reporter who spoke perfect English, but I also was understanding all the background German before it was translated. I know that we've all changed immeasurably during this past year, but I could not account for this epiphany, if that is what it was. I took a deep breath. It was hard to believe what was happening. What was happening?
There was a time when my brain and my heart would have shut down at the sound of German, or a German accent. I wrote about this sensory/cognitive dissonance in my 1999 memoir, Searching for Fritzi. As I was working on that book, I took a German language course at NYU because I truly wanted to "get over" this block, especially when encountering a young German or a young Austrian.
On the first day of class, when everyone stated why they wanted to learn German, I was mesmerized by everyone's stability and common sense. One person was an opera singer, another a business woman traveling frequently to Germany, another had a German boyfriend. My blood pressure was rising as I anticipated what I could say: "Most of my family were murdered in the Holocaust and I have a block…" My voice trailed away. The class and the professor went quiet. No euphemisms such as "perished" in that sentence; I'd long before abandoned any softening words. Then, at the break—it was summer, I remember—the professor, aus Salzburg, came up to me as I was munching on a peach and perusing a bulletin board. I was in a fugue state, very distressed, not really concentrating on the notices. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, ever so gently, "Are you okay?" and I answered, "No, absolutely not, but I will try to stay." And that's what I did: I stayed. When the draft of my memoir was finished, I sent it to this wonderful woman and we met for lunch. But I haven't studied German since.
Then came Covid, a surfeit of time, classes online, apps, more French, my second language since High School, amplified when I was living in London and traveling to France. I had never thought about German, or wanted to think about German and when I traveled to Germany I often wanted to leave as soon as I got there.
And then, suddenly, years later, in the midst of a plague year—is there a connection I wonder—I decide to study German, my parents' Mother Tongue. They spoke it all the time to each other, but never to their children, not unusual in an immigrant or refugee family.
I remember my erudite lawyer stepfather trying to convince me that Goethe, Heine, and Kafka should be read in the original. He had these books on his shelf if I ever wanted to study German and borrow them, he said. I never paid attention though I did read those classics in translation.
So, it's time, perhaps even past time, to take advantage of this gift: German is in my ear, it belongs to me and my heritage as much as the genocide.
A couple of terms ago, I had a young German in my NYU class. He traveled back to Germany to be with his family during the pandemic, but we've kept in touch. I can't wait to tell him my good news, to greet him in German, and perhaps generate a sentence or two.