The historian Thomas Lacquer, born in Turkey to German Jews who escaped their country in the wake of WWII, recalls being urged by his parents as a three-year-old to learn Turkish so that he could communicate with playmates in Istanbul.
“Let them learn German, I supposedly said; Turkish ‘ist eine hässliche Sprache.’”
Entitled “Prelude,” Lacquer’s is by far the most poignant of the 15 essays in Wendy Lesser’s collection The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues.
“German was my mother tongue,” writes Lacquer. “I mean this partly in the usual sense — my first language was German. But it is also true that I spoke it almost entirely with my mother, grandmother and their woman friends…. I dwell on all of these childhood memories because German is for me the language of memory and loss, a linguistic Prelude…. My German is frozen, amber-like, not only in pre-war history but in childhood…”
The Lacquer family was uprooted again a few years after his comment about the Turkish language, only to land eventually in the coal towns of West Virginia, where his parents continued such Old World traditions as arranging lit candles on the Tannenbaum (until neighbors warned them that American fir trees, cut a month in advance, could well go up in flames).
Lacquer evokes “a childhood produced by the children of nineteenth-century Jews, who imagined the land of Goethe and Schiller with little of its reality or recent history.” He recalls that the family spoke German at the dinner table until he left for college because his grandmother claimed neither to speak nor understand English. “This was clearly false,” he writes. “She read English papers and watched English TV — but feigning ignorance allowed her to maintain the fiction of otherworldly incompetence that she seems to have cultivated all her life and that kept her entirely out of public view…”
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