Speaking Yiddish in Germany

When I was in Austria in 2012, I was quite thrilled that I could speak Yiddish in the market and people understood me. And once again, while in Germany last weeek, I used Yiddish to communicate. 
I spent one summer studying Yiddish in a formal environment, but other than that, my Yiddish comes from having grown up hearing many words in the language. I didn’t realize until I went to college that my family’s unique combination of Yiddish and English can be considered what is known as code switching. 

Since moving out of my parents’ house I have trained myself to cut much of my Yiddish vocabulary from my everyday speech in English. As a child, however, I didn’t always know which words were in Yiddish and which were in English. I remember driving in the car with my friend’s mom one evening. We were going to their house for dinner and she asked us what we’d like to eat. I told her lokshn and she asked me to repeat myself several times. She said she didn’t know what that was. I remember being incredulous that she didn’t know this word for pasta. Finally she turned to me and said, “I think that might be Yiddish.” Aha, duly noted. I thought the word “commotion” was Yiddish for the longest time simply because it had a certain ring to it. 

But in Germany, this Yiddish has come in handy. I’ve used it to ask for directions; I’ve used Yiddish to ask for help when buying bicycle train tickets; and I’ve had some really interesting conversations with Germans about Yiddish. When I revealed a Yiddish pronunciation to our Warm Showers hosts in Zeven, there was some consultation amongst them in German, and then the son turned to me and said, “No, that’s not Yiddish. That’s Bavarian slang.”

A shluf sack (shluf means “to sleep” in Yiddish).

I thought we might encounter more Jewish or Yiddish relics while walking around Germany. There have been very few, however. During our first few miles in Germany, we passed a plaque in a small town center that had Hebrew writing on it. We saw no mention in Hamburg, although my friend’s cousin, in whose office we were staying, spoke with us about her grandfather’s Nazi past. In Lübeck, there were bronze bricks embedded into the sidewalk. Outside the small, 400 year-old building in which we stayed, there were four bricks from the Langsner family. The mother and one daughter, Sophie Minna, were deported to and killed in Riga. The father was killed in the Lodz Ghetto, while the second daughter, Amalie Malka, was killed in Brandenburg.


Memorial stones outside of our Warm Showers host’s building in Lübeck

Even at the Immigration Museum in Hamburg, which one would assume would have its facts straight about Jews, incorrectly referred to the Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century as speaking Hebrew and it referred to a Yiddish newspaper (the headline was shown) as a Hebrew newspaper. Perhaps this is the fault of German to English translation?

I expected to feel slightly more uncomfortable in Germany. Yet people were overwhelmingly friendly, and although I wasn’t always forthcoming about the Yiddish and about my being Jewish, I only ever perceived others’ respectful curiosity. Yet the Warangal its aftermath are still very much in Germans’ conscience. They are proud now of how the country has turned around and of the rights afforded to every person in Germany, no matter one’s refugee status or the like. 

One thought on “Speaking Yiddish in Germany

  1. Esther Schulman says:

    A grosse dank! Dein geschrieben ist zehr interresant. I look forward to reading more reflections of your trip. Is/was Frankfurt or Salzheim on your itinerary? My sister was born in a DP camp in Salzheim in July ’46 and she and my parents were stuck in Frankfurt til March ’50, when they FINALLY received visas to the U.S. (my brother was conceived in Frankfurt and born 5 wks. after their arrival here).

    Esther Schulman


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