Sometimes, when a German song goes on my player, I wonder how funny it would be if my family heard that song and how they would react to it. I remember visiting my aunt in Los Angeles once and at some point during dinner, I got thirsty and said “Wasser, bitte!” My aunt did not understand but she got that it was German and said “No German on this table!” as if I had just cursed or something.
My cousin said he hates German because there’s so much “phlegm” sounds in it “It’s all chh, chh, chh,” he said. As it turns out, most of the “phlegm” sounds in German are much more refined. They sound like something between “ch” and “sh” – not much throat is being used. In fact, there are a lot more phlegm sounds in Hebrew, but my cousin ignores that because to him, German is still a gross language.
It made me think about the associations that we make to some languages and how it affects how we feel about them. Like, why is French the language of love? Or maybe it’s Spanish, the language of romance. Chinese, even though it’s the most spoken language in the world, is one that nobody seems to understand because we always say “It’s Chinese to me”.
So with German, the association that people make is automatically World War 2. For the Jewish people, it’s automatically Hitler and the Holocaust. I admit, I too was indoctrinated from a young age to associate German and Germany with its negative history. I literally know nothing of German history except for the years of 1933 to 1945. The first person I heard speaking German was Hitler, when they showed us videos of his speeches back in high school. Being in a private Jewish school, not a week went by without some mention of it. Even on holidays.
On Purim, we talked about Haman. “Who does it remind you of?” the teacher asks. And we would answer almost in unison “Hitler.” In fact, some believe that 11 out of the 12 people who were sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials were actually the reincarnations of Haman and his 10 sons who were also sentenced to death and hanged.
On Passover, it was Pharaoh. He tossed the Hebrews’ newborn babies into the Nile. Of course he’s Hitler.
By Secondary 5 (Grade 11), I got into Rammstein, and German suddenly didn’t seem so ugly to me anymore. Then I heard other people speaking German. Just random people on the street and tourists, and it actually started to sound beautiful. The accent, the refined “shh” sounds, the O’s and the U’s with the two dots on top of them that sound almost like the way E and U are pronounced in French. I fell in love with it, tried learning it, started listening to other German bands, got excited every time I heard of a new German word I never knew before (“Scheissdreck” is still my all-time favorite), lost my mind over my typewriter when I discovered it was in German and included the letter ß.
So the association somewhat changed for me. It got me thinking “what if it was the other way around?” For example, Italian. We think of it as a beautiful language because we associate it with art and spirituality. We think of Rome and the Vatican, the architecture, the vibrant culture and art of the Renaissance. We think of da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and the rest of the Ninja Turtles namesakes. With such stunningly beautiful cities like Venice, Florence, Rome, and Tuscany, is it any wonder why we think of Italian as a beautiful language?
What if the association was reversed? What if Italian also made us think of World War 2? Italy was an Axis power. Mussolini was a cruel and ruthless dictator who ruled Italy with an iron fist for two decades – well before WW2 ever began. It is said that Hitler actually looked up to Mussolini as a mentor and as a role model. And the fact that Mussolini was a fascist, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he was as much of an anti-Semite as Hitler was. With that association in mind, Italian doesn’t sound as pretty anymore.
But we still think of German as the language of evil because Mussolini was not the one who instigated a systematic extermination of European Jewry.
But again, what if it was the other way around? Germany is a beautiful country with a rich culture as well. I don’t know much of it because, like I said, they never taught us anything of Germany besides the ugly stuff. But thinking of German culture, I think of great beer and Oktoberfest, I think of good food like schnitzel and strudel that were both adopted by Israel, a bunch of German words that were also adopted by Hebrew speakers (the latest one I learned of is “Gummi” – rubber), and Yiddish would never have existed if it wasn’t for German. For real, these languages are almost identical. You wouldn’t believe how many German words I learned simply by hanging out with people who speak Yiddish.
And of course, I think of German music. And I don’t just mean Rammstein and Vogelfrey, which my family would undoubtedly hate not just because of the language but also because they’re both metal bands – music that my family cannot stand. I mean the classics – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart – they were all German, and they composed the most beautiful tunes in the world. I honestly think that contemporary music would not be what it is if it wasn’t for those legendary composers. Thinking of these beautiful musical sounds, German suddenly sounds just as beautiful.
Yes, Hitler was a motherfucking monster. Yes, Nazi Germany was sadistic and hateful and we’re all glad it was destroyed. Yes, the Holocaust was horrible beyond words can ever express. It’s the darkest time, not only in German history but also in Jewish history. It’s a part of mine and my people’s history, and nothing will ever change that.
But I don’t think that we should praise or demonize a language just because of the associations we make. It makes no sense. Wars and death do not define a language. Neither does love and romance.
So the next time I get thirsty right about the same time I get struck by an uncontrollable urge to speak the most beautiful and lyrical language in the world, and say “Wasser, bitte!” please shut the fuck up and give me some damn water.
Peace, love and scheissdreck forever