• The Language of Thieves

  • My Family's Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate
  • By: Martin Puchner
  • Narrated by: Qarie Marshall
  • Length: 7 hrs and 28 mins
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (18 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Centuries ago in middle Europe, a coded language appeared, scrawled in graffiti and spoken only by people who were wiz (in the know). This hybrid language, dubbed Rotwelsch, facilitated survival for people in flight - whether escaping persecution or just down on their luck. It was a language of the road associated with vagabonds, travelers, Jews, and thieves that blended words from Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Romani, Czech, and other European languages and was rich in expressions for police, jail, or experiencing trouble, such as being in a pickle. This renegade language unsettled those in power, who responded by trying to stamp it out, none more vehemently than the Nazis.

As a boy, Martin Puchner learned this secret language from his father and uncle. Only as an adult did he discover, through a poisonous 1930s tract on Jewish names buried in the archives of Harvard’s Widener Library, that his own grandfather had been a committed Nazi who despised this language of thieves. Interweaving family memoir with an adventurous foray into the mysteries of language, Puchner crafts an entirely original narrative. In a language born of migration and survival, he discovers a witty and resourceful spirit of tolerance that remains essential in our volatile present.

©2020 Martin Puchner (P)2020 Dreamscape Media, LLC

What listeners say about The Language of Thieves

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A surprising look a language I never knew existed

What a wonderful book! It's part memoir and part linguistic exploration. I knew nothing at all about Rotwelsch, the "language of thieves" used by the dispossessed and the underclass in Germany. Of course, I knew nothing about the social context in which it developed and thrived among people who could not get the official documents needed to be "respectable." The language is an amalgam of many languages, including German, Yiddish, Romany, Czech, etc, combined in clever ways designed to be incomprehensible to outsiders. The author makes it clear that not only was the language a secret language, but it also was a lively and creative language.

Along with this explanation of the language itself, Puchner slowly reveals his family's history of studying the language and how that led him to discover buried, unspoken secrets from the Nazi era both from his own family and from the wider society. There's an element of the detective story here along with a poignant coming-to-terms with his own memories.

The performance of the book is excellent. Highly recommended.

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One of the best.

I will listen to this again

As a retired Geologist who looks at rocks in layers, languages are layed out in layers.

This is one of the best books that I have read (listened to) in years.

I highly recommend this book to those with a philological bent.

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  • Daniel Maher
  • 01-03-22

Deep

Very interesting reflections. Not as much description of the language and symbols as I'd like.