It’s a question you get asked a lot, here as much as back home. For a while, I just told the story of how I came to study German in order to jump over the why altogether. I explained about my having taken only Latin in high school, about my urge to learn a living language and study in Europe, about the relative ease with which I imagined an English-speaker could pick up German. I explained about the teacher who inspired me to go further and blamed it all on my university’s German department. I caught myself saying that Chicago has a historically significant German population, so the school has really built on that. Recently, I’ve tried answering the question honestly. I read Don DeLillo and decided I had to learn German before I died.
In German, Anne Frank never wrote a diary. A diary is a luxury of idle civilization. Its sound is a foreign one that comes to us from Rome through way of France, cloaked in connotations of intimacy, privacy, secrecy, of class and frivolity. In German, Anne Frank wrote a Tagebuch. A Tagebuch is a book of days.
July 19, 2013, a reply email from my mother: “It’s interesting what you say about it being sad. I haven’t been, but how would you compare it to London, which has more of that resiliency and keep calm, carry on thing. Of course, they won.”
Of course, it’s not just that they won. There is a sense in London that the horror came from without. Paris has the same sense, whether justified or not, that outsiders were the danger to be repelled. The They-tried-to-kill-Us narrative goes down fairly smoothly. In Berlin, there is an acknowledgment that the worst destruction came from within the city, within the country, within the highest levels of the German cultural establishment. The most depressing chapter in the history of Humboldt University does not open with the Allied bombing. It reaches its climax on the 10th of May, 1933, when professors and students gather in the foyer of the university, each with a banned book under his arm, and march across the street to Franz-Josef-Platz to hold the largest public book-burning in Nazi history.
Berlin is full of empty spaces. Wounds pried open. My tour guide refers to the great hole in the city center where the Kaiser used to live as Das Haus, das nicht existiert. I meet up with my German teacher, my first German teacher from back in Chicago, the one who inspired me, and he takes me on my first night here to Tempelhofer Feld, the public park that used to be a military training ground, the fallow land that stretches behind where the airport that hosted the American airlift used to be. A lot of areas are places where something used to be. A hall at Humboldt is where Albert Einstein used to hold public lectures.
A plate of glass now covers the spot where the twenty thousand books were burned. By day, the glare of the sun makes it almost impossible to see the five-meter-deep room that’s been dug under the glass, let alone the empty bookshelves for twenty thousand volumes.
Thursday, July 25: I’ve been in Berlin not quite two weeks, taking language classes at Humboldt University. My friend Lynn swings by on her way home from Paris. We walk along the East Side Gallery, lingering, like everyone else, in front of Der Bruderkuss, “The Fraternal Kiss.” In this summer season, the tourists are thick enough, they clot in front of the mural. Because being loved is enough reason to be ruined, Brezhnev and Honecker are veiled by second-generation, unsubsidized graffiti. This consists overwhelmingly of obscenities in various languages and lazy representations of genitals. The piece toward the end of the wall, Vaterland, with the Israeli blue stripes and Star of David superimposed on the contemporary German flag, receives mercifully less attention.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013, our German teacher, Knuth, tells the class that the word Kristallnacht is no longer considered PC in Germany. It is too euphemistic, even too sweet-sounding, he says, to communicate the horror and shame of the event. Of course, he does not say horror and shame. He says schrecken und schande.
Native English speakers may, as I did and do, find it hard to believe that Kristallnacht could ring sweetly in anyone’s ears. Maybe we owe that knee-jerk skepticism to years of cultural work that have hammered the word into a verbal Iron Cross, so inextricably associated with Naziism that any tone of innocence is impossible to imagine. Maybe English-attuned ears are simply predisposed to hear a sinister clang in the bristle of those jagged consonants against the unfamiliarly long as. Maybe we would be more sympathetic if Crystal Night were the preferred English designation.
A professor who taught me Spanish and Portuguese history asks rhetorically why the Spanish loan-words with any staying power in the English language tend to be those connoting threatening masculinity: guerilla, machismo, junta.
My mother visits me in Berlin for the week of my birthday, February 18, 2015. As the U-Bahn doors close, the automated warning sounds to please stay back: zurückbleiben, bitte. An episode of Law & Order flashes through my mother’s brain, a Nazi-in-hiding on trial, a witness, survivor, who remembers the accused as the kindest guard on work detail, always says bitte, bitte, until someone doesn’t move fast enough, and it’s bitte, bitte and a gunshot. Why the Nazi went into hiding in the New York County District is beyond me.
There is no Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. What guidebooks and travel sites refer to as Berlin’s “Holocaust Memorial” is in fact the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, literally the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. The very word Holocaust is too euphemistic. Of course, the Holocaust means more than the murders of European Jews, and the exclusive dedication of this main monument to the Jews necessitates the irregular erection of subsequent mourning sites for the various other victim groups. Just past the statue of Goethe in Tiergarten, you find the Memorial for the Homosexuals Persecuted under National-Socialism. The most direct route between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building pulls you past the Memorial for the Roma and Sinti Murdered under National-Socialism. The Memorial and Information Site for the Victims of the National-Socialist “Euthanasia” Murders only opened 2 September 2014, three days after I landed in Berlin for a second time.
Monday, 3 November: this is the first time in Berlin for many people in the year-long exchange program, so I go with them to see the East Side Gallery. Der Bruderkuss has been restored since last summer, the minor obscenities painted over to allow the great obscenity on the base layer to come to fuller unhindered expression. Der Bruderkuss is now barely marred. The Israeli-German mashup flag, on the other hand, has a lot more written on it now than last summer.
The Latin heritage of the word “literally” is so foreign to the most basic daily needs of an English-speaker, that there is common confusion over its meaning. The most common German words for “literally” are buchstäblich, by the letter, or wörtlich, word for word.
What Knuth neglects to mention is that the word Kristallnacht is a creation of Nazi propaganda. The tendency toward the explicit in the way Germans speak about the Holocaust may have much to do with an ancient and inexplicable strain of literal thinking in German culture, but it may just as easily reflect an understandable caution toward the kind of euphemisms that characterized Nazi culture. Nothing in that dictatorship was called what it actually was. So they name 9 November, 1938,Reichspogromnacht, word for word, Night of the Reich’s Pogrom. They pull the black magic and the broken glass out of the phrase and leave behind the murdered Jews of Europe.
Americans, I think, and Jews, and American Jews, have a comfort with irony that we apply to great effect in appropriating the language of the Nazis. No one today can say or write the words “final solution” in English without thinking twice. Every time we use the phrase, we build a common consciousness, a collective judgment not only against the deed itself, the action, the murder, but against the vocabulary of authoritarianism and of genocide. We dedicate, consecrate, a portion of our words, we mourn the deformed and shamed and devalued section of our vocabulary, of our culture, of our collective humanity. We say, This too is a site of violence. We humble ourselves in this way, and we warn against future destruction of this kind. This is one of irony’s powers. Or maybe it is the luxury of distance.
Thursday, 11 September: I am struck by the strange images that bleed down my newsfeed. I ask my Tagebuch why it took my coming to Europe for me to see these photos from the World Trade Center attack. I tell myself, you can understand why Thomas Höpker is better known in Germany, but how is his shot from the bank of the East River not the burning Thich Quang Duc of my childhood? I wonder momentarily if that self-immolation in Saigon is as iconic in Vietnam. I wonder if a certain degree of removal is required to appreciate the drama in a tragedy, in other words, to gawk. I might have known the Falling Man picture, had I read more Don DeLillo before coming here.
For some reason, I also take this day, 11 September, to enter in my Tagebuch a record of an exchange with a fellow student in my language class, an exchange that definitely occurred at an earlier date. My self-translation, with the name of the student changed:
Eric does something weird. I mean, he does a lot that’s weird, but in particular, he always speaks with an inclusive “we” when he speaks about the Germans. I first noticed it during a conversation about the memorial for the murdered Jews, when Eric said something about “our guilt” [unsere Schuld], and I asked “Whose guilt?” [Wessen Schuld?]
“Whose guilt? Because you said ‘our guilt’.” „Wessen Schuld? Weil du ,unsere Schuld’ gesagt hast.”
Eric is of the opinion that we, as exchange students or whatever, somehow take on a German identity. He spoke again with the inclusive “we” today, as we spoke about German history. He is like a child, freshly come into the country and always asking about himself. “Who am I? What have I already done?”
Er ist wie ein Kind, frisch ins Land gekommen und immer über sich selbst fragend. „Wer bin ich? Was habe ich schon getan?”
Saturday, 25 October: I arrive at the Dachau train station. While planning the weekend trip, I had worried that I would need to sacrifice one of my Munich days to make the trips to and from the concentration camp site. Of course, the Dachau station is twenty minutes by train from Munich’s city center. I will visit museums and markets and the most beautiful church I have seen in Germany later this afternoon. I walk the path, now lined with information plaques, along which the prisoners were marched to the camp, Spring Street, Peace Street, Street of the Concentration Camp Victims, which until the liberation were named Adolf Hitler Street, Peace Street, and Street of the SS. The former Camp Street is now named after Theodor Heuss, and the onetime SS parade-ground is now John-F.-Kennedy-Platz. Camp Street, Lagerstraße, was a main drag, by the looks of it. German words are notorious for their relentless conglomeration, their piling up of syllables into unwieldy heaps. Germans therefore often use abbreviations to help alleviate the weight of these verbal masses.
The vocabulary of National-Socialism is no exception. Nationalsozialismus itself becomes NS. The word for concentration camp, Konzentrationslager, becomes KZ. The proper single word for concentration camp victims is the octosyllabic compound Konzentrationslager-Opfer. The sign marking the street dedicated to these victims reads Straße der KZ.-Opfer. No doubt, Straße der Konzentrationslager-Opfer would hardly fit on an Autobahn billboard, let alone a suburban street sign. I do not care. I become enraged at this sign. I want to write a letter to the municipality of Dachau. I want to demand that the words be written out in full. Let the street signs be six meters long. Let the names of these streets become sentences, paragraphs. Let every surface swarm with the story of the Americans come to liberate Dachau who found 23,000 starved and diseased corpses lying in the Todeszug aus Buchenwald, the Death Train from Buchenwald. Let the town drown in an explanation as to why the phrase Dachau-Massaker refers today to the reprisals of disgusted Americans and freed camp prisoners against fewer than a hundred SS men. Let these people suffocate under the weight of German compound nouns.
The tour guide explains the incongruence of a certain word in the camp, Brausebad, written over the door to the gas chambers. This used to be the common word for “shower,” he explains. That comes as a surprise to me, since I had always learned Dusche for “shower.” The guide explains how surprised he was, too, when he first came to the camp. According to this young man, Brausebad was the word in use until 1945. After that, after Brausebad had been the last word that so many people had seen before being murdered, it became so uncomfortable for Germans to refer to a shower in everyday conversation, that they switched over to the French loanword Dusche.
Wednesday, 10 December: I’m visiting the apartment in which I will spend the next six months to make sure I and the potential roommates are a good fit. Paula asks me why I decided to learn German. I repeat a saying I heard some weeks ago, one of those expressions that people mistake for clever, because it rhymes. “You know what they say: English is a must, German is a plus.” Englisch ist ein Muss, Deutsch ist ein Plus. This gets a giggle, as it always does.
Dan Ackerman, who grew up in Creskill and is expected to graduate from the University of Chicago this spring, studied at the Freie Universität Berlin for the 2014-15 academic year. This essay took first place in the school’s 2014-15 “Why We Travel” writing contest.