Virtual Event: Martin Puchner


The Language of Thieves:
My Family's Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate

in conversation with MAYA JASANOFF


November 11, 2020
5:00 PM ET


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Free - $5 contribution suggested at registration

Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes MARTIN PUCHNER—the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University and author of The Written World—for a discussion of his latest book, The Language of Thieves: My Family's Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate. He will be joined in conversation by fellow Harvard professor MAYA JASANOFF, author of the award-winning book The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.

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About The Language of Thieves

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.

Praise for The Language of Thieves

The Language of Thieves is a revelation: in telling the story of an underground language, Martin Puchner exposes a hidden corner of Europe’s—and his own family’s—surprising past. Entirely original, infectiously curious, by turns playful and poignant, it offers at once a fresh, fascinating insight into history and a thoughtful meditation on identity and belonging. The book sings with Puchner’s pleasure in the power of words to move, delight, deceive, and connect us.” —Maya Jasanoff, author of The Dawn Watch

“Martin Puchner’s The Language of Thieves is at its core a gripping autobiography dealing with the actions of non-Jewish Germans, both victims and perpetrators, in the Third Reich and their legacy to their children and―in Puchner’s case―their grandchildren. A brilliantly written, compelling read about language, displacement, and how the past forms all of us today.” —Sander L. Gilman, author of Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews

“Puchner, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard, brilliantly integrates the personal and the professional in this intriguing account of his quest to learn as much as possible about Rotwelsch . . . Rich with insight and vivid character sketches, this moving and well-informed cultural history deserves a wide readership.” —Publishers Weekly

Maya Jasanoff (OLD)
Maya Jasanoff (OLD)

Maya Jasanoff (OLD)

Maya Jasanoff is the Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard. She is the author of three books—Edge of Empire (2005), Liberty’s Exiles (2011), and The Dawn Watch (2017)—which have won accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Cundill Prize in History, the George Washington Book Prize, and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction. She writes widely about history, literature, and world affairs for publications including The New Yorker and The New York Times. In 2021 she was chair of judges for the Booker Prize.


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Event Series: Virtual Event Series

Harvard Book Store’s award-winning event series continues online! Named "Best of Boston: 2020 Best Virtual Author Series" and "2021 Best Virtual Author Series" by Boston magazine.

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