Magazine April 5, 2021, Issue

The Nazis’ War on a Vagrant Language

Adolf Hitler stands beside Heinrich Himmler while observing a parade of troops in 1940. (Reuters)
The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate, by Martin Puchner (W. W. Norton, 288 pp., $26.95)

The Language of Thieves is a historical inquiry, family memoir, and meditation on the idiosyncrasies of language. If the parts cohered, the book would be smashing. They don’t, which is frustrating, but Martin Puchner’s book has its merits.

The origins of The Language of Thieves are situated in Nuremberg, where Puchner grew up. As a very young boy in the 1970s he watched his mother charitably feed “strange figures” who spoke a “strange dialect.” When he was older his father told him that the perplexing language was called “Rotwelsch” and the strangers were “travelers, . . . people of the road,

This article appears as “Underground Language” in the April 5, 2021, print edition of National Review.

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Howard Schneider — Mr. Schneider reviews books for magazines and newspapers and is the former executive editor of Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies.

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