Along with researching, blogging, working on my novel, and doing other ordinary things with my days, I have started studying German. I took French in high school and college, and I learned some Italian from a travel experience I had after college, but I knew no German. Well, other than a word here and there like Danke and Gesundheit.
So why, you might ask, did I decide to learn German? It certainly is a challenge. Although I’ve been delighted to see how many words are similar to English (like wein/wine and bier/beer) or Yiddish (like schön/shayne and schmutzig/schmutzy), German grammar is tough. The sentence structure is hard. The various cases are confusing; the articles and pronouns are a constant source of bewilderment. But I am enjoying the challenge.
But that doesn’t address the question of why German. Sure, I have many ancestors with German roots, and yes, it would be helpful to read the birth, marriage, and death records without depending on the generosity of people like Matthias Steinke, Ute Brandenburg, Ralph Baer, Dorothee Lottmann-Kaeseler. and others. But I had already figured out the words for birth, death, marriage, mother, father, and even the months of the year. So why struggle to learn ordinary vocabulary and grammar?
Yes, I am planning a trip to Germany for next year, and I do want to be able to get by as much as possible without expecting people to know English. But I also know that I won’t be fluent enough really to do that, and I know that most people in Germany involved in the tourist industry will speak English, just as they did in Prague, Budapest, Vienna, and Krakow.
So why bother trying to learn German? It all started with Mathilde Mayer-Gross. Who was she? She was my second cousin, three times removed:
That is, Mathilde’s grandmother Martha Seligmann and my three-time great-grandfather Moritz Seligmann were sister and brother. We are both direct descendants of Jacob Seligmann
Mathilde is also related to me through her grandfather Benjamin Seligmann since he was his wife Martha’s first cousin; Martha’s grandfather Jacob Seligmann and Benjamin’s grandfather Hirsch Seligmann were brothers.
But I digress.
Mathilde was born in Bingen, Germany, in April 1869. She left in 1937 to escape from Nazi persecution when she was almost 68 years old and a grandmother; she lived over thirty years in the United States, dying in September, 1969, when she was a hundred years old. She wrote a book about her remarkable life called Die Alte und Die Neu Welt. [The Old and The New World] (1951).
And I want to read her book. But I can only find it in German. Ute Brandenburg did a wonderful job of translating one of the chapters, but I can’t afford to pay what it would cost to translate the rest of the book.
I used Google Translate to read some other excerpts from Mathilde’s book that appear on the Arbeitskreis Judische- Bingen website. I also read the memoir written by Mathilde’s granddaughter Ellen Kann Pine, One Life in Two Worlds (2009). But I still want to read Mathilde’s book itself.
So I decided to learn German. After about four months of using the Duolingo program online, I can write a simple sentence or two to my cousin Wolfgang and his young daughter Milena, and I can understand enough to read simple sentences. The Duolingo program is wonderful; I study every day about 30 minutes a day, and I am having a lot of fun. But so far my ten year old fourth cousin Milena knows a lot more English than I know German.
Will I ever be able to read Mathilde’s book? I don’t know. I may never be fluent enough to read it without a dictionary in hand (and Google Translate), but perhaps I will be able to read and understand enough to satisfy my curiosity about her life.
In the meantime, in my next few posts, I will take a break from the Schoenthal clan, and I will share some of what I learned about Mathilde and her family from the other sources I mentioned, including Arbeitskreis Judische-Bingen, Ellen Kann Pine’s book, and Chapter 2 of Mathilde’s own book as translated by Ute Brandenburg. Maybe someday I will be able to fill in the rest of the stories of her life.