September 4, 2012

Letter to Martha Woltman 1941

Letter from Elizabeth Deislinger to her Sister Martha Woltman 1941

Letter from Martha Woltman to her Sister Elizabeth Deislinger 1941

Speaking German

I'm German. Born American, born Texan, and proud of both. But the blood in my veins is German.

When I was growing up, my mother's parents and siblings frequently would speak to each other in German. They most often did so when any of the children were around and the adults didn't want us to know what they were saying.

At our family Christmas gatherings, the adults would sing "Ihr Kinderlein Kommet" (O, Come Ye Little Children) while I would sing "Oh Kinder and Comet, la lah, la la lah." They would sing "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" (Silent Night, Holy Night) while I would sing "Still a knot, la lah-ah a knot." And then there was the perennial favorite, "O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum" (O Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree), which I sang out as "O tannin bowm, o tannin bowm, la la la lah bletter, O tannin bowm, o tannin baum, la la la lah oh summertime..."

Certain German phrases were common in our household, though; we thought nothing of it. Words and phrases like Gesundheit (bless you), das ist gut (that's fine), vas ist das (what is that?), bitte (please), danke (thank you), danke schön (thank you well), ach du liebe Güte (roughly, oh goodness gracious), and, the one that has persisted through the generations and the family tree, schlaf gut (sleep well) and it's companion, du schlaf auch gut (you sleep well, also).

My father's nickname for my mom was Schatz (sweetheart, darling), and whenever we asked my mother "how much?" of something, particularly when we were learning to cook, she'd say, "dumme Junge, bis es genug ist!" (dumb young one, until it's enough!). I never could say that one, though, so I'd ask, "how much? the hibiscus thing?"

I always assumed that when I entered high school, I would learn the German of my heritage and be able to converse with my family. As my two older sisters went to our neighborhood high school, though, we were horrified to learn that the school did not offer German! My cousins were happily learning the German language in their school, however, which was hardly fair.

But then a strange revelation occurred. When my cousins tried to speak to their parents and especially to our grandparents, they discovered they could not be understood! It was not poor pronunciation. It was not poor teaching. It was almost like, well, a different language.

That's when I learned that there were apparently two German languages: high German and low German. Apparently the American schools taught high German, and my family spoke low German. (I understand that now low German is called Swiss German). My great-grandparents, and their parents before them, were born in Germany, but, as an adult, my great-grandmother prepared French cuisine for a wealthy family in Switzerland, and my grandmother and her two younger sisters were born in Switzerland before the family moved back to Germany and then immigrated to America.

After my grandmother joined her Heavenly Father, and my grandfather could no longer speak due to strokes, my mother and her siblings gradually stopped speaking German. By the time of my mother's Homegoing at the age of 78, she could barely translate a few words of spoken German and spoken Russian.

So here I am. Now a genealogist, struggling with correspondence and newspaper articles and recipes that the translators such as Bing and Google don't seem to know how to handle. And I still can't speak low German. Or high German. Or any German.

But you know what? I can still hear, on the outermost edges of my consciousness, the tenuous voices of my Nanny and PaPa singing, "irh Kinderleine kommet..." To all my German-speaking family who are now with God in Heaven, Ich erinnere mich an Sie.

(Addendum 09/10/2012: It appears I may have the low German and high German reversed according to Wikipedia. I just need some help to figure out what my documents are written in and which aspect of the language I want to learn).

Maria Heid Deislinger's 1950 Death Certificate

Gotthard Deislinger's 1938 Obituary