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Publication Date: Feb 9, 2021

464 pp

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ISBN: 978-1-63542-071-5

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Nuestra América

My Family in the Vertigo of Translation

INTRODUCTION

The Language of Paradise

Family history, for what?

This is an account that speaks of how strangers help shape everything that we call ours. It begins in exile, like the Odyssey, and it bends and strains toward reunion. It is my family’s story, and it is also my story.
The collapse of Europe triggered a dizzying cycle of displacement. So much so that this account appears to have an unpredictable quality, skipping between countries and provinces that were only remotely connected. In many of those places — Peru, Colombia, Romania, France, Israel, Chile, Mexico — my family has had the kind of role that in Hollywood is known as a cameo: fleeting apparitions, minor parts, testimonials. There is something very Jewish in this.
In the Christian kingdoms of medieval Iberia, for example, the Jews were the property of the king, who referred to them as “our Jews.” They lived in Jewish quarters (juderías) and moved about the cities dressed in peculiar clothing that was both a mark and a seal. Nevertheless, marginal though they were, those “Jews of the king” had an important role in the spiritual life of the community: they were condemned to be eternal witnesses of Christian happiness, to that to which they had turned their backs when they denied that Jesus was the Messiah. According to the logic of the Christian monarchs, Jews must be confined, identified, and punished, true, but they must also be protected so that they could carry out the theological role of the condemned witness: always present but never invited to the banquet. Someone is always required to envy whatever is deemed to be normal, because normality can scarcely justify itself on its own.
Of course there was also a material function for these people. Christian law prohibited usury. Jewish law also prohibited it, but only within the religious community. That is, Jews could freely charge Christians interest. For this reason, Christian monarchs made sure that “their Jews” were moneylenders and that they charged interest. This marked them as usurers and thus all but ensured that Christians would reject them as sinners. Afterward, the king would levy taxes against these same Jews, making himself the ultimate beneficiary of the greatest part of the income earned through usury, though without himself ever having violated Christian law. To use a rather unpleasant Jewish concept, the Jewish userer was something like the Christian king’s version of a Shabbas goy. The Jew did what was religiously forbidden to the Christian, but he did it for the Christian’s benefit, even more than for his own.
The point is that Jewish marginality was in fact crucial for the Christian order. The Jew’s place as forced witness served to highlight the blessings of that order, a dramatic role akin to that of hired mourners, whose loud wailing lent gravity to the funerals of great personages. On the other hand, the supposed fiscal immorality of the Jews was in fact indispensable for the proper functioning of the Christian economy, and their marginalization was nothing if not a formula to separate capitalism both from society and from the person of the king without the crown losing any of its earnings. Jewish marginalization was a useful fiction; costly for Jews, of course, but convenient for those in power.
Something similar happens to those who are relegated to immigrant status in national societies: they are a shadow, like the Jews in medieval Iberian towns, and they are also a witness that reminds the citizen of the nation’s real or imagined blessings. The myth of the American Dream would not hold if there were not migrants who were perceived to desire a life in the United States. And then again, migrants perform indispensable work that people from “good families” prefer not to do, even while national society prefers to imagine that it can get by without them. Like the medieval Jew, today’s migrant is at once a demeaned witness and a key economic player. Necessary, but always made to feel dispensable.

Just plain Kartoffel

My father, Cinna Lomnitz, was born in Cologne in 1925, but he left that city with his parents when he was eight years old. They first went to Brussels, where they stayed for only five years before making their way to Santiago de Chile in 1938. German Jews were then called yeques. Looking for the origin of this term, I find disagreement and speculation; but the theory that most convinces me is that yeque comes from a Yiddish term that signifies “jacket” or perhaps “suit jacket” (from the German Jake). Eastern European Jews referred to German Jews as “jackets” because they seemed to them very modern and assimilated: the yeques no longer dressed in the garb that was worn in the villages and ghettos of Russia or Poland, and which set those villagers apart as Jews; on the contrary, they dressed in the same manner as other German city folk.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, the yeque stereotype underscores a certain rigidity of character, associated with the assimilation of bourgeois values, a high level of education, secularization, and, frequently enough, pretentiousness. The superiority of the yeque with respect to the Jews of Eastern Europe — from Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, Ukraine, Russia, or Romania — was obvious to many: German Jews were civilized. They had enjoyed full citizenship since the first third of the nineteenth century, while in Russia this was not granted until the Russian Revolution. Yeques had come to have expert knowledge in worldly affairs — science and white-collar professions, medicine, and law — rather than closing themselves off to study the Torah and the Talmud. Following this trend, my grandfather Kurt (“Ricardo”) was a lawyer, and his brothers, Walther and Günther, were doctors. None of them was immune to nationalist passion, either, and they fought on the German side in the First World War. My grandfather was in fact awarded the Iron Cross for his courage driving ambulances at the front.
My grandmother Bronislawa (Bronis), for her part, was an opera singer, and a passionate fan of the music of Gustav Mahler. Bruno Walter himself had visited her parents to ask that they let her sing professionally. This was necessary because her father, a wealthy textile wholesaler, was against the idea: he considered a stage career to be something akin to singing in a cabaret. My grandmother’s professional singing career was cut short because of Germany’s rising anti-Semitism in the 1920s, but Bronis later gave singing classes in Santiago de Chile, and she attended concerts and operas devotedly during the many years that she lived in New York City and London.
With all this, my father had everything he needed to be a perfect yeque; however, and for reasons that I only half understand, Cinna never developed “yeque pride.” As a young boy in Brussels, he quickly learned that having a German identity was a disadvantage. Belgium had suffered a cruel German invasion during the First World War, and the country was at that time anxious about a second invasion under Hitler, which took place soon enough. My father and his brother preferred to speak French between them so as not to be classified as Boches (a derogatory term for Germans). Beyond their ardent desire for camouflage and to lose themselves in their surroundings, I believe that my father was irritated by German/yeque rigidity and an almost universal lack of any sense of humor. Above all, he was averse to what the Greeks called hubris: a sense of pride that ends up challenging the gods.
Perhaps all of this explains why, when on a certain occasion I asked my father to teach me German, he turned to the back seat of the car where I was sitting and told me that there was really no point. As he saw it, knowing how to pronounce correctly the words ja, nein, and Kartoffel was more than enough. Cinna then asked me to pronounce the word ja a number of times, then nein, and finally Kartoffel. Before long, I was able to pronounce them perfectly. This would be the first and final German language lesson my father would offer me.

Comme c’est curieux

Many years later, I had the opportunity to learn more German. I was invited to spend a year in Berlin, at the Wissenschaftskolleg, a prestigious institution that was built to allow professors such as myself the time and mental stimulus in which we might best develop our work. While there, I lived in Grunewald, a neighborhood in the midst of lakes and forests on the western edge of the city, the name of which means “green forest.” Grunewald was an upper-middle-class suburb at the end of the nineteenth century, and there were once a good number of Jews living there. Walter Benjamin, for example, lived at 23 Delbruckstrasse, just a few blocks from the castle at the Koenigsallee, where I was staying.
My stance on German had not changed from the time my father gave me my first lesson. I enjoyed the sound of the language, and I pronounced it with pleasure and never without emphasis; nonetheless, I refused to make much effort to learn it. If the language of Goethe entered freely into my unconscious, it would be most welcome, but I would make no effort to take control of it.
The Wissenschaftskolleg offered three free weeks of German lessons. I took them in order to be able to move freely through the city. Beyond this stimulus, I also found it pleasurable for once to take a class instead of always teaching them, and above all on something that wouldn’t be of any lasting use to me. My plan was just to follow my curiosity into the impractical; and after all, it would only be for three weeks.
The classes were offered in a mansion that the institute owned on the Wallotstrasse. At the entrance, embedded in the sidewalk, were two small squares of bronze with the names of the members of the Jewish family who had lived there. They had been murdered by the Nazis, sent to a concentration camp the name of which I don’t recall. The murder of Jews was ever the companion of theft, and the large house soon became a retreat for Joseph Goebbels’s hunting club. Now I would study German in this same house, and I had even been invited to do so (with all expenses paid) by a public institution under the auspices of the German republic.
What does one say to an experience like this? Just ja? Of course not. But nein? One cannot deny that the situation is now different. Then it hit me. In the end, the answer had long been given to me by my father: Kartoffel! I remembered Cinna’s enthusiasm for the theater of the absurd, his love for Eugène Ionesco, who will appear in another part of this story.

Wo wohnt der Mörder?

My father wasn’t very involved in my education. He never corrected my homework, for example, and I remember only a few occasions when he helped me with a class. The first of these was in Berkeley. I was perhaps eight or nine years old, and I needed to recite a poem from memory. I had been asked to choose it myself, and I had no idea where to begin. To help me, my father opened up an edition of Through the Looking-Glass and read “Jabberwocky” to me out loud, with a good deal of meaningful emphasis:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gire and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
How fascinating to grasp the drift of a poem so well and yet not understand a word! This was the first poem I ever memorized, apart from children’s songs. My father had a finely tuned ear for the displacement of language, and at nine years old I also had some understanding of this. Why build a bridge of understanding to the senselessness that was for us Germany? It was, in fact, precisely for this senselessness that I so enjoyed the sound of German, which is at once so emphatic and improbable. “Excuse me, sir” is said in a sneeze: Entschuldigen Sie! How could I not love such a singular language even a little? My father arrived in Santiago de Chile when he was thirteen years old. His schoolmates used to beg him to say, “Where does the murderer live?” in German, and Cinna did not understand why the answer — Wo wohnt der Mörder? — caused such hilarity, until he finally figured out that for his friends, the phrase sounded very much like the extremely Chilean expression huevón de mierda (roughly translatable into English as “fucking jerk”), only pronounced with a pompous and very sonorous German accent.
Where does the murderer live? That autumn of 1938, the murderer lived in Berlin, and his name was Adolf Hitler. But in Santiago, all that German madness seemed very far away, pus huevón. Apparently, at least. While I was at the Wissenschaftskolleg, some colleagues insisted that with or without the language, I was German, because in my house we listened to the music of Mozart and Mahler when I was a boy. They believed that I understood everything even while comprehending nothing. Maybe they were right, who knows?