A Question of Identity

According to a well-known poem, March is supposed to bring breezes, loud and shrill, to stir the dancing daffodil, but so far, this most unpredictable of months just brought us a foot of snow. All area schools were closed on Monday, including the Goethe Institut in Boston, where I have been taking German classes since the fall.

I was quite disappointed. I look forward to my Monday night class each week. Not only is our instructor great, but also my classmates are a fascinating group of adults, from many walks of life, with many different reasons to pursue this singular goal: learning to speak and read German.

My own desire was sparked by our European trip last summer to honor the memory of my great grandparents, who died in a concentration camp near Prague in 1943. Our visit to Terezín and the Stolpersteine ceremony commemorating them in Berlin impacted me deeply, in ways that I found very difficult to verbalize and am still sorting out, months later. Upon our return, I suddenly realized that I needed to learn their language, the language of my mother and her parents and all my German ancestors, to process what is still beyond words for me in English.

This has turned out to be a highlight of my week. I am no foreign language maven, and I am forcing some rusty synapses in my brain to start firing again. But I am loving the challenge. Doing my homework—Hausaufgaben—is fun, a meditation of sorts that completely clears my mind of all noise and worries. There is just the puzzle to solve: How do you say that? What does it mean? How do these words fit together? How does it differ from English? Why are the words arranged that way? And how is the way that Germans think and express themselvesthe way my mother as a child and her family thought and loved and argued and dreamedhow is that defined by and encapsulated in their native tongue, in a way that was passed down to me without my even realizing it?

So much of who we are is framed and molded by the words we use to interpret the world. My mother and her parents were formal people in many ways. So when I learned that, in German, you use the formal version of ‘you’—Sie— for addressing someone older, officials, and anyone you don’t know well until you’ve met them a few times, it suddenly all made perfect sense to me. That careful adherence to rules of social etiquette conveyed to me directly and indirectly by my mother was the way she learned to understand the world from her first spoken words. Such is the power of language.

When she was dying, 20 years ago this April, my mother reverted to German. Over and over, she murmured, nein, nein, nein—no, no, no. I will never know what she was referring to. I wondered if she had traveled back to her childhood, when she had to leave her homeland to escape the Nazis. So many years later, I wondered, had a part of her remained forever trapped in a time capsule.

The search for identity is a lifelong quest. We can become mired in tragedy, loss, trauma, a chronic disease that profoundly alters our whole way of being, and let that become the focus of how we define ourselves. But I’d rather keep pushing, discovering, learning more about the world within and without. I don’t know where this new passion will lead me, but the journey fascinates.

So, until next week, auf Wiedersehen.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Berlin graffiti seen last summer near Alexanderplatz


  1. Patricia Bizzell says

    I like how you describe the intellectual puzzle of learning a new language, Evie. I have the same enthusiasm for the process, which I’ve enjoyed in the past trying to learn some Korean and Hebrew. I have personal connections to both languages and intend, once I’m retired, to really dive into Hebrew and try to reach at least a conversational level with it. Of course, as a teacher of rhetoric and writing, I could not agree more with your insight that the language(s) we speak profoundly influence our world view and sense of self.

  2. Violette Holdert says

    Hi Evelyn, I am Dutch and learnt German at school. In the 70s I listened a lot to the songs of Reinhard Mey and that really helped me with understanding and pronunciation. His songs are so poetic and wonderful to listen to. Every time I fly I think of this song:
    Über den Wolken muss die Freiheit wohl grenzenlos sein
    Alle Ängste, alle Sorgen sagt man
    Liegen darunter verborgen und dann
    Würde was uns gross und wichtig erscheint
    Plötzlich nichtig und klein.
    Isn’t that just beautiful? I hope you will enjoy his songs as much as I do
    Best wishes, Violette

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.