I was unsure whether or not to post this piece, but I decided that I wanted to provide everyone with a glimpse of a dinner with my grandfather. I hope that my readers will forgive my very slightly off-color political joke and my grandfather’s very corny sense of humor.
My brother, Davey, and I sat down to dinner with my grandfather and his friend, Marie. The talk at the beginning of our dinner mostly surrounded the upcoming elections, and which candidates were the most reliably pro-life. Davey unintentionally sent the conversation in a different direction.
“Do you want some potatoes, Davey?” I asked.
“Ja.” Replied Davey, using the English pronunciation.
“No, ja,” I corrected him using the proper German pronunciation, “Don’t speak phony German in front of your German grandfather!”
“German American,” corrected Davey.
I sat back down at my plate and began to eat my dinner. My grandfather leaned over and asked me, “In German how do you say ‘I don’t know?’”
“Ich weiß nicht.” I replied.
“Ok,” said my grandfather, “in Dutch,” (by which he meant Pennsylvania German, not Dutch) “it’s Ich wes nit.” He then proceeded to tell a joke. “There was this Irishman who moved to Philadelphia….”
“What was his name???” asked Davey.
“Davey, it’s a joke,” said I, “He doesn’t have a name.”
My grandfather began again. “There was this Irishman who moved to Philadelphia, and he got on a bus and sat down next to a Dutchman” (by which my grandfather meant a Pennsylvania German). “They passed a nice looking house, and the Irishman said to the German ‘Hey, that’s a nice house! Who lives there?’
‘Ich wes nit.’ replied the German.
Every time they passed a nice house, the Irishman would ask ‘Who lives there?’ and the German would reply ‘Ich wes nit.’ Finally the Irishman got angry, because he kept getting the same answer, and started shaking the German. The German got upset and started to shout ‘Genug! Genug! Genug!’
‘Genug!’ repeated the Irishman, ‘That’s it! I knew Ichwesnit couldn’t live in ALL those houses!’”
We all laughed at my grandfather’s corny joke, and then I said, “That reminds me of the joke that went around the internet during the last presidential campaign.”
“What was that?” asked my Grandfather.
“There was a man from Chicago who went to rural Illinois to campaign for Barack Obama,” I began. “He came to a pond on a farm, bent down, and started to drink the water. The German farmer who owned the property came running out of the house and yelled ‘Nein! Nein! Trinken Sie das Wasser nicht! Die Kühe haben sich ins Wasser geschissen!’”
Laughter from my grandfather and his friend. I continued, “The man said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m here from Chicago campaigning for Barack Obama.’ The German farmer looked at him and said ‘Use two hands. You get more.’”
This joke went over well with my grandfather and his friend, who, in addition to appreciating the political humor, were also pleased with themselves for having been able to understand the High German that I had used. This led to a discussion of Pennsylvania German, which both my grandfather and his friend had grown up hearing, because their parents spoke it, but which neither of them could speak themselves, although they could understand it to some extent.
I do not understand the disappearance of Pennsylvania German from the Poconos (it is still spoken in certain regions of Pennsylvania), just as I do not understand the disappearance of French from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The German language in Pennsylvania goes back to some of Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers, Lutherans, Catholics, and other Christian groups who came to Pennsylvania, which, like Rhode Island, was founded as a colony for religious liberty, to escape persecution in various German principalities. In a story called Christmas at Valley Forge, by an author whose name escapes me, the Pennsylvanian militia men were described as speaking German, singing Christmas carols in German, and attempting, even under the horrible conditions at Valley Forge, to make a Christmas tree. So why the disappearance of this old, established language? My guess is that it disappeared because of mass media, mass culture, mass education, and the general desire to be exactly like everyone else everywhere else in the country.
“My mother’s family,“ said my grandfather, “was from Heidelberg, and they spoke High German, not Dutch. Now they said that they couldn’t understand the people who came from Frankfurt.“
My great grandmother’s family, the Schwartz family, immigrated from Heidelberg in the late nineteenth century, and therefore were considered High German, not Pennsylvania German. They were the musicians in the family. (My great grandmother, Clara Schwartz, was a classical pianist and organist who studied with the conductor Leopold Stokowski at the Philadelphia Music Conservatory.)
I explained that the Pennsylvania German dialect, what my grandfather ad his friend call “Dutch,” (from the Pennsylvania German “Dietsch”), comes from the dialect spoken in the Rhineland (actually in the Pfalz district of Germany). My grandfather observed that there are also a lot of different dialects of Italian spoken in Italy.
“There are even more dialects spoken in Germany,” I said, “and then there are the German dialects that are spoken in other parts of the world, like Pennsylvania German and Yiddish.”
“Did you ever hear the joke about the Palestinian Paul Revere?” asked my grandfather, who, like everyone else in my family including me, is very pro-Israel.
“No,” I said.
My grandfather started to laugh at his own joke before telling it, as he always does. “He yelled out ‘the Yiddish are coming! The Yiddish are coming!’”
We laughed, and then my grandfather continued more seriously, “The Israelis’ big mistake was giving Palestine back the land that they won from them. The Palestinians abandoned it. They left their tanks and ran. The Israelis should have kept it.
The Howers: Republican since the time of Abraham Lincoln, pro-Israel since there was an Israel, and German since, well, ich weiß nicht.