Chanukkah 5692 (1932), Kiel, Germany

Kiel, 1932. Rachel Posner
Kiel, Hanukkah 1932. Rachel Posner

Several of my friends posted this picture over the last week, this year’s Hanukkah holiday; typically with a caption similar to the one I used. The photograph pretty much stands on its own. My thought was that with a date and author so precisely known, its story was likely to be easy to find and quite possibly interesting in itself, as a complement to this strong photograph.

And indeed, a web search for the caption quickly returns a number of sites in English which place the picture in its proper place in the history of the Shoah. Following the trail of texts in German, though, adds some extra historical texture and density. This is the story the way I figured it out. It clears up a small number of contradictions you may find in the most popular links in English, but otherwise claims no superiority to other ways of looking at it. I’ve relegated all references (mostly in German) to the end, if you care to read/watch further.

Kiel is a city on the coast of the Baltic sea. It’s the capital of Schleswig-Holstein, now a federal state (Land), then a province in the state of Prussia. It has a university, founded in 1665. Back in the 1930s, it had a large prosperous middle class — civil servants, professors, lawyers, doctors, people of trade and commerce — as well as a large working class due to its ship yards.

1932 is the year before Hitler came to power. The first day of Hanukkah 1932 was December 24, so the scene is about a month before Hitler is appointed chancellor, and three months until his organisation has dismantled the core of the democratic institution, and the totalitarian repression begins in earnest.

When thinking about the image, I first wondered about the large NSDAP flag on the building on the other side of the road. There had been municipal elections in Kiel that year. Did the Nazis already capture city hall? Turns out, no, that’s not quite how it went.

The building was the seat of the Nazi party (NSDAP) district organization. And across the road happened to live the photographer, Rachel Posner, who was the wife of Dr. Akiva Posner, rabbi of Kiel from 1924 to 1933, and their family. During Hanukkah 1932, her thoughts on the worrisome deterioration of the political situation, Rachel Posner took her camera and captured the image. There’s actually a little more to her creation: The back of the picture contains the time and place, in the spelling I used in the title of this post, as well as a short poem:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 20.51.01


“Death to Judah,” says the flag –
“Judah will live forever,” replies the light.

(It rhymes in German, and is very much in the tone of the classical German poetry that would permeate upper secondary schooling then.)

1932 was a brutal year. One of the multiple elections, the July legislative vote, was the one where Hitler’s party jumped from a manageable 16% two years earlier to 37.3%, ahead of social democrats and communists combined, and far ahead of the republican conservatives. The SS and SA, which had been banned for a short while, terrorized the land. The violence was at this stage mainly between SA/SS on the one hand and KPD (communist) activists on the other. Nearly 100 people were killed in such clashes during a few short weeks in July. Public intellectuals, including such diverse personalities as Albert Einstein, Käthe Kollwitz and Thomas Mann, wrote a letter entreating the SPD and KPD to work together, but to no avail. The pro-republican conservatives weren’t any more able to overcome the divisions between each other, and between the political center and the SPD. This is the moment that the Weimar Republic failed. The brand new government breaks down pretty much immediately, and in yet another election in November 1932 the Nazi party is down to 33%. Yet another bourgeois-conservative minority government is formed.

Germany in 1932 was of course in the throes of the economic crisis. People were incensed, too, about the reparation demands following the defeat in World War I, and whipped up further by the nationalist extreme of the political spectrum. In Kiel, there was an additional disaster: The Navy training ship Niobe, manned mostly by naval officers-in-training, sank in July, in a storm off the coast. 69 people died, and much of the city participated in recovery and relief.

Anti-Semitic violence was somewhat secondary to the Nazis at that particular point in time:  Hitler’s priority was to influence an election, trying (and failing) to obtain a majority. (Jews made up less than a percent of the population in Germany in the post-WW1 borders.) Nonetheless it was never far away. Dr. Posner’s synagogue was attacked with a small explosive device at one point in 1932. His reaction appears to have been based on outreach and reason: he led guided tours through the synagogue, gave public talks explaining some basics about Judaism, and even participated in a public debate with people close to the NSDAP on the other side.

So much for the context in late 1932. And then the events accelerated. In January 1933, the last pro-republic (bourgeois right-wing) government fails, and Hitler is appointed chancellor. He immediately passes emergency legislation that suspends democratic rights, calls new elections in early March and starts to persecute socialist and communist politicians. In March, despite the incipient totalitarian terror, the NSDAP still remains short of a majority (at 47% of the vote). So coups are staged at the state and local level, proceeding via arrests of communist and some socialist politicians, voiding of the seats held by the KPD, and then a take-over. This is the beginning of the process called Gleichschaltung (“synchronization” or “bringing into line”) — a replacement of the democratic and societal institutions by Nazi-party equivalents. The Dachau concentration camp is opened on March 22, to be filled first with left-wing political opponents. Starting April 1, Hitler calls for acts of discrimination, boycott and violence against Jewish citizens and businesses. On a psychological level, this transparent appeal to the basest instincts of the German majority population was scarily masterful.

Back in Kiel, the key events are these: In the days following the legislative elections, the Kiel Nazis kick out the communist town assembly members as well as the (conservative) mayor and take over city hall. The next day, March 12, the first of two murders takes place that would particularly shake the Jewish community. The victim was the lawyer Dr. Wilhelm Spiegel, a social democrat, board president of the Jewish community, board member of the local community college, and a civil rights lawyer who in 1932 had defended a regional workers’ paper (the Volkszeitung) against libel claims by Hitler personally. The paper had accused him to pursue the objective of civil war. The newspaper lost the trial, and by March 1933 the paper was banned and dissolved. That evening, Dr. Spiegel is visited by two men (one in SA uniform), who claim to be police. He ushers them into his study, where he is killed with a shot to the back of the head. The murderers flee. The police (and local Nazi spokesmen) direct the suspicion towards the KPD. The funeral was a huge peaceful demonstration of anti-Nazi feeling. Spiegel’s eulogy is given by his long-term political friend, the SPD member of parliament Otto Eggerstedt. Eggerstedt himself was arrested soon after and died in a concentration camp in October 1933, shot under the pretext that he was attempting to flee.

The second murder follows soon after. On April 1, another Jewish lawyer, Dr. Friedrich Schumm, returns to Kiel for a family event. He visits the furniture store owned by his parents, but is stopped by an SS guard at the entrance, with a command  not to buy from Jewish businesses. Annoyed, he enters from the back, and comes out to the front together with his father. He draws a hand gun. One of the SS falls into his arm, and in the scuffle that follows an SS man is shot. Schumm flees at first, but later turns himself in. Even though there’s an order to move him to a different jail for his protection, the local police dawdle and ultimately let a lynch mob of 30-40 SS and other Nazis into the building. They shoot him and leave with no trouble.

The Jewish community of Kiel pretty much draws the correct conclusions from these events. It starts out numbering about 1000 people, about half (my estimate — sources vary) in Dr. Akiva Posner’s congregation. Many of them get out during the year of 1933. Overall, the Jewish population of Germany decreased by about 10% between 1925 and 1933, partly because of demographics but mostly because of emigration. The Posner family – with Rachel, two daughters and a son, travel first to Amsterdam and then the year after to Palestine under British mandate. Their grandchildren now live in Israel, as do the descendants of the widow of Dr. Schumm. Some didn’t want to leave, though. And the less affluent half of the Kiel Jewish community fared worse. These were Polish and Yiddish speaking “Ostjuden”, who were kicked out of formerly German areas that became Polish again after World War I, and who often didn’t even have German citizenship. They were much less able to flee and find countries to welcome them. Estimates put the number of Kiel Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps at about 250.

Here’s a picture of the Posner family at the Kiel railway station when they were leaving in 1933. The pictures are available in many places, but a good one is here. Also, see the references below. The NDR report shows the Posners’ grandson, in Israel, retrieving the Hanukkia for the holiday. It also shows footage of the  cantor of today’s newly-formed Kiel Jewish community at the sites of the picture. There still is no new rabbi in Kiel.


NOTE, 2015-12-15: Michael Palmer, who is an eagle-eyed archivist, wrote to me on Facebook pointing out that the Jewish year 5692 ran from September 12, 1931 to September 30, 1932. Hanukkah in 1932 was therefore in 5693. Conversely, the first day of Hanukkah 5692 was on December 5, 1931. So the date is, after all, not quite as certain as it seemed, and my account in the fourth paragraph of how the picture integrates with the wider events in Kiel and Germany may be wrong. However, I still think it’s unlikely that Rachel Posner got the year 1932 wrong – she likely functioned at least as much on the Gregorian calendar as on the Jewish calendar. Possibly a lot more, and especially so after fleeing from their home in 1933. Also, it’s easier to get a year wrong towards the beginning of a new year rather than at the end. There’s also a chance she got the Hanukkia/menorah out in early 1932, specifically to take the picture, though that would have been nearly three weeks after the end of Hanukkah. The NSDAP would have been less strong in 1931, but the hated flag was probably already up in display. Be that as it may, the rest of the story still stands.


Kiel in Nazi Germany, general history (Stadtarchiv – city archives):
Niobe sinking 1932
Banning/censorship of the Volkszeitung newspaper 1933
November pogrom 1938

Kiel “power grab” of city hall and repercussions on Jewish community
by the Arbeitskreis Nationalsozialismus in deutsch/dänischer Grenzregion

Murder Dr. Wilhelm Spiegel:
at the city archives
at the virtual museum on the history of the Danish/German border region
in the SHZ newspaper

Murder Dr. Friedrich Schumm:
at the virtual museum on the history of the Danish/German border region
in the SHZ newspaper

The Posner Hanukkia
at Yad Vashem
NDR (North German public broadcasting) report text & video

Jewish population in Germany
at the Federal Archives 

It’s not about avoiding to offend…

Women in STEM, diversity in the workplace, problematic sexual or racial imagery at tech conferences: Not a week goes by without a discussion along these lines. There’s an aspect to the conversations for which I’d like to have a handy reference, because it often gets lost in the heat of the situation. This post is intended to fill the role.

Here’s a sample situation. Let’s say I’m looking over someone’s presentation slides and I’m seeing a male pronoun where both sexes apply (“the researcher then saves his data on his thumb drive…”), or an image of a female body used merely to create drama. I would point it out and suggest to reformulate or rethink. And often enough, since my interlocutor is more likely to be clueless than a raging misogynist (after all, they’re asking me for advice!), the reaction is embarrassment: “I didn’t know this is offensive,” or even “I didn’t mean to offend you, sorry!”

There are two things I want to say at this juncture. The first is that I’m unlikely to be actually offended. Certainly not about a thoughtless pronoun, and believe me, I’ve seen erotic images before. These days it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable. Sure, it does happen, a few times a year, when some idiocy feels like a punch to the stomach. It would be more frequent if I hung out more in certain corners of the tech world (keyword “gamergate”). But my personal threshold is irrelevant here, and in any event, don’t presume you know someone else’s feelings.

Second, your goal shouldn’t be to avoid offence under all circumstances: it should be to consider what signals you’re setting, and what these signals say about you and the community you’re addressing. Do they say “my peers may be male or female, and my pronoun choice reflects that” and “stereotyping and objectification do not reflect an acceptable way of relating to each other in this community”? Or do they say “people from underrepresented groups will occasionally have to put up with being the butt of jokes or be forgotten in our planning, because we historically didn’t have to think of such trivial matters”?

I would even go so far as to say giving offence is sometimes inevitable. The racist reader of Houstonia Magazine who called in to complain about an ad because he “just can’t go for racial mixing” quite likely feels genuinely offended at the sight of a picture of a mixed-race family. Similarly, the homophobe may feel sincere discomfort at the sight of two men kissing. And I remember discussions during my youth when it was considered quite reasonable for a man to feel uncomfortable about reporting to a female boss, and an unfortunate fact of life that women who want careers would have the extra task of dealing with such obstacles. In all three cases my attitude, and surely not just mine, is to put the onus firmly back onto the racist reader, homophobic neighbour or sexist employee to a) put up with it and b) use it as an opportunity to examine their prejudices and biases.

I’m not making the moral relativist’s argument here: quite on the contrary. Feeling offended at sexist jokes is not equivalent to being offended about women having access to roles of authority. The hurt feelings of the racist don’t have the same weight as as the hurt feelings of a non-white person who has to prove their competence multiple times all over. As for our professional (or recreational) communities, we cannot resolve an ethical problem (equality of opportunity) without making a commitment to a set of values about diversity and inclusiveness, even if it means the traditionalists have to adapt.

The problem I’m interested here is offending someone or making someone uncomfortable merely for not being part of the majority group, in a situation where they could reasonably expect to be free of discomfort and treated with professional courtesy. When I say “ugh, this is really offensive” this is usually what is meant.

You might think I’m stating something that everyone implicitly understands. But I still think it’s important to be clear and precise about the distinction, for a number of reasons.

1. To counter a dismissive “she just takes offence easily”. Sure, some people take offence more easily than others. People vary. Some even take offence based on a misunderstanding. It happens. But it’s irrelevant. A point stands whether the person highlighting it speaks with perfect calm and detachment or with visible pain and anger.

2. Because otherwise the problem may be relegated to an inter-personal matter even though it is about systems and communities. It’s not about avoiding to step on someone’s toes, but about who is made feel welcome and who is being excluded or pushed to the margins.

3. Because the focus on offence seeks simple formulaic solutions to ethical problems. We can’t make our communities inclusive by box-ticking. Removing some symbols of discrimination (such as sexualized images) doesn’t automatically make peers consider each other’s contributions fairly.

4. Because offence and discomfort cut many ways. Already we’re seeing attempts to borrow the language of diversity and inclusion to remove challenging literature from school curricula or material about sex and sexuality from youth sections of libraries, or to justify restrictive dress codes. There is no contradiction between rejecting eroticised images on presentation slides and wanting libraries to offer factual, complete information about the anatomy of human bodies and the biological, social and psychological aspects of sex.

To finish, lest it seem I’m slamming the use “offensive” without further qualification: Even though there’s no right not to be offended, offence and discomfort are still symptoms of a problem. It’s not hypocritical to complain about it. Simply, when examining one’s own values and biases, or when writing, say, a code of conduct for a community, it’s a good idea to figure out what exactly is the kind of inclusiveness and freedom of offence we want to achieve.

Things that are relative

Melinda and I just had differing intuitions about whether +6 °F / -14.5 °C can be properly referred to as “still warm out”. To my excuse, the context was my car, which really is overdue a service, and therefore gets plugged in even though that’s indeed mild for early January  in interior Alaska.

The naming of deer (EN, DE, FR)

Because Melinda and I just had a conversation about this:

  • Alces alces — AmE: moose; BrE: elk (mostly); DE: Elch; FR: élan or orignal.  The word moose seems to be borrowed from an Algonquian language, while elk is a cognate of alces and many other names in Germanic, Slavic languages as well as Greek. The etymology of the French words is surprisingly complicated (I’m reading about Basque for orignal and Lithuanian for élan — to be confirmed!).
  • Cervus canadensis – AmE: elk or wapiti; BrE, FR: wapiti; DE: Wapiti or Wapitihirsch. _Wapiti_ is from a Shawnee or Cree word. German speakers who don’t know the correct name would sort this one under Rothirsch.
  • Cervus elaphus — EN: red deer; FR: cerf élaphe; DE: Rothirsch. This is the animal European German speakers think of when they say Hirsch, or the French when they say cerf — the prototypical deer of the continental European forests. The American elk (wapiti) was believed to be a sub-species of this (apparently incorrectly), and would be naively considered as a large red deer by Europeans.
  • Dama dama — EN: fallow deer; FR: daim; DE: Damhirsch. Apparently introduced to Europe from the Middle East/Western Asia as a huntable deer species by the Romans.
  • Capreolus capreolus – EN: roe deer; FR: chevreuil; DE: Reh. The Latin/scientific and French words make me think that for some time the animal was grouped with goats.

In German, the general term for a member of the deer family (Cervidae), of which all of the above are members, is _Hirsch_. Colloquially, a red or fallow deer, or a member of a non-native species such as a Sitka deer, wapiti or white-tailed deer would be referred to as a generic Hirsch, but a roe deer would be a Reh and a moose/elk an Elk. I’ve heard young Germans refer to an image of a Chinese water deer as _Säbelzahnreh_ (saber-toothed roe deer).

When I was a child, seeing roe deer on a drive through the countryside was a moderately rare treat. Very very occasionally you might spot a red deer. The question “War das ein Reh oder ein Hirsch?” was common, and it’s hard to translate because English has no word for deer that excludes the roe deer. So you might go for something indirect (“Was this a roe deer or some other kind of deer?”) or, better, for something more specific depending on what other kinds of deer would be around (“Was this a roe deer or a white-tail? a roe deer or an elk? a roe deer or a moose [um, these two are hard to confuse]?).

Of frapes and other misadventures

On his blog, Arnold Zwicky takes on the portmanteau frapea word that blends Facebook with rape to mean something along the lines of take over someone’s unattended Facebook account to post disparaging or embarrassing updates. Arnold’s text includes a discussion of the problem of trivialising rape and other violent actions and ends with this paragraph:

So you can agree that our culture trivialises rape but still not see every use of the word rape as literal (and trivialising of the experience of being raped).

Serene Vannoy disagreed with that last bit, and a somewhat acerbic exchange ensued that on Serene’s side didn’t completely stay within the conventions of friendly, polite discourse. Then Steven Levine, who originally supplied the example to Arnold by reporting some of his younger friends’ usage, felt that Serene had accused those friends of trivialising rape and rode to their defense in a lengthy comment. Following that, a few friends and I had conversations about this out-of-band, and I don’t think I’m overstepping any bounds by saying we were unhappy with the thread. Personally, I’m not ready to side with anyone completely; neither Arnold nor Steven seem to be seeing what Serene’s exactly objecting to. But at this stage, I’m not convinced that all original comments are still in place, so rather than re-hashing the arguments, I’ll attempt to go back and lay down three points.

But first, an anecdote. The first time I heard someone use the verb nuke to mean warm up in a microwave oven, I was quite shaken. I had heard rumours about such a usage, but didn’t expect it from a thoughtful and mild-mannered acquaintance — an American to boot. You say “nuke” and I think of people dying terrible deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of those maps of my hometown I had as a teenager that drew concentric circles around city hall, marking off probabilities of survival should a Pershing II warhead hit. At the same time, I wasn’t hypocritical enough to condemn my friend. First of all because their culpability-by-association for dropping nuclear warheads surely paled to mine for the entire Hitler and WWII thing (I’m German). But more to the point, for all I knew you might have peace activists who nuke their popcorn and lentil soup, maybe using the word out of habit, maybe as dark humour. There’s no direct line from a usage to a personal attitude. (What did I do at the time? In my recollection, I mildly said something like “You really use such a violent term for warming up food? Huh.”)

I still don’t use nuke in the kitchen. I still think it would trivialise one of the most terrible things humans have invented.

Which leads to my first point: Just because a usage of a word trivialises some important phenomenon it doesn’t mean that the person using the word intends to trivialise the phenomenon. And if, dependent on the moral framework we function under, we judge other people by their intentions (which I largely do) we can say that some words or metaphors have negative (disparaging, racist, sexist) connotations without at the same time accusing the speaker to be a racist, sexist, scumbag or otherwise bad person who callously disregards dead children in Nagasaki or rape survivors.

I make this distinction all the time. For example, I am completely convinced by Geoff Nunberg‘s claim, regarding the trademark invalidation dispute around the Washington Redskins (some kind of professional sports team of high prominence), “that redskin was a disparaging term when the mark was originally registered and remained so afterward”. The team has a racist name that deliberately taps into and appropriates the stereotypes associated with Native Americans. Does that mean that everyone who declares themselves to be a Redskins fan is terrible person with racist intentions? Obviously not. Does it mean they participate in the perpetuation of the stereotyping? Hell, yeah. And so do we all, for one thing or another, I’m afraid. It’s part of the human condition.

Similarly, the relatively new use of rape to refer to mildly to moderately unpleasant events that happen against one’s will (such as hard exams or friends fooling around with one’s unattended Facebook account) participates in the trivialisation of rape (the literal, actual act). It doesn’t make the speaker a bad person. It doesn’t represent an attack on them to say so, and how to act towards them is a question I’m not particularly interested in for the case at hand.

Second point: The degree to which a metaphorical use trivialises what the literal use refers to isn’t constant, but depends on a range of variables.

  • [Elaborated on by Arnold] Metaphors of violence are extremely common. Some (like asking for someone’s head on a stick) are intentionally chosen to underline disagreement and opposition, others are completely conventionalized and appear to be used mostly with no particular thought behind them (someone made a killing in the stock market, and Arsenal beat Manchester United 3:1).
  • [Also covered by Arnold] The degree of conventionality of a metaphor doesn’t only impact my judgement of someone’s intention, but also the degree to which a metaphor is able to carry a connotation about (or, trivialise) its literal meaning. The two highly conventionalized metaphors at the end of the previous point aren’t very good examples of trivialisation. Someone who is concerned about interpersonal violence would surely find better targets than to police commonplace use by (we hope) well-intentioned people.
  • My American friends are frequently surprised by the casualness with which German or French uses lynchen/lyncher . The actual context of killings of African-Americans during the civil rights struggles (and later) is too present in their mind to use the term for a messy shouting match or an internet shitstorm. Germans and French people, who are farther removed from the historical context, lack such an inhibition.
  • As pointed out by my partner Melinda Shore, it also depends on who applies a term to whom. “Oh, crap, I got fraped again” has a self-deprecating overtone; “hey, let’s frape mommy!” is a bit nastier.
  • Similarly, I find myself a lot more lenient with the dark humour of, say, emergency responders rather than having the arrogance to police their language from the high horse of theoretical considerations. And I see the value of hyperbole, even of the biting, sarcastic, challenging sort, in satire and art. (Which doesn’t mean I’m not judging case-by-case.)

As a recent innovation, frape and the metaphorical uses of rape can’t really claim the excuse of a high degree of conventionality. It may acquire it in the future.

So what’s the deal? Looking back at Arnold’s quote above, and the post/thread as a whole, I admit I’m not clear whether he holds that in order to function as trivialising rape, the word would have to refer to literal rape (or the speakers intend to refer to literal rape). This seems wrong to me — on the contrary, it’s specifically the metaphorical use of rape for something utterly trivial that, to me, makes this an example of trivialisation. I’d be a lot happier if the rape metaphor was used to underline some violent act on a non-consenting partner (though obviously some would disagree with me and never accept rape metaphors at all). If I use Endlösung/final solution to refer to a method of using up extra zucchini, I’m trivialising the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. Whether that’s offensive or not depends who’s there when I do it, but frankly I would advise against this word choice in a gardening column.

Last point: The linguist records and analyses; but every language user makes judgements of quality and preference, and may defend them. These two modes are potentially at odds.  Arnold’s post is part of a long (nearly daily) series that deal with neologisms, often portmanteaus. And distasteful as I personally may find it, the innovative use of rape (which I’ve been hearing first-hand from undergraduates at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I work) requires noting down and belongs in the dictionary. Linguists often deal with prescriptivist pronouncements that are based on faulty reasoning and freely invented rules. Here we have something different: The rejection of a usage on ethical grounds. We all have them — words we would teach a child to avoid, and explain why. One  reason to disfavour this particular usage is to account for people who’ve had the experience of rape in our audience. Another grows out of the observation that a number of young people appear to have rather fuzzy notions of sexual consent, and rape imagery or even threats have become a commonplace response to women stating an even mildly controversial idea with feminist overtones: it’s already being trivialised quite enough, thankyouverymuch, as Arnold recognises.

It is debatable whether there is causal connection between metaphors of violence and attitudes or actions. I doubt matters are anywhere as clear as that, but still keep a niggling question about the cognitive tools that such metaphors provide. All this war on drugs, cancer, terror — does this terminology really not implicitly help to justify the use of extraordinary, drastic means where cool rational analysis might lead to a more nuanced approach? Meanwhile some are working on nicer violent metaphors (and failing).



Yinglish four hands, for fun and instruction

The Daily Mail, even though far from my favourite British paper, regularly posts very beautiful and interesting photo series. One example is this stunning selection from the New York municipal archives, which several friends of mine reposted on Facebook tonight. My partner Melinda, who is Jewish (and has ancestors on one side of her family who were merchants in NYC), was captivated  but also amused by this street scene from July 1908, from the Lower East Side:




Her amusement was directed at the large piece of bilingual signage in the right hand side of the photo. After she posted, she came by my desk and asked “Can you see why it’s funny?” Ok, a challenge!

Now my Yiddish is close to non-existent, and I still need to have an alphabet chart next to me to decipher Yiddish text, while she can read the Hebrew alphabet just fine. However, I’m often able to extrapolate some more complicated words from German. That is, together we make an irresistible Yiddish task force. But here I first refused her help and set off with my transliteration. Luckily, it didn’t take more than a few letters of the large text to figure out what had happened here.

After having a good laugh, we joined forces to transliterate the entire lower sign from Hebrew to Latin script so that I could blog its extraordinary oddness. Please forgive me — I’m not very good at spelling Yiddish with Latin letters, either, so the following is just my own best guess at how to write what’s on the sign. I take full responsibility for all crimes against the Yiddish language committed in it, other than what the original writers did.

extra news in die East Side!
ein groser bankratsil fon 15000 vare
mit ausferkauft veren[??] 15 tag
komt [xx] kauft grose bargain
vare vird ferkauft [xx]  halbe preise. komt [xx] [xxxx]

([xx] marks words that are too small to decipher – they can usually be guessed from context.) I could take a guess at the last word (clearly something like German “überzeugt euch”), and sorry again for the non-standard Yiddish transliteration. The gist of it all is this: The author of the sign didn’t know either how to say bankruptcy, news, men’s furnishings or bargain in Yiddish, and didn’t have a word for East Side. Anglicisms borrowed over directly into one’s target language are manifestly not a late 20th century invention.

Now if we could figure out what the small sign behind the Jewish boy in the middle of the image says.

Harmful (over-)abstraction

[I nearly titled this post “Abstraction considered harmful”, but then thought better of it.]

The other day, my partner Melinda reported the following text that came with a video about fly fishing in Hampshire: “Highlighting the beauty of southern England’s chalk streams, the birth place of modern fly fishing. Threatened by abstraction and polution, [ … ]”. What kind of error could “threatened by abstraction and pollution” be? I was leaning towards a Cupertino for obstruction, or maybe the problem was construction?

There was a bit of banter of Facebook, until a friend from Scotland set us right: no error. Abstraction, she reminded us, is simply a term for the removal of water from a source. The OED has under abstraction, sense 2a:

2.a. The action of taking something away; the action or process of withdrawing or removing something from a larger quantity or whole; (now) esp. the extraction of water from a river or other source for domestic or industrial use.

It’s a little bit closer to industry jargon than the more commonly used extraction. The dictionary doesn’t say if the term is more common in British English. The people more familiar with it in general use were indeed British.

And yes, the ecosystems of the Avon, Test, Allen and other chalk streams, that is, rivers set in the southern English chalk formation and influenced by its specific geology and geochemistry, are under pressure. Quote from the WWF, previous link (boldface in the original):

Since Roman times, chalk stream channels have been progressively modified, for navigation, transport, agriculture, landscaping and milling.

In the 20th century a sprawling suburbia demanded more and more water. Drilling technology improved and deep boreholes were sunk.

The effects of abstraction have spread, and today there’s barely a chalk stream left that doesn’t feel its impact – in some cases a deadly impact.

All the rivers identified in the Rivers on the Edge project supply millions of litres of water per day – and all are officially classed as “over-abstracted” by the Environment Agency.

By 2020, increasing population will mean total demand for water is likely to be around 5% higher than today – that’s an extra 800 million litres of water per day.

And of course climate change scenarios suggest river flows in late summer and early autumn may reduce by as much as 80% by 2050, with a 15% reduction in total annual average flow.

There are currently efforts afoot to get a handle on the problem.

Edit: As John Lawler pointed out on Facebook, and I should probably have noted, the sense 2a above is pretty much the etymologically literal sense of abstraction: The action of pulling/taking something away. The problem here is that we aren’t used to the literal, non-abstract, use of the word.

Jacques Chirac’s magical stickbread

Arnold Zwicky’s lovely post this morning about baguette and how it’s surprisingly not a diminutive of bague threw me into reminiscing about my time in Paris — 12 years of my life. Instead of continuing to hijack the comment space over there, this is something to pursue on this blog, even though we seem to be averaging a post every year and a half.

In particular, there’s the half-remembered anecdote about Jacques Chirac, the former French president, which I’ve now chased up acros the ‘nets.

Baguette (the bread), of course, is a part of life in France with a high level of cultural significance, but the word can refer to all sorts of things parting from the basic meaning “small stick”: chopsticks are baguettes, and so are drumsticks (the kind you use for operating drums with [1]); there’s conductor’s batons; and there are magic wands. And this is where the anecdote picks up: In 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected president in an election that tipped from the political left to the right. In his first public speech, he said that he didn’t have a magic wand to solve France’s economic problems (unemployment was very high and I remember research labs getting close to being broke). The phrase was seen as the new president’s central statement and widely reported including in the international press. Unfortunately, in some countries the meaning of the word baguette was so strongly linked to the bakery product — 250 g of delicious crust with a little bit of relatively heavy white dough inside — that reporters didn’t think when translating baguette magique (“magic wand”) into their own language. A Belgian paper reported on the election and speech as follows:

De Morgen
The Belgian paper De Morgen of September 1995 reporting that the newly elected president of France “has no ‘magical stickbread'” (heeft geen “magisch stokbrood”) in a mis-translation of baguette magique [2]

Those crazy French with their over-emphasis on food — ascribing magical qualities to something mundane as bread.

As far as I can tell from trying to find a correct account of this story online, the phrase magisch stokbrood has since become a little bit of a jocular cliché in Dutch and/or Flemish (I do not know if the spelling differs in the two languages), following the rise of the Harry Potter book series.

(As a final note, I chose between magic and magical in English on intuition. It’s clearly magic wand in the idiomatic expression, but I think magical stickbread sounds better than magic stickbread. Opinions?)

[1] As for the chicken parts, in France chicken legs aren’t usually separated into what in English are called “thighs” and “drumsticks”, and the entire thing — about a meat portion’s worth for a smallish chicken — is referred to as cuisse (“thigh”).
[2] I was very happy to find this image in a Belgian blog in Flemish, where I took the liberty to steal it.

Friday link dispatch 03

Today’s links still follow the endangered language theme with special emphasis on Alaska Native languages.

The first one is fun. Frozen Whitefish  is a rock band from Bethel (a town and Yup’ik village of 6500 off the road system in south-west Alaska close to the coast) that was features in the Discovery Channel series Flying Wild Alaska.  They sing in Central Yup’ik, so if you’re interested in learning the language, you may want to listen. And the link goes to their MySpace page, where you can listen to a number of quite well produced tracks. Here is a video, in somewhat lower sound quality, but still, charming (via the Alaska Daily News Rural Blog)

Frozen Whitefish performing Maani Alaskami live at the 2011 Alaska State Fair


The second one is serious and comes out of a gallery & workshop entitled “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska” of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage: Sharing the Dena’ina Language (via Talking Alaska):

Sharing the Dena'ina language - a language instruction video

The third one is a news report about how to preserve an endangered language: Living Languages reports on cumpulsory Ijaw in Bayelsa schools in Nigeria. Balyelsa is a state of Nigeria. Now not all of the 10 Ijoid languages may be endangered and I have no way of gauging the effectiveness and coverage of the Bayelsa school system. Still, the approach of making a declining local language compulsory is the winning formula if the basic conditions are united. I remember that when I was a teenager in the 80s, there was much sadness and nostalgia about the imminent death of Irish and Welsh, two Celtic languages and thereby preeminent vehicles of European culture. Well, no one does this any more. It makes me very happy to hear teenagers speak Irish among each other in the streetcars of Dublin, thereby escaping the danger of being overheard by old ladies like myself — the middle-aged being the generation with the lowest rate of competency in the language. As for Wales, I hear that the demand for Welsh instruction for adults is up significantly.

Friday link dispatch 02

Today we have two Inuit (Canadian) videos to complement the recent Alaska Native language/culture resources post.

Two school girls practicing Inuit throat singing (YouTube). There are many videos on the various video services that demonstrate this art form, which can be referred to by a variety of terms and is carried out typically by two women standing close to each other, face to face. I particularly liked this video because the young women are doing it casually between school classes:

Janet Aglukkaq and Kathy Keknek throat singing between their classes at Qiqirtaq Ilihakvik High School in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.


Anirniq – (Breath), Winner Best Short Film at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival 2010 (Vimeo). A magical tale in Inuktitut with English subtitles about death, hunting, nature, and the belief that when we die, our soul goes into the living beings around us:

Aniriniq - Breath (Brüdder Productions, Canada, 2010)