Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

By Hana Wirth-Nesher | Go to book overview

Preface

It HAS ALWAYS BEEN difficult for me to pronounce the surname on my birth certificate, Wroclawski, the last official vestige of my father's prewar life in Poland and bestowed upon me in Germany where we were displaced persons waiting for a visa that would eventually make us refugees in Pennsylvania. I could never reproduce the trill in that Polish “r”, but I didn't have to struggle with it for long, because once we became naturalized United States citizens, my parents cast off this lingering mark of their European past, Americanizing their name to Wirth, which neither of them could ever pronounce due to that formidable “th.” Since German was my mother's native language, she also gave up on the “w”, so that her American name, “Virt,” may have been well suited to her Austro-Hungarian tongue, but the irony was not lost on us that it was also in the language of those who had murdered their families and turned survivors into refugees in need of a new name. I grew up “Hana Wirth,” except when kindly schoolteachers and camp counselors Americanized it further by calling me Annie. When they did call me Hana, it was always in the broad nasal twang that rhymed with banana, a sound I detested so much that I found myself willing to settle for Annie.

My mother always spoke to me in German and my father always read to me in Yiddish, alternating between fiction—Sholem Aleichem and Chekhov among his favorites—and columns of the Yiddish daily Der Tog Morgen Journal. In Hebrew School I learned Ashkenazi pronunciation for prayer and Bible study; at home I had a weekly Hebrew tutor who taught me modern pronunciation from work pages with pen and ink drawings of animals and children. I could recite the blessing for bread as if I were a heder child in Lodz (at least that was the intent), and I could recite “The birds chirp” as if I were in a Tarbut School in Vilna. Although I was being plied with English books to make sure that I would succeed in school, I was also spoken to or read to in the languages of my parents' European past, and simultaneously I was being taught the Hebrew of transnational Jewish religious life along with, for a short time, the Hebrew of modern Israel, so that I could participate, even from a distance, in the rebirth of their ancient homeland.

When I immigrated to Israel later in life, “Wirth” was impossible to transliterate, and therefore it reverted to its Germanic origins, while Hana reverted to its Hebrew origins, by reinstating the gutteral first letter in “Chana.” My husband's surname, Nesher, was the result of his father's Hebraizing the German name Adler, an act more akin to the phoenix (being the sole survivor of his family) than the eagle, which it means in both languages. Whenever I pronounce my own name in Hebrew, my personal history becomes transparent,

-xi-

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