52 Ancestors – #20 – Why I Chose to Study German

This week’s prompt for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge is “Another Language.” Continuing with my theme this year – telling the stories of my generation – I’ve decided to share why I chose German as the foreign language I would study in school.

My mother came to this country from Vienna, Austria, with her mom and grandmother in 1938. Her father arrived a year later after being released from the Buchenwald concentration camp. (Read about his story here.)

While my mother almost never spoke German, my grandmother often did. Mom would occasionally respond in her mother-tongue, but most frequently used English. Because of that, it was clear that the conversations centered on us kids. What in the world were they saying? I really wanted to know.

The solution to my dilemma appeared when I entered junior high school. I needed to choose a foreign language to study. There was no question – German, of course!

Our hometown, Hamden, Connecticut had two junior high schools. The one in our end of town was Sleeping Giant Junior High School. Thanks to the baby boomers, the school was quite crowded. German apparently didn’t hold the allure of the “romance” languages, so enrollment was fairly small. Perhaps that is why our class, taught by Mr. Willems, was held in what was probably a former broom closet.

I don’t remember much from those three years. Sorry, Mr. Willems! In truth, I remember exactly one thing he said. Responding to a student who asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”, Mr. Willems replied, “How should I know? I’m not a urologist.”

I do remember the first lines of the DLM dialogue we practiced.

“Guten Tag, Luisa. Wie Geht’s?” (Hello, Luisa, how are you?)
“Danke, gut!” (Good, thank you!)
“Prima!” (Fine!)

I continued my study of German in high school. Again, not being a course in high demand, there was only one teacher assigned. I had the pleasure of being Gertraud Karacsonyi’s student for three years.

1972 HHS Yearbook – The Venture
Left: Mrs. Karacsonyi  Right: French teacher Mr. Boisvert

I’m not sure exactly what Mrs. Karacsonyi meant by the comment she wrote in my yearbook. I really hated the expression, “Good things come in small packages.” (When you’re 4’9″ you get that a lot!) So, I understand why she chose to write about that. However, she wrote, “Kelso is wrong, not all good packages are small…” Jim Kelso was our “class clown.” I guess this topic must have come up during class one day. But, what did she mean? Some good packages are big? (Like Kelso?) Some small packages are bad? Confusing!

I really loved that class. It was the high point of my day. I got to rub elbows with the “smart kids.” Many of the students taking German were in the top percentile of our class. Considering there were some 700 students in the Class of ’72, that was pretty cool.

Perhaps being with those students encouraged me to do better in school. I didn’t get terrible grades, but I really didn’t work very hard. (In fact, my first 4th-grade teacher, Mrs. Katzman, said I “wasted time” and “wasn’t working up to  potential.” My mother got me switched out of her class for the second half of the year, so something was definitely going on there!!)

By the time I graduated high school, I was a much better student. I completed my Master’s degree with a 4.0! So there, Mrs. Katzman! Oh. Wait. Maybe I hadn’t worked up to my potential in 4th grade… okay… I’ll give you that one.

Being together in the same class for a few years allowed us to become a pretty tight group.  In 1971, we tried to arrange a trip to Germany. We were prepared to raise the funds ourselves, but the Board of Education refused to give permission.

Hamden Chronicle – January 7, 1971
I like how I trimmed the article following the shape of a town landmark – the Sleeping Giant Mountain!

We never made it to the actual country of Germany, but our class did take a great field trip in 1970 to Yorkville, otherwise known as “Little Germany”, a neighborhood in the Eastside of Manhattan. On that trip, I purchased a copy of Der Struwelpeter, a book of cautionary tales for children. My mother told us she had been read those as a child in Vienna, so I was thrilled to get my own copy. If you think the fairy tales we were raised on were gruesome, try going to sleep after being read a story about a little girl who played with matches then burned to death with nothing left of her except her scarlet shoes floating in a puddle formed by the tears of her beloved cats.

The story of Struwelpeter – in German
The story of Struwel
peter – in English

While I did enjoy learning the language, it turned out my plan was not the best. Apparently, the German taught in school was not the same dialect as that spoken in Vienna. Also, spoken language is a lot tougher to comprehend than written language. So, many of the “secrets” shared aloud between my mother and grandmother went over my head. (Pun intended!)

My grandmother passed in October of 1972, my senior year. After her death, my German languished until I found a need to resurrect my skills. Having an understanding of basic German would be invaluable in translating the many documents handed down to me. Google translate can do a lot, but there are often nuances in a language that don’t get picked up correctly.

Letters written by my grandfather while imprisoned in
Dachau and Buchenwald await my translation.

This summer my husband and I are joining my sister and her partner on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna. I have been trying to improve my skills by taking a German language course on Mango Languages – offered free through our library. Today, oddly enough (is this a sign?) I read about a German Conversation Club that meets monthly in the North Haven Library. Wish I had known about that sooner!

Auf Wiedersehen!

3 thoughts on “52 Ancestors – #20 – Why I Chose to Study German

  1. Love this! It sure brought back so many memories of all those German classes. Like you, my mother rarely spoke German at home, my dad wanted English the main language. Wish they had let us become bilingual. Mrs. Karasconyi was a gem. Do you remember when she had us all over to her house?Enjoy your trip!Stella


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