Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I am thinking as usual about my parents' families. My mom's mom came here in the '20s, became a citizen and then sent for her 3 kids who were back home in Romania (the Hungarian part of the country.) My grandfather died of TB when Grandma was pregnant with her youngest (Mom was the middle child). Much of the family left behind in Transylvania, managed to survive the Holocaust, but only because Righteous Gentiles in their town sheltered them.
My dad's family, on the other hand, was decimated. His immediate family
(all of whom lived in Vienna), siblings and their spouses, and his
parents all got out, some very much under the wire. Uncle Alfred went
to Palestine, then came to the US and built a life. He was very musical
and wanted to be a conductor, but the Austrians had a different idea.
At any rate, he got out under barbed wire.
Tante Grete and Uncle Longy (called Longy because he was tall) applied for visas to the UK. The Nazis arrested my uncle and were about to deport him to Bergen Belsen, when his visa arrived. My aunt made it to the railroad station in time, and somehow my uncle was let go, and they went to the UK. Uncle Longy served in the British air force; he was told to change his name just in case he was ever capture by the Nazis, and so he did. Fortunately, he came out of the war unharmed. Tante Lotte, who later married Uncle Alfred, also made it to the UK.
My dad, who was the sole support for his elderly parents (in those days, elderly meant early 60's!) took one look at the Anschluss, and immediately applied for a visa to the US. My father was a very smart man! He knew when to get out, and he was very very lucky.
The rest of the family: a few escaped, some to China and then to Australia, some to Costa Rica, some to Argentina. The rest, and my dad's family was large, all perished.
OK, so that's the basics on the Mommie and Dad. Their native languages were Hungarian (The Mommie was the Short Hungarian Lady), and German with a Viennese accent. My father's folks originally lived in Hungary, but many of them moved to Vienna sometime in the 1800's.
So what does this all have to do with my thinking about language. Well, I grew up in a multilingual family. They all spoke English perfectly. Went to night school, high school, and learned proper English. No grammatical mistakes, no slang, simply perfect English. So perfect in fact that kids in school used to ask me where I came from because my English was so good. (I grew up in a city where everyone came from somewhere else, and everyone's parents had accents.) English was the language spoken at home. When they didn't want us to know what they were talking about, they spoke in German. So of course, my sister and I quickly figured that out. Then they switched to Hungarian. I managed to figure out important words such as "nagy" , which referred to big (aka me, the older kid) and I could count to ten (which made my mother giggle since my pronunciation was not great).
The truth was that I knew my parents had accents, but so did every one else's parents. Within my family, we had the German speakers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, so they all sounded a bit different. It just was the way it was.
My dad passed away a little over 40 years ago, and I totally forgot his accent. My sister had managed to tape him speaking, but I never heard that tape. Then, at some point, she found the tape and we all listened to it. OMG! OMG doubled! My father sounded like a German, like a Nazi, like the people who wanted my people dead. That kind of German! Whoever knew he sounded like that? Not me; he was my father with some goofy Viennese expressions. But did he sound German? Of course not. How could he? The amazing thing was that all the relatives and friends on that side of the family sounded like Germans or Austrians or Swiss. Did this ever sink into my little brain? Nah; they just sounded normal.
But how could my beloved father who got out of Vienna right after the Anschluss, who knew first hand how rotten those Austrian Nazis could be, how could he have a German accent?
It made me think, and I'm still thinking more than 40 years later. When I was a kid, I was surrounded by people with German accents, so I just took it for granted. I knew my Holocaust history very well, but somehow the German accent just never bothered me. Then I grew up, met people whose folks were native born and had no accents, married one of those folks. The only time I heard a German accent was either with my family or watching some World War II movie. Oh, that German accent. That horrible accent. The accent of war, of hate, of concentration camps, of slaughter. If I never heard it again, it would be too soon. If I were on the subway, and heard a couple of women speaking English with a German accent, I assumed that they were German. And after hearing that tape, I knew now that my father and his brother and sister, all had German accents. They sounded exactly like The Enemy.
So maybe those women in the subway were not in fact Nazis? Maybe the embroidery teacher I had, the one who came from Argentina, the one with the German accent who said she originally came from Switzerland, maybe she wasn't a Nazi either. Well, I think her parents were, but then again, I had relatives who emigrated to Argentina, and they had German accents. Or what about the Danish lady who really sounds German (might be all those gutterals?), was she from Germany? It makes your head spin.
So maybe an accent doesn't tell you anything at all? I loved my parents' accents; I loved that they came from somewhere else. I love hearing accents. One of the things that I most like about going into New York City, is hearing accents, and then trying to figure out where the people are from. But do the accents really tell you everything? Could there be stories we know nothing about? I don't know. But I will say this: We are all so fortunate to live in a country of immigrants. And when you live in the New York metro area, you are doubly blessed. There are so many people from so many different places that they have to get along.