Friday 18 April 2003

German assistance requested

In W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz, the eponymous protagonist, in the course of investigating the fate of his mother, describes a book by H.G. Adler “on the subject of the setting up, development, and internal organization of the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Reading this book,which line by line gave me an insight into matters I could never have imagined when I myself visited the fortified town, almost entirely ignorant as I was at that time, was a painstaking business because of my poor knowledge of German, and indeed, said Austerlitz, I might well say it was almost as difficult for me as deciphering an Egyptian or Babylonian text in hieroglyphic or cuneiform script. The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unravelled syllable by syllable.

Austerlitz cites the following German compound words:

  • Barackenbestandteillager
  • Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein
  • Bagatellreparaturwerkstätte
  • Menagetransportkolonnen
  • Küchenbeschwerdeorgane
  • Reinlichkeitsreihenuntersuchung
  • Entwesungsübersiedlung

If a German speaker could explain in a comment the meaning of each of these words I’d be most grateful.

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The cool thing about German is that it's actually fairly easy to figure out what compound words mean, once you get the hang of figuring out where the divisions are. So while I didn't know any of these words before reading your post, I can take a good stab at what they mean. I'll denote the divisions between words with inserted hyphens.

("ae" is the same as a-umlaut, "ue" is the same as u-umlaut)

Baracke: shack or shanty
Bestandteil: component or part (actually a compound word itself; "Teil" means "part" in a very general sense, whereas "Bestandteil" is more like a constituent part of something)
Lager: camp, dump, etc.
So a Barackenbestandteillager is a dump for parts of shacks like those that would make up a ghetto.

Zusatzkosten: another compound word! "Kosten" means "costs," and "Zusatzkosten" means "extra costs," the stuff you didn't realize you had to pay until the men in suits handed you a "Schein" (certificate, receipt, etc., basically an official-ish bit of paper) that reckons ("rechnen," the root of "Rechnung" and "Berechnung") how much you owe them.

Bagatelle: little stuff, trifle
Reparatur: repair (n.)
Werkstaette: factory
This one's easy, just a factory for repairing miscellaneous little stuff.

Menage: French word used sometimes in German, meaning household
Kolonne: column, platoon
A Menagetransportkolonne is a column of people/trucks/? transporting "household" items, maybe in contrast to weapons if this is in a military context.

Kuechen: kitchen
Beschwerde: complaint
Organe: organ, also figurative in a bureaucracy for a means to get something done
A Kuechenbeschwerdeorgane is the place to file complaints about whatever's happening in the kitchen.

Reinlichkeit: cleanliness
Reihe: row, array
Untersuchung: investigation, inspection
I would guess this means lining people up in rows and inspecting them for cleanliness, but the word order confuses me; I'd expect it to be Reinlichkeitsuntersuchungsreihen instead. This way it seems like it's inspection of the rows, not the cleanliness.

Entwesung: extermination ("wesung" means "being," and "ent" as a prefix signifies "out" or otherwise becoming not what the root-word is)
Uebersiedlung: emigration or colonization ("Siedlung" means colony or settlement, and "ueber" is "over")
I would guess this means colonization of a place where there are already people in order to remove the people who are already there.

Whew. Hope that helps...

Posted by Laurabelle on 18 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Close, Laurabelle, but not quite. And all of these words sound like terrible Nazi bureaucracy jargon to me, and they're absolutely not every-day vocabulary (I had to check "Entwesung" - pest control - because I had never heard it before).

Barackenbestandteillager: storage facility for parts needed to construct a wooden building.

Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein: form to calculate additional costs.

Bagatellreparaturwerkstätte: Workshop for minor repairs.

Menagetransportkolonnen: depending on the context, group of soldiers or inmates assigned to transporting kitchen furniture or food.

Küchenbeschwerdeorgane: officials in charge of complaints about kitchen affairs.

Reinlichkeitsreihenuntersuchung: cleanliness checks, where all people or locations (depends on the context) are checked, one after the other.

Entwesungsübersiedlung: dislodgment of residents in order to conduct pest control.

Sounds to me like the passage is about pest-infested kitchens...


Posted by Horst Prillinger on 18 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

*grin* You're right, I didn't quite get it. But I got pretty close for not having any context whatsoever, which is why I included what the part-words meant. Context (and imagination) is generally how I figure these things out on my own.

Posted by Laurabelle on 18 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks, Horst and Laurabelle, for helping me out with this.

Horst, you're right about it being "terrible Nazi bureaucratic jargon," used to describe what Sebald describes as "this comprehensive system of internment and forced labor which, in Theresienstadt as elsewhere, was ultimately directed... solely at the extinction of life and was built on an organizational plan regulating all functions and responsibilities, as Adler's reconstruction shows, with a crazed administrative zeal."

Posted by Jonathon on 18 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

At first the explanations are right. And it's been shown, that the german language often put together many compunds to one word. And the "terrible Nazi bureaucratic jargon" was also mentioned. But maybe not enough. These words are all phantastic examples for a big language-rape performed by the nazi-propaganda these days. Away from the real (and above good translated) meanings of these wordconstructs, the real meaning inside them makes a horrible picture of the time and the life in the ghettos and concentration camps. E.g. "Entwesungsübersiedlung": Übersiedlung means translated a move of people from one place to another, but the second word is totally untranslatable: "Entwesung". This word just doesn't exists in German. The try was right: "Wesen" means being, but the silible "ent-" is from the latin "ex-" (english: "de-". Which would give more readable in english: "exbeing" or "debeing". This leads to the real meaning: get the being, the life out of something. In other words: kill the being. So "Entwesungsübersiedlung" means nothing else than taking people out of their homes and transport them to a place where they are killed. Another know constrcut like that is "Entjudung" which means "de-Judaization" in other words the genocide.

Nazi-language is full of these horrible somewhat sarcastic examples, "concentration camp" itself is a good example. Sometimes they mixed up the meanings so far that a word that sounded totally harmless in real meant killing and terror. In other cases the wordconstruct just descriped something totally unpossible with words that make it seem possible: "Küchenbeschwerdeorgane" is such a word. This implies that you could make complains about the quality of the kitchen (in ghetto, KZ). Do you believe one man in a KZ ever complained about the kitchen? Certainly not. They were happy if they got any kind of food.

If you read "1984" you will have a good look on what the nazis did with the german language. Good is bad and bad is good or just ungood.

Posted by Nico on 20 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I was going to comment, as someone who is not a German language expert but has had to learn German as a second language anyway, but Nico pretty much summed it up. Nazi bureaucrats made up words like this to somehow normalize or trivialize what they were really doing. I guess bureaucrats the world over do this in every language, but bureaucrats usually describe activities that are relatively harmless.

Posted by Scott Hanson on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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