Rainer Ganahl’s “Language of Emigration & Pictures of Emigration” is now on view at Alex Zachary Gallery. The show consists of video interviews with German-speaking migrants who came to New York to escape Nazi persecution. The videos are accompanied by photos of the interiors of their New York apartments.  Part of Ganahl’s art practice focuses on the study of foreign language. These migrants are all German-speaking, as the Austrian-born Ganahl is himself. However, Ganahl’s interview partners “carry with them a language that has vanished”—preserving the German idioms and accents once used in 20th-century Europe that are now out of use. Ganahl explores how language “works in the mind of the speakers and messes with memory, grammar, syntax, and personal lexica . . . The relationship between language, trauma, and loss became audible.”

Interview by Brandon Johnson


How did you find the German emigrants / New York residents you interviewed? Are these your neighbors? Where do they live in New York?

I found most of these interviewees with the help of other people I had previously interviewed. This project, which I started at the end of the 1990s with the title: “Language of Emigration,” consists of interviews and photographs of former Nazi victims and Holocaust survivors. I’m interested in how trauma, forced emigration, distance, and loss has influenced the mother tongues of these mostly German speaking people who have been living in New York for many decades. Each work combines a lengthy unedited video interview with photographs taken of the people and their homes.

Several years ago I was seated in an airplane next to a lady with such a fate and became very curious and perplexed. I was very surprised and realized that many people of that horrific period of European history are still living among us with quite a few in New York, which is also my home town of choice for the last 20 years. As an Austrian born after WWII, I simply and naively couldn’t imagine the proximity and continuation of such a brutal time.


Mary Silverman’s interview was recorded in her apartment, but she did not physically appear in her video, unlike the other interviewees. Why was this?

She decided not to be in seen on camera, hence the camera pointed to one “of her China sets which she was able to recuperate from Austria.” Her interview is called “Pictures of Emigration” since the subject of her story is not only about how they saved their own lives through a lucky escape from Nazism, but also the near complete restitution of her father’s incredible art collection relatively soon after the war. This collection, consisting of several Rubens, a painting by Lukas Cranach, and a work by Botticelli, is now still hanging in a private apartment on the upper West side, with flowers touching the canvases and barely any climate control. In front of a Rubens, there is a flat TV screen and other contemporary objects that seem uncompetitive with the history of these fine and valuable paintings, creating quite a funny impression.


You mention that this particular group of people are “in possession of a language that has vanished” and that one of your interviewees used “theater-ready” German, a dialect no longer in common use. You say “Emigration[…]preserved idioms and accents[…]that have vanished back on the continent.” What happened to these dialects, idioms and accents?

Well, most of my interview partners left Europe in the 1930s and don’t speak German on a regular basis – hence they are speaking and preserving a language more or less as spoken at the time of their departure. Needless to say, every language mutates and so did German as well as any other language. You can see this in recordings of people in the 1930 and 1940s. Usually, people adapt in a linguistic context and change with the times. Not so with people who live outside their original linguistic environment.

For example, Prague was part of the Austrian-Habsburg Empire until 1918 and had a large German speaking, partly Jewish population. Kafka was the most famous member of it. That group lived there until Hitler’s politics made it impossible for them. With the final eviction of all remaining German-speaking people from Prague in the 1940s – after the war – no German/Austrians lived there any longer. Nobody there could give us an idea of Kafka’s linguistic surrounding. I was therefore very surprised to hear an emigrant woman here in NYC who grew up in Prague in a fancy building that now houses the US embassy. As if to make it more “Kafkaesque” a letter by a Mrs. Kafka was on her table, with an US sender.


Along these same lines, do you consider it important to preserve these examples of language? Should all languages be preserved or is there a natural linguistic Darwinism?

I am not a linguistic preservationist. The world doesn’t need to be turned into a museum. Linguistic changes happen and there is a reason for it. One lady, speaking in a perfect recording-ready “historic” Austrian-German idiom told me that “today, in Vienna, even intellectuals speak like used to be only horse coachmen did.” This trend is, of course, a reflection that more people from lower classes found access to universities and knowledge. More attention is now paid to linguistic pluralism—hence using even regional dialects in discussing subjects that are beyond regional concerns. I myself am such a case.

But for Language of Emigration, we are talking about a loss that is the result of brutal and abrupt circumstances. We are also talking about people that were ignored for a long time by their former perpetrators. When I was in school we got only rudimentary information about these Nazi-atrocities and were not told that so many people were still living. So, getting an acoustic experience of a time destroyed was, for me, a bit like filling a void that we—post-war generations—all felt. Paying special attention to the linguistic nuances of this group of people was not only in line with the rest of my art work and my general interests (i.e. the ongoing studies of foreign languages as my art practice) but also a way to differ it from regular holocaust studies or the massive archive Spielberg has accumulated.

Your question about “natural linguistic Darwinism” I would answer with yes, if we can understand “natural” as socially made and driven by economics and politics. In this work we can see how traumatic political events followed by displacement and cultural loss played a crucial role in the lives and speeches of these emigrants—often lives with undesirable accents.

I’m not addressing here the problem of languages that disappear because of modernization, globalization, and the general destructive movements that characterized the 20th century, including the fundamental disturbance of the last indigenous people found far away from our understanding of “civilization.” Although disappearing languages cannot be preserved by orders and wishful thinking, they can and should be recorded and documented—an endeavor I recommend for anthropologists and anthropological linguistics.


The 20th century had a profound effect on language, especially with Western Imperialism running at full force. The meeting of cultures on a power-based level created a coercive relationship between the languages of the colonizer and the colonized. Many indigenous languages experienced violence and were driven to extinction or reduced to marginalized positions. However, some of those who learned the language of the colonizer could benefit, as Kurt Frankfurter did while in German concentration camps. Do you have any thoughts on political history and its effect on languages?

Kurt Frankfurter had an incredible history of survival based on his understanding that volunteering was saving his live. While volunteering on his day off, he not only got more to eat than during the entire work week but he also got to know the people who permanently made decisions over life and death in Auschwitz. He survived Auschwitz for nearly 3 years, which is extraordinary. To know his native German was indeed of help there. When I was spending a couple of months in Leningrad, during the end of the Soviet Era in 1991, I could observe the difference between those who spoke some foreign languages and those who knew only Russian: it was the difference between eating or not eating, the difference between knowing people from the West who had basically no choice but to go the markets where food was plenty but only affordable for those with access to Western money.

One of the biggest changes in language politics that has gone unnoticed and unlamented for, but which affected half of the world, was the disappearance of Soviet Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. All former Soviet satellite-states, extending from Eastern Europe to Northeastern Asia, including African nations, used Russian as a common language. Beginning in the early 1990s the biggest linguistic forgetting campaign initiated and everybody switched to English as a lingua franca. Currently, I’m working on a video in which a German woman complains in front of a Karl Marx statue in Chinese that the entire world is now Chinese. The text is written so we see a world where English is supplanted by Chinese, as French was by English early last century. This scenario makes a lot of sense since we only have to listen to the products we are touching, using, and consuming which already only speak Chinese. I have been studying Chinese regularly since 1999 and it is a wonderful language that can be learned as easily as any other. But what’s really interesting (and very difficult but wonderful to train people’s minds) is the Chinese character being based on a non-phonetic writing system that requires all the qualities that are needed in today’s world economies: concentration, precision, visual memory and association all combined with a lot of stamina.


A new system gained notoriety at the end of the 20th century. What sort of effect do you think the Internet has had on language?

Let take my own experience: I am definitely consulting on a daily basis foreign news media with a click of a finger and hence can read, see and listen to foreign languages. I also use it for my Chinese studies and can learn easily without extra costs and effort. Now to the net as such: when in the beginning it looked as if only English users were using the net, today we know that the entire world is doing so and very successfully. So, I think that the net is helping to proliferate the most dominant cultural formations through its medium in the same way to reflect their demographic, social and economical appeal and power—but not much more or less. So, if Chinese people as a demographic, economic and social force are spread over the globe, so are their communicational networks. But that goes with any group and invites even the smallest social groups to keep up with their imagined and now networked communities. It is a win-win for all be it the dominant linguistic and cultural hegemonies as well as the small and subordinate ones.


I noticed that the interviews were not all conducted in German. For example, Bertold Adler’s interview was in English. Why was this?

I always ask people whether they want to speak in German or in English and some prefer English. English is also a language that was not used during their sufferings. Hence, I was told several times that saying things in English was a way to distance themselves from the past. I had also some significant examples where interviews switch back and forth between the two languages—emphasizing their reaction and affection to what they said.


Alongside the interview videos are photographs of the interiors of your interviewees’ apartments. They all seem to follow distinct styles, a vernacular similar to the particular forms of language that were being preserved. Does this group of people play a similar role in preserving the idioms of interior décor, as well?

I was very struck how often I would see German and Austrian decorum in their houses even though they must have had enough of it. Looking through their libraries and across their floors and walls is a bit like scanning their present for their past. Not only do I give a picture to a story we were told only in the most abstract terms, but we also get an idea to what degree cultural influences persist and materialize. I was often told that it wasn’t the fault of the “German language”— something that could also be said of many German and Austrian materials I saw in their homes. I remember one woman who refused to speak to me in German and was still very bitter towards anything Austrian but she offered me Mannerschnitten (Viennese cookies available in NYC delis), used Austrian wooden furniture, Austrian China, and had images of Austria everywhere.


Diaspora can have the effect of strengthening cultural identification. People removed from their original geographic culture will value cultural tradition more than those in the homeland. However, these emigrants seem to have a more tenuous relationship with their cultures while maintaining the role of preservers. Could you give your perspective on how the people you interviewed relate to the cultures they left?

The Nazi persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Social Democrats, and many others who weren’t considered Aryan and participating in Nazi empire building was horrific and disastrous in its consequences for everybody involved. People I worked with over the course of my project were basically persecuted and attacked by the same people with whom they had lived in peace up to a certain moment. Most people were quite secular and anti-Semitism wasn’t as obvious before the arrival of Hitler. They most identified with their home culture before the dominance of Nazism. Hence, cultural identification for these elderly Germans and Austrians is not easy. I always ask how they feel about Austria and Germany and most of them like it quite a bit, yet show a certain hesitation. In most cases I have been embraced by the people I visited but sometimes I was told—like in the case of Frankfurter—that had I not been introduced by a person whom he trusted, he wouldn’t have talked to me. But this was more of an exception. Many do visit Austria or Germany regularly when they are (still) in a position to do so.


Rainer Ganahl’s Language of Emigration & Pictures of Emigration is on view at Alex Zachary Gallery though April 25, 16 East 77th Street, Thu – Sun 12-6pm.  Visit www.alexzachary.com and www.ganahl.info for details.


-Brandon Johnson, April 2010