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It's Almost Comedy Central: German Humor has Ties to the Past...

Tobin, Paulette. "It's Almost Comedy Central: German Humor has Ties to the Past..." Grand Forks Herald, 22 August 1999.


When Ron Vossler, a senior lecturer in the English department at UND, told his colleagues he was studying German Russian humor, their response was telling: "That shouldn't take you long."

The culture and history of the Germans from Russia isn't particularly well known, even though tens of thousands of North Dakotans and South Dakotans come from that distinctive ethnic group. Moreover, their stereotype is of hard-working, thrifty and humorless people.

"Not so," said Vossler, who grew up in the German-Russian enclave of Wishek, N.D., and who shares that ethnic background.

"Yes, the humor exists and there's a lot of it," Vossler said at national convention of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Aberdeen, S.D., earlier this summer.

The humor of the Germans from Russia includes folk humor, proverbs and one-liners, nicknames and nonsense rhymes and greetings. Sometimes it is earthy and scatological, the kind of humor one would expect from people who for centuries were farmers familiar with fieldwork and animal husbandry. It also reflects the long journey and history of a people who over a couple of centuries moved from Germany to Russia and then to the U.S. "Wherever they went, they were different, the stranger in a strange land," Vossler said. "Being different and clannish meant sometimes they were misunderstood and became the butt of the joke."

"There's an edge to their humor," Vossler said. "It's what you would expect from people who survived a lot of hard times."

Vossler, who studied and is lecturing about German-Russian humor through a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council, said folk proverbs, which often date back to the 18th century Germanic provinces, are the earliest evidence of German-Russian humor. Many are recorded in the book "Central Dakota Germans" by Shirley Fischer Arends. Their number and variety tell a lot about the German people and their culture. Here's a sample:

Lieber a laus im kraut wie gar kei fleisch. Rather a louse in the cabbage than no meat at all.

Viel rutschen macht blede hose. A lot of sliding wears out your pants. (If you move too often or change jobs too often, you end up with nothing.)

Wo die liebe na fallt da bleibt sie liebe, und wanns gerade immisthaufe isch. Where love falls, there love stays lying, and if it is right in a heap of manure.

Der eigener lob stinkt. Self praise stinks.

Humor in the German dialect often is full of 'umgangsprache', a term linguists use to describe language in which neutral terms could be replaced with emotionally charged expressions, Vossler said. This was reflected in the way his German grandmother might react if her small grandson tracked mud onto her clean floor.

Instead of politely asking me to go outside and wipe my boots, she'd announce, in a combination of cranky humor and correction, "Yah, du glana Hossaschissa, ich sot dich aus dem Haus ins Schneebank schmissa.'" Translation: "You little pants pooper, I should throw you out in the snow bank."

The author Joseph Height in "Paradise on the Steppe" noted that the German Russians loved to taunt and tease and used nicknames, epithets and jibes to lampoon human foibles and frailties. Vossler said current political correctness might cast a negative view on the often hard-edged humor. But he said the Germans thought giving lots of praise and compliments would tempt fate and lead to the sin of pride. That's why, depending on tone and circumstances, nicknames like "stink katz" (skunk) could be terms of endearment.

Likewise, nicknames were a way of keeping straight the people from the same family who had similar names, and also a way of remembering a person who had some notable characteristic, or who had done something silly. The later explained why a Vossler acquaintance who had once bragged about how accurately he could back his father's tractor to a hitch was known ever after as entchi, or tractor.

Germans also enjoy nonsense rhymes and greetings, Vossler said. If two people met after a long time, one might say, "I haven't seen you for a while," to which the other would reply: "Yah, was han ich dir in der weg gelegt?" "Yah, what did I put in your way?" Or if a child asked his father, "Where are you going?" and the father didn't think it was any of the child's business, he might say: "Ins loch, bohne lese." "Into a hole, to pick beans."

Germans also enjoy having fun in two languages at the same time, Vossler said. If one greeted the other with "Vie gehts?" (German for How's it going? and pronounced vee gates) the other might reply, "The gate's OK, but the fence is broke."

German humor includes many ribald and hilarious stories not suitable for a family newspaper. Other jokes and stories illustrate how German people were misunderstood, and how they misunderstood or were prejudiced against other people and groups. One such story turns the table on a couple of Protestants:

A Catholic nun who had broken her arm was walking down the street when she was approached by two old bachelors who asked what had happened because her arm was in a cast.

"Oh," the nun said, "I fell in the bathtub."

As they walked on, one of the bachelors turned to the other and said, "What's a bathtub?" The other said, "How should I know? I'm not Catholic."

German humor has a lot in common with Jewish humor, Vossler said. Germans and Jews share a common root language (Yiddish is a German dialect spelled with Hebrew letters) and both ethnic groups tell jokes which contain more harshness than merriment and describe economic hardship, as in this joke:

A German-Russian woman whose husband had just died went to the town newspaper to put his obituary in the paper. The editor said publishing the obituary would cost 50 cents a word.

Let it read: "Konrad Scherer died," the widow said. The editor replied: "But there's a seven-word minimum for obituaries."

"Well then," the widow said, without missing a beat, let it read: "Konrad Scherer died. 1984 pickup for sale."

Vossler said some of the scholars he had studied in his research believed jokes about business owners and their interaction with German-Russian clients showed friction or perhaps just their struggle to understand each other.

No doubt a few German Russian shoppers felt ignorant, or backward, not knowing much English, and the storekeepers and businessmen might even have viewed them that way and treated them accordingly, Vossler said.

Yet those same jokes usually depicted the person who didn't understand German as the ignorant one. Perhaps this was the German way of fighting back against the way many people viewed them, Vossler said. Jokes helped them define their ethnicity in a positive way.

Jokes could also play a role in mediating conflicts by bringing them out in the open and making fun of them, and that, Vossler said, leads to an important question in our multicultural world: Do jokes about other groups, or jokes that only some people understand, help or hinder our living together and getting along?

"My view is that humor, which is essentially democratic, creates community," Vossler said, "and one way the German Russians adapted was by means of their humor."

Their humor, Vossler said, helped the Germans from Russia to endure difficult lives, to get along with others and to keep part of their culture and birthright as they journeyed from their old peasant life in Germany and Russia into modern life in America.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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