Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The family language

Here's one that's been hiding in plain sight. We know that Houdini's mother did not speak English. So what language(s) did the Weiss family speak? The quick and correct answer is German. That was the primary language of the Weiss household and language Houdini himself spoke and wrote with his mother.

But there is also a general assumption that Mrs. Weiss spoke Yiddish. Her husband was a rabbi after all. This information appears again and again in articles (including this 2010 piece on Houdini and assimilation), and in the 1998 TNT biopic, Houdini, Mama (played by Grace Zabriskie) is shown speaking Yiddish to her Ehrich.

But in a lengthy and revealing letter Bess Houdini wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after Houdini's death (reproduced in full in Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning), she adds a P.S. that corrects this very assumption and reveals exactly what languages Mrs. Weiss spoke:

P.S. One exception to your article enclosed. Houdini's mother never spoke Yiddish, not even Hebrew,--German, French, Italian, Spanish and her own Hungarian only.

Bessie's own family were also German speakers. I've often thought one of the things Bess and Harry instantly had in common was that they both came from large immigrant families whose first language was German. This must have certainly made Bessie's assimilation into the Weiss family easier.

Recordings of Houdini speaking German with his sister, Gladys, exist on the famous Houdini voice cylinders in the collection of David Copperfield. Unfortunately, these recordings have not been made public.

So it looks like the old-world Yiddish speaking Mama is another Houdini myth. In fact, Cecelia Weiss seems quite cosmopolitan with her mastery of five languages. It's surprising that she never learned English.

Grace Zabriskie as the old-world Mrs. Weiss in Houdini (1998).


  1. Language acquisition is more challenging as an adult, even with "immersion" as happens when a person migrates to a new country as she did.

    I imagine too her social circle was not huge and she would have spent most time within her own community and her own family. Obviously, the kids picked up the new language quickly as kids do, but probably continued to speak German at home so perhaps she had no need for English.

    But she knew five languages - I wonder how fluent she was in each or whether she could read/write in them all as well.

    1. Yes, good points.

      I also wonder how fluent she was in these other languages. It surprises me that she knew Spanish, but maybe she was pretty well educated? I need to break out my Weltman.

    2. It was not uncommon for Europeans of that period to speak three or four languages. Today most non-Americans speak more languages than just their native tongue.

  2. I'm also wondering if Cecelia received some higher education. That's five languages in her arsenal. If so, I wonder what she thought when Erich and Theo dropped out of school to pursue other creative paths.

    1. I don't think they dropped out of school to pursue their careers. I believe formal education for all the kids ended when the family left Appleton and fell into poverty.

  3. Curious wording in Bess's PS to Doyle:

    1. Sounds like she's saying Hungarian (Magyar) was Cecilia's mother tongue, not German. Reformist ("Neolog") Jews of Budapest in that era did speak Magyar, but it was usually their second language, after German, or third, after Yiddish. If we accept the thesis that the Weiss family fled Budapest because of anti-semitism, it is credible that Cecilia stopped speaking Yiddish and therefore Bess never heard her speak it.

    2. Yiddish would be much more commonly spoken than Hebrew by Jews in those days, so her wording here reflects either her own ignorance, or her assumption of Doyle's lack of knowledge.

    Good questions by Mr. Hevia on how she would acquire French, Italian and Spanish. Five languages among Jews was not uncommon, but Romance languages were. My grandmother, for instance, very well-educated for a woman, spoke Russian, German, Polish, Litvak and English.

  4. I always wondered where Houdini learned French.

    If I seem to remember correctly, Houdini's mom came from a good family. After all, she was related to the Newman's who owned the yeast company.

    I think she might have married down when she married Samuel.