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Teaching the "Berliner"

June 2024
4min read

 “This is the White House calling,” the voice on the phone told the language teacher 

From 1957 to 1980 I taught German at the Foreign Service Institute School of Language Studies, run by the Department of State in Washington, D.C. Classes were small, seldom more than four students, and I spent six hours every day with them, five days a week for five months. Following the school’s unconventional method, I started by giving my students a short sentence, which they had to repeat again and again until their pronunciation was correct. Longer sentences followed, and as their speaking ability progressed, I gave them dialogues to memorize to help promote conversation within the group. Mark Twain once said that it takes thirty years for intelligent people to master the German language. It’s too bad the Foreign Service Institute’s method hadn’t yet been tried; he would have admired its success.

One evening I received a phone call at my home in Maryland. “This is the White House calling,” said the voice on the line. “I’d like to speak with Mrs. Plischke from the Foreign Service Institute.” I laughed and said, “I’ll see you in the morning,” and hung up. I was absolutely sure one of my students had tried to play a joke on me. But the following morning I was called to the dean’s office and was told that the special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, had called the school. President Kennedy was planning a trip to Berlin, and he wanted to give a short speech in German. I was to go to the White House and meet with Mr. Bundy for further instructions.

I was quite nervous, hut Mr. Bundy put me at ease by saying, “Don’t worry, the President doesn’t speak German, so you are in charge.” He accompanied me to the Oval Office to meet Mr. Kennedy. I received a very friendly welcome. The President asked me what part of Germany I came from and if I still had family over there. When I told him that I was from East Germany, where my mother was still living, he asked if I had been allowed to see her. I was touched by his genuine interest.

The head of the German-language section at the Foreign Service Institute, Dr. Jack Chew, had put a few simple German sentences into phonetic spelling for the President to read so that I could test his pronunciation. When I handed the President the paper, he took a look and smiled, apologizing for not having any talent for foreign languages. But when he read them out loud, he sounded rather good. “What did I say?” he asked. I translated the sentences into English. He said, “That’s insignificant. I’ll write my own,” and he turned to Mr. Bundy and asked him to write something too. They read their drafts to each other. Bundy complimented the President on his version, and Mr. Kennedy said, “I’ll use mine.” At the end of his script was the sentence “I am a Berliner.”

The President didn’t have time to memorize the speech he had written, so I suggested he concentrate on the last words.

The interpreter scheduled to accompany President Kennedy on the trip was there in the office. (He was a rather unpleasant man who complained bitterly that he had had to interrupt his vacation just to watch the President’s mannerisms.) Right then and there he rendered the President’s words into German, translating the definite article a into ein, even though most Germans would say, “Ich bin Berliner.” When I pointed out this minor difference in usage, the President seemed a little startled. He must have discussed it with Mrs. Kennedy because the next day he said he wanted to leave the ein in the text. This was later criticized by people who did not like the speech, or the President, or his trip to Berlin. I had told the President it was all right because I remembered an old Prussian song, written in 1831 by Bernhard Thiersch: “Ich bin ein Preusse, kennt ihr meine farben.” No German would have thought that that was wrong.

We met five times to practice the text of the speech, but it was not easy to concentrate, for often we were interrupted by the President’s secretary, Mrs. Lincoln, and by phone calls. I remember one call that was rather funny. The President was laughing hard. He repeated some names and at the end said, “I must tell Jackie all about that.” It must have been about the Profumo-Keeler affair in England. He mentioned his wife’s name almost every day.

It was very easy to work with President Kennedy, but he did not have enough time to memorize the speech he-had written. I suggested that he concentrate on the last words, which were part of the following sentence: “Your courage and perseverance have made the words ’I am a Berliner’ a proud statement.” The President repeated the Berlin sentence after me until it sounded very good.

The President’s trip to Europe that June had some memorable moments: the church service Kennedy attended with Konrad Adenauer at the Cathedral of Cologne, the speech to the Atlantic Community in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, the visit to the little house of his forefathers in Ireland. But when Kennedy stood in front of the Schöneberger Rathaus on June 26 and called out, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he electrified the hundreds of Germans in his audience. (He said afterward, “I wish these people were American voters.”) I watched the event on television and was proud of his pronunciation and deeply touched by the response he received.

In July of 1978 I was called to the White House to meet with President Carter. He too was planning a trip to Germany, and he wanted to be able to pronounce correctly the names of German cities and politicians. He also planned to say a sentence from the poet Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” He apologized for not having the time to study with me directly and asked if I could teach his secretary Susan Clough instead. I did my best, but when Ms. Clough read the German words in her charming Southern accent, her pronunciation did not quite match my tape recordings or the phonetic script.

Although I was unable to help President Carter with his German, I was grateful to have met another very kind American leader.

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