I grew up with two notions to the German word “Ersatz” (pronounce air-‘zuts), that of replacement and that of substitute. I didn’t know that this term had also made it into the English language. And whereas the association of ersatz with replacement is a good one, that with substitute for the same purpose suggests inferiority. The border between either can be very thin.
Take the German word Ersatzreifen (pronounce air-‘zuts-rye-fen), an extra tire you keep in or on your car. If the same size as the one it is meant to replace, ersatz definitely has a positive connotation. If it is a smaller one that makes you drive more slowly and needs to be replaced by the real deal, you know that ersatz is inferior.
My parents told me stories of Ersatzbrot (pronounce air-‘zuts-broht) and Ersatzkaffee (pronounce air-‘zuts-ku-fay), ersatz bread and ersatz coffee, that were consumed during wartimes in Germany. The ingredients were inferior to the real deal due to less agricultural production and broken import chains. Imagine sawdust in the one and roasted acorns in the other. And these were only two of many food items that caused malnutrition in one case and probably just resignation in the other. Wood and paper became ersatz for leather soles in shoes. Coal butter substituted for margarine. Synthetic rubber replaced kautschuk. The impact of ersatz products in both World Wars was obviously this great that the term “ersatz” made it not just into English but also into Russian and Slavic languages – usually in a pejorative sense.
As a German immigrant, I have learned to do a lot with ersatz over here, as well. Simply because every culture is used to different items and customs. I’m pretty sure, anybody emigrating to another country experiences the same. With a German deli practically 15 minutes on foot from my home, I belong to the lucky ones who can purchase real German baked goods, cold cuts and cheeses, snacks, cakes, seasonal and even household items. But as I find that American quark doesn’t taste like the German kind, I replace it with plain Greek yogurt. My favorite German apple Boskoop, a splendid tart variety for cooking, baking, and eating raw, gets replaced by whatever is available for the specific purpose I have in mind. These are small things, and after experimenting a lot, I have found ersatz for a lot of items. Or I simply forego them.
Alas, there is no ersatz for the quiet German Heiligabend (pronounce ‘high-lih-‘uh-bent) aka Holy Night or Good Friday over here. Nor for the church holidays that are bank holidays in the Old World. There is no ersatz for the rest that closed stores on Sundays mean for everybody. And for some German immigrants, Halloween is only the grim cousin of the Rhinish carnival in spring; I don’t mind, as I haven’t ever been into carnival.
Indeed, Americans will have to find their own ersatz for some items or customs as well when traveling or being deployed to Germany. Those who are used to baggers at a supermarket’s cash register will drop with exhaustion after having dealt with the speed of a German cashier while bagging their own purchases – for the lack of baggers. They won’t find soft pretzels and cheese at movie theaters unless they have the opportunity to go on base. The only ersatz for a YMCA is the membership in a sports club or paying admittance to a public pool.
You get the picture. Once you are willing to accept that when other people can live a certain way, you can do so, too, the terms ersatz or substitute become obsolete. Because there is a richness in every culture for which there is no ersatz in another.