You Call That a Man?

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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Marvin Friedman writes from San Francisco:

Your recent column about the expression folg mir a gang reminded me of how my mother used to say, in a tone between contempt and sarcasm, “Oykh mir a mentsh,” which I understood to mean something like, “This is also considered a person?” In turn, this brought me to think about Primo Levi’s book “Survival in Auschwitz, which in the original Italian was called “Se Questo è un Uomo. Translated into Yiddish, this would seem to be pretty close to Oykh mir a mentsh — if, that is, Levi was referring to the perpetrators. Not so, of course, if he was referring to the victims.

Indeed it was the victims of the concentration camps whom Levi was referring to in his title, which means “If this is a man.” He took the phrase from a poem of his that he prefaced to the book and that begins: “You who live safe/ In your warm houses,/ You who find, returning in the evening,/ Hot food and friendly faces:/ Consider if this is a man/ Who works in the mud/ Who does not know peace/ Who fights for a scrap of bread/ Who dies because of a yes or a no./ Consider if this is a woman,/ Without hair and without name/ With no more strength to remember,/ Her eyes empty and her womb cold/ Like a frog in winter.”

Oykh mir a mentsh would thus not make a fitting Yiddish title for Levi’s book. Nor would it have made one had Se questo è un uumo referred to the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide, since its tone of sarcasm, as Mr. Friedman correctly calls it, is inappropriate for the monstrousness of Auschwitz. One can only imagine such an expression being used for a Nazi murderer in a specific conversational context, such as:

Sam: “Hitler may have been a monster, but he was a nice man to some people.”

Max: “Oykh mir a mentsh!”

Max’s response — literally, “Also to me a man!” — might be translated as “You call that a man?” It would take a longer paraphrase, however, to transmit its full flavor, which is more like, “If you ask me, it’s a sad comment on humanity when you call Hitler a man.” As Mr. Friedman points out, mir, the dative form of the first-person pronoun, has the same function here as it does in folg mir a gang, namely, to identify the phrase it belongs to as the opinion of its speaker. It’s a way of saying, “As far as I’m concerned” or, “The way I feel about it is….”

Oykh mir a followed by a noun — one can also drop the mir and just say oykh a — is thus an expression that can be handily used in regard to practically anything. For example:

“What’s that you’re reading?”

Oykh mir a bukh!

Meaning: “What I’m reading is supposed to be a book, but frankly it gives books a bad name.”

Or:

“My daughter has just moved to Luxembourg.”

Oykh mir a medineh!”

That is: “Luxembourg? I guess that’s some people’s idea of a country!”

As for Primo Levi’s “Se Questo è un Uomo, its first English edition, which appeared in Great Britain in 1958, was actually published as “If This is a Man. The title was changed to “Survival in Auschwitz” by the book’s American publisher when it was reissued in 1993, a commercially motivated move that many of its admirers found objectionable. As Philip Roth put it in a conversation with Levi, a chemist by profession, in lamenting the abandonment of the original title: “The description and analysis of your atrocious memories of [Auschwitz] is governed, very precisely, by a quantitative concern for the ways in which a man can be transformed or broken down… like a substance decomposing in a chemical reaction.”

And yet Levi himself chose “Se Questo è un Uomo at the last moment, his working title for the book until then having been “I Sommersi e i Salvati,” “The Drowned and the Saved,” an allusion to a line from Dante’s “Inferno. (In the end this was used as a chapter title in “Survival in Auschwitz” and, again, as the title of Levi’s last book, completed shortly before his suicide in 1987.) He was a writer fond of literary allusions. There is a striking one in the second half of the poem prefaced to “Survival in Auschwitz, which continues:

“Meditate that this came about:/ I commend these words to you./ Carve them in your hearts/ At home, in the street,/ Going to bed, rising:/ Repeat them to your children,/ Or may your house fall apart,/ May illness impede you,/ May your children turn their faces from you.”

Many of you will hear in these lines an echo of the Shema Yisra’el prayer, taken from the book of Deuteronomy: “Hear O Israel…. these words which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” Dante and the Shema were both equally part of Levi’s world as an Italian Jew.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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