At the recent second Women’s March, New York participants saw a banner held aloft with a hand-lettered Yiddish message, helpfully transliterated and translated into English. The transliteration read “Mir Velen Zei Iberleben”; and the translation, “We Will Outlive Them.”
The banner didn’t specify who the intended “them” might be (not men, I hope–though, of course, women do tend to live longer than those of us burdened with Y chromosomes). As to the legend on the banner, well, therein lies a tale, and it is a moving one.
It begins with a love song penned by Latvian-born cantor and composer Solomon Rosowsky, who received a degree in law from the University of Kiev but then opted to study music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. (One of his teachers was Rimsky-Korsakov).
The song, with its lively gypsy-style melody and a favorite of klezmer groups, is in the voice of one half of a couple begging the other half to reconsider some unelaborated-upon spat.
Its clever lyrics match its catchy tune, rhyming fenster (“window”–from the Latin fenestra; “fenester” was in fact a common English word for window until well into the 16th century; and see: “defenestrate”) with shenster (“most beautiful”); and pomerantzen (“oranges,” from the Latin pommom, “fruit” and Italian arancia, “orange”) with tantzen (dance).
The song’s title and refrain is “Lomr Zich Iberbetn”–or, rendered colloquially, “Let’s Make Up.”
Iber means “over” or “above.” Its German cognate, Über, is familiar to those who have read Nietzsche or requested a ride service (the philosopher’s Übermensch is a “superhuman”; and the recently resigned CEO Travis Kalanick’s choice of company name was intended to herald a “super” form of transportation).
And betn means to “request” or “plead.” So iberbetn might be understood as a plea for forgiveness, a “getting over” a quarrel, a reconciliation
What the song has to do with perseverance or overcoming something or someone lies in an account told to the Holocaust researcher Moshe Prager by an eyewitness, one Dr. Warman.
In 1939, the witness recounted, a group of Hasidic Jews from the Polish city of Lublin were assembled in an empty field outside the city and ordered by a local Nazi commander by the name of Glovoznik, to sing a song. One of the men began singing Lomr Zich Iberbetn, but with “Ovinu shebashomayim” – “Our Father Who is in heaven” – taking the place of the original song’s second line, Shtel dem samovar –“set up the hot water urn.”
So what he sang, poignantly, was: “Let us reconcile, our Father in heaven.”
Glovoznik was not happy with the song and ordered his men to beat the Jews, which they happily set about doing.
Then, though, according to the witness, a voice among the Jews shouted out “Mir veln zey iberlebn, Ovinu shebashomayim,” “We will outlive them, our Father in heaven.” And then others joined in singing the new refrain, loudly defiant, scoring a victory of sorts over their tormentors.
They may be beaten, and even murdered, the new refrain declared, but the Jewish people qua people will survive, even when their tormenters have left the stage of history.
The Nazi commander, frustrated even further, ordered a halt to the spectacle.
The eventual fate of that group of Jews is unknown but, of the approximately 42,000 Jews of Lublin, no more than 300 survived the Holocaust. But they were right, of course, about their tormentors; we outlived them.
Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at rabbiavishafran.com.