“One Must Respect These Old Names” Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

In what has to be a French-major’s anxiety dream come to life, a reader implies that I omitted a definite article in this story:

I’m writing from Normandy, France. I did a quick search to look for some French articles related to that “Mort aux juifs” town, and it looks like the reporting was quite misleading. First of all, the village name is not “Mort aux Juifs” (Death to the Jews) but “La mort aux Juifs” (The death of the Jews). I found another explanation for the origin of the name, which would come from a Jewish uprising in the 16th century against the local lord, during which they were slaughtered.

The town name, as I indicated in my original post, definitely has that “La” – the “Mort aux juifs” in quotes refers to the graffiti I saw on the RER B. It could be that other accounts this reader found left it out. As for what changes when one puts “the” in front of “death to the Jews,” I’d say not much. If one wished to say “The death of the Jews,” one would need “La mort des juifs.” That said, I’m not an expert on medieval French place names, and there could some idiomatic loophole according to which, in this context, the town name translates to “The death of the Jews.” An “à” can be possessive. It’s not impossible. It is striking that “death to the Jews” would have a “the” at the front of it, and I’m grammatically flummoxed. Readers who can clear this up, or who are interested in providing me with fodder for more French-major anxiety dreams, please advise: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

The reader continues:

The “town” itself is in fact a “hameau”, the smallest possible kind of village in France. In our case, “La mort aux Juifs” is composed of only one farm and two houses. The name appears in the “cadastre” (the old official plans you can consult at the townhouse) and so it appears on Google maps too,  but the postal address is completely different and the habitants refer to the place as “La Mare-aux-Geais” (the pond of the jay), probably a phonetic evolution of the original name – that’s understandable, given how distasteful the original name was!

I think the deputy mayor reaction (“one must respect these old names”) has nothing to do with actual antisemitism in France.

She simply says that the name refers to a historical event, not that she condones it. Instead of trying to change that name, I think the Simon Wiesenthal Center should just do the reverse thing: do some historical research on the antisemitic acts that lead to that massacre and then help fund some sort of street sign at that exact location, with some explanations (“In 1565, hundred of Jews were the victims of… etc). That would help educate people and the deaths of these people would be remembered instead of lost in oblivion.

I suppose it’s better that this name belongs to a very, very small town, and not to, like, Paris, but if this reader’s point is that the name is actually a solemn commemoration of anti-Semitism (akin, perhaps, to the plaques in front of French schools listing children killed in the Holocaust), then why should we dismiss it on account of its size?

I agree with this reader that a sign would do wonders (again, France already does this sort of thing), but unless the definite article in this context means more than I think it does (which is, again, possible), it would seem… not so much that the deputy mayor “condones” the massacring of Jews, but that she’s treating French heritage as more important than Jewish sensitivities. If the deputy mayor wished to convey that the place name commemorated a sad event in Jewish history, she might have spelled that out.

Other readers, meanwhile, point out that murderous place-names aren’t limited to France, or to Jews:

Earlier this year, the Spanish hamlet of Castrillo Matajudíos (Castrillo Kill the Jews) voted to change the name to Castrillo Mota de Judíos (Castrillo Hill of the Jews).

Another adds:

This one cuts in many different directions. Ever been to Matamoros (Spain or Mexico)? “Killer of Moors,” or “Kill the Moors.”