Put yourself in their place: You are told that unless you quit the country you’ll be killed. You must leave behind your home, your land, your belongings, your wealth. You bundle up your children and head for – where? You’ve heard that you will be safe in a faraway place, so you go, on carts or wagons or ships, taking with you little but your clothes, your stories, your songs, and your language.
So it has been for millions of refugees through the ages. And so it was for more than 150,000 Jews expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 under the infamous Alhambra Decree. Most went to Portugal or North Africa, but tens of thousands traveled north and east to the Balkans, where the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire welcomed them. Over the years their 15th century Spanish changed—absorbing bits of the languages of Turkey, Serbia, Greece, Croatia and Bulgaria, along with touches of Hebrew and Arabic. Eventually it took on a name of its own: Ladino.
In 2003, I traveled to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to research a chapter for a book called The Lemon Tree, about an Arab and a Jew and their common history in the city of Ramle, in present-day Israel. The Israeli woman left Bulgaria as an infant in 1948; in tracing her story I’d come to understand how it was that she came to be born – how most of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews escaped the Holocaust.During my interviews with elderly Bulgarian Jews I was surprised to find that I could communicate in Spanish – not perfectly, as many of the words and pronunciations were different, but we could understand each other. They described, in Ladino, the astonishing drama of March, 1943 – how they and their families avoided the trains bound for Treblinka.
One of those Jews, Sophie Danon, is the leader of the Club Ladino, which meets on Tuesday evenings to reminisce, to share poems and proverbs, and to teach the next generation – sprightly 60-somethings – what they know. Often they’re joined by a singer named Lika Eshkanazi, whose beautiful voice converts simple lullabies into haunting evocations of a long, deep history.
If that history has been hard on the Jews, it has also been hard on Ladino. Countless speakers were killed in the Holocaust. In Bulgaria, where most Jews survived that horror, communism and Zionism took the greatest toll. After the war, nine out of every ten Bulgarian Jews moved to the new state of Israel, where Hebrew would take hold. Most who remained were proud communists, ready to set aside Ladino in favor of the secular national language. So, beginning in the 1940s, Ladino began to move from the streets to the kitchen. While its decline has been slower in other countries, in Bulgaria Ladino is destined for the archives. For the few speakers who remain, the hope is that the language won’t die there – that the tongue may go silent, but that its heart will keep beating.
– Sandy Tolan