The languages my mother spoke
My mother was born in Adapazari in northwestern Turkey. Her family was from Bulgaria originally but, before she was born, they had emigrated to Turkey for economic reasons. Her first language was Ladino. At an early age she also learned Turkish and Greek from the children in the neighbourhood. When the Greek-Turkish war broke out, her family fled to Istanbul. There, she attended the French school for Jewish children and learned French as well.
She was 11 when her family was on the run again – undercover, they fled from Istanbul and made their way to Bulgaria, so that her brother would not recruit in the army and do a lifetime of military service. They sailed on board an Italian ship to Varna on the Black Sea coast. Eventually, they settled in Sofia and my mother learned her Bulgarian here. She also picked some Russian from a Russian Jew who lived with them for some time.
Ladino, Spanyol, Judesmo
At home and with friends and relatives my parents spoke Ladino. To be more precise, they used the spoken version, called Spanyol or Judesmo. It was interspersed with Bulgarian words. I know a lot of jokes about the funny linguistic outcomes of mixing the two languages.
Ladino has a written version too, inherited from a translation of the Bible. Until the twenties of the last century, Ladino used to be written out in Hebrew letters. If you go to the Jewish cemetery in Sofia you can still see some of the older graves inscribed in Ladino with Hebrew letters. In 1928, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introduced the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language and this opened the way for Ladino, too, to be written out in the Latin alphabet.
Me and my languages
I was born in 1940 and my first language was Bulgarian. I learned Ladino in passing, from my mother.
I was very little when, during the war, my family was exiled to Novi Pazar, a small town in Eastern Bulgaria. We lived amidst Bulgarian Turks there and I learned Turkish.
At university, I studied Spanish and you perhaps wonder what effect Spanyol had on my emerging Spanish and how I managed to juggle the two languages. It was different every time. Spanyol mostly helped, but it also got in the way. I can give you an example with other people how Spanyol made the learning of Spanish easier. Many years ago, a lot of Bulgarian Jews used to work in Cuba. While it took no less than six months for their fellow Bulgarian workers to learn Spanish, the Jews started speaking Spanish within two or three months.
Ladino is an international language
For most of my life I have been using Ladino as an international language and I have a whole range of experiences to share. Some time ago, a group of French Jews visited here, and with two of them, I communicated in Ladino. When I was in Israel once I set out to see the Holocaust museum. It happened to be a non-working day and the museum was closed. I wanted to find out about its working hours and the first person I came across was a man from Egypt – he spoke Spanyol! There are still people in Egypt who speak that language. And indeed, when we finished talking he said to me, “If you walk a bit further, you will find another Egyptian guy who can also speak Spanyol.”
Over the years I have met a lot of Turkish and Greek Jews. Once, when I was in Istanbul, one such Jew invited me to his house. He sent a chauffeur-driven car to the hotel for me. I got into the car and the driver gave me the phone to have a word with my host. We started speaking in Spanyol and it appeared the most natural thing to do. His house was huge. He told me that most Jews in Istanbul were doing very well. There are still around 20 000 Jews in Turkey. One other thing he did was to call the office of the Jewish newspaper in Istanbul. One page of this newspaper comes out in Spanyol and I was interviewed for it. Most of the questions they asked were about the Bulgarian Jewry – we belong to the same community after all. Since then, I have been writing for this newspaper.
In 1992, I went to Spain for a most memorable occasion. I took part in a big meeting of Sephardic Jews where I represented Bulgaria. We stayed at a wonderful hotel located on the site of an ancient monastery. This monastery is celebrated as the cradle of the Spanish language. Some eight or nine centuries ago, it hosted the gathering of many renowned scholars of the time who undertook to translate a vast range of books from Latin into the popular Spanish of those times. Their translation work gave rise to Spanish as a language in its own right. It all happened before the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and among the scholars there were lots of Jewish learned men. They made their contribution towards the development of the Spanish language.
At this event, I had the chance to speak Ladino with the ex-president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon. Navon was born in Israel but Ladino had been spoken in his family for centuries. At that time he was the chairperson of the Sephardic Institute in Israel. We communicated in Ladino and could understand each other perfectly well. There were differences in the way we spoke it but this did not surprise me in the least. Over the centuries, Spanyol has absorbed features from so many other languages.
When I was in Spain, I could understand everything people were saying to me and make myself understood. Equally, when a Peruvian writer and poet of Jewish origin, César Calvo came to Bulgaria many years ago I took him to see an old Jewish grandma. I introduced him to her and when she heard him speak Spanish, she exclaimed: “But he is one of us!”
Writing in Ladino – something of an exception
Here, in Bulgaria, we do not publish a newspaper in Spanyol and that is the reason why some of us publish in El Amanecer (At Dawn) – the name of this one Ladino page in the Istanbul newspaper. At one point I sent them a poem by the Bulgarian poet Valeri Petrov which I had translated into Spanyol. The title is Es Shakas Judias (Jewish Jokes). I will say it for you:
Our German host
Tells a Yiddish joke
But there isn’t a single Jew
Living in this city.
Avraam, Rebecca, Solomon,
The heroes of so many jokes
Into the cyclone cameras
You all went.
You are now smoke, you are now dust
You are now soil of an unknown hole
And who is this laughter at
When the funny ones are all gone.
There is only one other Bulgarian Jew who is regularly in touch with them and writes for the paper. Her name is Ivette Annavi and she is from Plovdiv. Not many people write in Spanyol around here. I am something of an exception