In her light, lilting accent, Flory Jagoda is happy to tell the story of her life, with one caveat: although she did live through it, hers is not a tale of the Holocaust. “This one is an accordion story,” she laughed. “We have so many Holocaust stories.”
For all intents and purposes, Jagoda’s accordion saved her life. The Ladino singer-songwriter, who will be performing September 4 at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, was born in Sarajevo in 1923, and grew up in the Bosnian village of Vlasenica.
Jagoda’s folk songs evoke the musical motifs of the Balkans, but are performed in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish. Her family history dates back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain; though they were forced to leave their homes, they took their language with them. For her preservation of Ladino, Jagoda has been recognized with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has earned the epithet “keeper of the flame.”
Jagoda was surrounded by music from a young age. Her family had its own band of Ladino singers, consisting of Jagoda’s grandmother and her seven children, who performed at community events. “I lived [music] from the day I was born,” Jagoda said. “The music was really not written. It was just passed down from mother to daughter and father to son.”
After her mother’s remarriage, Jagoda’s family moved to Zagreb, Croatia, which was occupied by the Nazis in 1941. Her stepfather acquired train tickets for the family under non-Jewish names and instructed Jagoda to bring only her accordion, and to play it as soon as she sat down.
“I got into the train compartment, sat down and played accordion all the way to the coast,” she said. “The compartment filled up with passengers, soldiers, women, chickens, everything. I just sat there, people started singing with me, and it became a party.” The conductor even joined in, she recalled, and never asked for her ticket.
Jagoda was interned on the Croatian island of Korčula for the next two-and-a-half years. As the war ended and the Germans retreated north, she and her mother fled once more to the Italian island of Bari. “The most beautiful sight that I could ever remember was Italian women with big baskets of grapes, waiting for the refugees,” Jagoda said. It was in Bari that she met, fell in love with, and married an American soldier, whom she joined in the United States in 1949.
Jagoda has now been in the U.S. for over six decades and has released several Ladino albums and songbooks of folk songs she knew in her youth, as well as original compositions inspired by her extended family, who, she revealed, were not as lucky as she was. “They ended up in a mass grave,” she said.
“I just wrote all these songs, especially holiday songs, all made of memories of this wonderful musical family that were part of my life,” she explained. “They will always be part of me. Every song that I have written is spending my time with this very wonderful mishpocha.”
Jagoda’s music is a reflection of her composite cultural identity, fusing elements of the secular environment of her childhood with the Sephardic traditions of her family. “Wherever the [Jewish people] settled, they continued with the language. They never abandoned the language, but they adopted the rhythms of the region,” she said. Her Ladino songs, saturated with Balkan influences, are quite different from the Judeo-Spanish songs of Morocco or Turkey, she explained.
Jagoda recognizes that Ladino speakers are becoming fewer and farther between. But despite its waning presence, she has faith in Ladino’s ability to persevere, pointing to its more than 500-year-old legacy.
“People have been traveling, running away, but somehow they survive, go on with new jobs and families, and within they carry their language,” Jagoda said. “Here we are, 2010, still speaking Judeo-Spanish. This has lasted five centuries, and you hope it still continues.”
Listen to Flory Jagoda sing “Klaro Del Dija”: