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Bosnian Jews remember Flory Jagoda, matriarch of Ladino song, as a homegrown rock star

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Flory Jagoda, the Sarajevo-born Holocaust survivor and Sephardic musician who brought Ladino music to the wider world died last month at the age of 97.

Jagoda was a lifelong lover of her native-langauge, Ladino. To many, she is the first name which comes to mind when thinking of Sephardic and Balkan Jewish music.

Flory Jagoda

Flory Jagoda poses with her guitar and signature white accordion.

“With the recent passing of Flory, we not only lost a Ladino-speaking nonagenarian, but a Sephardic matriarch considered to be the nona (grandmother) of the Ladino language,” said Bryan Kirschen, a professor of Ladino language at Binghamton University. “Through her music and language, she brought Judeo-Spanish to the world.”

During her career, she released several albums of traditional Sephardic music. However, her most famous piece of work was a Hanukkah tune of her own composition, Ocho Kandelikas – translated as eight little candles – which she wrote in her 60s.

The now-famous Hanukkah song has since been covered by artists from around the world, including by Idina Menzel.

“Before her albums, there was really no such thing as commercial Sephardic music, at least in Yugoslavia,” explained Dr. Eliezer Papo, a fellow Sarajevo-born Jew who is now head of the Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Culture at Ben-Gurion University. “She was the person who took the Bosnian Sephardic musical tradition out of the home and into the public space.”

A youth of sadness and song

Jagoda was born Flora Papo to a Sarajevan Jewish family in 1923. At the time, the city was part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, though the country would soon be renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Dr. Papo clarified that, despite their shared surname, they were not related as far as he knew.

“There were 268 households with the name Papo in Sarajevo [before the war.] Usually, if someone claims to be a Jew from Sarajevo, and they are not a Papo themselves, and neither their mother nor their grandmother, aunt or uncle are a Papo, well they are probably not actually from Sarajevo,” he quipped.

At the time of her birth, Jews made up nearly a fifth of Sarajevo’s population, and represented a bustling and vibrant portion of the city. Most of Sarajevo’s Jews were Sephardic, descendants of families who settled there under Ottoman rule after fleeing from Spain, while a smaller portion of Ashkenazi Jews came when the city fell under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century.

Their world was utterly destroyed by the Nazis and their Croat allies, the Ustaše.

Jewish Cemetery Sarajevo

Old tombstones at the Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo. Image by Getty Images

When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, they split control of the country between themselves and the so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi puppet state which was ruled by the Ustaše party and its head Ante Pavelic.

The region – which is today Croatia and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – largely fell under the Ustaše’s control. The regime followed the Nazi’s lead in persecuting its Jewish community, alongside its Roma population, as well as ethnic Serbs.

As a child, she already had a knack for music. During a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, Jagoda recalled trying to go to a lesson with her music teacher, and being shooed away after being forced to wear a patch with the letter “Z,” the initial for Zidov, the Serbo-Croatian word for ‘Jew.’

Ustaše confiscating prisoners' belongings at Jasenovac concentration camp

Ustaše confiscating prisoners’ belongings at Jasenovac concentration camp

Under Ustaše rule, more than 10,000 of Sarajevo’s pre-war Jewish population of 12,000 were murdered, most in Jasenovac, the so-called Auschwitz of the Balkans. However, thanks to her parents’ foresight, Jagoda managed to avoid the fate of so many of the country’s Jews. By the time of the invasion, the family had moved to Zagreb which quickly became the NDH’s capital. They sent her out on a train to the seaside city of Split, — then under Italian control — with false papers meant to conceal her Jewish identity.

Already a musician as a teenager, she played her accordion all the way from Zagreb to Split. It saved her life, she believed, as she was never asked for a ticket or her documents. The guards and her fellow passengers were too busy singing along, Jagoda’s daughters Lori and Betty said in an interview with the Bosnian newspaper Oslobođenje.

The rest of her family met her there shortly after and they managed to survive the war hiding out on Croatia’s islands, and later in Italy.

It was there that she met and fell in love with her future husband, an American Air Force officer, Harry Jagoda, whom she followed back to the States.

A rockstar for Yugoslavian Jews

Though it has been nearly a century since Flory Jagoda lived in Sarajevo, she is still remembered fondly by the remaining Jewish community in the city of her birth.

Having survived two World Wars and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, during which Sarajevo endured nearly four years under siege, barely 500 Jews remain in the city today.

Papo recalled what it was like when the community first discovered Jagoda’s music. “Before Kantikas di mi Nona, her first album, maybe there were events like a seder which ended with a Ladino song or it was something you heard from your aunts or your grandmother once in a while,” he recalled. “But for a young person to pick up a guitar and start singing a Ladino song, it was unheard of before Flory. Concerts of Sephardic music? There was no such thing!”

Once her music started trickling into what was then still Communist Yugoslavia, she became an instant hit. “Suddenly, you could hear Flory in every Jewish home in Sarajevo,” Papo said. “In America, they played it! We couldn’t believe it.”

At the time, Yugoslavia had a few rock bands of their own, but popular music was largely still influenced by American imports.

“Everyone was playing jazz and rock and punk, and all the sudden we found out that in America they were also listening to Bosnian Sephardic music,” Papo said. “I think we needed to see it coming from America, for us to feel that our own music was something worth staging outside our community.”

For the generation that came of age in the 1990s, Jagoda’s music was already ubiquitous and offered an important connection to the lost world of their parents and grandparents.“We grew up with the songs she performed and composed,” said Igor Kozemjakin, the cantor of Sarajevo’s sole remaining synagogue. “Her music was the soundtrack of all our events.”

To Kozemjakin, it was through her music that his generation was able to feel a connection to what Sarajevo’s pre-war Jewish community was like.“Listening to her songs we could hear what it might have been like to live in a big community, as if the Holocaust hadn’t happened,” he said. “She was also our ambassador, not just as Sephardic Jews, but she represented a unique Yugoslavian Jewish culture and showed the world what it looked and sounded like.”

Vlado Anderle, another Sarajevan Jew, remembers how hearing Jagoda’s music in the Jewish community’s school, offered an oasis of calm and safety during the tumultuous years of the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo.

In Sarajevo, a small community draws on its wartime experience to survive COVID-19

Exterior of Sarajevo’s Ashkenazi Synagogue Image by David Ian Klein

“The [Jewish community] Sunday school was really an oasis during those years. I can’t remember every activity we did, but I remember the sounds of Flory Jagoda…. Even today, I hear it and it still suggests that sense of safety.” Anderle said.

During those years, Jagoda herself was heavily involved in raising funds for Jewish communities across what was quickly becoming former Yugoslavia

An inspiration to other Sephardic musicians

Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, Jagoda had returned to Sarajevo in 1985 during a concert tour through the country.

That tour had a significant impact on at least one local Jewish family, explained Renato Kamhi, a member of the band known as the Ladino Ensemble. The group was founded by Kamhi’s father, Rašo Kamhi, shortly after he attended Jagoda’s 1985 concert in Sarajevo. “He came from a fully Sephardic family, but mostly spoke Serbo-Croatian, not Ladino,” Renato said. “After he came home from the concert, he realized he really needed to do this and began learning her songs.”

Within a year, Rašo Kamhi’s Ladino Ensemble was already playing concerts; by 1990 they had performed tours throughout Yugoslavia.

When Rašo’s children were old enough, he brought them into the group, and they continue to play together as a family.

“She was his inspiration,” Renato Kamhi said. “And he transmitted that to us.”

Jagoda also had a deep effect on another Bosnian musician, Vladimir Mickovic. Though he did not come from a Jewish family, Mickovic fell in love with Bosnian Sephardic music. He had the opportunity to play with Jagoda during her visit to Sarajevo in 2010.

“After our concert, she told me that the way I sang those songs, it was with the same emotion as her late tia (aunt) Luna used to sing before the second World War,” Mickovic recalled. “Hearing that was the most important thing to me … In that moment I understood I was part of something bigger, maintaining this musical and linguistic tradition which had almost been lost in the Balkans.”

Mickovic kept in touch with Jagoda long after that and she encouraged him to dive deeper into the world of Sephardic music. He is currently in Sarajevo producing an album based on Jagoda’s repertoire, tentatively titled Ritrato de Flora — meaning Portrait of Flora. The album will heavily feature the accordion, in honor of Jagoda’s war-time experience on the train from Zagreb to Split.

Sometimes heroes don’t disappoint

Both Papo and Kozemjakin found that meeting Jagoda was like meeting a mythical or historical figure.

“You know, you read Maimonides but you don’t really expect to meet Maimonides,” said Papo, who ultimately had the opportunity to meet her at a Yugoslav-Jewish culture festival.

Kozemjakin also had the honor of meeting her in 2011, during the last visit she was able to make to the city of her birth.

“She was really the nona we always imagined, entirely warm and friendly,” he said.

David Ian Klein covers breaking news and international Jewish communities for the Forward. You can reach him at [email protected] and on Twitter @davidianklein


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