On Landscapes of Ladino  


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This text was written to reflect on the video work and particularly the installation iteration of  ‘Landscapes of Ladino’

Salonica, Salonique, Salonicco, Selanik, Thessaloniki.
Judeao-espanyol, Ladino, Judezmo, Judio, Spanyol.

The waterfront of Thessaloniki; people walk along this border between the city and the sea. Their movement drags a little, as if pulled backward their stroll becomes a kind of lumber — Bellini plays. The music comes from the radio in my grandmother’s car. I sit in the passenger seat and film through the window. I have been driven down this waterfront thoroughfare many times throughout my life and walked up and down this iconic but non-descript seafront. It is much the same as it would have been in the middle of last century with the same asphalt; the only impact of regeneration being the accommodation of a bike lane. The sea and sky here operate as way-points, means of orientation in this city which I have known so well yet at the same time not at all.

I have a child’s familiarity, traversing its spaces with my family as chaperones. Visiting my grandparents yearly, its surface impressions are nostalgic yet alienating, experienced from car journeys between the homes of relatives and habitually frequented restaurants. Memories of the boredom which saturates school holidays prevail, the importance of visiting the land of my mother’s birth lost on me. My inability to reproduce the Greek I had known from childhood exacerbates my sense of infantile isolation. Aphasia, amnesia: I felt, and to some extent still feel, like a perpetual child here, just as my parents are reduced to tourists in their own city. It is this sense of disconnect which drew me to question my relationship to my mother’s land, to this idea of a “motherland”, which she herself left at seventeen. Perhaps it is my linguistic bond to the spaces and histories of my family which feels so unstable: That I can understand almost everything in my acoustic surroundings, yet my speech often slips into an accent that betrays no place in particular. It is not the accent of an English speaker nor is it the fluid intonation of a local. Self awareness overtakes me, my words return to me in a voice that does not feel quite my own. I hesitate, falter; my syntax breaks down. I am left semi-dumb.

Before learning that there was even a second ‘mother tongue’ connected with my mother, I had heard about the heavy accents in the family. It turns out that they themselves had also struggled to learn Greek, despite having settled in Salonica almost five hundred years ago. I cannot remember exactly when I became aware of Ladino, in their own parlance ‘Judezmo’, which means ‘Jewish’ in Spanish, and refers, as a form of Spanish, to the lingua franca of the Sephardic Jews that had until a hundred years ago dominated the sonic landscape of this city. It was not just that it was spoken in the city, but it was the sound of the city, perhaps the only city in the world to have ever used Ladino as the dominant language.

Expelled from all corners of the Iberian Peninsula by 1492, the Sephardic Jews migrated in search of new lands, mostly settling in the land of Islam, nearby North Africa and the Ottoman empire, with others, mainly conversos, ending up in the Netherlands and other places. It was during migration that what became known as ‘Ladino’ was formed. During the Middle Ages there was no shared single language in the Iberian peninsula, rather there were many variants: Castilian Aragonese, Catalan, and Portuguese, and so the Jews naturally spoke the different languages from the areas they resided.

During and after migration, Jews from different areas mixed together, and their distinct but mutually understandable dialects morphed to produce a koine, a lingua franca that served as a diasporic system of communication. What is understood as ‘Ladino’ today is in fact the product of the entanglement of these dialects and the languages of the lands they left. Ladino was a language in exile. Though it faithfully preserves several archaic dialectal features, it bares most phonetic resemblance to Castilian Spanish, albeit incorporating a number of religious terms from Hebrew and everyday ones from the different languages of their new homes.

Landscapes of Ladino explores this nexus of language and landscape. The work was made whilst in Thessaloniki over two summer months. It collates footage and excerpts of interviews taken during my ‘search’ for Ladino. A language from which my mother and her mother were removed, a language now on the verge of disappearing. Those pedestrians, walking slowly, as if against the tide, return again and again. We drove along that stretch of road so many times during my two-month stay. Past the port, ferry terminal, new leisure and commercial ventures, bars and restaurants. The seafront provides a central channel of foot traffic, both for commuting and pleasure strolls. Its picturesque views had once been blocked by the presence of a fortifying sea wall, built by the rulers of the city, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans. This structure, dismantled in the mid-19th century would have mirrored the walls which still stand high on the hill to the north, tiers of streets climbing, in broken zigzags towards it. That this strip was not always a promenade felt impossible to me as I filmed those people walk. Yet so too did it seem absurd that those who knew that road and seafront so well did not acknowledge that towering absence. The waterfront, the boundary demarcated by the sea and the land is the essence of this city.

Located on a Roman trade route, it had been the centre of commerce in the eastern Mediterranean, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and finally Greek. Whatever its name (Selanik in Ottoman Turkish and Salonicco for the Jews), this port city flourished as a multi-ethnic metropolis for the nearly four hundred years it was under Ottoman rule, until it became Thessaloniki and part of the then Kingdom of Greece. Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews made up the majority of the population, their language serving as the principal means of communication in the domestic and commercial spheres.

We approach Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square): hardly anyone anymore realizes that it was so named because of the Young Turks who had made passionate speeches against the absolutism of the Ottoman Sultan there when they restored the Constitution and proudly proclaimed the slogans of the French Revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, to which the Ottomans added Justice! Ironically, the call for equality and justice served as a catalyst for both Turkish and Greek nationalism, with the Greeks triumphantly “liberating” the city in 1912. This dramatic event spelled the end of the dominant position of the Sephardic Jews in the city. The great, accidental, fire in 1917 destroyed many of the square’s original buildings, along with swathes of city streets. The destruction of the Jewish quarters was just about complete, and provided the best excuse to the Greek government to usurp the overwhelming majority of the Jewish properties, thereby pushing Ladino out of the city centre, now thoroughly Grecified and gentrified by French planners.

By 1922 all non-Greek language posters were banned and working on Sunday was prohibited, forcing the Jews to either work on the Sabbath or lose income, though the dock-workers were powerful enough to keep the port closed on a Sabbath until the mid-1930s. As Greek fascism seized the whole of Greece in the late thirties, scores of Ladino-speakers emigrated again, this time to Palestine (and some to the Americas), thereby earning the city another name, Madre de Israel. There were still about eighty thousand Jews when the Nazis occupied Greece in a flash but kept Salonica —and only it —for themselves, rather than hand it over to their Axis allies, the Bulgarians and the Italians to whom they apportioned the rest of Greece. Ladino was the sombre reason.

Plateia Eleftherias was the fateful square used as a site of open-air imprisonment and bitter humiliation of Jewish men and boys by Nazis and embarrassing scores of onlookers and collaborating Greeks, in the summer of 1942, known as the “Black Shabbat”. Liberty had turned into torture.

The square is now a car park, we park and walk around. In one corner, a small memorial, reluctantly set up by the Municipality, and only in 1997, memorialises the near total extermination of the Jewish community by the Nazis — less than ten percent of the population returned after liberation. Following the war, outward signs of faith and culture were repressed in public in favour of a protective integration. The use of Ladino and the wearing of religious garb were seen as attracting unwanted attention, and instead restricted to the particular spaces of Jewish life. These spaces had, for the returning Jews, been vastly reduced, as many Jewish properties were seized or destroyed, not just by the Nazi- backed regime but all the Greek successive governments . Upon returning, the survivors encountered a city that, despite the ravages of war, bore much material resemblance to its prewar state. However, the destruction of areas of cultural significance, the appropriation of Jewish homes and buildings and most importantly the almost complete annihilation of the population produced a profound sense of alienation for the members of this community. The landscape stayed much the same, but now they moved as if strangers, amongst the buildings and spaces of their old home. This devastation, along with the increased integration in education and public life produced a form of rupture. This rupture in effect separated those born before the war who had spoken Ladino, often as their only fluent language, from the post-war generation for whom, for the first time, Greek had become a primary means of communicating.

It is this generation, born during, or in close temporal proximity to the war, that my grandmother belongs to. My grandmother, as an active member of the city’s Sephardic community provided me with access to a history and culture which is my own, and yet not. As she drove me round the city, between meetings with other members of the community and visits to significant sites, we talked. These journeys became the source for both footage and sound recordings, as she recalled, and failed to recall, memories, her family’s past and the language which bound these histories. Filming through the windows, images slid past, people and landscapes in backward movement, as we pressed on through traffic to our appointments, the next site of a fading Jewish history.

The specific post-war formation of Salonican-Sephardic identity, embodied by my grandmother, is contrasted with interviews with her sister in law, who, despite being only ten years her senior, belongs to that earlier generation, the last for whom Ladino was still a lingua maternal. The work is largely centred around these two characters, the only ones who are represented visually in the work: collating fragments from my research in the form of field recordings, often seeking natural — as opposed to urban — sounds of the landscape, and excerpts from interviews and conversations. These fragments, along with moving images and written text, are not synthesised into a whole, rather they are allowed to sit alongside, overlaid or interrupting one another.

The histories of Ladino in Saloniki, and of those that spoke it, appeared to me marked by innumerable gaps, absences and bifurcations. These gaps were something I identified with on several levels in regards to my relationship to both my own mother tongue, Greek, and this ancestral mother tongue, Ladino. If the mother tongue evokes the language of childhood then the ancestral, or archaic, mother tongue is the language of one’s history. This dialectic of bond and break, born through language, finds expression in Julia Kristeva’s theory of the archaic mother. Language, the body and site, exist as an inextricable, yet paradoxically fractured constellation: “A mother is a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh. And consequently a division of language — and it has always been so.”[1]

I had not initially intended to delve so deep into history in order to retrieve what was left of Ladino. I had at one point assumed I could concentrate just on a ‘celebration’ of a language through song and the collection of anecdotes about everyday life. But I had been naive not to realise that loss and history are ingrained in the very fabric of the language. Nor had I initially understood or been aware of the fact that my interest in, and my approach to, the project was intrinsically bound to ideas and the presence of the mother. In hindsight, much of the primary research for the project produced insight into a specifically female sephardic experience. After all, it was supposedly through the voices of mothers that Ladino was able to survive for so long, through recipes passed down and songs and lullabies. My intervention could not be only a eulogy, but rather had to capture the living percolation of the past through present time. Writing within a psychoanalytic context on the idea that we are ‘subjects of history,’ Julia Borossa questions: “Might it not perhaps be taken to mean that we are from the outset subjects of loss, exile, born to be haunted by the ghosts of our own personal history, bearing the scars of our failures?”[2]

A sense of “lack” defined the project. This lack appeared to me early in my research as a form of presence. An absence almost tangible, it filled the spaces of the city, its streets, its doorways, its sitting rooms. An absence which filled the conversations I had with those who had carried it with them, which passed on through as memory and loss for that community, its members and spaces of which my family were a part. But nowhere was the dreadful mark expunged more completely than in the memories of those “ethnic” Greeks that became the city’s majority following the war. The mass murder of Salonica’s Jews may or may not be instilled in the city’s consciousness. Yet it is only the act of violence that is remembered, however feebly.

What has been irretrievably lost and completely erased is the very act of Jewish living in the city, a living that existed on its own terms, outside of the moment of that brutal rupture. The spaces of these lives remain in fragments across the landscape. Moving through an expanse of horizon and water my camera jolts and moves to finally focus on a panoramic view of the city: 1960s apartment blocks divided by large avenues that lead to the sea. I stand looking down from my great aunt’s balcony. Directly across the road, begin the grounds of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, built on the ruins of what was likely the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, housing hundreds of thousands of graves from the previous 500 years. Destroyed by the Nazis, the tombstones were re-distributed as building materials across the city, incorporated into it’s new material constitution. The city’s masonry bares these memories in secret.

Upon arriving in Thessaloniki my camera first acted as a tool with which to record oral testimonies, in order to produce a live- text - one that allows for the sense of “lack” that pervades the histories of Salonican Ladino, to remain as a series gaps and absences. Landscapes in Ladino employs a three channel structure to allow for these gaps to manifest literally within the work. Split across three screens the images at times move together, uniting to form landscapes on occasion interrupted by voids of negative space. These images, continuous like sentences, or disjointed in series of non-sequiturs, produce visual dialogues. Text acts as image and image becomes language. As the interview fragments shift from Ladino they are viewed not merely as translations but as an additional linguistic system. Rather than acting as a surrogate or supplement to the spoken word, they suggest an instability in linguistic meaning. As voices move between languages, Ladino, Greek and English, at times in the same sentence as the speaker struggles to recall words, the subtitles shift between languages. A complex overlay and interplay of different sign systems, image, text and sound produce both the text and texture of the work.

Although Thessaloniki is a place I have visited every year and whose landscape is familiar and deeply familial, it became imbued with an inescapable alienation during the process of the project. The sense of alienation which I experienced impressed on me the impossibility of an unmediated experience of the city and of my encounters with its history. The work makes no claims to transparency, that this might be a window onto a world, providing direct access to place, memory or history. In fact, it claims the opposite, and takes the window, literally in the case of the car window, as a screen onto which images are projected. I am often struck, viewing cities from a car, or from some vantage point, a balcony or window, that the scene appears to me as pure image. To think of landscape first as culture is to re-think of all landscapes as social constructions, each person projecting onto them their own version of history. During the process of filming I often looked beyond the few sites that bore the remains of the culture I was searching for, to aspects of the land that remained mostly unchanged, images of the Mediterranean sea and moon. Much of the footage recorded in this film demonstrates this sense of distance, between myself, and the object in front of the camera, the distance I feel between myself and my mother’s tongue, my mother’s land, in which I am neither native nor foreign, and the ancestral tongue that even she was alienated from.

An anxiety regarding my own position within this environment and culture, my status as insider/outsider led me to reject the authorial position of film-maker as narrator. This author(itative) position would have been disingenuous, as it would have suggested an understanding and control over material that was not possible. However, the camera registers the jolts and actions of my body, resituating the recording of “I” back within the material reality of the work, an index of a trace of an alienated presence. This sensitivity to the micro-movements of the body is most explicitly expressed in the length of the footage, which often correlated to the length of time I could hold my breath in order to steady the camera. I was interested in including such performative gestures within the process of the work, as they could be conceived as a choreography of camera-operation, and was keen for the filmic language to reflect on this experience as process.

The first person testimonies that form a crucial part of the work’s textual element contrast with spoken performative elements, where text is recounted not as personal memory, but as pre-given language or text. A senior figure in the Thessaloniki Sephardic community centre breaks the quiet of the centre’s offices when he sings a traditional Sephardic song, Adio Kerida (Farewell My Dear), channeling the words of his ancestors, as if engaged in a practice of mnemonic ventriloquism. Similarly, this process of performing language is mirrored in my performance of recording and reading aloud from passages from the book Letters to Antonio Saura (1981)[3] by French linguist and writer Marcel Cohen. Accompanied by Sami Taboch, who recently translated the work from its original Ladino into Greek, I attempted to read alongside him.

Cohen’s book is a meditation on collective and personal memory of the Sephardic experience in the form of a letter to his friend, the Spanish painter Antonio Saura. The personal form of the letter becomes the written enactment of a process of retrieval through the act of translation, written first in Ladino, and later translated into French by Cohen. “I would like to write to you in Djudio (Ladino)”
 he writes to Saura, “before the language of my ancestors is completely extinguished”. Born in France to Turkish-Sephardic parents, Cohen, as a child, spoke Ladino at home. French served as his primary language, only learning to write in Ladino later in life, in a process that was bound to the writing of Letters to Antonio Saura. This linguistic phenomenon, common to the children of immigrants, is one I too share. Greek is the language of my childhood, of my domestic space, but it was quickly abandoned for English, and as a consequence never fully developed. This idea of a return to the language of one’s childhood, to one’s ‘true’ mother tongue, despite being more naturally versed in another, is a gesture that became an important part of the work.

My bilingual edition of Cohen’s work contained the original work, in Ladino, as well as Taboch’s translation into Greek. My limited knowledge of both written languages meant that I was forced to refer back and forth between the two in order to understand the text. Where there were gaps in one language, the other usually filled them. This became a performative reading of the work, navigating this complex relationship between one’s ‘primary’ language, one’s mother tongue, and also introduced the idea of an ancestral, archaic, mother tongue.

In a series of frames, the camera follows my grandmother as she walks the streets of Thessaloniki at night. She turns to the camera to point something out. Her voice is heard in stops and starts as she attempts to recall a Ladino saying that her grandmother had used when she was a child. She pauses each time, failing to recall those words that would have once been so familiar. These gaps, missing words, appear laden with loss and memory. Words constitutive of her mother’s tongue, now irretrievable from the tip of hers. It is with these gaps and holes that the filmic language of the work reflects upon the notion of a mother tongue and subsequent alienations from it; consequences of geographical, generational and linguistic displacement.

1 Julia Kristeva, (1977), Stabat mater, In T. Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 178.

2 Julia Borossa, (1998), “Identity, Loss and the Mother Tongue,” Paragraph 21,3: 393.

3 Marcel Cohen, trans. Sami Taboch, (1997), Γράμμα στον Αντόνιο Σάουρα [Letter to Antonio Saura], Nisides, Scopelos.