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Saving the Sounds and Laughter of Sarajevo

Saving the Sounds and Laughter of Sarajevo

March 20, 2015

Israel Studies, Culture & Jewish Thought

Jewish Exponent — Dirty jokes told by gun-toting, Ladino-speaking, Jewish Communist partisans in Bosnia are not the first thing that usually comes to mind when talking about the Holocaust. A book soon to be published in English, however, may change that perception as it sheds light on a lesser-known story about Jews during the Second World War.

The Partisan Haggadah is a bawdy, grotesque parody of the Passover tale composed by a Jewish guerrilla fighter, Šalom “Šani” Altarac, which Sarajevo’s Jewish community continued to recite each year at the end of the seder for decades after the war.

Dr. Eli Papo

Dr. Eli Papo

Through frank vulgarity and disjointed association of the sacred and the mundane, the comedic account of partisans fighting (and fleeing from) the Nazis distills the essence of the Bosnian Jewish experience.

Bosnians, especially the Jews that have called Sarajevo home since the 16th century, are “hard working at being funny,” explains BGU’s Dr. Eliezer (Eli) Papo, author of Fighting, Laughing and Surviving, which examines the unique riff on the Passover story.

Told in a blend of Ladino and Serbo-Croatian corresponding with Aramaic lines from the Passover seder, the Partisan Haggadah provides a glimpse of the brutal reality of guerilla warfare against the Nazis, stripped of the glory commonly accorded to the fallen.

Refrains of dayenu — “enough!” — recount the anti-Fascist partisans’ advances and retreats; fatigued fighters bemoan how unrelenting rains left the ragtag troops “soaked like rats, like monkeys — dear God — from great fear we wet our pants.”

“Humor is ‘a cultural imperative’ in the multiethnic Balkans,” says Dr. Papo, who was born and raised in Sarajevo and moved to Israel in the 1990s after the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia.

Today, Dr. Papo teaches oral Jewish literatures, Jewish folklore, and Sephardic culture and literature at BGU’s Department of Hebrew Literature. He is also the deputy director of BGU’s Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Studies.

As a young man growing up in Sarajevo in the 1970s and ‘80s, Dr. Papo would hear the elders reciting snippets of Altarac’s Hagaddah parody from memory after the famed ex-partisan songwriter died in 1975.

Intrigued by the story he only partly understood, Dr. Papo asked his friend, who happened to be Altarac’s grandson, whether there was a hard copy of the Partisan Haggadah anywhere. Altarac, who went blind in 1963, had apparently never written his routine down, but had taken pains to record himself singing it to musical accompaniment.

Dr. Papo made a copy of the tape recording in 1989 and brought it with him to Israel in 1991. During the ensuing Yugoslav civil war, when Sarajevo came under a brutal two-and-a-half-year siege, the original was destroyed. (Only years later, after presenting a paper on the subject, did he find an alternative, cleaned-up version that Alterac wrote down for a friend.)

In Dr. Papo’s book, which was first published in Hebrew in 2012, he renders the original text into English. While some of the nuance — let alone the rhyme scheme — is lost, Altarac’s blend of satire and anguish is universal.

While Jewish comedy is typically associated with Yiddishkeit, he points out that Sephardic Jews for centuries had a rich tradition of parody — typically playing off the familiar material found in the Haggadah. The Partisan Haggadah is just one piece of a larger mosaic of Ladino parodies that date back at least to 1789, and were popular among Sephardim from Suriname to Istanbul.

Read more on the Jewish Exponent website >>