Salomon and Esther Naar

Salomon, Devin Naar’s great uncle, and his wife Esther perished in Auschwitz along with their two children, Benjamin and Rachel. They were captured in Salonica by the Nazis. This is the only photo of Salomon and Esther that survived.

The Lost Branch
Reviving a language on the brink of extinction

It was not until his great uncle handed him a stack of old letters, 12 years ago, that Devin Naar, now an assistant history professor at UW, was able to begin filling in the gaps of his family’s history. Naar had known since he was a boy that he had relatives living in Greece during World War II. What he did not know was the fate that befell them.

His uncle’s letters proved to be the key to unlocking the mystery of this lost branch of his family’s past, but they were written in Ladino, the centuries-old Judeo-Spanish language of the Sephardic Jews. “It was in deciphering those letters that I was able to really get a picture of what happened to the Jewish community of Salonica [Greece] during the war and the murder of my relatives during the Holocaust,” says Naar, who holds the UW’s Marsha & Jay Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies housed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Inspired by his discovery, the professor is now leading a project dedicated to keeping the Sephardic language and culture alive. Ladino was originally spoken by the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. When they migrated elsewhere, especially to what was then the Ottoman Empire, the language became a rich mixture of antiquated Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Greek and other languages. As most Ladino-speaking Jews assimilated into other cultures or perished during the Holocaust, Ladino nearly died out.

Meam Loez

Cover or Meam Loez, published in Salonica, 1826. A key work of Ladino literature, this was one of the only books from Rabbi Naar’s library that survived, and was on of the first Ladino books Devin Naar ever saw.

Growing up, Naar didn’t know much about the language, or just how endangered it is. Born and raised in New Jersey, he had picked up a few Ladino words from his grandfather, but was nowhere near fluent. But when he got hold of the family letters, he became fixed on decoding them. While his friends at Washington University in St. Louis would spend their Saturday nights going to parties, Naar would spend his teaching himself Ladino—a challenging task. When written, Ladino looks like Hebrew; when spoken, it sounds like Spanish. For example, the Spanish word for god is “dios,” while the Ladino word (spelled with Hebrew characters) is pronounced “dio,” an homage to monotheism.

After college, Naar spent a year in Salonica—the picturesque seaport city from which many of the mysterious letters had come—as a Fulbright Scholar, studying the city’s history and immersing himself in the languages, culture and hometown of his relatives. Following his travels, he received his Ph.D. in history from Stanford University in 2011. Under the tutelage of Aron Rodrigue—one of the few scholars of the Sephardic world—Naar won an award for his dissertation on the Jewish community of Salonica.

In the beginning, Naar could only make out the dates on the letters. But as he learned more Ladino, he was able to put them together piece by piece. Written between 1938 and 1950, many of the letters were correspondence between Naar’s relatives who had immigrated to the United States in 1924 and those who had remained in Salonica. The correspondence starts cheerfully, recounting the children’s piano and violin lessons, and one cousin’s preparation for his bar mitzvah. But as the clouds of World War II gathered, the letters took on a more ominous tone. Ultimately, they weave together the tragic story of Naar’s relatives who had remained in Greece and were unable to obtain visas out of the country. Those written after the war by a family friend divulge the fate of the cousin who had been preparing for his bar mitzvah; he was sent to the gas chambers instead. The letters depict the dramatic final meeting between Naar’s cousin and great uncle at Auschwitz before they were both executed. They reveal that Naar’s relatives had been in one of the last convoys sent from Salonica to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943. The only reason they survived that long is because of his great-uncle’s job distributing food to the sick and elderly as they boarded earlier trains that transported most of Salonica’s Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers. Before the 1940s, Salonica was home to about 60,000 Ladino-speaking Jews, comprising nearly half of the city’s population. But with the onset of the war, some escaped to other countries, and 50,000 perished in Auschwitz. Only about 1,000 Jews remain in Salonica today.

“It was a real revelation. I couldn’t stop there,” says Naar. “I now have some precious knowledge about my relatives but that’s just one family of this entire world that, over the course of a few months, disappeared. Seventy years later, that world continues to be almost invisible.”

cigar ad

An ad for cigarettes made by the Turco American tobacco company from Devin Naar’s collection of Ladino artifacts.

After patching together his own family’s history, Naar was determined to help other Sephardic Jews do the same. In 2012, he launched Seattle Sephardic Treasures, part of the larger UW Sephardic Studies Program coordinated by the professor to preserve Sephardic traditions and culture.

The project is an archive of old Ladino books and documents that have been unearthed from basements and bookshelves from families in Seattle as well as others across the country. While it is still a work in progress, Naar has already collected more than 600 books with the help of local community members, students and faculty. The online database will contain everything from religious texts and diaries to newspapers and wedding invitations.

Joel Benoliel, ’67, ’71, a member of the UW’s Sephardic Studies Committee and Costco’s senior vice president and chief legal officer, calls Naar a valuable asset and a liaison between the University and local Sephardic community. “I’ve been a resident of the Seattle area all my life, and Devin’s work is the most exciting thing in my 50 years of being connected with the University,” he says.

The project took off when Naar moved to Seattle to teach at the UW in 2011. Uniquely, Seattle is home to a substantial population of Sephardic Jews, and the city has two Sephardic synagogues. Just a fraction (about 5 percent) of Jews who immigrated to the U.S. between the 1880s and the 1920s were Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, many of whom chose Seattle as their final destination to take advantage of the city’s coastal industries.

From the first fish vendors at Pike Place Market to the patrons of Benaroya Hall, Sephardic Jews have made a significant imprint on Seattle, which Naar calls a microcosm of the Sephardic-American world.

“When I arrived, people started bringing me Ladino books and letters that they couldn’t read themselves,” he says. “Then they started bringing me more things—a stack of documents here, a pile of books there.”

Inspired by the community’s interest, Naar made an explicit call for Ladino documents. The response was overwhelming. Seattle Sephardic Treasures has now collected more Ladino books than are housed in the Library of Congress or Harvard University. Eventually, Naar hopes to upload audio recordings—some of which are more than 70 years old—to provide students, scholars and community members with an online resource for learning Ladino.

The project has three target audiences: university students, scholars and the community. “One of the really exciting things about the Sephardic Studies Program is that, at the university level, it can bring together many different programs and disciplines,” says Naar.

Al Maimon, a member of the UW’s Sephardic Studies Committee and a former professor at the Foster School of Business, says it was thrilling to meet someone so young who is concerned about preserving the culture. He calls Naar his kindred spirit.

“Before Devin came to town, the Sephardic studies dimension of the program was ad hoc,” says Maimon, who has contributed several heirlooms to the project. “When he arrived, that fundamentally changed. In Seattle, we have a living, breathing expression of Sephardic tradition. We’re custodians of a treasure. This isn’t just for us; it’s for the whole fabric of the Jewish community.”

Maimon believes that today’s Seattle Sephardic community is unprecedented. “There are few Sephardic communities that are as active, from a social, cultural and religious point of view,” he says. The challenge, he adds, is to reassimilate the traditions so families can pass them on to future generations.

“Saving a language is saving a culture,” says Wendy Marcus, ’76, music director at Seattle’s Temple Beth Am, a large reform temple in North Seattle. “At the rate we’re losing languages today, it’s nothing short of a mission on Devin’s part, and I applaud that mission.”

With the support and funding of the community, Naar has been able to do much more than collect dusty books. He has brought Sephardic musicians, photographers and guest speakers to the UW’s new Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, which, under the leadership of Professor Noam Pianko, is home to the Sephardic Studies Program. Naar has also organized a symposium with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. More than 1,600 students, faculty and community members have attended these events since last year.

Joel Benoliel, and his wife, Maureen, ’74, are part of the Sephardic Studies Program Founders Circle—a group of families that has committed to supporting the Stroum Center—and helped provide the seed money for the program along with Lela and Harley Franco, ’74. “With funds being cut from everywhere in the University, we need to make sure we can continue funding our programs that are so fabulous,” says Lela Franco, chair of the Sephardic Studies Committee. In addition to the Benoliels and Francos, the other members of the Founders Circle are The Isaac Alhadeff Foundation, Eli and Rebecca Almo, and Richard and Barrie Galanti.

“The people who have contributed to this project have made it possible; that’s the bottom line,” says Naar. “Without the support, enthusiasm and interest of our local community, Sephardic Studies would not be an initiative.”

The ultimate goal, he adds, is for the UW to become the nation’s center for Sephardic studies—a model for communities around the country. “I think it’s an important time to think about the future of Sephardic life, both in Seattle and in the United States,” Naar says. “The last generation of native Ladino speakers is on the way out, and a very rich and treasured past is slipping further and further into the distance.”

—Lily Katz is a junior studying journalism and in the Law, Societies and Justice program at the UW.

Sephardic Storytellers

Two former UW Hazel D. Cole postdoctoral fellows in Jewish Studies were honored in the 2013 National Jewish Book Award competition. Maureen Jackson, ’02, ’08, a Cole Fellow in 2008-09, won the award in Sephardic Culture for her book Mixing Musics: Turkish Jewry and the Urban Landscape of a Sacred Song. Erica T. Lehrer, a Cole Fellow in 2006-07, was a finalist in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience for her book, Jewish Poland Revised: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places.—Julie Garner

11 Responses to The Lost Branch

  1. Abe says:

    This is the article Ahava told me about.It is from the UW Columns mag.

  2. David W. Madsen, PhD 1981 says:

    A fascinating story about three communities–the Ladinos of Thessalonica, the Sephardic community of Seattle, and the benefactors who are enabling this scholarly pursuit. Kudos to both Professor Naar and those who have supported his work materially and financially.

  3. Phillip Menashe says:

    My sephardic history is easily traced to Rhodes, but from where in Spain did they come, and before then where. I have just finished the superb book ” Maimonides” by Joel L Kraemer. Moses Ben Maimon is perhaps the most famous of all Sephardic Jews and one of the most famous of all Jews the world over..Sephardic Jewry was alive and well many centuries before the 15th and I am most intrigued in the early origins.

  4. Tom Hayes says:

    Also check out Yasmin Levy (www.yasminlevy.net) who is a current great singer and includes Ladino influences in her songs. Her father was a known musicologist in Israel who was a scholar in Ladino. The website includes her albums and background information such as newspaper articles, etc.

  5. Rachel Bortnick says:

    Devin Naar deserves great praise for his achievements. Under his leadership, there is no doubt that “the UW [will] become the nation’s center for Sephardic studies—a model for communities around the country. “

  6. Jack Salem says:

    These study programs appear to be a glimmer of light spread over the darkening and rapidly descending arc into oblivion of Ladino, and inevitably, the Sephardic culture. Long may they endure!

    (I made a futile attempt to keep a small part of the culture alive in my first novel* about Sephardic immigrants from Salonika who came to the USA in the early part of the twentieth century.)

    *Heirs To The Pushcart Fortune.”

  7. Michael Alpert says:

    What a magnificent project ! Is there any sort of catalogue or preliminary list of the publications that professor Naar has collected ?

  8. Harold Schiffman says:

    I have forwarded this story to a listserv I managed, which is devoted to the topic of “language policy” i.e. decisions about language that are made by states, countries, cities, religious groups, labor unions–you name it.
    I’m glad I could share this with my list, which has over 400 members at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/clpp

  9. David says:

    Great article. I don’t agree that Dios is pronounced Dio in ladino for monotheism because the word Dios is singular. Dioses is plural.

  10. Ray Naar Ph.D. says:

    I admire Devin’s dedication and monumental work. Personally, I have mixed feelings and still have not reso….lved my internal conflicts. On one hand it is good that the memory. of my forefathers and their achievements be remembered and honored. On the other hand, I cannot forget that Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish are only bastardized versions of those who persecuted us and, there is a part of me that says “I want to have nothing to do with them” and there is another part of me that tells me how childish my attitude is (I am past 86) and that a language is a only regardless of who spoke it and where and when it was spoken. But this is my problem. Kudos to my distant cousin, Professor Naar

  11. diane tafuri says:

    Thank you for such an enlightening discussion of the Sephardic Jews of Salonika. My grandparents and uncle perished in the Holocaust. They lived in Salonika with my mother until my mother came to the US in 1937. I have desired for so long to find out about them. This discussion made me feel that they are remembered and how special they must have been.

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