Moris Albahari, shown in a documentary about his story called “Saved by Language”
Moris Albahari, shown in a documentary about his story called “Saved by Language” Courtesy of Brian Kirschen

Moris Albahari, a Holocaust survivor, former partisan fighter and one of the last Ladino speakers in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s dwindling Jewish community, passed away at the age of 93 last month.

It is believed that he was one of four native Ladino speakers remaining in a country where the Judeo-Spanish language once flourished and was spoken by luminaries like Flory Jagoda, the grande dame of Ladino song, and Laura Bohoretta, the founder of a uniquely Sephardic feminist movement in Bosnia.

Bosnia’s small Jewish community — with barely 900 members throughout the country, 500 of whom live in Sarajevo — are mourning the loss of a living link to communal memory as well as a dear friend.

“From you, uncle Moco, I learned a lot about Judaism, about life, about nature and especially about people. About both the good and the evil,” Igor Kožemjakin, the cantor of the Sarajevo Jewish community, wrote in a memorial post on Facebook, referring to Moris as “Čika,” or uncle, a term of endearment in Bosnian.

“It is a terrible loss, especially for Sarajevo. Our community is very small, especially after the Holocaust,” Eliezer Papo, a Sarajevo-born Jew and scholar of Ladino language and literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We’re not speaking just in terms of prominent members of the community, we’re speaking in terms of family members. Everyone is like a family member.”

When Albahari was growing up in the 1930s, the Jewish community of his native Sarajevo numbered over 12,000. Jews made up more than a fifth of the city and it was one of the most important centers of Jewish life in the western Balkans.

In his youth, the city was part of what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Formed out of the borderlands between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, it was a multiethnic state composed of Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Slovenians, Macedonians, Hungarians, Albanians and more. Among them were many Jewish communities, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic.

The unique mix of of Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities, with their mosques, synagogues and churches defining Sarajevo’s skyline, earned the city the nickname “Little Jerusalem.”

Speaking in a 2015 documentary made by American researchers, “Saved by Language,” Albahari explained that his family traced their roots back to Cordoba before the Spanish Inquisition, and through Venice, before settling in what would become Bosnia when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

“We didn’t want to ‘just’ write an article about Moris or Sarajevo; we wanted [the audience] to see what we saw and hear what we heard,” Brian Kirschen, professor of Ladino at Binghamton University, who worked on the documentary with author Susanna Zaraysky, told JTA. “This resulted in a grassroots initiative to create the documentary.”

In the film, Albahari takes the researchers and their viewers on a tour through what was Jewish Sarajevo, giving glimpses of the thriving Ladino speaking community in which he was raised and explaining how the language would save him many times, when the Nazis and their Croat allies, the Ustaša, came to shatter it.

“In sharing your story of survival during the Holocaust, you opened doors that remained closed for decades,” Kirschen said in a memorial post on Facebook. “Some of your stories were even new to members of your family, but each survivor has their own timeline. While you experienced great pain during your life, from your story, we also learn about moments of kindness and heroism. Through your story, you also taught us about the power of language.”

Albahari wasn’t yet a teenager when, in 1941, Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy invaded Yugoslavia. The Nazis occupied the eastern portion of the country, including what is now Serbia, while they raised up a Croat fascist party, known as the Ustaša, to administer the newly formed “Independent State of Croatia” — often known by its Serbo-Croatian initials, NDH — in the western regions that included the modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Ustaša collaborated in the Nazis’ genocidal plans for Europe’s Jewish and Roma communities, and they had genocidal designs of their own for the Orthodox Serb communities living in the NDH.

To that end they established the Jasenovac concentration camp, which would become known as the Auschwitz of the Balkans. By the war’s end it had become the third-largest concentration camp in Europe, and behind its walls the overwhelming majority of Sarajevo’s Jews — at least 10,000 — were massacred. Including Serbs, Jews, Roma, and political dissidents of Croat or Muslim Bosniak background, as many as 100,000 people were killed in Jasenovac.

Albahari was 11 years old when the Ustaša came to deport him and his large family to Jasenovac. A former teacher working as an Ustaša guard in the town of Drvar, where the train stopped, warned Albahari’s father, David, about their destination, and he was able to help his son escape from the train.

The teacher helped guide the young Moris to an Italian soldier named Lino Marchione who was secretly helping Jews.

This was the first case when Albahari’s Ladino came in handy. Ladino is largely based on medieval Spanish, with a mixture of Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, and other languages mixed in. For speakers of Serbo-Croatian, a Slavic language, it’s entirely incomprehensible. But for a speaker of another Romance language such as Italian, it’s not such a stretch to understand, and Moris was able to converse with his Italian savior.

With his family gone, he was taken in by a Serb family, and changed his name to Milan Adamovic to hide his Jewish identity. Still, by 1942, it became clear that neither as Adamovic nor Albahari would he be safe in the town. So he fled to the mountains.

“If there was [a battle] I took clothes from a dead soldier to wear, I lived like a wolf in the mountains, you know. Visiting villages [asking for something] to give me for eating, it was a terrible time,” Albahari recalled in “Saved By Language.”

He would only feel safe in villages under the control of partisan forces. Yugoslavia was the only country in Europe to be liberated from Nazi rule by its own grassroots resistance.

During his time in the mountains, Albahari joined up with a partisan unit aligned with the movement of Josip Broz Tito, who would lead Communist Yugoslavia after the war. By the war’s end, Tito’s partisans numbered over 80,000 and included more than 6,000 Jews, many in prominent positions, such as Moša Pijade, who would go on to serve as vice president of the Yugoslav parliament after the war.

Moris was out on patrol as a partisan when he came upon a group of American and British paratroopers. They raised their weapons at him, thinking he was an enemy. Moris tried to communicate, but he spoke no English.

When he asked the soldiers if they spoke German or Italian, they shook their heads. When he asked about Spanish, one perked up: a Hispanic-American soldier by the name of David Garijo.

In Ladino, Alabahari was able to explain that he was not an enemy but could lead them to a nearby partisan camp where they would be safe.

“Ladino saved my life in the war,” Albahari recalled in the documentary.

At the partisan camp, Morris received even bigger news: The family that he had assumed had all perished after he left the train were in fact alive. The former school teacher and Ustaša guard who had warned his father had met them at the next train junction to help them escape. Furthermore, around half of the Jews in the train car were able to escape using the same hole Moris used during his initial escape.

Ultimately the family all survived the war, unlike so many other Jews of Sarajevo.

“Where is Samuel, where is Dudo, where is Gedala? They never came back,” Albahari lamented, listing missing neighbors while walking through Sarajevo’s old Jewish neighborhood in the documentary. “Maybe we are happy because we are alive after the Second World War, but also unlikely because every day we must cry for these dead people.”

When Moris returned to Sarajevo, it was an entirely different place from the bustling Jewish community he had once known.

Gone was the sound of Ladino in the streets and alleyways of Bascarsija, the market district where so many of Sarajevo’s Jews had once lived. Gone were the synagogues — only one of the many synagogues that had existed before WWII still functions. Gone was the robust Jewish life that was once a central part of Sarajevo.

Moris was still only 14 by the war’s end, so he returned to school and ultimately graduated at the top of his class. He became a pilot and later director of the Sarajevo Airport.

In this new world, Ladino was spoken, if at all, only in the home.

“Always, when I hear Spanish, I hear my father and mother, and all the synagogues, prayers in Ladino and rabbis who spoke Ladino. But that is in the past,” Albahari says in “Saved by Language.”

Eliezer Papo, who is a generation younger than Albahari, recalled that in his youth Ladino had long been reduced to a language of secrets.

“Mostly, Ladino was used when the elders didn’t want youngsters to understand,” Papo said.

Only later, in the 1980s, did community members realize what was being lost and begin to gather to maintain their language, recount what Jewish Sarajevo had been like and share their wartime stories of survival.

“He never took his story to the places of revenge, but he took it and his life experience to a place of ‘Never again,’ not just ‘Never again for Jews,’ but never again for anybody,” said Papo.

Like many Sarajevans, World War II would not be the last major conflict Albahari would see. Less than 40 years later, war would once again come to Sarajevo with the breakup of Yugoslavia.

From 1992-1995 the city remained under constant siege by Bosnian Serb forces looking to break away from what would become Bosnia and Herzegovina. Moris joined with other Jews of Sarajevo in working to provide aid to their fellow Sarajevans during the harsh period.

Sarajevo’s synagogue was turned into a shelter and a soup kitchen. The community ran a network of underground pharmacies and a message service allowing Sarajevans to get word to family and friends outside of the city during what became the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

“Moris was an inspirational persona to many members of Jewish community and La Benevolencija,” Vlado Anderle, the current president of that local Jewish humanitarian organization, told JTA. “He was a man with such inviting spirit and energy.”

When the dust settled on the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the new Bosnian state rose from its ashes, Moris found himself once again in a new role.

During the communist era in Yugoslavia, religious activity was discouraged. Sarajevo’s Jews emphasized the ethnic character of Jewish culture rather than the religious one. In the new Bosnia and Herzegovina, that was no longer true. So the community worked to reconnect with their religious identity as well.

“Everybody looked up to the people who had Jewish upbringing before the Second World War,” Papo recalled. “This doesn’t mean that they were rabbis. Just that they knew it better than anyone else.”

Moris, whose formal Jewish education ended in his preteen years, was appointed president of the community’s religious committee.

As such it often fell on him to represent Judaism to the Bosnian society at large, often in a very creative way, according to Papo, who in addition to being a scholar of Ladino is ordained as a rabbi and serves the Sarajevo community as a rabbi-at-large from Israel.

In one case, while being interviewed on a major Bosnian television station, Moris was asked why Jews cover their head with a kippah or other hat during prayer. Moris’ response, or rather creative interpretation, as Papo called it, was made up on the spot.

Moris’ interpretation began with the ancient temple in Jerusalem where Jews once had to fully immerse in a ritual bath before entering.

“Since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed it was reduced to washing the uncovered parts of the body only, before entering a synagogue, similarly to Muslims: the feet, the head, the hands…” Papo recalled him saying. But in Europe, as Moris’ answer went, they began to cover more and more of their body. “In Europe they started wearing shoes, so the feet were not uncovered anymore, and then they started wearing a hat, not to have to wash their head… you know it’s Europe, one could catch a cold if going out with wet hair…”

“A few months later, I came to Sarajevo, and found that everyone has heard this explanation and is talking about it, not just people in the community, but in the street,” Papo said. “And you know, I let it pass, I couldn’t correct them, it was just so beautiful. That was his genius.”

“Identity is all about telling stories. And Moris was one of the great storytellers of the community,” Papo added. And through his stories he expressed an identity which was “made of the same contradictions that Sephardic Judaism is made of, that Sarajevo is made of, that Bosnia and Herzegovina is made and that Yugoslavia was and is made of and that the Balkans are made of.”

Albahari is survived by his wife and a son.