Ladino on the move: The transnational circulation of Selanikli Coen Family letters

Defne Özözer (Université Paris 1: Panthéon-Sorbonne, Helsingin Yliopisto)

The Cohen family in Salonica, from Rony Alfandary’s personal archive:

Rony Alfandary, born in England after the Holocaust, encountered a chest full of letters, found by family members in his great-uncle Léon Cohen’s house in Marseille. Like many other Ottoman Jews, his ancestors emigrated to different places in the first half of the 20th century. Rony studied some of these letters and the collective memory of his family in his book titled: Postmemory, Psychoanalysis and Holocaust Ghosts: The Salonica Cohen Family and Trauma Across Generations. His work is based upon letters circulated between Rita Cohen Parenti (1903-1986) in Palestine, Léon (1901-1942) and Isaac Cohen (1898-1942) in Paris, and the rest of the Cohen family in Salonica.

As a psychotherapist, Rony is interested in the relationship between one’s psychology and the happenings in their family’s past. That being said, his family letters also provide new primary sources for us, the historians. These 400 documents contain administrative papers and letters in English, French, Greek, Hebrew, and Ladino. The ones in Ladino provide us with incredibly delicate and one-of-a-kind information. This is because Ladino, today an endangered language, is unique to the Sephardic Jewish community – a community that composed the majority of Salonica’s population until the First Balkan Wars.

Example of Ladino in Solitreo cursive writing (right) and printed Hebrew characters (left) from

Ladino is known worldwide by different names such as “Judezmo” or “Judeo-Spanish.” The language is mainly spoken by Sephardic Jews, who are Jews of Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) origin. Ladino is based on old Spanish and contains many words from other languages of the people that Sephardic Jews have been in contact with, such as Hebrew, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French, and Italian.

Jewish Women’s Archive. “Sephardic Immigration.”

During the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, the Iberian Jews started fleeing Catholic rule. Especially after the Alhambra Decree issued by Spain in 1492 and the edict of expulsion for Jews and Muslims by King of Portugal Manuel I in 1496, mass conversions, persecutions, and emigration took place. The expelled Jews and Muslims emigrated to other Mediterranean regions, primarily Italy, North Africa, the Levant, and the Balkans. Ottoman Sultan at the time (Bayezid II) sent the Ottoman navy to help Iberian Jews migrate and settle in main port cities, such as Salonica, Adana, and İzmir. That is why most Ottoman Jews speak Judeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino.

Ladino was the common language spoken in Salonica during the Ottoman period (1492-1912) due to the notable Jewish presence. Moreover, Salonica was home to eminent Ladino newspapers of the Ottoman World, such as La Epoka and El Avenir. However, after the city became a part of Greece (1912), Jews of Salonica, who were subjects of an empire prior to this development, received the status of minority in a nation-state, and Greek was recognized as the official language. The demographic situation in the city also changed significantly after 1912 due to the turn of events, including the arrival of Greek-speaking people from neighbors by population exchange treaties with Bulgaria and Turkey (1919-1924), the Great Fire of Salonica in the Jewish neighborhood (1917), and the assimilation attempts by Greece. Nonetheless, Ladino remained widely spoken in Salonica until the Nazi occupation of Greece (1943).

Today, it is estimated that 130,000 people on earth speak Ladino, around 100 being in Salonica.

During the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans (the 1870s to 1920s), many Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews left their hometowns. As a result, a big part of the diaspora lives today in the United States, France, and Israel. However, many are dispersed around the world. Rony Alfandary’s family is an excellent example; his ancestors scattered in France, the UK, the US, Greece, and Israel. Unfortunately, only the ones who migrated to the US, the UK, and Palestine before the 1940s have survived, while the rest were victims of the Holocaust.

View of Salonica from the height of the Jewish cemetery, on an unknown date Ottoman postcard, with the Rotunda (right) and the Aristotle University building (left) in the background (public domain).

When studying the history of underrepresented ethnic or religious groups within nation-states, there is only so much we can learn from conventional primary sources. Sources like administrative documents, ephemerals, newspapers, or pamphlets were either in the official languages of the nation-state or were subjected to censorship before or after their publication. In Salonica’s case, except for the newspapers, official sources are either in English, Turkish, French, or Greek. On the other hand, personal papers were written in Ladino – the language spoken by the community. These letters and mémoires provide information from inside the community.

Defne ÖZÖZER is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne, and History and Cultural Heritage at Helsinki University. Her research focuses on the Jewish community of Salonica and its diaspora, with a specific interest in education and language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.