Having finished the Papashvily book, I’ve moved on to another memoir, published a year later (1946) and also borrowed from my mother-in-law, Farewell to Salonica by Leon Sciaky (pronounced SHOCK-ee), born in 1893 in what is now the Greek city of Thessaloniki but was then the Turkish city of Selanik, known in the West as Salonica. Diane Matza wrote in 1987 that “Lists of autobiographies by immigrant Jews in the United States do not include Sciaky’s work, nor does criticism of Jewish autobiography mention it” and says “this error must be corrected” because “Farewell to Salonica is the only autobiography written by a Sephardic immigrant who came to the United States in the 1880-1924 period.” Aside from its historical importance, it’s a wonderful read, bringing to life a privileged childhood in a privileged community that had recreated its lost Iberian homeland in the Ottoman Empire (as Mazower says in his Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, about which I wrote here and here, “For this home was not only their ‘Jerusalem’; it was also a simulacrum of the life they had known at the other end of the Mediterranean. They worshipped in synagogues named after the old long-abandoned homelands… Their family names—Navarro, Cuenca, Algava—their games, curses, and blessings, even their clothes, linked them with their past… When Spanish scholars visited the city at the end of the nineteenth century, they were astonished to find a miniature Iberia alive and flourishing under Abdul Hamid.”) I’ll quote from Chapter Three, in which the five-year-old Sciaky visits his great-grandmother Bisnona Miriam (born in 1804) and her sister Tia Gracia (born in 1796) in their house, a block south of his parents’ on Sabri Pasha Street (now Venizelou) in the Muslim center of the city:
“Bisnona, why don’t you sing a romanza?”
“Do you like romanzas, little soul of mine? People don’t enjoy them any more.”
“Nona Plata sings romanzas, and I like them better than Sarica’s songs.”
Bisnona would sigh a deep sigh, a far-away look would come to her eyes, and softly she would croon old songs, songs brought from Spain by our hidalgo forefathers centuries ago. She would sing of Queen Isabella at her embroidery frame, working with needle of gold and threads of love; of Parisi, her first-beloved, and of his ships and sails of silk and purple riggings. She would sing of the son of the good count, a page in the court of the king; of the plotting of the jealous courtiers; of his melodious singing which saves his life when the passing king reins his horse to listen and exclaim:
“Si Angel es de los cielos,
O sirena de la mar?”
“Is it an angel from Heaven
Or a siren from the sea?”
“Another one, Bisnona, please!” I would beg at the end of each. “The one about Julian, Bisnona!” Her eyes sparkling with excitement and with a flush on her wrinkled face, Bisnona would adjust the chiffon kerchief on her snow-white hair and oblige her “little lamb.”
Very little sense did I make of the words of these songs. They were couched in old Spanish and told of situations which I could not understand. But the melodies stirred in me something warm and tender.
Andando por estas mares,
Navegando con la fortuna,
Sailing on the seas,
Battling with the storms,
I fell on foreign lands
Where I was not known.
Where the rooster did not crow
Nor even did the hen cackle,
Where grew the orange,
And the lemon and the citron.
Ah, Julian, false and treacherous,
Cause of all my misfortunes!
It mattered little that I did not know who Julian was or what he had done. It was as if an unaccountable nostalgia came over me, an ancestral nostalgia which made me sad and happy at the same time.
(You can read all 13 lines of the ballad in Spanish on page 347 of Antología de poetas líricos castellanos desde la formación del idioma hasta nuestros días (1890-1908) by Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo; it has a whole section of “Romances castellanos tradicionales entre los judíos de Levante.”)