Kalmi Baruh

Kalmi Baruh and
the Jews in the Balkans

By Alexander Nikolić


This article is a concise overview of the language of the Sephardim in the Balkans between the two World Wars. This was the very last epoch in which it was still spoken as a mother tongue, and in which some of its speakers still recalled romances, kantikas,
konsežas, etc., dating back many generations into the past. The article sheds light on the most prominent regional scholar in the field, who was aware of the historical hour of Judeo-Spanish – Dr. Kalmi Baruh. Consequently, Baruh tirelessly collected, documented and analyzed this unique historical and cultural treasure, cooperating with all relevant throughout Europe.

Keywords: Kalmi Baruh, Judeo-Spanish, Jewish history, Sephardic spiritual life, Sephardic folklore, Balkan Peninsula, Jewish last names, La Benevolencija.

Kalmi Baruh - Portrait by Roman Petrović,
oil on canvas


Multi-disciplinary research of the Sephardic culture in general and of the Judeo-Spanish language in particular is almost entirely restricted to sources already documented. We can no longer rely on immediate contemporaries from that age when the Sephardic tradition was alive and Judeo-Spanish spoken as a mother tongue.

A great number of romances, kantikas, konsežas, etc. have been collected, transcribed, and in many cases analyzed. In this regard, we shall focus on two issues:

- At what point in time were the Sephardic tradition and the spoken language of the Sephardim still alive, and consequently could be recorded?

- How competent were those that recorded this unique national treasure, and their cooperation with other relevant factors?

Many consider Judeo-Spanish on the Balkan Peninsula ceasing to exist as a direct effect of the unique phenomenon in human history, the Holocaust. This assumption can be immediately refuted by showing that in Bulgaria, without annexed territories during the World War II and the Holocaust, the level of use of this language was less than and not equal to that after the war, in the European part of Turkey. Neither one nor the other was affected by the abyss of the final phase of the Holocaust - physical extermination. We are specifically talking about the period of time when there were mass immigrations to the young Jewish State before it became the melting pot of cultures. We should examine and explain the economic and socio-political events among the Sephardic Jews that followed the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. The social structure of the community, that had been jealously guarded, was starting to be more and more exposed to the new trade, craft, financial, cultural, administrative and inter-confessional flows.1 In addition, ideas emerged for the young Sephardim from factors such as the springs of Balkan peoples and the modern character of the anti-semitism. They understood, from all the aforementioned, the need to acquire formal education, connect to the global Jewish movement for renewal of the national home in Palestine on one hand, and integration into mainstream political organizations of the societies where they lived on the other. 2 We're talking about the period beginning the last decade of the 19th century, and the first three of the 20th. It was the final epoch of the Judeo-Spanish as a mother tongue. The language was spoken particularly by the older female population. They lived in a patriarchal society and therefore their speech was traditionally oriented toward household responsibilities and authentic oral traditions. These were the last of the nonas that could remember romances that they heard as children from their nonas and tias, going back five generations. The rest of the Sephardic population became spoiled informants to those that were recording and documenting the language and its proverbs, due to the additional influences of other languages and education. It is to be concluded that that was a natural process that lasted several decades. Formations of societies, such as La Benevolencija in Sarajevo, that aimed to support young Sephardim acquiring secular academic titles, were crucial. Upon return from the Universities of Vienna, Prague, Zagreb, etc., they were called, los doctores. In accordance with realistic needs, almost all the young from the community turned to practical occupations studying medicine, engineering, law, etc.

In this sense, Kalmi Baruh's (1896-1945) circumstance and occurrence is unique. Upon return from the Great War, he began studies in Romance languages (Romance languages, philology and literature) at Vienna University. There he was exposed to one of the scholars in the field of the Judeo-Spanish linguistics, Prof. M.L. Wagner. On the occasion of the debut of Baruh's La lingua de los sefardim (The Language of the Sephardim), the famous Chief Rabbi of Sarajevo, historian and his cousin – Dr. Moric (Moritz) Levi (Levy), was full of praise, expressing great hopes that it was already possible to recognize in Baruh a great scientist and writer in the area of Romance languages and a critic of literature written in those languages, with a central focus on the Bosnian Sephardic folklore and with emphases on romances and the living national tradition behind them. 3 Following in this vein, Baruh defended his doctoral thesis entitled Der Lautstand des Judenspanischen in Bosnien (The Sound System of the Judeo-Spanish in Bosnia), in 1923 in front of the famous specialist in
Romance languages Prof. Karl von Ettmayer of the Department of Philosophy at Vienna University. As the only Balkan-Sephardic recipient of the Spanish government's scholarship, 4 in the period of two rears, Baruh embarked on collection and examining the material that would serve him later when writing research works, essays, and articles. At the same time, Baruh attended lectures on phonetics and literature in the Center for Historic Studies in Madrid. Baruh encapsulated a symbiosis of the two issues we're focusing. He had been introduced to authentic Ladino romances as a youth passed by his nonas and tias and was trained and mastered in the scientific methodology. When reminiscing about the winter of 1928 they spent together, Dr. Ivo Andrić writes: "Segovia as such was not only an historic and aesthetic sensation, but also something that is deeply connected with his childhood, with the everyday life of the community to which he belonged. He remembered romances he was listening to in his childhood. In those romances, ancient Spain in some ghostly and yet real way came alive, young girls cried, and Aragon knights passed through towns." 5 With scientific abilities, Baruh worked tirelessly on collecting materials from across Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. His thorough scientific research of the collected materials make Baruh causa sine qua non, a standard-bearer, when we talk about both study of the heritage of Sephardic Jews from the Western Balkans, and particularly about the Judeo-Spanish. There is no doubt that this was supported by his mild nature, erudition, being polyglot, relationships with scientists in the field and related sciences throughout the Kingdom of SCS/Yugoslavia and Europe, as well as his clear socio-political attitude toward the events of the time. 6 In 1930 Baruh published a scientific work entitled: El judeo-español de Bosnia (The Judeo-Spanish of Bosnia) in Revista de Filología Española, Madrid. At the time of Baruh's scientific and social work La Benevolencija has evolved from its initial humanitarian Sarajevan phase, to the cultural and educational institution of the country's scale. From support of pupils and students, and a theological seminary, this institution became the cultural center of one of the most important centers of the Balkan Sephardim, Sarajevo. It organized and published dictionaries, courses, libraries, and lastly a collection of the Sephardic cultural treasures 7 . The latter, in particular, Yugoslav Sephardim, began with a significant delay. The essential Baruh's contribution to this society is in its edition of books, memorials and yearlings. Within them, well known Baruh's papers can be found: The Language of the Sephardic Jews, 8 Spanish romances of the Bosnian Jews 9 (studied at universities in the United States, 10 Europe and Israel) and lastly, Spain at the Time of Maimonides.11 Baruh participated in La Benevolencia's committees, where he left a special mark requesting publications on the history of the Sephardim.

The disciplines of phonetics, morphology, semantics, stylistics and syntax, were all involved in Baruh's scientific work. He was also a pioneer of the Hispanic studies in former Yugoslavia. Translator, cultural, congregational and educational worker and court interpreter. The list also includes his critiques of the works of his colleagues. In terms of linguistic multiculturalism, we should be conscientious when it comes to Baruh. In the case of the Judeo-Spanish, he sees phenomenon of historic proportions, taking into account the time that had elapsed since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Josip Tabak paraphrases Baruh's critical judgment toward the subject that is closest to him - Sephardic romances, without any pathos: "Whether he writes about some representative of the ‘golden age’ of Spanish literature or about an author of our age, about romances or about Moorish Spain – Kalmi Baruh writes as an expert, documenting soberly. There is no empty zeal, nor pathos, but always a cold listing of facts, analyses, and a final critical judgment. Not even when he speaks about the subject that may be the closest to him – about Sephardic romances – does Baruh manifest any excitement, but instead he coldly presents and analyzes, he is a scientist." 12 In contrast, Baruh is aware of the growing reality of multilingualism among the Sephardic Jews. So, as long as linguistic multiculturalism contributes to purposeful communication between the peoples, he sees in it something constructive. However, mismatched foreign penetration into languages, the one that would destroy genotypic and phenotypic synthesis of the people, is impossible to bring closer to a refined philologist. Does the fate of the Maghreb Berbers, after all their successful invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, teach something about the ultimate fate of all Almohads?

The Jews in the Balkans and Their Language is just one of the papers that sheds light on Kalmi Baruh - symbiosis of the two issues we're focusing.

The Baruh family – Višegrad, 1899. Standing first from the right Moric Levi, Kalmi's cousin. Sitting on the floor on the left is Kalmi and on the right, his brother Avram.

1 Kalmi Baruh, "Les Juifs balkaniques et leur language", Journal of the Institut des Études balkaniques
(Revue internationale des Études balkaniques), 1/1935, No. 2, 173-179.
2 "Sefardski Jevreji i cionizam" Jevrejski život (Sarajevo), no. 103, 23.6.1926 3.
3 Moric Levi, "El mundo sefardi," Židovska svijest, 1923, 2-3.
4 Krinka Vidaković Petrov, "La Gaceta Literaria," Zbornik Matice srpske za književnost i jezik, 1989,
5 Ivo Andrić, "Sećanje na Kalmija Baruha," Život, 1952, 215-217.
6 Vedrana Gotovac, Kalmi Baruh, Sarajevo 1985, 1-11.
7 Krinka Vidaković Petrov, Kultura španskih Jevreja na jugoslovenskom tlu - XVI-XX vek, Belgrade
2001, 49-50.
8 Споменица о прослави тридесетогодишњице сарајевског културно-потпорног друштва Ла
Беневоленција, Belgrade 1924, 71-77.
9 Kalmi Baruh "Godišnjak," La Benevolencija and Potpora, 1933, 272-288.
10 Samuel G. Armistead and Joseph H. Silverman "Judeo-Spanish Ballads from Bosnia," journal of the
University of Pennsylvania Press, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 65/1975, No. 4, 254-255.
11 Spomenica Maimonides – Rambam, Sarajevo 1935, 49-58.
12 Kalmi Baruh, Eseji i članci iz španske književnosti, Sarajevo 1952, 5-22.

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