Review of Sonja Elazar's book
"There is a picture by Kle called Angelus Novus. It depicts an angel that looks as if he intends to distance himself from something he is fascinated with. His eyes and mouth are wide open and his wings outstretched. That is how an angel of history must look like. He turned his eyes to the past. What we see as a chain of events he sees as one single catastrophy that piles up ruins one on top of the other and throws them in front of his feet. He would gladly stop, wake up the dead and mend what is broken. But there is such a strong storm blowing out of Paradise that stretched his wings open and the angel cannot close them any more. This storm pushes him unstoppably to the future. He turns his back to the future while the pile of ruins in front of him grows up to the sky. What we call progress is that storm."
Walter Benjamin, New angel
Lately we have witnessed the fulfilment of the dream of Walter Benjamin. It seems that his history angel finally got the divine permission to remain and collect all fragments of history to the last testimony, to the last story: the story of the winner and the story of the defeated, the story of the supernumerary (supporters, simple observers or uninterested passers-by); the story of the executor and the story of the victim; the story of the trunk and the story of the ax; the story of the handle and the story of the blade.
Even before the Internet revolution alternative fragmented narratives started to weaken the "big story", of the institutionalised narrative and its "definitive" symbols. With today's wide accessibility to the Internet that monopoly is condemned to death. Furthermore, fragmented and alternative histories started moving slowly from websites to the windows of the most notable bookstores. This world trend of telling history of the "small", "common" man slowly arrives to Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. For a change, its "forerunner" is one Bosnian Sephardic lady.
No one says that the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina is not also history of great events (from the Ottoman conquest and the Herzegovina anti-Ottoman uprising to the resistance against Austro-Hungarian ocupation and the famous Sarajevo assassination, from Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and Holocaust to Liberation, from the Olympic games to the latest war) or history of local great personalities, from Ban Kulin until our days (Mehmed-Pasha Sokolovic and Omer-Pasha Latas, Alija Djerzelez and Captain Husein Gradascevic, Hadzi-Staka Skenderova, Mis Irbi and Bohoreta, Sava Skaric and Zeki-efendi, Fra Grga Martic and Ivo Andric) but truth be told, how frequent are great events and how often does one meet great people? When someone says Bosnia, how many of us remember the Sarajevo assasination, Mehmed Spaho or Hadzi-Petros Petraka? Don't we all think of much more personal and much more common things, on rezdelija fruits and rumašica cakes, on ašlama cherries and coffee-mills (which leave bruises on one's hips), of the first love and first kiss, the first childs smile, and the first
marriage row, the first fist fight and the first exam, the first theft and the first repentance? Don't we all rather think of family gatherings, birthdays, holidays and feasts, of relatives and neighbors and friends? If it is so and it is!, isn't then time to preserve that Bosnia, the way we have seen it or the way our elders describe it to us, while leafing through family albums.
Bearing in mind almost total destruction of the Judaism of BIH during Croatian occupation, the book by Sonja Elazar represents a real small miracle. From its pages, pictures of Bosnian Sephardic everyday life suddenly come to life: pictures of walks, picnics and vacations; engagements and weddings; houses, yards and streets; contemporary "patriarchs" and "matrons", dressed a la turka- and their modern descendants dressed a la franka.
This testimony collected (very often begged for) from family remembrances and albums, dug from attics and cellars of the few remaining Sephardic homes in Sarajevo represents a significant contribution to the understanding of the life of "common" Bosnian Sephardic men and women. Besides visual material, which would otherwise remained unknown both to historians and to the wider public, this book is significant for its oral material that is published here for the first time (stories, anecdotes and memories). All this material makes one narrative whole, which, although in accordance with historical facts and scientific understanding, still primarily represents "modernised internal Sephardic narrative". It is hard to escape an impression that this book serves to the author to recompense for lack of regular participation in the upbringing of her granddaughters. If her granddaughters had been growing up "on her lap"', she would probably have commented numerous timeswith them over every single photograph and told them every story, until they "absorbed" and memorised every detail, like the author herself once "absorbed" them on her mother's and her aunt's lap.
A Sefardic saying says: Rifran mentirozo no aj (No proverb lies). This supposedly makes truthful the Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian saying that states: Dok jednom ne smrkne, drugom ne svane (One person's loss is another's gain). This saying applies in case of this book: the author's grandaughters' loss (irregular participation in their upbringing) turned into a benefit for the Bosnian and Jewish audience, which, sitting on the lap of nona Sonja, can now listen to the story of Bosnian Sephardic Jews from a first hand, from the perspective of one real family and its real contacts.
Since I began with the sayings of the "Sephardic historical circle", I should as well finish with one of those. This time it is a Hebrew saying that states: Devarim sheyotseim min halev, nihnasim lalev" (What comes out of one heart easily finds its way to another one). The historical album by Sonja Elazar emits warm family love in which every reader can easily find himself.