By: Stephen Schwartz
This is an intensely personal, and elliptical, and non-Aristotelian story.
As a young man I looked for a poem, afraid I could not find it. And even after I found it, I kept looking.
I was told by a distinguished Brazilian “concrete poet,” who visited California but whose name I have forgotten: some poems are in the poet, but some poets are in their poem. Few whom I knew then, in the San Francisco of the 1960s, understood this. Fewer might understand it today.
I have wanted to argue with Adorno, who said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz; I have quoted Celan, as proof that Adorno was wrong.
I have listened to Akhmatova, reciting her Requiem, on a tape sold to me after the fall of Russian Communism; I have heard the voice of Mandelshtam.
I write out of a compulsion toward a Brechtian ugliness and directness, which I resist.
I write now about images and signs, about the forest.
The “forest of signs” is a surrealist concept. I have lived my life in that forest, surrounded by signs, by coincidences, by the language of the universe, the universe of language.
Here, I will try to account for my life within the poem, for the “poem of Balkan memory” as a succession of items of information, of lived texts: a place-name, a lyric; a wordless song, with an explication; a historical chronicle; epitaphs; many folk ballads; notes of a journey; monumental inscriptions; “the marks of hell,” songs in books burned; conversations in the velvet of the world’s emptiness; books and pamphlets and articles from a long-past war, in a cycle of expulsions and moral struggles; historical documents; personal memories; dreams; poems recited in public; scholarship and mentorship; hidden holy books rescued from the flames; a special Bible; prayer; banned books and their resurrection, and media.[private]
All begins in the Latin world; with Spanish California, and with the Barcelona of George Orwell and Raimón Llull, and above all, with the Sephardim of Spain and Portugal. Even something Brazilian persists: a line from a song by Vinicius de Morães: O homem que diz ‘dou’ não dá… The man who says ‘I give’ does not.”
In a dream at 50, I saw a Muslim woman writing Sufi texts; my writing is hers; I am only her pen.
* * *
I was, perhaps, always on the road to Sarajevo. Since my youth, I was interested in the Islamic world. I read and studied much; I come from California, with its main intellectual foundation in Spain, a country possessing a Euro-Islamic identity. I was inspired to study Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, and its influence on world culture, and then Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, and then the relationship between Kabbalah and Sufism.
Sarajevo was called the “Little Jerusalem of Bosnia”—Yerushalayim chico in Judeo-Spanish. “Jews are Sarajevo; Sarajevo was Jewish for centuries, the most Jewish of all the towns in the South Slav countries,” wrote the city historian, Miroslav Prstojević[i]. My turn toward Sarajevo began in 1975, when I was 26 years old, and had developed a mature intellect. I was living in San Francisco, in a lovely apartment on Telegraph Hill filled with art and art books, and my career as a writer had taken a positive turn. In those days I worked for the cinéaste Francis Coppola, on a weekly magazine he owned, called City of San Francisco. I wrote poetry and art criticism. I completed three book-length manuscripts—a historical novel, a novel about my own life, and a long political essay. Of them, the historical novel would later be transmuted into a work of regional history, written in an academic style.[ii] The political essay would also be published. I was still, then, a man of the extreme left.
I had recently overcome a writer’s block. My creativity had been particularly “liberated” by a trip to an Indian zone of Mexico. I was also taking classes at the University of California, Berkeley, concentrating on linguistics, with a specialization in Spanish. I felt I was in the second spring of my life. All roads appeared open to me.
I experimented with writing, and with the concept of verbal premonition—that by writing certain things I could anticipate or affect events. I played with texts about subjects that appealed to me, that could be considered obsessional. One such described a brand of Yugoslav cigarettes called Sarajevo.
I had written in January 1975, in a text entitled The Glass Palace Chronicle,
I like tobacco as a pretext for ritual. Like Sarajevo cigarettes. Sarajevo cigarettes are Yugoslav. They come in a thin metal box, enameled bright red with a Balkan palace on the cover. After you open the box there’s a paper jacket fastened with a gold seal. Break the seal and lift the paper arms. It’s like undressing your lover. You’ll find a package in your lover’s arms. You can hear someone’s voice inside the package. It’s frightening, but you open the package.
And you find 20 Sarajevo cigarettes, oval, no filters. They look like marijuana joints, but are printed in gold and blue, SARAJEVO.
The tobacco was Turkish in taste. That, except for the events of 1914, was all I knew then of Sarajevo—but what did I know? That approaching Sarajevo would indeed be like undressing a lover? That from inside the package in my lover’s arms I would hear someone’s voice, frightening? My lover was the world; Sarajevo the gift the world gave me, a gift of fearful speech.
By the time I came to know Sarajevo intimately, that brand of cigarettes was only a memory. But I now recall the red tin as a mechanism for nostalgia. I remember with great fondness the specialist tobacco shop that sold those cigarettes, on Clay Street in San Francisco, in the very heart of old Yerba Buena, the city’s original precincts; the brick gutters, rain in cold and wet San Francisco, and my formative years there.
As I summon up the recollection of the red Sarajevo cigarette tin, I now realize that the building on its cover—the “Balkan palace”—was the former city hall, which then became the National and University Library. This is the structure near where Franz Ferdinand was shot, and which was devastated in 1992 by Serbian artillery, with its 300,000 books and periodicals, many of them irreplaceable, destroyed.
Aside from the essential biography of Tito, in 1975 I did not then know Yugoslav history or literature, which was little translated. But let me not digress. The next year, I took a course at Berkeley in phonology, and wrote a paper on Judeo-Spanish. Of Jewish background, brought up in California, speaking Spanish, I was fascinated by this subject. But I knew nothing about it, because there were almost no Sephardim in San Francisco, and there was and remains almost no canon of Sephardic literature in English. I knew a couple of elderly Sephardim I could study as native speakers of the dialect, which seemed almost indistinguishable from standard Castilian. I wrote the linguistics paper to review the existing literature, and to understand the basis for differentiation between dialectal forms.
With this goal, I examined all the volumes on Sephardic culture in the University library. It was not a large collection—but it illumined certain dismaying moral issues for me. The Sephardim of the eastern Mediterranean—hundreds of thousands of “Spanish and Portuguese Jews” of the former Ottoman lands, from Bosnia-Hercegovina in the north through old Macedonia, where the Jews had a great center in Salonika, to Izmir in Turkey—possessed a great printed literature. For five centuries, Jewish publishers produced religious and Kabbalistic classics and commentary, poetry, belles-lettres, verses of popular songs, newspapers, almost everything imaginable. But the great majority of their readers in Europe were wiped out in the Holocaust. Teenaged Jewish girls of Salonika died in Auschwitz singing traditional Judeo-Spanish folksongs.[iii] And finally, scholars of Judaica, especially in the United States, had done surprisingly little to preserve and memorialize this legacy.
But among the volumes in the Berkeley collection was an academic study titled Judeo-Spanish Ballads from Bosnia, edited by the American scholars Samuel G. Armistead and Joseph H. Silverman, published in 1971. I look back to the moment I first opened that book. In the quarter century that has passed, the words Sephardim, Bosnia, Sarajevo have expanded to fill my existence. I have sought to reconstruct, in my mind and my writing, as much as I believe may be known, from outside the community and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, of the Bosnian Sephardic world. And, after 1990, the abstract Sarajevo of the printed record became the real city in Bosnia, nearly destroyed by another genocidal conflict, but where, after the 1992-95 war, I went to live. Sarajevo became intimate for me.
Back to Armistead’s collection of Bosnian Sephardic ballads. I had read deeply in Spanish, Italian, and French poetry for 12 years when I first opened this book. It was and is a jewel-box of culture—a small chest in which a whole world has been sheltered, truly a gift offered by a lover. I read, for the first time, the verse,
Noches, noches, buenas noches,
Noches son de enamorar,
Ah! noches son de enamorar!
Nights, nights, beautiful nights,
Nights are made for becoming lovers,
Oh! Nights are made for becoming lovers.
This poetry struck me as almost unsurpassable. Here, in pure form, was the ecstatic expression I had searched for throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, in studying Mediterranean poetry, Spanish Catholic mysticism, Surrealism, Sufism, shamanism, Buddhism—and the history of millennial, antinomian, and other revolutionary movements. In San Francisco I had experienced many beautiful nights made for becoming lovers—the “warm San Francisco nights” of the ‘60s pop song. I lived with an attractive woman in the exquisite apartment on Telegraph Hill. But the beautiful nights of Sarajevo excited a new interest. Somehow, it seemed to me, they must have been different: Jewish nights in a Muslim city, on the territory of the Ottoman empire, at least a century in the past. But with Spanish songs. In High Bosnia, which seemed impossibly remote from the rest of Europe although it required no more than two days’ journey from the Adriatic, even in the age of horse-drawn travel. Somehow, I knew the reality of those nights. I was there. The entire matter seemed dream-like, like a waking dream. Could any of it have, miraculously, survived the Holocaust? The night of Sarajevo was an Other to the night I knew. I came to think of this inspiration as Islamic ecstasy.
Here I must return to first things. I had sung in an opera chorus as a child. Folk music had always interested me—my mother was an amateur of the “progressive” genre associated with Woody Guthrie and other American leftist performers. I loved to sing classic revolutionary tunes from Mexico and Spain. But the Sarajevo melodies took hold of me in a new way. I had never heard of such eloquence in Ashkenazi Jewish lyrics from Poland and Russia. I longed to hear the song itself. It drew me into a fantasy—a green and rocky Balkan Sephardic fantasy. That also made me feel I knew something of Sarajevo.
Such music contained a universe, a cosmos as vast as the reality studied by Einstein, with its curvatures and emptiness and brilliant light, and it was worth living one’s life for. I sensed then, and many times afterward, that if I heard that music performed, if I learned to sing those songs, time and the world would cease to constrain me; that all barriers would melt away. I also knew immediately that studying those songs would make me a better writer. And that, paradoxically, if I heard, and learned that music, I would need nothing else in the world—not even to exist. I could lose my family, give up my possessions, my apartment and my art collection, my job and my security, and retire to a single room, alone, with that music and my thoughts and paper upon which to write—whether or not anything I wrote would see print. There would be no point to making the encounter with that music an academic matter, as I had thought to do. Rather, I would have to submit the entirety of my existence to those songs, even if I were to lose my mind, to wander into a forest and die. To die in Islamic ecstasy.
And that is how it was—all that I experienced in the ensuing 25 years happened so that I could learn those songs, for little other than my own delight. I read Gershom Scholem on the 17th century Sephardic “false messiah” Sabbetai Zvi, and encountered similar songs. I read Trotsky on the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and was impelled further on the path. But I will take each step in its proper order.
What was this music? Jewish, but also Spanish or Ottoman, Christian or Muslim? Some of these questions could be addressed by recourse to the text, as analyzed by scholars like Armistead. Others I could not answer until 15 years had passed, and I had heard the melodies. After 10 more years, I recognized the tune of Noches, noches, buenas noches as the same sung in the divinely, deliciously beautiful old Bosnian song Slavuj ptica mala (Sing, little nightingale), which became a patriotic anthem of the Bosnian Muslims in the 1992-95 war. This understanding seemed to encompass all that needed to be known.
In 1991, travelling through Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia, I saw my first-ever minarets, explored magnificent mountains, lakes, and rivers, interviewed many remarkable people, took beautiful photographs, and even wrote some poetry. But the greatest treasure I brought back with me was a book in two volumes: the Romancero Judeo-Español of Samuel M. Elazar. This choice item was printed in Judeo-Spanish with Latin letters and South Slavic orthography, with parallel translations into Bosnian, edited by Muhamed Nezirović. It was published in a series of literary classics of Bosnia-Hercegovina. I bought a copy in downtown Sarajevo, for about $7.
Although I reported on the breakdown of Yugoslavia, the search for such traces of Sephardic inspiration had been the latent goal of my 1991 trip, for I had encountered these songs on a tape purchased in Zagreb the year before, and had read an essay on Bosnian Jewish traditions by Zdravko Sančević, a Croat who lived for decades in Venezuela. (Sančević, an academic expert on Sephardic culture, would serve as a Croatian ambassador to Bosnia-Hercegovina during the ensuing war.)
My Balkan journeys have always been accompanied by musical explorations, plunges into exquisite vocal traditions. First, in Croatia, the Dalmatian style of a cappella singing known as klapa, flute-like and clear as the waters of the Adriatic, simple but poetic in a way typical of West European secular songs or madrigals. Then, in Bosnia, the style known as sevdahlinke (from the Turkish word sevdah, or passion), sinuous and sensuous, erotic and reflective, extraordinarily personal and tragic, exemplified by the singer Safet Isović, whose tapes conquered me. Next, Albanian patriotic songs and wedding music. And intertwined with all of it, the Balkan Sephardic lyric.
The Balkan Sephardic musical tradition left its traces in many unpredictable places: Sabbetai Zvi was said to have loved the song Meliselda, which describes a princess with milk-white skin coming out of her bath, as a symbol of the sabbath. But Elazar’s Romancero was a genuine revelation. The verses therein captured me; I even took the book with me on a visit to Nicaragua, where its Spanish idiom seemed anything but out of place. A revelation in all senses: the Sephardic musical tradition drew on spiritual, mystical, and literary sources, but, above all, showed a remarkable capacity for the poetic transformation of elements drawn from neighboring cultures.[iv]
Armistead’s 1971 Judeo-Spanish Ballads from Bosnia comprised a small anthology of Sephardic ballads compiled and published in Bosnia in 1933, with comments by Kalmi Baruh, a great Sarajevo Jewish intellectual killed by the Nazis. The ballads had been printed in a periodical for which Baruh wrote, the Jevrejski Glas [Jewish Voice], a Sarajevo weekly using the Latin alphabet and Slavic orthography. In discussing the composition of these works, Baruh invoked the name of Israel Najera, the distinguished 17th century Hebrew religious poet, whose zemirot or short religious verses were based on the texts of old Castilian (Christian) melodies. This practice has been called “Hebrew-Spanish punning;” it was widespread and controversial in the great Sephardic age, the four centuries following the expulsion of 1492. Sarajevo Jewish music could be described, using a more modern time, as “fusion.”
Armistead, the most important American specialist in Sephardic lyrics, has pointed out that the song tradition in Sarajevo was “less conservative” than that in the great Sephardic metropolis, Salonika. The song collector Samuel Elazar himself declared that Sephardic Bosnia produced
poetic expressions distant, in form and substance, from the original Spanish models, with, by contrast, the emergence of a resemblance in style and content to Bosnian folk music and the Muslim love songs known as sevdahlinke… The love songs, in which the love of a boy for a girl and vice versa are proclaimed, are full of the sentiment we call sevdah. This passionate feeling, without parallel in its affective depth, is expressed in its most delicate and noble form in the ballads that we call, with full reason, ‘our [i.e. Jewish] sevdahlinke’… It is certain that we can speak of no Western influence in these Sephardic melodies… The Sephardic songs, which were almost always sung individually, reproduced Arab, Turkish, and other motifs drawn from Oriental music. When we hear them, nothing stops our souls from being transported to a romantic and oriental world, to quietude and a placidity of being, to that unique and exquisite languor we call sevdah.
But Kalmi Baruh lit my path, with his evocation of Hebrew-Spanish melding and his citation of Israel Najera, a truly great poet. When I went to Sarajevo after the war was over, I was delighted to buy the collected essays of Kalmi Baruh in Serbo-Croatian[v], and to find a street named after him, ulica Kalmija Baruha in Bosnian. A small street, to be sure, only a block long. An obscure street, away from the old Ottoman market and the Habsburg-era central city, near the border of the old Sarajevo and the new, Titoite Sarajevo, in the neighborhood known as Marijin Dvor, or Maria’s Palace. It is relatively new; by decision of the Sarajevo city council, on April 3, 1970 it was ordered that some newly planned, until then non-existent streets be named, and a street was given the name of Kalmi Baruh.[vi]
There is nothing of significance in Kalmi Baruh Street. It is only one block, and little appears to go on there.
In 1999 I came to reside only a few yards away, on the parallel Safeta Mujić Street. Where Kalmi Baruh Street was sheltered by various large structures, Safeta Mujić Street was right on the Serbian firing line throughout the recent war. I had the lower floor of an old Bosnian stone house. I had a courtyard or avlija with a wooden gate. The Ottomans did wonders with wood. When I looked out my door there was nothing to see, because shelling had blasted the landscape for two blocks westward. There began “Sniper Alley.”
Every day I passed the sign reading Kalmi Baruh Street. Every day I remembered the first time I read his name, in San Francisco in 1976.
From Kalmi Baruh Street everything is visible: to the south, the “Spanish” Jewish cemetery, from where the Serbs rained down fire; to the east, the famous Muslim graveyard at Alifakovac. And some honorable remnants of Titoite Yugoslavia are near Kalmi Baruh Street: the plaque and bust marking the place where Vladimir Perić (codenamed “Walter” and the youthful leader of the Partisan underground in Sarajevo) was killed by Nazi collaborators during World War II, and the statue of Djuro Djaković, founder of the Communist Party, assassinated before the consolidation of Stalinism. All wreathed in the green of Bosnian trees. In this world, a city of the dead affirms the value of human life: that is Sarajevo.
In socialist Yugoslavia, the writings of Kalmi Baruh were adopted into the canon. He was born in Sarajevo in 1896. He attended middle and high school there, and was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War, then captured by the Russians. After the war he studied in Vienna, where a brilliant circle of Balkan Sephardic intellectuals had gathered, including the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti. He returned to Sarajevo, having written his doctoral thesis on the Bosnian dialect of Judeo-Spanish, and worked as a teacher. He dedicated himself to the collection of Sephardic ballads and poems, traveling for that purpose throughout Bosnia-Hercegovina, and venturing as far as Prishtina, the capital of Kosova, and Skopje, in Macedonia. Sixty years later, I reproduced most of his itinerary, along ruined roads, often filled with snow.
Kalmi Baruh also shone as one of a group of Sephardic writers in the “new” Sarajevo of the 1920s and 1930s, with the fiction author Isak Samokovlija. I knew nothing of Samokovlija until I went to Sarajevo, but there I came to love his work. Baruh and Samokovlija belonged to a movement for the defense of Sephardic culture, today essentially forgotten, centered in Sarajevo, and distinct from the Zionism that was just then flourishing among Bosnian Jews as elsewhere in Eastern Europe. A document published in Belgrade in 1995 includes the following comments:
In the year 1926 there was a crisis in the Jewish youth movement in Yugoslavia… the Sephardic youth in Sarajevo…wished to separate. Among the Sarajevo Jews two groups of intellectuals were formed. One of them… was exclusively in favor of the Zionist idea. The other group consisted of Sephardic intellectuals that struggled for the recognition of the Sephardic movement, and for a more realistic and tolerant policy that would take into account the issues of Jewry in Yugoslavia… (T)he Sephardic movement paper Jevrejski Život [Jewish Life]… gathered excellent newspapermen and writers like Isak Samokovlija, Kalmi Baruh, and others.[vii]
Kalmi Baruh died in 1945 in Bergen-Belsen.
This is now the writing of mine I most esteem, and which I would keep near my heart, as an amulet:
What begins in California, belonging to the Latin world, ends in the Sephardic Balkans.
But people were killed at Kalmi Baruh Street during the Bosnian war.
The famous Sarajevo streetcars turn the corner near there, and their wheels sometimes screech loudly in the night.
I am standing there now.
I hear the chazzan of Sarajevo, my friend David Kamhi, singing the Sephardic classic Dos Amantes Tengo la Mi Mama (I Have Two Lovers, Mother) – forever.
Kalmi Baruh Street is the center of my universe, forever.
There, and wherever I go, Islamic ecstasy remains with me, forever.
* * * * *
[i] Prstojević, Miroslav, Forgotten Sarajevo, Sarajevo, Published by the Author, 1999.
[ii] See my Brotherhood of the Sea: A History of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, New Brunswick, Transaction Books, 1986.
[iii] See Levy, Isaac Jack, The World Stood Silent: Sephardic Poetry of the Holocaust, Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1989.
[iv] Later, in an extraordinary encounter, the Mexican poet Gabriel Zaid, a companion of Octavio Paz and a true friend to me, pointed out that a classic Sephardic ballad, Dame la mano paloma (Give me your hand my dove) of which I will say more in this volume, is also recorded in Mexican folklore, in the swamplands of Tabasco, in Yucatán, Oaxaca, and Veracruz.
Gabriel gave me a volume on Sephardic balladry that documented this fact; I no longer have it. I passed it on to professor Nezirović, who became my friend, and of whom I have much more to say; his personal collection of books was also burned during the Serb shelling of the town.
[v] Baruh, Kalmi, Izabrana djela, Sarajevo, Svjetlost, 1972.
[vi] Information furnished by Ivan Čerešnješ.
[vii] Exhibition catalogue, Jewish Youth Societies in Yugoslavia, 1919-1941, Belgrade, Jewish Historical Museum, 1995.[/private]