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A Ladino Odyssey:
Moshe Ha-Elion’s Homer

By Richard Armstrong

Traducción al español

Kontame, Muza, del ombre astuto k’estuvo errando

mucho despues k’estruyo la santa sitadela de Troya,

i vido muchas sivdades de djente, i supo sus sensia,

i sufrio muchos males en su korason en las mares,

i perkuro de salvarse i a kaza trayer sus kompanyos.

Ma no salvo sus kompanyos malgrado ke lo dezeava,

porke a kavza de sus lokeria se depedrieron;

bovos kriados, los kualos los bueyes de Elios Iperion

se los komieron, i el les vedo el dia del retorno.

Algo de esto konta i a nos, dioza, fija de Zeus.

Tell me, Muse, of the clever man who went wandering

greatly, after he destroyed the sacred citadel of Troy,

and saw many cities of people and learned of their knowledge (lit. sciences)

and suffered many troubles in his heart on the seas,

and tried to save himself and to bring his companions home.

But he didn’t save his companions, as much as he wanted to,

because they destroyed themselves on account of their madness;

stupid children, who ate up the cattle of Helios Hyperion

and he forbade them the day of their return.

Tell something of this also to us, Goddess, Daughter of Zeus.

—Translated from the Ladino by the author

So begins the Odyssey in Moshe Ha-Elion’s translation into his native Salonican Ladino, a project he undertook at the end of a long life filled with trauma, toil, and triumph. Ladino, known also as Judezmo, Djidio-espanyol, Djidio, Spanyolit, or in the case of the North African variants Haketía, was the common language among Sephardic Jews throughout the domains of the former Ottoman Empire and is based on the fifteenth-century Iberian language(s) the Jewish communities brought with them in exile. Salonican Ladino contains many Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, and Hebrew words, along with a few distinctive syntactical peculiarities, but it remains quite approachable for anyone with a background in Romance languages. Sadly, it is also a dying language, having entered the “post-vernacular” phase where there are fewer and fewer native speakers.

The beginning of Genesis in the 1547 Constantinople Penteteuch, flanked by Ladino and Greek translations, with the Aramaic targum at the top and the Rashi commentary at the bottom. From Ladino Pentateuch (Constantinople, 1547)edited by Moshe Lazar, Labyrinthos, 1988.
Moshe Ha-Elion (1925–2022) displaying concentration camp ID tattoo.
First page of La Djovenika al Lager, in traditional Rashi type and Roman type at the bottom. From Kampos de la Muerte, Instituto Maale Adumim, 2000.

So how did a variety of Spanish come to be spoken in Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and other eastern locales? We tend to think of 1453, the date of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, as the pivotal moment when Greek literary culture shifted westward, as scholars and their libraries moved from Byzantium to Italy and Western Europe. But 1492 is also a pivotal moment: the date of the Alhambra decree in Spain requiring all Jews within the realms of Castile and Aragon to either convert to Christianity or leave. The initial exiles were welcomed by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, and many settled in urban areas like Istanbul, Sarajevo, Sofia, Smyrna, and Salonica (Thessaloniki). It is an interesting historical irony that Thessaloniki, a city once known for its Homeric scholarship in the age of Eustatius, the twelfth-century archbishop of that city and author of massive commentaries on Homer still consulted by scholars today, would become in Ottoman times the most Jewish city in the world, the only port in the Mediterranean that closed on the Sabbath. Jews brought the first printing presses to the Ottoman Empire, producing volumes like the 1547 Constantinople Pentateuch, which arranges the Hebrew text flanked by contemporary translations in Ladino (on the right) and Modern Greek (on the left) and crowned with the traditional targum—an Aramaic translation traditionally used by Jews for comprehension of the sacred text. Below this you see the medieval commentary of Rashi.

Although Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece today and home to the largest university in the Balkans, it only became a part of the modern Greek state in 1912. The influx of Greeks from Asia Minor after 1922 gradually changed the character of the city, but it still retained a large Jewish, Ladino-speaking population up to the eve of World War II. Moshe Ha-Elion (1925-1922) was one of the very few survivors of the original Jewish community in Thessaloniki. Between ninety and ninety-five percent of this population perished in the Holocaust—including virtually all Ha-Elion’s family. The loss of this vibrant Jewish community and its language has permanently changed the character of the city. Hence the heroic nature of Ha-Elion’s effort to monumentalize the language of his community in translations that would be significant literary achievements in any tongue. For his considerable efforts to keep Ladino alive, Ha-Elion was awarded the Órden del mérito civil by King Felipe VI of Spain in 2017. However, he has yet to be honored in Greece for this distinctively Jewish-Greek cultural project. Perhaps one day he will be recognized by the Academy of Athens the way his contemporary Giorgos Psychoundakis, a fighter in the World War II Greek resistance, was fêted in 1981 for his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey into Cretan dialect.

The turn to Homeric translation was the last of Ha-Elion’s literary efforts. After release from the Nazi camp of Ebensee, Ha-Elion immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1946 and built a career in the new nation of Israel in the Israeli Defense Forces and later the Ministry of Defense. As with many survivors, it took decades before he was able to write an account of his experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other work camps, which he published in Hebrew, Ladino, and English editions. Then he turned to writing about them in Ladino verse, in the traditional form of the kopla, which he had printed in both Rashi and Roman script (see example). In a collection titled En los Kampos de la Muerte, Moshe wrote a long ballad, La Djovenika al Lager (“The Maiden in the Camp”), about his sister Nina, who died shortly after arriving in Auschwitz. But he wrote the poem as though she survived longer until succumbing at last to starvation; he was really writing about his own experiences of hunger, exhaustion, and despair through her. He set the poem to music and had hopes it might become a kind of holocaust anthem. The two other long poems in Los Kampos describe how prisoners ate their bread and the long ordeal of the death march that took him from Auschwitz to Mauthausen towards the end of the war.

“Menorah in Flames,” 1997 by Nandor Glid. This was the first Holocaust memorial in Greece to be built on a public space. In 2006, it was moved to Eleftherias Square, site of the 1942 “Black Sabbath” on July 11, when men were rounded up for registration for forced labor, the first anti-Semitic action taken after the German occupation of Thessaloniki.
The first page of the Odyssey, co-translated by Moshe Ha-Elion (Ladino on the left) and Avner Peretz (Hebrew on the right). From La Odisea: Trezladada en ladino i ebreo del grego antiguo por Moshe ‘Ha-Elion i Avner Perez, Yeriot Press, 2014.

With encouragement from Avner Peretz, an Israeli Hebrew-Ladino poet who was Ha-Elion’s translator for En los Kampos de la Muerte, Ha-Elion undertook the complete translation of the Odyssey, then later completed the Iliad, both published with a facing Hebrew translation by Peretz. The work of translation was quite difficult, as Ladino lexicography was still inadequate and the Homeric corpus discusses many technical things outside of modern experience. Ha-Elion was determined to ground his translation as much as possible in Salonican Ladino and had recourse to old, published Ladino texts, like a translation of the Hebrew Bible put out in Constantinople by the British Bible Society in 1873. Both translators worked strictly on a line-for-line approach, and even replicated dactylic hexameter in Ladino and Hebrew. It’s remarkable that Ha-Elion does not seem to have consulted any Castilian translation in the process, though Peretz admitted he had recourse to the Chicago Homer for help with his Hebrew text.

As Peretz explained to me, this project was meant to be a real test of a Westernized Ladino’s literary capability, and Ha-Elion’s work certainly seems an ambitious achievement for a language that has lived mostly in oral tradition and folk song. But Ladino, as mentioned above, also has a long tradition as an idiom of strict translation going back to the Spanish Middle Ages, when it was the “barbarian vernacular” (la’az) used for oral translation of the Torah and other Hebrew texts in ritual settings. Once upon a time, there was a rich tradition of aljamiado biblical texts in Spain—written in Romance vernacular but in Hebrew characters, but most were burned by the Inquisition after the Alhambra decree of 1492. Still, the tradition of ladinamiento or biblical translation is represented by some remaining manuscripts as well as translations of the Hebrew Bible into Castilian by converso translators. So, in a sense, Ha-Elion was working in a tradition of close translation that stretches back centuries. But with Homer, he was translating as much as a Greek (now Israeli citizen) as a Jew, reaching back to his education at a Greek Gymnasium in Thessaloniki before the war upended his life.

So, this translation of Homer is a remarkable declaration of the secular status of both languages: Ladino and Hebrew side by side, breaking the commandments in their close rendering of Homer’s gods and goddesses. The dual translation, however, represents perhaps a first in Homeric translation: the Ladino faces not the Greek source text, but a Hebrew translation that is meant to guide the Israeli reader to understanding the Ladino, now monumentalized through Homer’s poetry. Ha-Elion died on November 1, 2022, and his translations will remain a unique legacy.

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Richard Armstrong
University of Houston

Richard H Armstrong is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Houston. He writes on the reception of Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and is author of A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Cornell UP) among other chapters and articles. He is co-editor of the Ohio State University Press series Classical Memories/Modern Identities.

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