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A Jewish appeal for Turkish earthquake victims, 1939
The Sephardic community of New York showed its appreciation for "Ottoman hospitality" by raising money for earthquake relief.
An earthquake struck Turkey, and the Sephardic Jewish press of New York issued an appeal for emergency relief. The 1939 earthquake was as intense as the tremor that struck the same region this week, and killed over 32,000 people.
The Sephardic immigrant newspaper La Vara issued an appeal for funds, which mobilized Jews to raise $30,000, or half a million dollars in today’s terms. Professor Devin E. Naar at the University of Washington mentioned it on his blog this week as “an inspiration for us all” in light of the current relief efforts.
In addition to the humanitarian message, the article is an interesting historical and linguistic artifact. Sephardim are the descendants of Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, most of whom settled in the Ottoman Empire. The emperor Bayezid II famously mocked the king of Spain as a ruler who has “impoverished his own country and enriched mine.”
The Jewish variety of Spanish, known as Ladino, became the lingua franca of Mediterranean Jewish communities until modern Israeli Hebrew supplanted it. Naar included a transliteration of the article from Hebrew letters, put together by Joe Halio, grandson of La Vara’s publisher. The family immigrated to New York from Salonica, a city that was an Ottoman territory until Greece captured it in 1912.
It was interesting to compare Ladino to Castilian Spanish, since they’ve had five centuries to evolve separately. Ladino is often thought of as a time capsule of medieval Spain, but unmistakably modern phrases like “take the initiative” show that the Ladino was as much a part of the modern American world as Italian or German.
The article’s contrast between Western Christian hostility and Eastern Islamic tolerance is also very different from the way antisemitism is typically talked about today. 1939 was a very bad year to be Jewish; although antisemitism was rising in Turkey, it paled in comparison to the horrors unfolding in Europe, including the impending Nazi genocide of Sephardic Jews in the Balkans.
Here is my attempt at translating the article, with a little help from a Ladino dictionary:
The Turkish catastrophe and the duty of our Sephardim
There is no soul that is not killed and heart that does not grow sad to mourn the catastrophe that has come to pass in Turkey, our country of birth. Thousands dead, thousands more wounded, and those who remain alive are crawling to the mountains in the open air and the cold, afraid to return to their homes.
The news provided by correspondents makes one cry to mourn1 for the fathers digging graves to bury their sons and daughters, the children digging the graves of their parents.
Never has there been such a calamity on Turkish soil. Sometimes we have mourned similar earthquakes, acts of Nature that cannot be controlled, but they were limited and happened at rare intervals. However, the current catastrophe is like the fire of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying completely,2 leaving thousands of innocent souls in misfortune.
Since the Spanish Inquisition, the government of the Ottomans3 has been for the Jewish people the only government that protected us, helped us, and received us in its lands without demanding anything from us.
Sultan Bayezid and the kings who came after him, up until today’s Turkish Republic, showed goodliness towards us. When we were persecuted in other lands, it was the Turks who received us. It was always them who mocked the civilization that mistreated the Jews who had given them their god.
If there have sometimes been some tolerant kings in Europe who left the Jew to live in peace, others have come to destroy all. Israel was always living under the rod of Exile, always living with the fear of what the next ruler could be. But it was not like this in Turkey. No matter who the new Sultan was, he was tolerant. His religion taught him tolerance. This Eastern tolerance is the envy of the Christian world.
The Turkish Sultans did not demand anything from us. They desired to protect us, and so for the 450 years that Jews lived in Turkey, we stayed at peace and worked in peace.
Now the hour has come for us Jews of all colors to come to the aid of our Muslim brothers.4 Now is the hour for all of us to show our gratitude to this people who all this time did not know to speak well of us.
Jews of all the Balkans, from Romania to Greece, owe a debt of gratitude to the Ottomans. It is our holy, sacred duty to open our hands to help them.
Our societies, all of our societies, must now unite in this tragedy and come to the aid of those unfortunates.
The American Red Cross gave 10 million dollars, the governments of Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece gave their aid. The Greek government sent a team of doctors and nurses to rescue these victims, and it is our debt to do the same.
The proverb of Ben Sirah5 is well said now: “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”
We shall show our brothers that the tolerance demonstrated by them cam be repaid now. We shall show the whole world that the Jew pays good with good.
There exists in our community more than a community of Turkish-born members. Communities from Çanakkale, Edirne, Ankara, Izmir, and the communities that are currently part of Greece must join together and decide on immediate aid for the victims in Turkey.
It is in these hours that we must come to an agreement, and if we do…God will know that we did not leave in danger the lives of our brothers who still live in Turkey.
In these tragic hours, it is up to us to show generosity and devotion to our brethren. We will avenge their aid as we did in the fire of Izmir.
We shall give what we can to the Turkish government as a sign of compensation for all the goodliness and tolerance that they have shown to us until today.
We are sure that the communities will take the initiative and cooperate in whatever manner possible for the success of this enterprise of mercy.6
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meldar: literally “to read,” can refer specifically to reading prayers for the read.
arastando vedre i seko: a phrase that apparently means something like “to wipe the slate clean.” I don’t think there is a modern Castilian Spanish equivalent.
Ladino uses the Turkish osmanli rather than the more European form otomano.
The “wisdom of Ben Sirah” was a medieval collection of proverbs, separate from the biblical Book of Sirah. This proverb parallels Ecclesiastes 11:1, so I used the King James translation of that verse. Literally it would be “send your bread upon the waves of the water, so that you will find it at the end of days.”
esta enterpriza de Hesed