Oral History Project Illuminates Turkey’s Forgotten Jewish Past
As Ida Sarfetti tells it, her grandfather, Nesim Krispin, was a regular Jew with an extraordinary tale. Now, thanks to a new oral history project, everyone can learn that tale. Hailing from the city of Edirne, near Turkey’s border with Bulgaria, Krispin had a farm and dairy barns near the Bulgarian city of Varna. Riding there one day on horseback, Krispin was kidnapped by bandits, who blindfolded him and took him to a cave. When they took off the blindfold, Krispin stood there amazed. “Everywhere were chests and jars filled with jewelry and food,” Sarfetti, 84, recounts. “They sat him down in front of a fire and gave him yogurt to eat.”
It quickly turned out that the bandits were looking for someone else and let Krispin go, but not before stealing his money, watch and a prized golden ring. When he finally returned home, he was a “wreck,” unable to get out of bed for several days, telling his family that he only had a cold. Some time later, the grandfather spotted a familiar man repairing a wagon in the Edirne bazaar. Recognizing the man as one of the bandits who kidnapped him, Krispin ran to the police, who arrested the outlaw. After a beating, the bandit took them to the cave where Sarfetti’s grandfather had been kept captive. “Well, it turned out to be the hideout of the infamous 31 Gang, the most notorious group of murderers and thieves around,” Sarfetti, who today lives in Istanbul, says. “Grandfather got back his ring, and in time gave it to his grandson, who bore his name,” she says.
Sarfetti’s colorful tale is one of several that have already emerged from interviews that are part of a Jewish oral history project recently launched in Turkey. The program’s initiators, Istanbul’s Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center and the Vienna-based Centropa: the Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation, plan to collect the interviews- along with old photographs- in a Web-based archive they hope will both help preserve Turkish Jewish culture and offer a window into the life of this historic but insular community.
“The life experience of Turkish Jews is completely different than in Eastern Europe. They were not affected by the Holocaust, but there were enormous events that shaped the way they look at the world,” says Edward Serotta, a photographer and writer who is Centropa’s founder and director. “When you read these stories, you say to yourself with a chuckle and a smile, ‘This sure ain’t Warsaw,'” Serotta adds while on a recent visit to Istanbul for the first of a series of training seminars for the project’s interviewers. Centropa got its start in 1999, when Serotta was in Romania producing a segment about the Jewish community there for the television program “Nightline.” While working in Romania, he realized that little was being done to document the lives of the Jews who remained in Central and Eastern Europe after the Holocaust. He also realized that many of the communities where these Jews lived had treasure troves of photos and other memorabilia that, in their own way, could help recreate the Jewish world that existed before World War II.
Today, Centropa is active in 13 countries, with more than 100 people working on collecting people’s stories and memories before they disappear. With its Witness to a Jewish Century project, Centropa now has an online database that contains some 5,000 photographs and 460 interviews, although it may eventually feature close to 100,000 photos. The database “www.centropa.org” is also searchable, allowing visitors to look up family names, places and even search through the photographs by category, inquiring only about those, for example, that are of weddings or holiday celebrations. Over the last few years, Centropa had begun collecting material from the small Sephardi communities that remained in Balkan countries such as Serbia and Bulgaria. But for Serotta, working in Turkey was a logical and tantalizing next step.
“What makes this community fascinating is that this is the largest original Spanish exile community in the world,” he says. “Here you have Jews living in the same neighborhoods, the same city, that they have lived in for 500 years.” Turkey’s Jewish community is especially appealing for an oral history project, says Margalit Bejarano, director of the oral history division at the Institute of Contemporary Judaism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “This is a culture that better preserved oral culture,” she says. “They don’t write everything, but the family culture and organizational culture is enriched by things that are passed down orally from one generation to the next, even through music or sayings.”
The big task for Serotta was getting the Turkish Jewish community interested in the project. Although Turkey’s 25,000-member community is well integrated into Turkish society, it also keeps a low profile. In many ways, the customs, traditions and even history of the country’s Jews are a mystery to most Turks. Serotta first approached the community’s leadership about the project in 2000, but only got the green light last year after the creation of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center, Centropa’s Turkish partner.
Karen Gerson Sarhon, the center’s director, says the Jewish community realized the importance of collecting its history for an archive that could be used by future generations. Gerson Sarhon, who is also a member of Turkey’s best-known Ladino musical group, says she hopes the project’s team of interviewers- mostly amateur historians who are being trained by Centropa- will collect up to 200 oral histories. The big challenge, she says, will be getting people to open up and tell the interviewers everything they want to hear, since the discussion of certain topics in Turkish Jewish history- the expulsion of Jews from the city of Edirne in 1934, a wealth tax against Jews and other minority communities in the 1940s- has long been taboo.
But Gerson Sarhon says she believes there is a new openness in Turkey that might make it easier for people to talk. “Twenty years before, we might not have had anyone talking. Things have changed now,” she says. “A lot of things have been written about recently and talked about on TV. It’s the perfect time to do it.” So far, only a handful of interviews have been conducted, mostly as a way for the interviewers to hone their skills before the project kicks into high gear. But Serotta says the early interviews, like the one with Ida Sarfetti, have people in Centropa’s offices shaking their heads with delight. “This is a whole world that hasn’t been shared before,” Serotta says. “And now they are willing to do that.”