Saving the Sounds of Sarajevo

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The Partisan Haggadah is a bawdy, grotesque parody of the Passover tale composed by a Jewish guerrilla fighter.

Dirty jokes told by gun-toting, Ladino-speaking, Jewish Communist partisans in Bosnia are not the first thing that usually comes to mind when talking about the Holocaust. A book soon to be published in English, however, may change that perception as it sheds light on a lesser-known story about Jews during the Second World War.

The Partisan Haggadah is a bawdy, grotesque parody of the Passover tale composed by a Jewish guerrilla fighter, which Sarajevo’s Jewish community continued to recite each year at the end of the seder for decades after the war. Through frank vulgarity and disjointed association of the sacred and the mundane, the comedic account of partisans fighting (and fleeing from) the Nazis distills the essence of the Bosnian Jewish experience. 

Bosnians, especially the Jews that have called Sarajevo home since the 16th century, are “hard working at being funny,” explained Professor Eliezer Papo, author of Fighting, Laughing and Surviving, which examines the unique riff on the Passover story.

Told in a blend of Ladino and Serbo-Croatian corresponding with Aramaic lines from the Passover seder, the Partisan Haggadah provides a glimpse of the brutal reality of guerilla warfare against the Nazis, stripped of the glory commonly accorded to the fallen. Refrains of dayenu — “enough!” — recount the anti-Fascist partisans’ advances and retreats; fatigued fighters bemoan how unrelenting rains left the ragtag troops “soaked like rats, like monkeys — dear God — from great fear we wet our pants.”

Humor is “a cultural imperative” in the multiethnic Balkans, explained Papo as we sat in his south Jerusalem apartment bedecked with paraphernalia from back home — swords and flintlock pistols, paintings of Bašaršija, old Sarajevo’s iconic main pigeon-filled square and miniature model mosques, his bookshelves weighed down with innumerable tomes on Jewish literature. An expert in Sephardic literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev by profession, with a knack for storytelling, he said comedy was the ideal instrument for a religious group to vent frustration.

Papo grew up as an active member of the Sarajevo Jewish community before moving to Israel in the 1990s after the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia. While Jewish comedy is typically associated with Yiddishkeit, he pointed out that Sephardic Jews for centuries had a rich tradition of parody — typically playing off the familiar material found in the Haggadah. The Partisan Haggadah is just one piece of a larger mosaic of Ladino parodies that date back at least to 1789, and were popular among Sephardim from Suriname to Istanbul.

Before World War II, Sarajevo was 20 percent Jewish, home to eight synagogues and overwhelmingly Sephardic. The city fell to the Fascist Ustase regime in 1941 after Yugoslavia was invaded, occupied and divided between the Axis powers. Over the course of the war, 10,000 of the country’s 14,000 Bosnian Jews were killed.

Many Yugoslav Jews fled to the Italian-controlled sectors along the coast, where Italian authorities interred them in concentration camps, but didn’t engage in systemic mass murder of Jews like the Ustase or Nazis.

Šalom “Šani” Altarac was one of the several thousand Jews who were interned at the Rab concentration camp off the coast of modern-day Croatia. With Italy’s surrender in August 1943, Altarac and 244 other young, untrained Jewish men and women formed a Jewish battalion. Altogether, 691 Jews fought in Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito’s 7th Partisan Division; 100 died before the end of the war. 

“When the partisans arrived from Crikvenica on the Island of Rab, whoever wanted to join the partisans could join them,” recounted fellow camp survivor Elvira Kohn years later. “A group of young Jewish boys registered and was sent to Korski Kotar. Most of them didn’t know how to use weapons — many of them lost their lives soon after they were liberated from Rab.”

Altarac, 29 years old when the camp was liberated, was a talented wordsmith and musician. Scion of a prominent Sarajevo Jewish family, he had received an extensive Jewish education. Isak Levi, a fellow camp prisoner and, later, a partisan, recalled in an interview with Papo that “in the most difficult times of World War II, in the times of the persecution of the Jews, [Altarac] succeeded with his humor to stir within us a type of hope in some better tomorrow that is about to come.”

Altarac became an education officer and the following spring performed a sort of stand-up routine for the Jewish partisan troops hiding in the thickly wooded mountains of the Yugoslavian hinterland. It was a parody of the familiar Passover Haggadah, sung to a traditional Sephardic tune and accompanied by guitar, and it reframed Holocaust life in the mold of an ageless story of redemption.

The familiar opening lines of the Passover story as recited at the beginning of the seder are rendered at the opening of the Partisan remix thusly:

“This is the bread of affliction — what a severe situation;

That our ancestors ate — woe unto us;

In the land of Egypt — choking and drowning am I.

Let all who are hungry come and eat — miserable suffering and great pain.

Let all who are in need come celebrate Pesach — planes and great fear.

Now we are here — lice and fleas as a gift.

In the land of Israel as free men — until Comrade Stalin rescues us.”

The irreverently told story is peppered with colorful characters such as a “well-hung fellow,” “the fat whore” and Jakica Abinun, who “said that Levi Miša taught him to say [to the British] that he constantly pisses.”

As a young man growing up in Sarajevo in the 1970s and ‘80s, Papo would hear the elders reciting snippets of Altarac’s parody from memory after the famed ex-partisan songwriter died in 1975. Intrigued by the story he only partly understood, Papo asked his friend, who happened to be Altarac’s grandson, whether there was a hard copy of the Partisan Haggadah anywhere. Altarac, who went blind in 1963, had apparently never written his routine down, but had taken pains to record himself singing it to musical accompaniment.

Papo made a copy of the tape recording in 1989 and brought it with him to Israel in 1991. During the ensuing Yugoslav civil war, when Sarajevo came under a brutal two-and-a-half-year siege, the original was destroyed. (Only years later, after presenting a paper on the subject, did he find an alternative, cleaned-up version that Alterac wrote down for a friend.)

In his book, which was first published in Hebrew in 2012, Papo renders the original text into English. While some of the nuance — let alone the rhyme scheme — is lost, Altarac’s blend of satire and anguish is universal.

“How is this night different,” a stanza opens with one of the familiar four questions in Hebrew — “This whole deal is worthless,” comes the response in Serbo-Croatian.

“From all other nights? — Hitler is the beast of beasts.

On all other nights — [Ustase leader Ante] Paveli  is an idiot, too.

We eat — and they drive a nail into us.

And tonight it’s all matzah — and we ate only corn mush.”

While Bosnian Jews have always had a unique connection with Passover (the Sarajevo Haggadah, a magnificent 14th-century Spanish manuscript that survived two Inquisitions, the Holocaust and the civil war, is the community’s most revered artifact), under communism it became the central holiday for Yugoslav Jews, and was rebranded as an ethnic rather than religious festival.

The survivors of the war, Papo said, “picked Pesach as a holiday that is basically a communist holiday — slaves rising up against exploitation” — and, crucially, one that was tolerated by Yugoslav authorities. With only about 2,000 community members, so few of whom were versed in the seder ritual, Sarajevo’s Jews began celebrating the Passover meal together at the largest of the city’s remaining synagogues.

But the demi-deification of Holocaust victims, whose faces and names adorned the very hall in which the seder was held, conflicted with the survivors’ desire to preserve a human memory of the friends and relatives slain in the war.

The Jews of Sarajevo “wanted to put a human face on the Holocaust,” Papo said, and the Partisan Haggadah “totally humanizes” the mythologized heroes of the war — “farting and fucking, wanting to survive and eating.”

Today, the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina is dwindling and, as elsewhere in the Sephardi world, Ladino is gradually dying out. While the Sarajevo Jewish community still holds a large communal seder each year, the Partisan Haggadah, like the rest of its genre, is no longer in vogue.

Despite the waning of Alterac’s comedy and the generation who enjoyed it, a quintessentially partisan-flavored quotation from the Haggadah still decorates the hall at the Sarajevo’s Jewish community center year round — “We were slaves.”

Ilan Ben Zion is the chief Israel correspondent for Inside magazine and the Special Sections of the Jewish Exponent. This article originallu appeared in Passover Palate, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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