By Daniel Santacruz
Bryan Kirschen is making a name for himself among Ladino speakers and scholars due to his efforts to research and foster the language. The most surprising thing of his story, however, is that he has no Sefardic or Hispanic background. In fact, he was born into an Ashkenazi family. A native of New York City, Kirschen, 27, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Hispanic Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he and another graduate student, Anamaria Buzatu, founded ucLADINO, an organization devoted to the preservation and revitalization of Judeo-Spanish, in the Fall of 2011. Kirschen is also co-producer of a documentary titled Saved by Language, which highlights the life of Ladino-speaking Holocaust survivor and Sarajevo resident Moris Albahari. It is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2014.
Kirschen has three Masters degrees and a bachelors in Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. A teaching associate at UCLA, he has contributed articles about linguistics, Ladino and Spanish to several scholarly publications. Kirschen spoke recently with kolsefardim.net.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Kolsefardim: What motivated you to found ucLADINO? Brian Kirschen: ucLADINO is a student organization dedicated to promoting the knowledge and use of the Judeo-Spanish languages. The idea for the group came about after brainstorming with Anamaria about ways to learn the language, and make it a part of campus programming. KS: What are the activities of the organization? BK: Our group holds weekly language lessons/workshops for students. This year  we offered both elementary and intermediate level language courses. We focus on Judezmo dialects but often use texts and resources in Haketia as well. Our intermediate level focused on texts in Rashi. We also invite speakers to present topics on Sefardic culture and Ladino. The group has held two conferences on Judeo-Spanish, which allowed undergraduate and graduate students, as well as prominent keynote speakers, to present their work. One of the group’s main goals is to encourage students to become interested in Judeo-Spanish, and therefore, our conferences have been an important forum for them to present what they have been working on. Students from other universities also send in proposals. KS: You come from an Ashkenazi family from New York City with no Sefardic or Hispanic roots. Yet, you have devoted yourself to researching and writing Ladino, and Spanish. What has been your motivation? BK: I have always been interested in language and how it is intertwined to culture. By learning Judeo-Spanish one learns not only a language, but also the history of the Sefardim and their cultural uniqueness. It is surprising how most Ashkenazim in the United States are unaware of the “other half” of the spectrum. I became very interested in Judeo-Spanish the moment I learned about it. KS: You are involved now in producing a documentary, Saved by Language, with an unusual theme: knowledge of a language can save one’s life. Where did the idea come from? BK: Saved by Language highlights the life of Moris Albahari of Sarajevo. Last summer  I travelled there with Susanna Zaraysky, co-producer of the documentary, to interview Moris, who is a Holocaust survivor. The documentary will focus on Ladino, its presence in Sarajevo, and how Moris utilized his mother tongue to survive. The title was selected after he stated that “Ladino saved my life” in our interview.
Susanna met him over a decade ago while she was living in Bosnia and always remembered his story. Last year, she contacted me and after I learned of Moris’ story, we agreed to travel to Sarajevo to work on the project together. Throughout the development of the project, we have teamed up with filmmakers and producers, as well as a experts in fields such as history, linguistics, religion and anthropology. KS: Were there other people in Moris’s situation in Sarajevo during the war? BK: Unfortunately, most of Sarajevo’s Jewish population was killed during World War II. As our documentary focuses on the role of language during the Holocaust, it is difficult to be sure if there were other similar cases in Sarajevo.
Today there are only four Judeo-Spanish speakers that remain in the city, each with a very different experience during these years. We have been in contact with other researchers who have documented Holocaust stories of the Sefardim and have described the use of language during these years. KS: You conducted the interviews for the film in Ladino. Was that a challenge? BK: Susanna and I decided that we would conduct our interview with the remaining four speakers solely in Ladino. This was a beautiful experience for us because we used Ladino as a lingua franca to communicate. While Susanna speaks Bosnian [Serbo-Croatian], I do not. In order for everyone to understand one another, Ladino was our best resource. Of course, the use of Ladino also enriches the scope of the documentary. These scenes will be in the full-length documentary. KS: What stage is the documentary at? BK: We have released an eight-minute demo on Youtube describing the basis of our documentary, focusing on Moris. The link is www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmh1SLRyA_Q. The complete documentary will detail more information about Sefardic life in Sarajevo, interviews with the four remaining Ladino speakers, and an interview with Aurora Mejía, Spanish Ambassador to Bosnia. KS: What has been the response to the demo? BK: Very positive. We have it on a few different sites online. Our goal is to make it available worldwide. We have subtitle options in a variety of languages including Hebrew, Mandarin, Russian, Esperanto and Basque. Many people have written us offering to translate the demo into their native language in order to share the work with their countries. KS: When do you expect to release the full documentary? BK: We hope to have the finished product available by fall 2014. KS: Are you planning to go back to continue filming anytime soon? BK: Susanna will be going back to Sarajevo this Rosh Hashanah . We are also planning to visit during Passover [of 2014] to film the final scene. KS: Is the documentary the first of a series of works, both visual and written, about the destruction of the Sefardic communities of the Balkans during WWII? BK: We certainly hope that this documentary is the first of many works to come about related to the Sefardim during the Holocaust. Over the past decade amazing work, both written and visual, has come out describing the lesser-known experience of Sefardic communities during the years of World War II.
We are aware that Morris’ story is unique and have come across stories of other Ladino-speaking Holocaust survivors that describe their use of the language in other ways. We hope that Saved by Language encourages others to speak about their experiences to gain more knowledge on the role of language during this time. There is certainly an immediacy to collect such testimonies now.
KS: What was the most poignant moment during the initial filming of the documentary?
BK: It was when Moris took our film crew to the same streets where he grew up. He showed us where he lived, where he played with his friends and went to school, and describes that in a matter of just a few years, mostly no one came back. Everything had changed. Our interview with him and other community members contained moments of laughter and tears.
During our individual and group interviews, music was a recurring theme. It was amazing to see that, although some have not used Ladino in years, they were able to remember entire songs in Ladino from childhood memories.
© Daniel Santacruz August 2013