Report: Kismet Symposium

As part of the 15th Munich Balkantage, the Kismet Symposium – The Culture of Memories provided a space for the unfolding of the culture of Sephardic Jews in the Balkans. The symposium took place online on 7 July and included unique musical impulses, documentary films and lectures by distinguished speakers on the richness and persistence of Sephardic memory culture.

Strengthening the culture of remembrance among participants and contributors to the Balkantage is an important aspect of the cultural festival, which was launched in 2007 by Sadija Klepo. Due to this year’s theme of the Balkantage – “Balkanconnection 2.0 – The Young Generation and the Future of the Region” – the culture of remembrance is even more in focus than usual. Because the Balkan wars and the fragmentation of the region have severely affected the common culture of remembrance. And while older generations still carry memories of the time before war and destruction, young people cannot fall back on this common life experience. This makes the lived transmission of memories of the historical and cultural commonalities of the Balkan peoples even more important for them to overcome the fragmentation of collective memory. This was precisely the purpose of the Kismet Symposium – The Culture of Memories.

Originally, the Kismet Symposium was planned as a live event in Munich. However, due to the difficult conditions for face-to-face events brought about by the Corona pandemic again this year, the symposium unfortunately had to take place virtually. However, this did not necessarily turn out to be a disadvantage for the symposium – especially considering the purpose and the topic. The result was a beautiful collage of film footage from Sarajevo, musical interludes, documentaries, and lectures by respected speakers, which will continue to be available online for everyone and make a lasting contribution to the culture of remembrance in the Balkans.

The Sephardic Jews are an impressive example of how memory culture in the Balkans can persist for hundreds of years despite adverse circumstances and flourish again after drastic experiences. After their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula 500 years ago, many Sephardim found refuge in the Balkans. However, the traumas of expulsion and flight did not lead to the loss of Sephardim culture. For hundreds of years, they maintained customs, arts and culture and kept their own language, Ladino.

The topic was examined from different perspectives by several experts in the symposium: Dr. Eliezer Papo, lecturer in Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University, spoke about “Creating, Migrating, Recreating and Remigrating” – a history of the migration and culture of Sephardic Jews over 2000 years. Historian Dr Jozo Džambo spoke in detail about the culture and life of Sephardic Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Author Sonja Elazar also spoke about her insights into the lives of Sephardic Jews, gained through her research for the book From the Album of Bosnian Sephardic Jewry. She particularly focuses on the folk costume of Bosnian Jews as an expression of their unique culture.

The documentaries presented also offered a range of different impressions. A documentary on the Jewish-Bosnian writer Laura Papo Bohoreta took the audience through her life and her influential work on Sephardic women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The documentary film Saved by Language by Bryan Kirschen and Susanna Zaraysky bore witness to the life of Moris Albahari, a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo who managed to survive the Holocaust also with the help of his Ladino language skills. The film thus combined a stirring life story with a narrative about one of the most important cultural assets of Sephardic Jews. Finally, the documentary The Key from Spain provided a dignified obituary for the recently deceased, world-famous Sephardic musician Flory Jagoda.

The programme was musically accompanied by interludes by Zorana & Ethno Orchestra, Aleksandar Saša Kabiljo, Aida Čorbadžić (Prima Donna at Sarajevo National Theatre), composer Vlado Podany and the children’s choir Dječiji Hor Princess Krofne. The performances were convincing not only with their musical virtuosity, but also with their visual accompaniment: stage shows, folk dances and images from the lives of Sephardic Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The material was produced by Mensur Čolaković and can be seen in full length in English and German on HvMzM’s YouTube channel.

Despite the aggravating circumstances, the virtual Kismet Symposium -–The Culture of Memories succeeded in conveying the warmth and beauty of Sephardic culture in the Balkans. At the same time, the symposium creates awareness of the possibility of peaceful coexistence between different cultures – the necessary basis for creating a better future, in the Balkans and in the diaspora.