A river boat in that part of the Balkans at the turn of the century was a polyglot floating institution, where all the languages of the area were usually heard: Serbian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Albanian, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Hungarian, German and the lingua franca of the time, French.
For the travellers, foreign to the area, especially for those coming from Spain, the last thing on earth one would have expected to hear on that boat, was Spanish.
Yet it was just such an occurrence that will set in motion one of the most unusual event in the on-going love/hate relationship between the Sephardim and Spain.
On that same boat, a distinguished Sephardic educator, Enrique Bejarano, director of the Sephardic School in Bucarest, who was on vacation, was walking on the deck with his wife and both were talking in Ladino.
This was the same boat that a Spanish medical doctor and sometimes politician, Dr. Angel Pulido Fernandez and his family, had taken from Vienna, where he was visiting his son who was attending the university in that city; deciding to take the long way home, Pulido boarded one of the many river boats that plied the route between the Austrian capital and the Black Sea, where a steamer would take him back to Spain.
Pulido introduced himself and his family to Bejarano and his wife, who told him that they were Sephardim. Thus started the beginning of a lifelong quest on the part of Pulido in his crusade of reconciliation between the Sephardim and their former homeland.
With a religious zeal, that often bordered on mysticism, Pulido took it upon himself to make the Sephardim known to his fellow countrymen, to open lines of communications and to atone for the sins of his ancestors.
It was a very difficult and emotional program, laden with pitfalls, failures and obstacles, which Pulido tried to vercome with a dogged determination that made the adminration of those who knew him, and hurt his career at home.
Before Pulido, there were other attempts at reconciliation, but none displayed the devotion, single-mindedness and stubbornness of Pulido in his quest for the truth and for better relations between Spain and the descendants of the exiled of 1492.
In the 17th century, Manuel de Lira, the Prime Minister of Charles II, suggested to the King that Jews and Protestants be allowed in the colonies; in 1797, Pedro de Varela, minister of Charles IV, suggested that the Jews be allowed back.
By the middle of the 19th century there was a renewed interest among the Spanish intellectuals and politicians in the question of the Jewish presence in Spanish history. Prime Minister Mendizabal did not hide his Jewish ancestry and glorified in it. Trading relations with the Sephardim of Bayonne and Bordeaux in France was already in full swing by now, and in 1865, under prodding from the French ambassador, Madrid allowed the establishment of a Jewish cemetery.
Throughout the end of the 19th century, three major themes will be hotly debated in the Spanish political and intellectual circles: freedom of religion, repudiation of the Edict of Expulsion and the return of the Sephardim. All three themes were inter-related and will bring about a re-examination of the Spanish conscience among the small class of intellectuals, newspapermen and politicians hat took up those questions. It should be stressed however that this re-examination never left the confines of a very small segment of the population, centered in Madrid. For the masses at large, the debate was non-existent, either because of indifference or opposition. A similar situation prevails today also.
It should also be pointed out that those three themes, in spite of a lack of a Jewish population in Spain at the time, will be used for political purpose by all the parties involved; for the Liberals, the Jewish cause was the test of Spain's rebirth in the modern world; for the Conservatives, it was a way of accusing the Liberals of being Judaizers and of forgetting the ideals that made Spain different from the rest of Europe.
In a country devoid of Jewish population, we are going to see by the turn of the century, the Jewish question taken up by all politicians involved as a prominent theme of their platform. Many will be accused of having Jewish blood in their veins, which is an accusation often thrown at Pulido, or of being rabid anti-semites. The irony is that there were no Jews in Spain at the time, at least outwardly.
Both sides however will have some pre-conceived ideas of what a Jew is, and even the most liberals will not be able to cleanse themselves totally of the absurd notions they had been fed for generations; a situation that still exists today.
Historians like Adolfo de Castro, writing in 1847, and opposed to the Decree of Expulsion; Menendez Pelayo who refused to categorize it as either good or bad; Jose Amador de los Rios, who thought that Spain was not yet ready for complete freedom of religion.
The Revolution of 1868 and the advent of the First Republic under Marshall Serrano and Prime Minister Prim will accelerate the dialogue with the Sephardim of France and Great Britain. In a memorable speech in the Cortes, on April 12, 1869, Emilio Castelar, one of the future president of the short lived Republic, and the mentor of Pulido, eloquently advocated the establishment of complete religious freedom.
Both the leaders of the Liberals and of the Conservatives, Sagasta and Canovas del Castillo, whose parties rotated the leadership of the Government, realized that anything more than the private toleration of other religions, as confirmed by Article XI of the Constitution of 1876, would open a pandora box and play into the hands of the Carlist and the Clergy. By the 1880s, having stem the Carlist wars and enter into a period of relative political stability, Spain looked once again towards the Mediterrenean to expand her influence.
In 1881, the Spanish Ambassador in Constantinople, the Count of Rascon, sent a detailed report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Marquis de la Vega Armijo, about the Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire. This was the first time in modern history that such a report was made by a Spanish officials. Rascon even suggested that Spain should open its doors to the Russian Jewish refugees that were starting to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire, after the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Turkey, true to its traditional policy of refuge for minorities, accepted those Ashkenazic refugees, just like it opened its doors to the Sephardim in 1492. Spain will eventually take in some 50 Russian Jewish families.
Rascon, correctly pointed out that some 300,000 Sephardim inhabit the Ottoman Empire, speak Ladino, an present a ready made market for Spanish products; he especially urged Madrid to open up Spanish schools in the area, send Spanish teachers and books before Spanish disappeared altogether in fornt of the onslaught of French linguistic imperialism in the area.
Many Sephardim looked upon Rascon's efforts with sympathy, but rememberd similar pleas by other Spanish officials before him, that gathered dust in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid.
In 1866 for example, Pedro Felipe Monlau, the Director of the Diplomatic school, visited Constantinople and re-discovered the Sephardim, being very surprised to hear his language spoken in the streets of the city.
In 1867, the Director of the National Library in Madrid, Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch, upon accepting some Ladino books that Monlau brought with im, gave an emotional speech, suggesting the introduction of schools and of Spanish printing presses in the area, for the benefits of the Sephardim.
The poet Carlos Coello, who lived in Constantinople for a while, collected a series of Romanzas from his Sephardic neighbors and published them when he went back to Spain.
In spite of the renewed interest, in spite of the Monlau, the Hartzenbusch, the Coello and the Rascon, the Sephardim remained ignored by Spain and developed a justified skepticism towards any gestures coming from Madrid, a skepticism that still exists today.
It is in such historical frame of mind, indifference
in Spain and skepticism in the Sephardic Nation, that Pulido made his appearance
on the scene and once again re-discovered the Sephardim. Some 20 years
before the encounter with Bejarano, he had already come across some Sephardim
whom he met on a river boat between Budapest and Vienna, but was too absorbed
with his career to make anything out of it.
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