Interview with American Sephardic Singer Flory Jagoda1: Part II

By Rosine Nussenblatt

Thank you, Flory, for being generous with your time and giving us this second interview. In the first interview, you talked about your childhood in the village of Vlasenica, Bosnia, as well as the important people in your life, the musically inclined and gifted Altarac family, your mother and la nona [grandmother]. In the process, you described Sephardic Jewish life as it was before World War II, the Jewish life your songs recreate. You finished the interview by recollecting the fate of your extended family in Vlasenica during World War II.

How did you manage to survive the war in Zagreb where you lived at the time?

Well, actually, the Germans came into Zagreb in 1941. I actually did not know much about anti-Semitism because we were sort of protected by our parents, who did not want to bring out fears in us. So only four days later [after the invasion], the teachers in our school said: “Kabilio, Altarac, you don’t have to come to school anymore.” Oh, great! You know the children [when they hear] ‘you don’t have to go to school anymore’. I came home. My father walks in, white as a sheet: “We have to go out of here.” I did not know what he was talking about. We are taking a train and going to my friend Finzi from Split. Florica, you name is different, your name is Marica. You are going to go first because the three of us cannot walk to the railway station, because we cannot walk in certain streets any longer because they are putting Magen Davids on our chests so everybody knows who is who. And if they see you walking those streets, they will call the police. All these things were just to a teenager who was having a lot of fun, having accordion lessons, and my whole life was playing the accordion. “What do I take?”  I said to my father, because at that age you want to wear a pretty dress, you know. You are not taking anything; you are just taking your harmonica. We will get somebody who is not Jewish to take you to the train, put you into a compartment and from there on you are alone with your harmonica and all you do is sit and play. Play all the way until you get to Split.  All those things hit a teenage musician playing all over the place.

And I did what my father said and in fact, later on, I wrote a song, which is quite well known “Svira harmonico.” I did get into the train, I sat down and I took my harmonica. The compartment got filled with old ladies; they were bushkas, chickens, and soldiers, a mixed scene. I started playing my harmonica and everybody came in and everybody started singing with me. It is a common thing in Yugoslavia [to do this], that I remember.

The conductor came in and he started singing with us. He did not even ask me about my ticket. I played all the way to Split; my harmonica really saved me of that horrible change. I did not even know if there was such a change. I played my music and people were singing with me, I had no idea. So we came to Split and Mrs. Finzi was waiting for me. She took me to her house. Every day there were refugees coming from different cities to the coast where Split is because Split (Spalato) was a place to get away to. My parents arrived later. It is a very long story, I don’t even think I want to go through all this, not so much sad because it was happy. I saw them [my parents], I was with them, but I had to wait a long time for them to show up, going every day to the station waiting and waiting. But a month later, there was a big placata you know how they have in cities, a bulletin board where you can read notices, news. 

So it was written that all the Jewish people who arrived that day had to come to this room and we all went and they told us: “Look there are too many of you. We cannot take care of all of you. They were the authorities of Split: “We will send you to all the different islands, Yugoslav islands.” We found out later that the authorities were really, actually, willing to send us to Germany. But they were good, the hired people I guess, so these people sent us to different islands. They sent us to the island of Korčula [on the Dalmatian Coast] and my mother who was always a leader of things’ went first with somebody’s boat. There were boats all over the place and you could rent a boat for [the equivalent] of a couple dollars … and she met some people and found out where we would live because they [the authorities] did not have a place for us to live. They told us to meet the local people and see if anybody will give you a room. So my mother went first and found a lady (and today I hear that this place is a little museum) and later in the week we joined her on the island of Korčula. I don’t know how much you want to go on, to live on the island and how we escaped from the island, it is a long story.

It is up to you, I also have other questions.

So, you want to stop where we are, at the island of Korčula. On the island of Korčula we lived with an older woman who gave us a room that was her kitchen, as well as her bathroom and you name it, everything was that room. 

If you did not have much money what happened?

I remember that daily we received sliced bread, in a line, and we received sardines and water. Sardines and bread were distributed. For the rest, it was like it always goes, the rich can do it better. You had people who saved gold in their kotex [underwear], I mean the women. There were women who chewed all the time a ring [in their mouth to keep it safe]; there were some women who really had money. It was easier for them; they could go the market and buy stuff. 

How did you escape?

That was the time when Germans were going back home. The war was over and they were retreating and going up north. The word came that the Germans were stopping on the island. Let’s get out! Let’s get out, and at night we have (not ‘we’, my mother probably) made arrangements with many people. So we were about 25 who went on a turbacola, that is a boat that brings vegetables to the island. So he took us out and we ran away. Unfortunately, my father was not there. He finally had had the permission to go to the city of Split to exchange my harmonica for a bigger harmonica because I was a teacher and I already had four students. I became an accordionist on this island, when there was a party: “ Call Florica!” I had a tiny accordion but my students had big accordions. They were daughters of people who could give us some food. One was the daughter of the meat guy, the butcher. We had olive oil while no one had olive oil. 

On the island people ate long green leaves that they cooked with potatoes and put olive oil on it. Today it is health food, here, but that was what we lived on together with the sardines. So for two years we lived on that and homemade bread; people baked their own bread. How did we survive? We survived. Nobody was sick, G-d forbid! These are little memories of life there.

How did you meet your husband Harry? [Harry Jagoda from Youngstown, Ohio]

It was in Italy. Mussolini had just been killed then, the Italians occupied Yugoslavia.
We were hiding during the day; and then we arrived to Bari, Italy, situated four hours down from Naples. The scene, I remember the scene that I will never forget, and I will love the Italians for as long as I live: women on shore with baskets of grapes, black grapes. At first we were afraid, but here we are welcome. They took us to a room full of old clothes. That was beautiful, because we had not taken anything with us and you could get a skirt and a jacket and a sweater.

So they were taking care of refugees.

Refugees, they thought that a lot of them were going to buy, don’t ask me why. They told us we could have bread. We will give you bread daily. You have clothes, but we can’t give you lodging that is up to you; just go out street after street, house to house. We went up from house to house, we did that. My mother was crying all the time because Michael [my father], she did not know where Michael was. All I heard was, Michael and Michael. I did what other people also had to do, so I went door to door. Don’t think everybody opened the door, but a lot of them did: “Mi dispiace, Signora,” [I am sorry.]

Did you speak Italian?

We had all kinds of languages in Korčula. Anybody who could teach anything to the children taught it. We were teaching children then. We had English lessons too and Italian lessons, but broken, but it helped [us] to live, believe me it helped a lot. I knocked at twenty, thirty doors, I don’t remember how many, “Mi dispiace...” So finally I come to a door. The door opens with this fat lady made up with jewelry and lipstick and hairdo, very different. So I explain to her that I need a room for my mother and I, not a room, at least a bed, anything that we could spend the night, that we just arrived; she looks at me: “Si signora entra, entra.” Come in; come in, like an angel from the sky. She said sure, you can bring your mom. We will put the two chairs for you. She had a little French couch, but everything small and not comfortable. There was a love seat. Your mother can sleep here and we will put two chairs for you. Sleeping on chairs, in the middle of the night, I know it was late at night, I went to the bathroom. I see all these girls coming in washing themselves, washing themselves. It was a scene to make a movie out of that.

Anyways, we stayed there a couple of days, and every day we would go to the piazza to meet all our friends and refugees to ask what’s new. Everybody looked for news you know. And everybody had a piece of horrible news. And my mother went: Michael, Michael! We are going back to our place when all of a sudden I hear my mother scream. My body and veins became frozen, standing there with my harmonica, a miracle! That was a highlight of my life. I think that my father heard that everybody from Korčula had left or was dead. He had to go to Italy.  

How did you meet your future American husband in Italy?

We were quite a lot of young girls who came from Korčula. We stuck together and tried to see how we could find a job. We spoke a little English. So somebody told us the British are gone, the Americans are coming and they are opening offices; they are giving jobs to the refugees. I introduced myself to this Lieutenant Evans. He gave me a piece of paper. So he looks at me, and sees a refugee. I told him that I just came from the island of Korčula where I was interned for two years.  Americans are very naïve. I find Americans very naïve from what we know, what we lived through. How can you compare? He gives me a kiss, like a child. I bet I have a better job for you. Come tomorrow, and I will show you a better job. In the morning I was there at eight o’clock; it opened at nine. He comes in and he takes me to a room. You see this big blackboard in this salvage depot. This is where they bring all the rummage from planes that went down, to sell this to the civilians, you see. Then we need an interpreter who speaks Italian. Everything broken, completely broken! A sergeant will come in the morning or another American and he will give you a piece of paper with a number and you will write the number on the black board and also the day’s date. This was my job, and I loved it. 

How did you come to this country? 

I was Mrs. Jagoda. We married in Bari. I came home with three hundred other war brides. The soldiers, well, they wanted the Italian background, and they wanted to take their ‘Italiana’ home. We met at the office, fell in love, married in Italy, and came to the US in 1946.

Thank you, Flory, for this second interview.

1 Flory Jagoda came to America as a bride in 1946 from Bosnia. She has recorded “Kantikas de mi Nona,” “Memories of Sarajevo,” “La Nona Kanta,” and “Arvoliko: The Little Tree,” among other recordings. In 2002 she received a Lifetime Honor from the National Heritage Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts. Perhaps Flory’s best-known piece is the Chanukah song, “Ocho Kandelikas,” which is one of her own compositions, but so well known now that it is often thought to be a folksong. She is also the subject of a film, The Key from Spain, underwritten by the Maurice Amado Foundation. Flory continues to teach, write, and perform concerts, and is the driving force behind Vijitas de Alhad. The transliteration of Ladino in this interview is according to Flory Jagoda, as she uses her own system for spelling her Bosnian dialect of Ladino/Judeo-Spanish. Part I of this interview was published in Sephardic Horizons Vol. 1, No. 2 (2011).

Rosine Nussenblatt was born and grew up in Geneva Switzerland. She is a graduate of the University of Geneva and the International Institute of Graduate Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, as well as Hunter College in New York City. With roots in Salonika on her mother's side, she is interested in Sephardic history and culture as well as Sephardic genealogy. She is the former editor of La Lettre Sépharade, English edition, a newsletter that was devoted to the history and culture of Sephardic Jews. 

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