Istanbul (AFP)

If there is one thing that Dora Beraha regrets on the evening of her life, it is not having transmitted to her children the language spoken for 500 years by the Jews of Istanbul, the Judeo-Spanish, now threatened. extinction.

"After us, will there still be people who speak this language?" Worries this discreet nonagenarian turning the pages of a heavy photo album. "No doubt very little. It is possible that it will disappear.

In an attempt to save this pillar of the identity of the Jewish community in Turkey, the largest in the Muslim world with 15,000 members, a handful of resistance fighters are fighting, with meager means, a fight that seems lost in advance.

A mixture of medieval Castilian, Hebrew and other languages ​​such as Turkish, Arabic and Greek, Judeo-Spanish was born after the expulsion in 1492 of the Jews of Spain who dispersed mainly in the Ottoman Empire .

The language is transmitted from generation to generation and reached its peak in the 19th century, before declining, gradually supplanted by French within the Ottoman Jewish community.

After the collapse of the empire, the policy of assimilation of minorities pursued by the Turkish Republic accelerated the movement. "Citizen, speak Turkish!", Urge the authorities in the 1930s.

If Ms. Beraha did not teach Judeo-Spanish to her children, it is so that they blend into society. "We wanted them to succeed," she says.

Judeo-Spanish, also called judesmo or spanyolit, is better known under the name of Ladino, even if this name is improper because it originally designates a written language used by Spanish rabbis to teach the sacred Hebrew texts.

According to Unesco, 100,000 people still speak it around the world, most of them in Israel where Jews from the territories of the former Ottoman Empire have emigrated by tens of thousands in recent decades.

Judeo-Spanish also survives in different forms within small Jewish communities in the Balkans and the Mediterranean basin, as in Morocco, where it is called haketia.

- Startle -

Unlike other large Sephardic communities in the Mediterranean decimated by the Holocaust, such as in Salonica, the language has survived in Istanbul. But most of those who speak it are very old today.

The prospect of seeing Judeo-Spanish disappear has provoked a start among some Jews in Istanbul, a community under pressure since attacks in 2003 struck two synagogues.

Karen Sarhon has dedicated her life to safeguarding this language. At the head of the Sephardic Ottoman Culture Research Center, this energetic 61-year-old woman also runs El Amaneser, a monthly supplement entirely in Ladino from the Turkish community newspaper Salom.

She notes the emergence in recent years of "great interest" in Judeo-Spanish.

"We launched El Amaneser in 2003 with eight pages. Today, it is 32 pages," notes Ms. Sarhon, adding that 8,000 people, in Turkey and abroad, read it every month.

However, she notes that transmission to the new generations has stopped, in favor of languages ​​deemed "more useful" in a globalized world, such as English or contemporary Spanish.

In the hope of reaching the youngest, this retired teacher regularly posts language tutorials on social networks.

Can Evrensel Rodrik, grandson of Mrs. Beraha, is one of the young people determined to take up the torch.

Very young, this 30-year-old biologist with the wavy mop "forced" his grandparents to teach him this language that none of his cousins ​​speak.

To "make this language attractive" to young people, he imagines "launching a radio station, translating a video game or teaching Ladino from daycare".

- "Too late" ? -

Many Turkish Jews remain attached to Ladino because it is the last thread that connects them to their distant ancestors driven from the Iberian Peninsula.

"From an early age, I was taught this: + Vinimos de la Espana in 1492+, we came from Spain in 1492", explains Mr. Evrensel Rodrik.

"Much of what we are, a great culture and a great language will disappear if Judeo-Spanish disappears," he adds.

For others, like Denise Horada, a 63-year-old retired member of a choir who sings in Judeo-Spanish, this language evokes the memory of a less distant but happier past.

"It reminds me of my grandmother. I always heard these songs when I was a child," she smiles. "When I sing, it's like she's by my side."

Admitting that saving the language will be difficult given the small number of speakers, Ms. Sarhon, is now trying to build archives so that there remains a trace.

"Before it is too late", she has conducted dozens of interviews with those like Ms. Beraha, who speak it perfectly and now plans to put it online.

In this way, she explains, tapping the hard drive that contains her treasure, "if the next generations want to know where they come from, how their ancestors spoke, what their sense of humor was, they will have everything to disposition".

© 2020 AFP