“We knew we were very, very different,” said my friend Lonnie, when we got to talking about his childhood in the Bronx. This is what I love about my amigos. Every one of them has a backstory that makes you sit up and think, “Wait, what?”
“Different?” I asked. “In what way?”
Lonnie explained everyone in his family and his close-knit neighborhood spoke Ladino, a form of Medieval Castilian. They cooked traditional Mediterranean food, listened to European music, and were keenly aware of their 15th century Spanish roots. Having grown up in a nation of immigrants, I’m used to displaced families; by the time they get to my home state of California, most have only the haziest memories of the old ways. Not Lonnie’s folks.
“My grandmother made buñuelos, balls of fried dough, which are very common in Spain,” Lonnie recalled. “She got that from 500 years of ancestors passing that recipe along. That’s the food I grew up with, the food I loved. Bourekas and empanadas, pastries stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. Now I make some of these dishes myself.”
Like most American kids, young Lonnie listened with half an ear when older relatives talked about the past. He knew the family had been run out of Spain by the Spanish inquisitors for the crime of being Jewish, and that they’d made their way to the Greek city of Salonica (also known as Thessaloniki). As he grew older, Lonnie became more interested in his heritage. In 2012, when he learned Spain had launched a program to grant citizenship to the descendants of those expelled Sephardic Jews, he decided to go for it, to bring the family history full circle.
How hard is it to prove you’re a descendant of people who lived in Spain in the 15th century?
Ask Lonnie and he’ll roll his eyes.
But Lonnie is a stubborn man. The same grit and determination that kept his family going during exile — and kept his grandmothers’ grandmothers teaching younger generations to make buñuelos — kept Lonnie at his keyboard and haunting government offices. The paperwork requirements were staggering. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, immigration papers, an FBI background check, New York State criminal background check, dozens more documents, all officially translated, notarized, and stamped.
If you’ve never dealt with Spanish bureaucracy, let me tell you it’s like trying to swim through a giant vat of paella: messy, confusing, and full of sudden, inexplicable obstacles. As author Laurence J. Peter put it, “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time the quo has lost its status.” Someone in Spain’s public relations department thought it would be a brilliant move to welcome Sephardic Jews home. The paper pushers, on the other hand, embodied business guru Robert Townsend’s comment, “It's a poor bureaucrat who can't stall a good idea until even its sponsor is relieved to see it dead and officially buried.”
Lonnie soldiered on. There were plenty of setbacks, such as learning the Spanish government expected him to renounce his US citizenship; luckily that provision was soon dropped. There were also wild pieces of good fortune, such as hearing from a distant European cousin who was compiling a family genealogy, saw Lonnie’s mother’s death notice in 2015, and reached out to him.
‘’I get this call from this cousin saying, ‘Come to Europe,’” Lonnie told me. “I go to Salonica and I am resubmerged in this Spanish Greek family of mine, this Sephardic family. And found relatives I never knew existed. These are my mother’s first cousins. They said they were searching for my grandmother and her children for decades and even came to New York from Europe as late as the 1980s to find her, but never did. And my mother went to Greece to find her father’s grave.” He shook his head. “They never found each other.”
Lonnie’s connection to Salonica wasn’t surprising. The Ottoman Turks running the city in the early 16th century could hardly believe their luck when thousands of skilled professionals and craftspeople, fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, began pouring into town. Granting these new residents the status of dhimmis, protected persons, made the city so popular that Jews came from all over and by 1519 formed 58% of the city’s population. People began calling Salonica “Mother of Israel.”
“My mother's mother, Margarete Algava, who I was closest to,” Lonnie recalled, “talked about living in Greece and how there was this terrible fire in Salonika in 1917. That’s what drove her to the US; it destroyed much of the city and her home.” The blaze was centered in the prosperous downtown businesses and houses; half the city’s Jews relocated after the fire, most heading to America or Turkey. Twenty years later nearly all of those who stayed were sent to Auschwitz.
“There was a Greek club in New York where my grandmother would go with her family and sit and listen to music,” Lonnie said. “My cousin Michelle was a band leader. He came from Salonica. He was a Holocaust survivor. He played in a men’s band in Auschwitz. His two sisters were in the women’s band. That’s how they survived Auschwitz; they played music. He described to me one time when he was changing a light bulb in Auschwitz. It had broken, so they were going to cart him off and execute him. And Josef Mengele said, ‘No, no, no, he plays music.’ So my cousin survived.”
Wow, that’s the only positive story I’ve ever heard about Mengele, better known as the Angel of Death. Somehow I didn’t have him pegged a music lover.
Connecting with long-lost relatives was exciting; the endless paperwork not so much. Lonnie had to get the approval of the Federation of Sephardic Jews in Madrid and pass a rigorous, day-long Spanish exam. “It was nerve-wracking. Written comprehension, oral comprehension — a radio announcer, that was hard — writing, and conversation. Then a history exam with questions like ‘What’s the longest river in Spain?’” Passing meant he could formally apply for citizenship on a special website. Never dealt with an official Spanish government website? See my earlier remarks about their bureaucracy.
In February of 2020 Lonnie came to Spain for what he thought would be the final filing and an interview. “I figured I’d have something in a few weeks.” He laughed. “ And then Covid hit. And then it was just impossible. There was no information.”
For years Lonnie stopped by the Spanish Embassy, emailed requests for information, worked with a lawyer. Nothing.
“So a couple of weeks ago,” he told me on Sunday, “I went back to the website. I felt, ‘I haven’t checked it in months. Why not?’ And it said “Consedido.” Granted.
“How did you feel?”
“It was moving. I said to the consular agent, 'Thank you. I’m really pleased. It’s been ten years since the first time I talked to you, three years since I filed all my papers, and five hundred years since my family could return to Spain.'” Lonnie smiled a little sadly. “My mother, I so wish she was alive, because she would have been over the moon.”
Countdown to the Nutters Tour
As I scramble to prep for departure on our much-awaited Nutters Tour of Spain, I'm not going to have time to write a post next week. I'll try to post the following week, just before we leave on the 15th, but I can't guarantee I'll manage it. I do promise I'll be posting from the road, reporting on each nutty person and place along the way. Watch this space for updates!
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