“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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2/28/2023 05:43:15 pm
Great story, Karen!
Karen K McCann
2/28/2023 06:52:55 pm
Thanks, Connie! I've been hearing about Lonnie's progress, and lack of progress, for years now. It's so exciting that his request has finally — finally! — been consedido (granted). Cause for celebration indeed.
2/28/2023 05:58:11 pm
Beautiful story. Persistence counts, but this was epic’ (I am familiar with Apostilles.)
Karen K McCann
2/28/2023 06:54:45 pm
Thanks, Tobey. I'm so glad you liked the story. It was an epic battle and I give Lonnie a lot of credit for his persistence and sheer grit in the face of so many obstacles. As for the Nutters Tour, Rich and I are really getting excited to think it's about to happen at last! I'll keep you posted on our progress.
2/28/2023 07:19:49 pm
As a child I had a neighbor who was a Spanish Jew. Elisa was her name. I learned her history and it intrigued me. Her family left Spain for Greece and then Turkey. Eventually to the USA. I learned so much from her while she took care of me. My mother worked and Elisa loved spending time with me.
Karen K McCann
3/1/2023 09:38:27 am
How lucky you were, Elizabeth, to have Elisa for a neighbor and careperson. She sounds like a wonderful woman with a richly diverse heritage — as you say, a treasure trove of different cultures, which she generously passed on to you. No wonder you resonated with Lonnie's story!
2/28/2023 09:39:56 pm
I have been working with a professor of Sephardic history at the University of Jerusalem to track my mother's family's Sephardic roots. The National Geographic Genographic Project's saliva test states I am 88% Jewish Diaspora and 12% south western European. My late cousin Jules Duga gave an oral history to the Ohio Jewish Historical Society stating that his surname is Sephardic. I introduced him to the professor, who was impressed, and began looking for variations of that name in European records of the past 500 + years. I think we're getting close. The pandemic shut our project down for 3 years, but we're back at it again.
Karen K McCann
3/1/2023 09:43:37 am
You are on an exciting quest, Alicia. I was most interested in the DNA results; Lonnie always points out there was lots of intermingling back in the day (and now too, of course) so the bloodlines reflect that. Good luck with your research; as Lonnie's story demonstrates, persistence is the key. And now that the pandemic delays are slowly clearing up, I hope you'll make great progress. Let me know how it goes!
2/28/2023 10:10:34 pm
Lovely story, Karen. I'm happy for Lonnie and his family.
Karen K McCann
3/1/2023 09:44:30 am
Thanks, Scott. It's exciting for Lonnie and his family, and those of us who have followed his progress for years are rejoicing on their behalf.
3/1/2023 02:05:04 am
I am so pleased for Lonnie! What a wonderful story of connection and perseverance.
Karen K McCann
3/1/2023 09:46:03 am
I was gobsmacked when Lonnie told me the news. It had sounded like the process was permanently stalled, as only bureaucrats can do. It just shows it really is never over till it's over.
3/1/2023 05:22:48 pm
I loved this story. I can totally understand the bureaucracy blockages and so glad there was finally success. And the bonus was a whole family branch that had been searching for him!
Karen K McCann
3/1/2023 06:09:31 pm
Yes, it was really a roller-coaster ride for Lonnie and all his family. And I'm delighted to report the happy ending. So glad you enjoyed the story, Phyllis!
3/1/2023 06:09:52 pm
I've read tons about the government's extension of citizenship to descendants of expelled Jews and about the bureaucratic mess people encounter trying to obtain it, but this story put a face and a name on it all. So glad for Lonnie, hopeful for many others. Thanks for a great post! (Splendid photos, too!)
Karen K McCann
3/2/2023 07:58:21 am
Thanks for the clarification, Mary. In an ancient city like this, it's always difficult to untangle fact from fiction or to determine just how much whitewashing, overdramatizing, or rewriting of history has occurred in any era.
3/2/2023 05:42:56 am
So very happy for Lonnie! What an amazing journey he has had! A tragic and sad story but with such a beautiful ending!
Karen K McCann
3/2/2023 08:04:20 am
I'm so glad you liked the story, Faye. Yes, it's a tragic, moving, and ultimately inspiring tale. And the photos provided by Lonnie really bring it all to life. What a journey!
3/2/2023 05:54:53 pm
What a crusader Lonnie has been. I,too, have two grandparents who independently emigrated from Malaga and Rio Gordo with their parents on the USSHeliopolis in 1907, to cultivate and farm sugarcane for the US. All of the islands participated in this emigration from the port of Malaga, and I have proof of their journey, the signed manifesto, the work order of my grandfather, US paperwork, buy not the Spanish birth records.
Karen K McCann
3/6/2023 07:18:08 am
Kim, it sounds like you're embarking on an exciting journey. As you can tell from Lonnie's story, the paperwork can be extensive and time-consuming, but it is possible to work your way through it. You have a great head start with the records you've collected already.
3/14/2023 03:49:33 am
I would start with the Spanish Consulate for your area, their website, see what they require. Get all the documents you can stateside, email the municipalities for docs, with close year of birth, death, marriage.
3/7/2023 11:47:48 am
I Loved it. Abrazos de la famía de Brasil. Estamos todos en djunto.
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