Peaceful and strong-spirited, that’s how Flory Jagoda’s daughters Betty and Lori would like her to be remembered. Flory Jagoda is a Bosnian-Jewish born guitarist, composer and singer-songwriter. She comes from a centuries-old tradition with roots in the Iberian Peninsula, and is the last remaining member of the Altaras family lineage.
Her family was one of many Sephardic Jewish families forced to flee Spain and Portugal in the 14th and 15th centuries, eventually settling in Sarajevo. Jagoda’s life story is also marked by resettlement and fleeing. Escaping Nazi persecution, she finally put down her roots in the United States after World War II. Jagoda is known for her interpretation of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) songs and sevdalinka (Bosnian folk ballads). In 2002, Flory Jagoda received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor given to artists in the United States. Now 95 and suffering from advanced dementia, Jagoda relies on her children to tell her story. Her daughters, Lori and Betty, sat down with Oslobodjenje to speak about their mother’s contributions to the arts and Sephardic music, and her deep love for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Lori Lowell, her youngest daughter, describes her mother is “the most adorable person in the world.” “Even though she’s in a memory care unit and can’t sing anymore, music is what drives her. When we visit her, music is constantly being played. As long as there is music, she can connect with those around her.” Lowell and her sister, Betty Jagoda Murphy, often perform old folklore songs in Serbo-Croatian for her. Flory’s four children felt their mother’s love through music. “We were constantly playing songs together, and I toured with her since I was eight years old,” describes Lori.
They had a very peaceful household, where Flory’s four children felt their mother’s love through music. “We were constantly playing songs together, and I toured with her since I was eight years old,” describes Lori. “If you can’t put your heart and soul into a song, don’t bother,” Flory would say. Her recording “Kantikas Di Mi Nona” (Songs of My Grandmother) consists of songs her grandmother, a Sephardic folksinger, taught her as a young girl. Following the release of her second recording, “Memories of Sarajevo”, she recorded La Nona Kanta (The Grandmother Sings), songs she herself wrote for her grandchildren. In 2006, she recorded her last solo album: “Arvoliko: The Little Tree”. The tree, located in Bosnia, is the only marker of the mass grave of 42 massacred members of the Altaras family in Vlasenica during World War II.
Flory’s life story is one of persecution and war, though she always remained warm and kind-spirited. Her children said they knew her story since they were very young. In the 1990s, while performing at the Croatian embassy, Flory suffered a stroke on stage. While doctors couldn’t describe the exact medical reason for the stroke, daughter Betty always felt it was the stress of performing in the Croatian embassy. During the 1990s, all Flory could think about were the horrors happening in Yugoslavia. She organized many concerts to raise money for synagogues in the Balkans. Betty recalls her mother saying, “You have to forgive, and we need to build bridges.” Flory believed the dire living conditions in the Balkans were caused by people stubbornly holding on to centuries-old grudges. Despite Jagoda’s own experience of hardship, she urged others “to continue living your life.”
“Even if you send us out from your chest, we will still love you,” she would often repeat.
Flory was born in 1923 in Sarajevo, then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Her family had lived in Sarajevo and neighboring town Vlasenica for centuries as members of a large Jewish community. Following persecution in Spain and Portugal in the 14 th and 15 th centuries, Sephardic Jews took refuge in North Africa and in parts of Europe, with large numbers finding safe haven in the
Balkan region. They were able to take very little with them, but preserved their oral culture, language and songs. Sarajevo was known as “chico Jerusalaem” (“Little Jerusalem”), as it had a large community of Jewish refugees.
Flory grew up in Sarajevo, but when her mother Rosa remarried a Croatian Jew, they moved the family to Zagreb. Flory wasn’t very fond of her stepfather, but when he gave her an accordion, a “harmonica” as she calls it, everything changed. Growing up, all she did was play her white, Hohner harmonica. Soon, the Germans invaded Yugoslavia and Croatia became a Nazi puppet
state. The family fled the city overnight, with false papers, to Split. Flory often says the harmonica saved her life. She played it on the train ride so no German officers would ask for her papers.
From Split, Flory’s family and their Jewish neighbors had to flee to the island of Korcula to evade the Germans. The group took a small fisherman’s boat to cross the Adriatic sea to Bari, Italy. Flory, then a young woman, didn’t part from her white Hohner harmonica. In Bari she met the handsome U.S. Air Force officer Harry Jagoda. They married, and at the end of the war, moved to the United States.
Once in the U.S., Flory was desperate to feel “American”. She says Americans knew very little about Sephardic culture when she arrived in the U.S. but, since then, they have learned more about it. Devoted to the preservation of her heritage, she has performed throughout the U.S. and abroad as a soloist and with her family and friends. Her repertoire includes Ladino, Italian, Serbo-Croatian folk songs and her own compositions.
Sarajevo’s culture was always close to her heart, and Flory spoke Serbo-Croatian with her parents. When they died in the 1970s, Flory started really discovering her roots. She researched the depths of Sephardic tradition, and she traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina where she hadn’t been since the start of World War II. She visited the mass grave of her 42 murdered family members in Vlasenica, and dedicated an album to it. In 1985, she performed a tour across Yugoslavia, taking her children to see the country she grew up in.
Written by Tea Ivanovic for Oslobodjenje