The private odyssey of Moshe Ha’elyon could give the original tale of King Odyseus a run for its money. Odyseus fought mythological monsters, treacherous gods and visited the netherworld. Ha’elyon survived 21 months in Auschwitz, two death marches and a number of Nazi concentration camps. Odyseus was the only survivor of a shipwreck. Ha’elyon tried to reach this country on an illegal immigrants’ ship and was caught by the British. He was also wounded in the War of Independence when the jeep he was riding turned over. In recent years, having retired, he wrote his own odyssey in the form of an autobiography and epic poems.
When he finished, Ha’elyon, now 87, went on to translate Homer’s Odyssey from ancient Greek into his mother-tongue – Ladino. Last week his magnum opus was published.
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story/of that man skilled in all ways of contending/the wanderer, harried for years on end/after he plundered the stronghold/on the proud height of Troy,” the Ladino translation, like the original, begins.
Ha’elyon’s beginnings were in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he was born in 1925. Ancient Greek was part of his studies in school and he learned the Odyssey and the Iliad in junior high school. His community spoke Ladino.
When the persecution of the Jews in Thessaloniki began, in July 1942, Ha’elyon was sent with his family to Auschwitz. Most of his family was killed on the day they arrived.
Ha’elyon was the sole survivor in the family. One reason he stayed alive, he says was by giving Greek lessons to a Christian prisoner who had special privileges, and who paid for the lessons in food.
Ha’elyon was released by the Americans in Austria after going twice on a death march and working in Nazi labor camps.
In 1946 he made aliyah on the illegal immigrants’ ship the Wedgewood. It was captured by the British, who sent its passengers to the Atlit detention camp.
After his injury in the jeep accident, Ha’elyon went to officer’s training. He was released with a rank of lieutenant colonel in the reserves and continued to work for the defense establishment until his retirement in 1990.
Since then he divides his time among Holocaust survivors’ commemoration groups and writing in Ladino.
The idea to translate “The Odyssey” was given to him by Ladino scholar Avner Peretz. “He said he hadn’t finished high school because the war started, but he admitted that he studied ancient Greek, and the seed was planted,” Peretz said.
Ha’elyon actually began with “The Iliad,” but stopped because the text was longer and “a little more difficult.”
The translation took Ha’elyon almost four years, dealing with numerous difficulties along the way. “Ladino is a spoken language. Suddenly I had to find words from realms that don’t have words, like agriculture, seafaring, names of trees, etc.”
He found the words in Peretz’s Hebrew-Ladino dictionary and in the Bible in Ladino, among other books.
“I didn’t make up any words. I have documentation for everything,” he says.
He also had the challenge of maintaining the rhyming and rhythm of Homer’s original. During translation, and even when reading it now, Ha’elyon said he drums his fingers, which helped him maintain the cadence – Dactylic hexameter, lines of six (“hexa” ) feet, each of which is a “dactyl” – i.e., finger-shaped, with one long part, or syllable, and two short ones.
Ha’elyon placed Peretz’s translation of “The Odyssey” into Hebrew alongside his Ladino one, which make his work not only the first-ever translation of “The Odyssey” into Ladino, but also the first into Sephardic Hebrew.
Now Ha’elyon plans to return to his Ladino translation of “The Iliad.” “I learned how to work; from now on, every line I write, I won’t need to touch,” he says.
This week is the launch of the first of the book’s two volumes, at the Castel Museum in Ma’aleh Adumim. The book is dedicated to Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, on his 90th birthday.
Peretz sees Ha’elyon’s book as a major cultural achievement. As opposed to many scholars of Ladino, Peretz wants to redeem Ladino from the realm of nostalgia, and so a few years ago he also translated “The Little Prince” into Ladino.
“What fascinates me is not longing for the language but its potential. To show what Ladino can do,” Peretz says.
In contrast to Ladino’s big sister, Yiddish, which has a long tradition of writing and translation (although not yet of Homer ), Ladino has remained a spoken language. In recent years it has seen a renaissance, despite the decline in the number of people who speak it as their mother-tongue.
Of Ha’elyon’s work, Peretz says: “I see it as the culmination of 500 years of works in Ladino. It is at the same level of the 19th-century translation of the Bible into Ladino. It means the language has potential.”