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  • Daniel Santacruz

The drama of the Sefardim in the Holocaust in 16 must-have works

By Daniel Santacruz

Scholars have overlooked the suffering of smaller Jewish communities, such as the Sefardim, at the hands of the Germans during the Holocaust. Similar to experiences of Jewish communities in Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, the Sefardim also faced denial of basic rights, deportation and death.

This thought was expressed by Haham Dr. Salomon Gaon and rabbi Mitchell Serels in the foreword to Sephardim and the Holocaust, one of the books reviewed here: “The Sefardim who suffered in the pangs of the Holocaust were fewer in number but the ravishment was almost complete. The story of the suffering of the Sefardim at the hands of the Nazis and local anti-Semites demands retelling in order to maintain the awareness that the Holocaust was aimed at all Jews. No Jew was to be excluded for all were condemned by the Nazis.”

Indeed, several of those works offer a unique perspective, especially the ones written by the witnesses themselves, some in Judeo-Spanish and Greek, their languages of daily conversation.

Unfortunately, most of the books are unknown outside Sefardic and academic circles and the tragedy of the Sefardim continues to be largely overlooked.

The main centers of Sefardic life prior to the Second World War were in Belgrade, Salonika, Sofia and Sarajevo, where thousands of Jews lived. But that changed during the Holocaust. In Greece, 85% of the Jewish population was killed, in Yugoslavia, 80%, and in Bulgaria, 20%.

Only 45 Jews were alive in Rhodes in 1945, at the war’s end, out of a population of 1,701 in 1941. In Salonika, during the same period, 1,950 survived out of a population of 56,000.

Several of the works included here were written by people who were born in those cities and experienced the suffering first hand.

Las Angustias del Enferno. Moshe ‘Ha-Elion. Sentro Moshe David Gaon de Kultura Djudeo-Espanyola, Universidad Ben Gurion, Bersheva, Israel, 2007. ISBN 978-965-91164-0-9.

One of the few accounts of the Holocaust written in Ladino, this book tells the story of ‘Ha-Elion, who was born in Salonika and deported to Auschwitz with his family when he was 18 years old. He was the only member of his family to survive.

‘Ha-Elion arrived in Palestine in 1946, joined the Israel Navy and retired with the rank of Colonel in 1970. In 2014 he translated Homer’s Odissey into Ladino for Yeriot Publishing of Israel. He lives in Tel Aviv.

Monastir Without Jews. Recollections of a Partisan in Macedonia. Jamila Andjela Kalonomos. Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, New York, 2008. ISBN 978-1-886857-09-4.

This fascinating book is not only a personal memoir recalling the fate of Monastir’s Jewish community during the Holocaust, but also an eyewitness account of the Jewish presence in the Yugoslav resistance. Illustrated with dozens of black and white photographs, it’s adapted from a Ladino compilation, Monastir sin djudios

One of the appendixes includes several articles written in Ladino by the author.

The Holocaust in Salonika: Eyewitness Accounts. Sephardic House and Bloch Publishing Co., New York, 2002. ISBN 0-8197-0753-8.

The accounts presented in this valuable book are three of the basic sources for the history of the Holocaust among Salonikan Jews. It’s a translation from the Greek and Judeo-Spanish containing the testimonies of Yomtov Yacoel, lawyer for the Salonika Jewish community; Isaac Aron Matarasso, post-war physician for the survivors; and Salomon Uziel, a community leader after the war.

It’s the first volume of an ambitious publishing project launched in 2002 by Sephardic House and the American Sephardic Federation, both based in New York, about Sefardic and Romaniote Jews in Greece called The Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library.

Liter of Soup and Sixty Grams of Bread: The Diary of Prisoner Number 109565. Hainz Salvator Kounio. Sephardic House and Bloch Publishing Co., New York, 2003. ISBN 0-8197-0763-5.

The author was one of the 2,800 Salonika Jews forced to leave their city on March 15, 1943. Deported with his parents and his sister, he was 15 at that time. They all survived. The title refers to the daily rations the inmates were allowed at Mauthausen, one of four concentration camps where he was prisoner (the others were Auschwitz, Melk and Ebensee) and the number tattooed on his arm. 

Translated from the Greek, it includes copies of official records, a timetable and a glossary, as well as photographs taken by the author’s father, Salvator Kounio, at Ebensee the day it was liberated. It’s the second volume of the Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library.

Chimera: A Period of Madness. Isaac Bourla. Sephardic House and Bloch Publishing  Co., New York, 2003. ISBN 978-08197-0.

Written originally in Greek, Chimera is a gripping account of a prisoner that went from childhood—he was 15 at the time of his deportation from Salonika on April 2, 1943—to adulthood under horrendous circumstances.

With great attention to details, he describes his years in the camps of Buna, Birkenau and Buchenwald, until his liberation from the latter at 18 in 1945. His parents and younger brother didn’t survive. Bourla settled in Israel after the war. 

It’s the third volume of the Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library.

A Cry for Tomorrow 76859 . . . Berry Nahmia. Sephardic House and Bloch Publishing Co., New York, 2012. ISBN 978-0-81790-1.

This is one of the few books about the plight of Sefardim in the Holocaust written by a woman.

Nahmia, who had the number of the title tattooed on her arm, was deported from Kastoria, in the Greek province of Macedonia, on April 1, 1944 when she was 18. Her father, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and half-brothers and sisters from her stepmother were also deported. She was the only survivor.

Written originally in Greek, it’s the fourth volume of the Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library.

From Thessaloniki to Auschwitz and Back. Erika Kounio AmariglioThe Library of Holocaust Testimonies. Valentine Mitchel, London and Portland, OR, 2000. ISBN 085303390-1.

In March 1943 the author and her family were among 2,800 Jews who were deported with the first transport to Auschwitz.

Amariglio’s amazing story of suffering and survival includes the period before the Second World War, the German occupation, the deportations, the two-and-a-half years that she and her family spent in Auschwitz and their escape to Yugoslavia, and the return to Greece.

The House by the Sea: A Portrait of the Holocaust in Greece. Rebecca Cahmi Fromer. Mercury House, San Francisco, CA, 1988. ISBN 1-56279-105-2.

This poignant story centers on Elias Alion, born in Salonika into a middle class Jewish family. He worked in the family’s wine business initially and then served in the Greek army. He hid with guerrillas in the mountains and returned to his native city when the war ended.

The author uses the first person to tell Elias’s dramatic story and includes a genealogy of his immediate and extended family.

One of the appendices includes a list of the men and women deported from Salonika to Auschwitz, their date of arrival and the number of people killed in the gas chambers based on the records kept by the Germans at the camp. Illustrated with 24 black-and-white photographs.

And the World Stood Silent: Sephardic Poetry of the Holocaust. Isaac JacK Lévy. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, IL,1989. ISBN 0-252-01580-0.

Born on the island of Rhodes, Greece, Lévy, professor of Spanish language and literature at the University of South Carolina, gives voice to the forgotten Sefardim in this book by allowing them to speak in their own words and through their poetry.

The book traces “the long journey to the concentration and extermination camps where they met their final destiny, along with millions of Jews and Christians,” writes the author in the preface.

English translations accompany the authors’ French, Greek, Italian and Judeo-Spanish poems.

The Jewish Martyrs of Rhodes and Cos. Hizkia M. Franco. HarperCollins, New York, 1994. ISBN 177904-004-0.

Franco, a councilor of the municipality of Rhodes and former president of the Jewish communities of Izmir, wrote what is perhaps one of the few eyewitness accounts of Jewish life under the Nazis in the Dodecanese islands.

It was written in French in Rhodes in 1947 and published in the former Belgian Congo. Franco’s grandson, Joseph Franco, translated it into English. It was published in 1994 to coincide with the 50th year of the deportation of the Jewish community to Auschwitz in July 1944.

Rich in details, it tells gripping stories of life under the Nazis that only an insider likeFranco could tell. Includes a 48-page list of names of Jews living in Cos and Rhodes at the time of the deportation (both those who were deported and those who survived).

Siniza i fumo. Avner Peres. Maale Adumim Institute for the Documentation of Judeo-Spanish and Its Culture, Maale Adumim, Israel, 1986.

The title of this one-of-a-kind compact disc alludes to the ashes and smoke of the crematoria in the concentration camps. The composition is based on prayers, liturgy, romansas and lamentations of the Sefardim, and on Perez’s 1986 book of the same title.

A number of poems featured in the book, written in Judeo-Spanish, were set to music by Daniel Akiva, a Haifa composer, for this disk.

Divided in eight pieces, Siniza i fumo features the Kibutz Chamber Orchestra, which represents the community of Salonika, the award-winning Li-ron Choir, and mezzo-soprano Ronit Wildman-Levy.

Sephardim and the Holocaust. Haham Dr. Salomon Gaon and rabbi Mitchell Serels. Jacob E, Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies, Yeshiva University, New York, 1987.

This little-known book devotes several chapters to the non-European Holocaust: Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq. Other chapters offer different perspectives about the fate of the Jewish communities of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Rhodes and Greece.

The sympathy of the Arab masses to the Axis—Italy and Germany—and the pro-Nazi activities of Haj Amin E-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, are analyzed at length in one of the chapters.

Several of the contributors are well known in the Sefardic world: the late Hacham Gaon and rabbi Serels, former directors of Jacob E. Safra Insitute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University, in New York City; rabbi Marc Angel, former spiritual leader of Congregation Sheharit Israel, also in that city, and author of several books; and the late professor David F. Altabe of Queensborough Community College.

A survivor, Jack Pollak, has contributed a chapter about the Holocaust in Holland, where he was born.

Franco, Spain, the Jews and the Holocaust. Chaim U. Lipschitz. Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1984. ISBN 0-88125-025-2.

The author, an American rabbi, scored a big hit when this book came out in the mid-1980s. He interviewed Francisco Franco himself and many of the Jews who were saved by the Spanish government as well several Spanish officials, mainly ambassadors, who were directly involved in their rescue.

He also cites a large amount of document from Allied and Axis sources and explores El Caudillo's role after war on behalf of Jews trapped inArab countries.

The Mezuzzah in the Madonna’s Foot. Trudi Alexy. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993. ISBN 0-671-77816-1.

The astonishing story of how Jews found asylum from Hitler’s Final Solution under Franco’s fascist regime is the topic of this book, in which we hear harrowing accounts of the Jewish refugees who crossed the Pyrenees.

Alexy, a family therapist who lives in California, also interviewed the Spanish rescuers who put their lives in danger to save them.

Portugal, Salazar and the Jews. Avraham Milgram. Yad Vashem and The International  School for Holocaust Research, Jerusalem, Israel, 2011. ISBN 0-671-77816-1.

This scholarly book explores Portugal’s attitude toward the rescue of Jews persecuted by the Nazis and their accomplices during the Second World War.

Based on a wide array if documentation, this research examines the main protagonists in this drama: Salazar, the dictator of Portugal; his police; the leaders of the Jewish community; and others.

The author was an educator at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies as well as Research Director of the Holocaust History Museum and the author of several books.

The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War. Michael Matsas. Pella Publishing Co., New York, 1997. ISBN 0-918618-66-5.

The author recalls here his experiences with the andartes (resistance fighters) in the mountains of Greece and presents, for the first time in English, a collection of first-person accounts of Jews who fought there or were active in the urban resistance during the war. 

Matsas points an accusing finger at Greek government officials who refused to warn the Jews, let alone help them to escape their horrendous fate.

© Daniel Santacruz

May 2017

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