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Bouena Sarfatty of Salonika: A Partisan-Poet Holocaust Survivor

While investigating an eminent Sephardi family named de Botton from the Ottoman Empirein 1989, I wrote to all the Sephardi communities abroad in search of any of their descendants. As a result, I received a two-page letter in French from a woman named Bouena Sarfatty Garfinkle who was living in Montreal. She mentioned de Botton, the orchestra conductor, and various others who all had been transported to Auschwitz and perished there. When in the U.S., I opted to visit this unique woman and to record her recollections. When she heard that I taught a course about the fate of the Sephardim during the Holocaust, she handed me 200 pages of Ladino verses (coplas) that she had written about Jewish life in 20th century Salonika and about the fate of the community during WWII. These verses provide an amazing entrée into the history and fate of a community destroyed during the Holocaust.

As it turns out, Bouena Sarfatty was a descendant of Sephardi Jews who arrived in Salonika after the Expulsion from Spain. In 1940, she had been engaged to a young man named Chaim who was recruited to the Greek army and sent to fight Mussolini’s troops after they attacked Greece on October 28, 1940. When Hitler sent his army in to save his ally from shaming him, the Greek soldiers retreated; Chaim was sent home with his comrades at arm. Following the Nazi invasion of Salonika on April 9, 1941, the lives of every Jew in the city changed drastically.

Jewish group wedding in Salonika which Bouena Sarfatty helped organize July 7, 1946.

In the meantime, Bouena had been volunteering at the Matanot La-Evionim Association (Gifts for the Needy), distributing food to endless numbers of hungry souls in the city and offering (condensed) milk to children from needy families. She and her friend Sarah Trabout were devoted to their work at this soup kitchen. However, when Vital Sasson, the head of the Jewish police (politofilaka) decided that Sarah was the desired bride for his brother,  Bouena acquired a powerful enemy because she verbalized her objection to the match. Sarah herself was appalled at the prospect, but Hasson, an underhanded power-hungry man with little regard for his fellow Jews, threatened Mr. Trabout and his family. Sarah was left with no choice but to wed the younger brother. Bouena Sarfatty was devastated, and poor Sarah cried her eyes out as she and her groom were bombastically paraded through the neighborhood in a limousine.

Unbeknownst to the majority of the community, the deportation plans were in an advanced stage. When the mothers from the Baron de Hirsch neighborhood did not show up for their children’s milk at the regular time, Bouena was concerned and consulted with the Red Cross representative. Since the latter offered to have her driven to the ghetto in his official car, she loaded the milk and set forth. Unfortunately, she had no idea that this ghetto, which was adjacent to the railroad, had been sealed off that very day, March 15,1943, inorder to expedite the first deportation.

Upon seeing Bouena enter the ghetto, Hasson was infuriated and proceeded to taunt and abuse her, forcing her to drink huge quantities of milk until she retched and soiled her clothing. He then instructed her to distribute the remainder of the milk. After this harrowing experience, she feared for her life and realized that she could no longer remain in Salonika. She and her fiancé arranged to be wed the next day, but when she arrived at the synagogue to meet him, she found her murdered groom there; she was then arrested and imprisoned. This young woman eventually escaped with the help of partisans and Daniel Modiano, a family friend with connections in the Italian consulate. She reached Athens where she joined the Greek partisans.

Bouena Sarfatty served in various capacities, some of which were routine and others dangerous. For example, while in Veria she was a courier who secretly exchanged bags with another partisan. Another task of hers while in the underground was to gather information while posing as a cook in a German kitchen in Crete; the commandant there was captured and delivered by her group to a British submarine for interrogation in England. She also smuggled numerous Jewish children to Palestine via Turkey and Syria. She took care of babies and wounded individuals she found along the way, and participated in daring maneuvers en route to Palestine.

Bouena returned to Greece in June 1945 with the Palestinian Jewish Relief Unit of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). For all intents and purposes, she was a dietitian working at a camp for displaced persons, but she was also an agent for an underground escape route for survivors and refugees hoping to reach Palestine. She was assigned to Siderokastro, the Greek DP camp that received many survivors of Bergen-Belsen, and her verses describe this experience as well.

After completing this mission, she decided to return to her home town; this proved to be a shocking experience. Bouena knew that her older brother had left many of the family’s belongings and funds with various Greek friends and associates. She hoped to retrieve whatever was possible, but was stunned by the hostile response she encountered as she approached neighbors, bankers, and former friends. Some of the beautiful embroidered articles made by the Sarfatty women were unabashedly being used by Greek women in public; her demands to return them were not met graciously. Bouena traced the contents of her own trousseaux to a farmhouse where the hostility of the farmer’s wife was restrained only after her husband came home. Bouena Sarfatty roamed the city in a state of despondency, having lost her family, her home and most of her possessions.

Nevertheless, she opted to make herself useful, especially since the Jewish community was in dire need of support. As young people began to return, many of whom had been hiding in the surrounding areas, they too needed direction. Bouena helped organize a group wedding for these couples who could not imagine marrying without any family present. By bringing them together, the rabbi, Michael Molho, found an appropriate solution to their sense of loneliness. Bouena helped make dresses for the brides, bake cakes and decorate the hall in the Matanot La-Evionim building. In July of 1946, she married Max Garfinkle, who had also been working in the DP camp. They helped to reopen an orphanage and within this framework, organized a two week retreat for fourteen teens who had survived the war by hiding out.

After leaving Greece and resettling in Montreal, Bouena spent endless hours writing a memoir and recording refrains, expressions and songs and composing her own coplas, or poems in Ladino.  Her perspective is unique and invaluable, especially because there were so few survivors from Salonika, relatively few Saloniklis who were partisans and even fewer women involved in literary activities. Her memory was phenomenal and historically accurate. In short, these collections are a rare find in the world of Ladino poetry. Bouena Sarfatty passed away on July 23, 1997, leaving a rich legacy for generations to come. These verses have been translated into English (with explanatory notes and a glossary) and published along with an in-depth historical analysis of the verses and of twentieth century Salonikan Jewish life in An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty, by Renée Levine Melammed (Indiana University Press, 2013).

The book may be purchased at Indiana University Press or Amazon.

Renée Levine Melammed is a professor of Jewish History at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Academic Editor of Nashim, and a leading scholar in the history of Sephardic Jewry and Jewish Women’s Studies.

Renée Levine Melammed, originally from Long Island, New York, received her degrees from Smith College and Brandeis University. Her dissertation and early research dealt with the lives of crypto-Jewish women in Spain and the way in which conversos coped with the issue of their identity; her current research is focused on women’s lives as reflected in the Cairo Geniza. She is an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Schechter, teaching courses in medieval Jewish history and gender studies as well as in Jews of Spain and Islamic lands.

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