The Holocaust is described as the destruction of European Jewry. What is often not discussed is the devastation of Sephardic Jews who mainly lived in the area of the Balkans, including Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. These Jews, who can be traced back to their ancestors in Spain before the Jewish expulsion in 1492, lived happily in southeastern Europe for centuries, with their own cultures and traditions. Jews in each country had very different experiences during the Holocaust, and while this newsletter will not be able to address every angle, it will bring to light this group of Jews rarely discussed, as well as some remarkable stories of rescue.
While there existed Judeo-Spanish communities in France and the Netherlands, the majority of Sephardic Jews in Europe were concentrated in the Balkan countries, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Greece.
Since 1919, Yugoslavia consisted of a hub of countries, including Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Within the entirety of Yugoslavia there were about 80,000 Jews. There had never been much antisemitism in Yugoslavia before World War II, but once Hitler took power, in order to try and appease the Germans, Yugoslavia passed two anti-Jewish laws in October 1940. On April 13, 1941, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria, invaded Yugoslavia.
When she invaded, Germany divided Yugoslavia among its allies, keeping Serbia for itself, including the 16,000 Jews living there. Like in the other countries they invaded, the Nazis immediately began implementing anti-Jewish discriminatory policies, forcing Jews to wear an identifying badge, removing them from professional life, and defining where they would live. Men aged 16-60 were recruited for forced labor, businesses were taken away from Jewish owners, and Jewish banks were blocked. From 1941-1942, most of Serbia’s Jews were murdered by mass executions, gas vans, and starvation. Only 1,500 Serbian Jews survived.
In Croatia, Jews were persecuted as part of a general genocide of foreigners. Jewish property and money were taken away and by the end of 1941 two-third of Croatia’s Jews had been imprisoned and many were later killed by the government. The rest were deported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps in eastern Europe. Some escaped to the Italian zone of Yugoslavia and some were rescued by those later designated as Righteous Among the Nations.
Bulgaria’s government followed German recommendations and in 1943 deported most of the Jews it controlled in Macedonia to Treblinka where they were murdered. Out of 8,000 Macedonian Jews, less than 1,000 survived.
The Jews living in Montenegro can tell a different story as other Yugoslavian Jews because the Italians who occupied them decided to save them from the Germans. About 5,000 Jews in Montenegro were saved by the Italians.
At the start of World War II, about 50,000 Jews lived in Bulgaria. There had been a Jewish community in Bulgaria for centuries, with little antisemitism. In 1940, anti-Jewish laws were passed in Bulgaria, but were largely protested by the Bulgarian people. In March 1941 Bulgaria allied itself with Italy and Germany, but was never fully occupied by Germany. In September 1942, Bulgaria established a Commissariat, funded by the money in blocked Jewish bank accounts and headed by an antisemite, to deal with Jewish issues. By the winter of 1943, the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews became a definite possibility. In February, the Bulgarian government agreed to the deportation of 20,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, but fewer Jews lived in those areas, so 6,000 Jews from Bulgaria were meant to be sent from Bulgaria. Before the Bulgarian deportations were set to begin, Dimitar Peshev, a deputy speaker of the parliament met with the Bulgarian Minister of the Interior who agreed to cancel the deportation order for their own Jews but not of those from Macedonia and Thrace. While anti-Jewish laws were not removed and there was again a threat of deportation, ultimately, as Germany began to lose the war the Bulgarian government did not feel the need to adhere to Nazi ideology, and conditions improved for Bulgaria’s Jews. The Jews from Macedonia and Thrace had been murdered in Treblinka, but the Jews from Sofia were allowed to go home on short visits and were given other privileges. When the Soviet army reached Bulgaria, not a single Jews had been murdered. After 1948, 90% of Bulgaria’s Jews settled in Israel.
The story of Greek Jews is a fascinating one, both in their prewar lives and in how they went through World War II and the Holocaust. The presence of Jews in Greece began about 2,300 years ago as part of the Roman empire. After 1492 when Jews were expelled from Spain, approximately 20,000 Jewish exiles who spoke Ladino formed the nucleus of a central colony in Salonika. Salonika’s geographic location on the crossroads between sea and land routes attracted many Jewish people to settle there and the city became rich in skilled workers as well as the intellectual capital of the Jewish world. During the 16th through the 18th centuries, Salonika also became a center of Torah learning, and of Jewish mystical tradition, attracting many students from abroad who came to study with respected Torah scholars. During the 16th century there were several important rabbis whose influence spread beyond Salonika and even beyond the Ottoman Empire. For Salonika Jews the beginning of westernization that took place during the 19th century brought prosperity and in many ways a second renaissance. But the 1930s marked a rise in nationalistic leanings in Greece, accompanied by antisemitic propaganda in the press. Many Jews emigrated but this did not tremendously decrease the influence of Jews in Salonika. There were twelve Jewish schools, a Jewish orchestra, and many events were celebrated in public parks in the city.
Greece came under Axis occupation in April 1941 and was divided between Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. Italy did not want to discriminate against Jews so even with the Germans attempting to require a yellow badge and separate living quarters, anti-Jewish measures were not instituted immediately. In 1943, after Germany conquered all Italian lands, they began the destruction of Greek Jewry, beginning in Salonika. In March 1944, Jews living in Athens were rounded up and deported by the Wehrmacht and Greek police, to extermination camps in Poland. Jews from Corfu (1,800-2,000) and Rhodes (2,200) were also rounded up and deported in 1944. However, many Jews were hidden by Christians and survived the deportations. For example, in the coastal city of Volos, 752 Jews were hidden and 130 deported. Ultimately, out of 77,000 Greek Jews, 60,000 were murdered during the Holocaust. Many Greek Jews participated in the uprising in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Otcober 1944, while others helped blow up the crematorium in the death camp.
Teaching about Sephardic Jews During the Holocaust
While there are hundreds of directions in which lessons that deal with Sephardic Jews in these 3 countries could go, I will focus on some and perhaps address others in future newsletters.
First of all, the history of these communities is important and that is the reason I devoted so much time to it in this article. Many people are more familiar with Ashkenazi Jews and their traditions, and often associate the Holocaust with Germany and Poland, not spending as much time on countries in Southeast Europe. Jewish history did not begin in the 20th century and it is important to use this opportunity to delve into some of the history of Jews from around Europe, which will help students better understand the Jewish population in Europe at the outbreak of World War II.
Here are some tools that can be used in the classroom to deepen your students’ knowledge of the subject of Sephardic Jewry in Southeastern Europe:
- Personal Testimonies: Of course eye-witness accounts are a touching and informative way to get a sense for an historical period. Ovadia Baruch of Salonika, Greece is one such testimony that should be included in any classroom discussion. His story can be found on the Yad Vashem website and is also featured in the film “May Your Memory Be Love,” as part of Yad Vashem’s “Witnesses and Education” project.
- Righteous Among the Nations: Most people do not know that all of Bulgaria’s Jews were saved from Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Many other Jews in Thrace and Macedonia were saved by Christians who hid them in their homes. The story of the Balkans, Greece, and Bulgaria is different than that of Poland and one way to learn this is through those who were rescued. The fascinating and well-written book Beyond Hitler’s Grasp tells the story of the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews. In June 2010, Yad Vashem posthumously honored Vladimir Kurtev of Bulgaria as Righteous Among the Nations.
- Artifacts: It is often easier to learn about an historical period when we are able to see items that were used during that time, and can imagine what types of people owned them. Like the circumcision kit described in another article in this newsletter, there are hundreds of items that provide a window into Jewish life in the above-mentioned countries, as well as how they went through the Holocaust. Two artifacts in particular are featured on the Yad Vashem website.
Education on the Holocaust cannot ignore the smaller Jewish communities who equally struggled and in some cases, were equally decimated by the horrors of persecution, deportation, and death. The rich traditions of Sephardic Jews were not isolated in Spain or North Africa, but existed strongly in Europe as well, with music, art, Jewish learning, and a unique language. We owe it to them and to the communities they created to expand our educational frameworks.