On 15 March 1943, the first of 19 deportation trains left Thessaloniki for Auschwitz. The last train departed from Thessaloniki on 10 August and reached Auschwitz eight days later. Over 48,500 Jews were deported from Thessaloniki during those months. Among them was widow Delicia Zarfati, her daughter Yvon and her sons Aharon and Abraham. Delicia and Abraham were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival. Yvon and Aharon passed the selection and were incarcerated in the camp. Yvon was murdered several months later. Aharon survived Auschwitz and other camps. Most of his extended family was murdered in Auschwitz. Aharon immigrated to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) in 1945.
The names Delicia, Yvon and Abraham Zarfati are documented in the Book of Names, three of the 4,800,000 names of Holocaust victims that have been collected by Yad Vashem and are commemorated in this monumental installation. This is their story.
Delicia-Aliza née Beloul and Eliyahu Zarfati lived in Thessaloniki. They had six children: Josef, who died in infancy, Jacob, Yvon (b. 1922), Meir, who succumbed to illness before the war, Aharon (b. 1926) and Abraham (b. 1930). Eliyahu worked in a flour warehouse, and made a good living. The family lived in the Regie Vardar neighborhood, and maintained a traditional Jewish lifestyle. Eliyahu passed away in 1936, and the family lost its breadwinner. Delicia started working as a housekeeper, and Yvon and Aharon helped support the family: Yvon worked in a hat store, and from the age of 12, Aharon worked in a leather business and also sold cigarettes on the street.
In 1937, Jacob underwent a fictitious marriage ceremony to a woman in possession of a "Certificate" (entry permit to Eretz Israel), and immigrated there. The woman he married returned to Greece a few months later and was eventually murdered during the Holocaust. Delicia travelled to Eretz Israel with her son Abraham to visit Jacob and other relatives, returning to Thessaloniki a few months later. Yvon had intended to follow in Jacob's footsteps and marry a Certificate owner, but stayed in Thessaloniki. In February 1939, Aharon celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue in Thessaloniki and had a modest party at home, Jacob having sent over the money to pay for the festivities.
The Germans occupied Thessaloniki in April 1941. In the first stages of the occupation, racial laws were passed in Greece, and the situation of the Jews there deteriorated. In the winter of 1941-1942, hundreds of people died of starvation and epidemics that broke out in the Jewish quarter. Delicia and her children eked out a meager living selling sweet snacks they made out of sesame, honey, carob and dates. Delicia made the snacks and Aharon and Abraham sold them on the street. "During the period of the German occupation, I often went to sleep hungry," recalled Aharon.
In late February 1943, the Jews of Thessaloniki were confined in designated quarters prior to their deportation to Auschwitz. They were made to wear the Yellow Star, were subjected to a nightly curfew, were forbidden to enter the main streets and use public transport and telephones, and were forced to mark their businesses and homes in German and Greek. On 1 March 1943, they were ordered to submit a detailed report of their belongings.
In the course of the German occupation, thousands of young Jews from Thessaloniki were taken for forced labor all over Greece. In mid-March 1943, the deportation of Thessaloniki's Jews began. On the eve of the first deportation on 14 March, Judenrat chairman Rabbi Zvi Koretz, the last rabbi of the Thessaloniki Jewish community, and Jacques Albala, head of the Jewish Order Police, visited the Baron Hirsch ghetto, where some 16,000 Jews were confined. Rabbi Koretz explained that the single men would be sent to labor camps, while their parents would remain in Thessaloniki. A frantic wave of weddings ensued in reaction to this announcement. The Rabbi officiated weddings in groups of ten couples. By the end of March, up to 100 couples were getting married daily, in an attempt to circumvent the deportation. Yvon Zarfati was one of the brides in these hasty weddings. On 7 April, the eighth deportation train left Thessaloniki, carrying Delicia Zarfati, her children and her son-in-law. Aharon relates:
The Jewish families in Thessaloniki were very close-knit. The familial ties were very strong, and so, when the transports began, only very few young people escaped to join the partisans. I was 17. How could I escape and leave my mother to go alone to a foreign country? I would never do that – flee and abandon the adults of the family. They told us to bring all our money and replaced it with checks in zloty [Polish currency]. They said that we were going to live in Krakow […] If we would have thought about it a little, we would have realized that we were not going to be arriving anywhere good after the appalling conditions we were subjected to. […] Before we left, we had to give away all our valuables and empty our pockets.
The train reached Auschwitz on 13 April 1943. According to historian Danuta Czech's "Auschwitz Chronicle", 500 men and 364 women were selected out of the 2,800 deportees and given numbered tattoos on their forearms. The remaining Jews were murdered immediately in the gas chambers. On that day, Delicia Zarfati and her son Abraham were murdered. Her son Aharon, her daughter Yvon and her son-in-law passed the selection and were incarcerated in the camp. Aharon became prisoner number 114563. He recalls:
They forced us down from the cattle cars with beatings, and started the selection. […] They put my little brother and my mother with the old people. And I wanted to go with my mother. Then they beat me and shoved me in the direction of the young people. I never saw them, or my sister, again. I was left with my brother-in-law.
Aharon was taken to the infirmary at Auschwitz, and was subjected to medical experiments. He was trained at the "Bricklayer School" (Maurerschule) at Auschwitz and worked for a few months constructing storehouses in the camp. At one of the selections, he was designated for the crematoria, but managed to escape the group destined for death with the help of two Polish Jewish prisoners whom he had befriended and communicated with in Hebrew.
In late 1943, Aharon was assigned to forced labor that included placing telegraph poles and digging sewage canals in the icy cold in Buna-Monowitz (Auschwitz III). With the evacuation of the Auschwitz camps in January 1945, Aharon was forced on a death march to Gliwice (Gleiwitz), and from there the prisoners were transported to Buchenwald on a week-long journey in open cars. It was freezing cold and snowing, and they received no food or water. Many died on the way. After a few days, Aharon was again assigned to forced labor, blasting rocks in a tunnel and laying iron tracks.
In April 1945, Aharon was liberated by the Red Army. Returning to Thessaloniki, he couldn't find any members of his family. He joined a Zionist Hachshara (pioneer training scheme) and immigrated to Eretz Israel via Athens, on the Ma'apilim ship "Berel Katzenelson" in November 1945. In Eretz Israel, he was reunited with his brother Jacob, whom he hadn’t see for more than eight years.
Aharon volunteered in the Palmach and fought in the Negev brigade. In 1951, he married Marta, and they settled in Tel Aviv.
In 1956, Aharon Zarfati submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of his mother, Delicia-Aliza, his brother Abraham and his sister Yvon. "I wanted to commemorate my brother-in-law too," he relates, "but regrettably I have forgotten his name."