A Memorial Tribute by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
80 years ago today, on March 15, 1943, thousands of Jews in Salonika were deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. This tragedy marked the beginning of the end for one of Sephardic Jewry’s most illustrious historic communities. Close to 95% of Salonika’s Jews were exterminated. Of the few survivors, some returned to Salonika, while others migrated to Israel or the United States.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I had the privilege of knowing many of those survivors. Having prayed from childhood at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, I attended annual Yom Hashoah Holocaust Memorial services where poems were recited in Ladino and the stories were about the horrors of Auschwitz as experienced by Sephardic Jews.
I remember one survivor describing how difficult their arrival to Auschwitz was, primarily because of the language barrier between the Ladino-speaking Jews from Salonika and the primarily Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi inmates. While Ashkenazi Jews could understand the orders being given by the Nazis, the Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews could not. Many of the Ashkenazi Jews had a hard time believing that these new arrivals were Jews, as they were unfamiliar with their language or customs. Growing up in America, it was hard enough for me to imagine Jews not being able to communicate with one another, let alone in a hellish place like Auschwitz. What a nightmare.
When I became the rabbi of that same community – Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel – some of my most memorable moments were with the Greek Holocaust survivors. Whether at the Yom Hashoah services that I was now privileged to preside over, or at the many lifecycle celebrations for their families, I got to know and became close to many of the same people I listened to as a child.
Amongst the most meaningful and honorable moments for me was the privilege of officiating at their funerals. When preparing for the eulogy I would recite, it was by sitting and listening to the stories told to me by their surviving family members that I learned of their beautiful lives, their suffering, their courage, and their strength to rebuild their lives after the tragic fate of their community.
On my recent trip to Israel, I purchased a book at Yad Vashem titled “Last Letters from the Shoah.” This poignant collection of personal letters reveals the raw emotions of Jews trying desperately to tell their tragic story as it was happening.
In loving memory of the tens of thousands of Jews from Salonika murdered by the Nazis, I reproduce excerpts of an anonymous letter written by a Greek Jew on August 15, 1943, exactly 5 months after the mass deportation. This person miraculously avoided being deported, and offers a painful description of what happened to the community:
We ask your forgiveness for the style of this letter, since we don’t really know your language. I am now presenting you with the history of all that has happened to us in recent months. In June 1942, 8,500 Jews of Saloniki were sent to hard labor. In March 1943, they forced all the Jews of Saloniki to put the Star of David on their garments, to leave their homes in the city and assemble in the ghetto. On March 15, they suddenly took 3,000 people from the ghetto, the elderly, youth, women, boys and girls, and put them in closed railroad cars meant for cattle. After the first train’s journey, they took another 3,000 people, and so it continued with the third and fourth trains, and more, so that by the first of June, the last of the Jews were deported. A total of 53,000 of our people were deported, and now no Jew remains in Saloniki and the cities of Macedonia. Until this day we do not know where they sent them and what is their fate. It is impossible to describe to you the conditions of their journey.
We do not have the spiritual strength to describe to you the many troubles that we have undergone between March and June this year. The congregation of Israel has witnessed awful days of mourning. All those that have fled the decree came here to Athens tired and naked. They number about 3,000. The Jewish community of Athens has done all that it can to assure their lives, despite concerns over their own fate. But our enemy is very cruel, and who knows what will happen to us at the end.
Now, not one single Jew remains in Saloniki. “Alas, she sits in solitude – a city and center of the Jewish nation.” Houses of prayer were lost, our cemetery was destroyed, our libraries, our Torah scrolls were destroyed, all the community ledgers were burnt and our property was taken.
And now, our upright brothers, farewell to you. Our hope is not yet lost, for with the last of the Jews remains the last of our hope.
On this 80th anniversary of the tragic deportation of the Jews of Salonika to death camps, may we have the strength to continue teaching their stories and living by the cherished Sephardic way of life that they lived so beautifully until came the accursed agents of the wretched Nazi abomination and destroyed them.
May the sacred memories of the Jews of Salonika be for an eternal blessing, Amen.