Sephardic Jewry and the Holocaust:
Presentation Abstracts

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Symposium sessions are open to the public, but due to limited seating, advance registration is requested. Click here for symposium registration. Please note that each day session requires separate registration. 

Alejandro Baer

The Voids of Sepharad: The Memory of the Holocaust in Spain

Discussions about the Holocaust have gained significant presence in Spain’s public life in the last decade. This is a consequence of the effects of cultural and political convergence with Europe as well as of the intense debate over the memory of the Civil War and crimes of the Franco Dictatorship. In historical terms, Spanish society does not have an immediate connection to the Holocaust, although the general public is now certainly more aware of its symbolic significance. Multiple discourses on the Holocaust emerge in different contexts in today’s Spain. They are influenced by broader transnational trends, but they also incorporate and reflect national and local specificities. Departing from theories of cosmopolitan and transnationalized memories, this paper explores how the Holocaust is being remembered in present-day Spain.

Marc D. Baer

Turk and Jew in Berlin: The First Turkish Migration to Germany and the Shoah

Isaak Behar was a Turkish Jew in Nazi Berlin stripped of his citizenship by his own government. Turkish consular officials refused to repatriate him to Turkey as Germany desired, fully aware of the grave consequences awaiting him and thousands of Turkish Jews in similar circumstances throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Like the others, Behar was condemned to Auschwitz. When the Gestapo came to his apartment in Charlottenburg at the end of 1942 to seize him, Turkish officials did nothing to save him. The following spring, Nazi authorities targeted another Turkish citizen and assumed Jew named Fazli Taylan, whose business was located near the Behar’s apartment. Although Turkish “experts” confirmed that Taylan was a member of the Jewish “race,” the Turkish government exerted tremendous effort to save him, the only instance where it used the full powers of its diplomatic offices to try and spare the life of a Turk taken for a Jew. Why did Turkey attempt to rescue Taylan, but not Behar? At the same time, the Turkish government allowed select German Jews including Isaak Behar’s neighbor Eric Auerbach temporary refuge in Turkey. Why would Turkey permit foreign Jews to immigrate, but deny its own the right? Both Germany and Turkey are invested in remembering the narrative of the very few German Jews such as Auerbach saved by Turkey, but in forgetting the fates of the far more numerous Turkish Jews like Behar and Turks labeled Jews like Taylan in Nazi-era Berlin. What is at stake for these two countries in forgetting the fate of some Jews during the Shoah, but remembering others? What are the political effects today of occluding Turkish Jewishness by failing to remember the relationship between the first Turkish migration to Germany and the Shoah?

Aomar Boum

Unsilencing Pre-Vichy North Africa: International League Against Anti-Semitism in Colonial North Africa between 1935 and 1940

In the late 1920s, Bernard Lecache founded the International League Against Anti-Semitism (LICA) in Paris to raise public awareness in France and other European societies against Jewish hatred and mobilize Jews and non-Jews to take action toward discrimination. The rise of anti-Semitic discourse in the French Algerian press which culminated in the pogrom of Constantine in August 1934 led the leadership of LICA to establish branches in North African cities in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Based on daily correspondences between the headquarter of LICA in Paris and its North African chapters between 1936-1940, this paper discusses the membership and activities of LICA in North Africa prior to the rise of Vichy. I argue that despite the efforts of LICA to encourage strong relations between Muslims and Jews, the anti-Semitic environment among French and European colons, the German propaganda in North Africa and the situation in British Palestine hindered its plans for a Jewish-Muslim rapport in urban North Africa prior to World War II.

Adriana Brodsky

Argentine Sephardim and the Holocaust: Reactions and Remembrance

This presentation will summarize the way Argentine Sephardim reacted to the Holocaust during the 1940s, and how they later chose to remember the victims who had perished in it.  The paper will also discuss the experiences of two Sephardi rabbis who lived through the Holocaust in Europe and highlight the role they played in instilling Zionist feelings among the young Sephardim at their return. Using community minute books, magazine articles and personal papers, the presentation will stress how the Holocaust contributed to the consolidation of a Zionist movement among Sephardim.
 

Paris Papamichos Chronakis

“We lived as Greeks and we died as Greeks”: Salonican Jews at Auschwitz and the Meaning of Nationhood

This paper examines the semantics of national identity in Auschwitz through an analysis of oral and written testimonies of Greek Jewish survivors from the city of Salonica, Greece. Existing historiography on life in the concentration camps has so far touched upon questions of identity by focusing almost exclusively on the Jewishness of the inmates. This it has examined generically as a strategy of resistance and within the framework of victim-perpetrator power relations. Yet, how inmates themselves constructed their identity in relation to each other is of equally critical importance if we are to understand the social world of the camps from the point of view of their victims. A focus on the Sephardic Jews of Greek Salonica can help redress this interpretative imbalance. Precisely because they were a culturally distinct and numerically negligible group, their practices of sociability, (the bonds they forged and the meanings with which they endowed them), provide a preferential vantage point. In their case, nationality emerges not as a negligible given but as a crucial category of identification and differentiation specific to camp life. Hence, the paper provisionally argues that for Salonican Jews reference to “Greece” was part of a broader reading of the camp world on the basis of nationality; that “Greeks” at Auschwitz were formed both with regard to a nostalgia for their country of origin as well as to their position in the camp’s hierarchy; that “national solidarity”, albeit present, shaped the inmates’ relatedness and its meanings only partially; and that in the end, it did not replace, but rather resignified the already existing strong local identity of the Jewish “Salonican”.

Katerina Lagos

Forced Assimilation or Emigration: The Case of Sephardic Jewry in Thessaloniki, 1917 – 1941

Thessaloniki’s incorporation into the Greek state in 1912 proved to be a major turning point for the city’s Sephardic Jews. While the Sephardim comprised the largest ethnic group in the city, their perceived reluctance to integrate themselves to the ruling culture posed a problem for successive Greek administrations. State policies of Hellenization (assimilation to Greek culture) were a dominant factor in interwar Greek domestic policy and undermined Sephardic educational, religious, and territorial integrity. Throughout the period of 1917 through 1941, the Sephardic community was effectively faced with two choices: forced assimilation or emigration. This paper explores the policies and political rationalities through which successive Greek administrations imposed these stark alternatives on the Sephardim. Through a reading of key political moments—including the reconstruction of the city after the 1917 fire, the Sunday mandatory rest laws, the appropriation of parts of the Jewish cemetery, and the implementation of educational reforms—the paper enquires into (1) the form and extent of continuity from one administration to the next and (2) the processes by which state ambitions become realized as concrete policies.

Nina B. Lichtenstein

Post-War Holocaust Narratives of North African Jewish Women

Gisèle Braka, née Chemama, was born in Tunisia in 1920 and immigrated to France on the eve of WWII at the age of 16 with five siblings and her mother. Through a combination of sheer luck, smarts, bravery and tenacity, a heroic trajectory was to take shape as this young polyglot woman slipped through the cracks of the ruthless Paris round-ups, joined the resistance, and survived to become an activist for Sephardi and humanitarian causes worldwide.  Through a study of Braka’s recorded oral testimonies available in the USC Shoah Foundation Archives and at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center, as well as through personal interviews conducted with Braka’s daughters living in Paris and Montreal, this paper will trace the outline of how one Sephardi woman heroically navigated the various wartime challenges and traumas such as occupation, family separation, displacement, resistance, survival and its aftermath.  Hers is a different historical narrative based on the realities experienced by the Jews of North Africa who lived in the colonized Maghreb, differentiated from the Arabs under the French. Gisèle Braka’s recent death poignantly prompts a reflection on the urgency of connecting with survivors and their families, as the generation of surviving witnesses to the major historical events of the colonial experience and the Holocaust is rapidly dwindling.  Through a closer look at one unique Sephardic narrative of survival and resistance, this paper hopes to participate in imagining what the future of the field holds in terms of the value of transcribing and transmitting oral testimonies of witnesses who they themselves are, sadly but realistically, vanishing. As we engage in our research as scholars, writers and biographers, we take on the responsibility of answering and acting in response to the question “Who will tell their stories?” The necessary re-working of the oral narratives that goes into authoring coherent, engaging and articulate texts is laden with challenging questions: How do we tell their stories? How do we fill in the gaps? DO we have to fill in the gaps? How do we approach the discrepancy between memory as recorded by the survivor and the facts that can prove conflicting? In other words, how do we navigate the perceived discrepancy between story and history without dismissing the value of one in favor of the other, and still safeguard the relevance of both in our pursuit of understanding the human experience?

Tabea Linhard

Rescue Narratives about the Sephardim: Citizenship, Identity, and Memory

This paper focuses on accounts of individual and collective efforts to protect the Sephardim during the Holocaust.  Rescuing and protecting the Sephardim at times entailed negotiations with Muslim rulers, a circumstance that in light of present conflicts in the Middle East can attain specific political subtexts.  Moreover, attempts to help the Sephardim often took place within a colonial context, and colonial hierarchies for the most part remain unquestioned in contemporary narratives about the events that took place during World War II.  This paper will focus specifically on accounts of Spain’s role in the protection of the Sephardim in the Holocaust, but also make reference to rescue efforts across Southeastern Europe and North Africa in order show that questions about citizenship, identity, and memory shape the construction and circulation of “rescue narratives.”  While the Holocaust did not take place in Spain, Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975) spread contradictory messages with regards to the fate of Sephardic Jews, often, as Isabelle Rohr has argued, for opportunistic reasons.  In Spain the Sephardim received a series of interchangeable labels: they were considered “Spanish Jews,” “Jews of Spanish origin,” “Spanish-speaking Jews,” and even “Spanish citizens.”  The shifting labels made a limited number of rescue actions possible, and also led to the construction of heroic narratives, in which Spain or those representing Spain appeared as protectors of the Sephardim, even when that had hardly been the case.  The paper’s goal ultimate goal is to provide an overview of rescue narratives, and an understanding of their national and international impact.

Devin E. Naar

“You are your brother’s keeper:” Sephardic American Responses to the Holocaust in Greece

An increasing amount of scholarship has focused on and debated American Jewish responses to the Holocaust and particularly the contested notion that American Jews chose to be silent about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. In parallel to the experiences of Sephardic Jews under Nazi occupation, in general, which have not garnered extensive scholarly attention, the question of Sephardic American responses to the Holocaust has never been broached. This paper therefore seeks to provide the first account of Sephardic American responses to the Holocaust, with particular attention to Greece and the Balkans and the communities from which much of the Sephardic American population stemmed. With reference to the American Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) press, archives of Sephardic American relief agencies, private family correspondence, and memoirs published in English in the immediate post-war years, this paper explores the availability of knowledge in the Sephardic American public sphere about the Nazi persecutions, mass demonstrations against Hitler in which Sephardic Jewish organizations participated, and efforts by individuals and institutions to provide relief to relatives and communities in the Balkans on the eve and in the wake of the war. Finally, this paper will address the sensitive question of whether Sephardic Jews in America remained silent during the immediate post-war years and examine whether this experience influenced Sephardic integration into American and American Jewish society.

Sophie Roberts

Between Supplication and Resistance: North African Jews under Vichy

This paper examines the different strategies used by North African Jews, particularly Algerian Jews, to respond to the antisemitic legislation imposed by the Vichy government.  In Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, Vichy legislation forced Jews from professions, schools, and military service among many other restrictions.  In Algeria, after the abrogation of the Cremieux decree in 1940, Jews faced new and highly complicated identities, and lacked the organizational strength to respond as a group to the legislation imposed upon them.  Jews responded in various ways to the limitations placed on their lives in France’s North African territories.  Such responses included letters to the Vichy government, Marshal Petain, and other Vichy and local officials in which Jews inquired as to their new statuses and appealed to be exempted from the antisemitic legislation.  On the other end of the range of responses, groups of loosely organized Jews coordinated with the Allies to plan for military action against Vichy, such as the Jewish involvement in Operation Torch in November 1942.  This paper, however, draws from the large collection of appeals seeking exemption from Vichy antisemitic legislation.  These documents provide insight into how North African Jews lived and experienced French colonialism and Vichy antisemitism during the Holocaust.

Robert J. Watson

Re-envisioning Maghrebi Experiences of the Nazi Occupation from Tunis to Paris

Roselyne Bosch’s box-office hit La Rafle (2010) brought the Nazi Occupation of France and France’s collaboration in the deportation of over 75,000 Jews back to the forefront of public discourse, but told the less-known story of the round-up of Parisian Jews from a predictable perspective. Nearly all the characters are represented as Polish Jews who fled the shtetls, corresponding to the classic image of Jewish victims in French literature and film. In this paper, I will examine two recent films that propose a radical revision of traditional French Holocaust cinema and history, Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song (2008) and Ismael Ferroukhi’s Free Men (2011).  Both of these films tell a little-known story, that of the direct effects of Nazi Occupation on Jews and Muslims of Maghrebi origin. Whereas Albou’s film traces the lives of two girls, one Jewish, one Muslim, coming of age in war-torn Tunisia, Ferroukhi focuses on a young Algerian Muslim black marketer who befriends an Algerian Jewish singer. The films’ notion of a distinctively North African community that transcended religious divisions already challenges popular Western conceptions of Jewish-Muslim antagonism. More innovative still, I will argue, is the re-envisioning of the period and events that constitute la Shoah through an emergent Franco-(Judeo)-Maghrebi visual subjectivity.