Letter from Destiny

The Jerusalem Report uncovers the saga of how a father manages to ensure the safety of his three-year-old son minutes before he and his wife are sent to Treblinka.

Ricardo Benadon and Jasmina Namiceva visit the Skopje Jewish cemetery (photo credit: PATRICIO BENADON)
Ricardo Benadon and Jasmina Namiceva visit the Skopje Jewish cemetery
(photo credit: PATRICIO BENADON)
Skopje, Macedonia, March 1943:
Bulgarian police bang on the door of the Asael home in the middle of the night.
They order Eliyahu and Denise Asael and their three-year-old son Sule to pack up their belongings and take them to a warehouse in a tobacco factory surrounded by barbed wire. They are held there along with the rest of Macedonia’s Jewish population of about 7,000.
Bulgaria, whose army has occupied Macedonia since 1941, has agreed to accede to the request of its Nazi ally and deport Macedonia’s Jews.
The Jews are held in squalid conditions for 10 days when freight trains pull up at the factory entrance. As the Asael family is being led toward one of the trains, Eliyahu sees a small group of Jews being released because, he is told, they have Spanish passports and Spain has requested their repatriation. Running as fast as he can with Sule in his arms, Asael catches up with an acquaintance called Moise Benadon and places his son in his arms.
This will be the last time Sule sees his parents. His mother is forced onto a train that takes her to the Treblinka concentration camp. His father escapes from the Skopje train station and makes his way across the border to Albania. But when he tries to return to Macedonia he disappears and is never seen again.
Sule becomes a member of the Benadon family. As the escalation in fighting makes it unsafe to travel outside the country, the family remains in Macedonia until the war ends. Afterwards, they immigrate to Argentina. Moise Benadon, who has a son of his own, eventually turns Sule over to his childless brother Salvador, who becomes Sule’s adoptive father and changes his name to Ricardo.
When he is 11, Ricardo is told the story of how he survived, but he is unable to relate to the story.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 2014:
Ricardo Benadon, 74, a retired architect and father of three, reads an article that I wrote in The Jerusalem Report entitled “The 28 envelopes” (September 22, 2014).
The article, based on an interview I conducted with Macedonian researcher Jasmina Namiceva, describes mysterious envelopes she discovered a few years earlier in the national archives. The envelopes, bearing the insignia of the National Bank of Bulgaria, are labeled with Jewish names and contain coins and jewelry.
Namiceva points out that during the deportation, the Bulgarian police took the Jews’ last remaining possessions away from them. She suggests that the discovered envelopes may have belonged to the Jews with Spanish passports. In the turmoil, says Namiceva, they may not have been able to get their possessions back.
In an attempt to locate the owners of the envelopes, I conclude the article with a list of the names. One of them is Moise Benadon.
“It was a very emotional moment for me,” says Ricardo Benadon, as he describes reading the article. “Seventy years had passed and I had completely blocked out the events.”
Benadon decided the time had come to return to his hometown. “I wanted to see the envelope and pay tribute to my parents,” he tells me when I interview him during his visit to Skopje in April.
“I also wanted to pay homage to Moise Benadon, the man who saved my life.”
During his visit, Namiceva accompanies him to the Monopol tobacco factory, where the current owners, Imperial Tobacco, preserve one of the wooden warehouse rooms in the exact condition it was in during the war when the Jews were crammed in there.
“I can feel the energy of the people who passed through here,” says Benadon as he walks across the haunted hall. When Namiceva shows him the envelope belonging to Moise Benadon, he is overwhelmed with feelings. He holds the envelope to his face and kisses it.
The Benadon envelope is completely empty. “It doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t make a difference to me,” says Ricardo as he carefully examines Moise Benadon’s handwriting on the cover. Namiceva shows him the contents of some of the other envelopes. Among them: Turkish lira coins, a gold-plated bracelet and a child’s earring.
Namiceva next accompanies Ricardo to the Church of St. Clement. In preparation for his trip, Ricardo had dug up a memoir written by the late Jacques Benadon, the son of Moise who was a teenager during the war. In his memoir, Jacques described another incident that Ricardo had blocked out of his mind.
“AFTER MOISE Benadon left the tobacco factory, he realized that because he didn’t have any documentation for me, it was a dangerous situation,” explains Ricardo, referring to Jacques’ recollections.
“So he decided to place me in a Catholic orphanage. However, two weeks later, he changed his mind and decided to risk taking me back. But when he returned to reclaim me the nuns were reluctant to give me up.”
Now it was Moise Benadon’s turn to run fast. When no one was looking, he scooped up Ricardo into his arms and fled.
Namiceva had tried to locate the orphanage, only to find out that it no longer existed. However her inquiries led her to Monsignor Cermontik, 84, today the head of Skopje’s Catholic Church. During the war, Cermontik often visited the orphanage and played with Jewish children hidden there.
It’s possible that one of them was Ricardo.
He recalls a number of the Jewish children. “There was one called Eliezer, another called Yehuda,” he says pronouncing their names with an uncannily perfect Hebrew accent.
Namiceva, who is of Armenian heritage, did not intend to delve into Macedonia’s Jewish past when she first began to sift through archive boxes in 1999.
An architect by training and employed as a curator of the Skopje City Museum, her original goal was to find documents relating to the buildings destroyed in the Skopje earthquake of 1963.
“A vital part of Skopje’s Old City was the Jewish Quarter, which was completely destroyed,” she observes, noting that Jews had been a prominent part of Skopje life since the 16th century. Most came from Turkey and Greece and were of Sephardi origin. Among them were a number of families who had taken up Spain’s offer of Spanish citizenship to Sephardi Jews in the 1920s and obtained Spanish passports while continuing to live in the Balkans.
Her research into the old Jewish buildings soon gave way to an interest in the Jewish way of life. She became friends with a handful of elderly Macedonian Jews who survived the deportation by fleeing beforehand to join the Yugoslav resistance. With one of the survivors, Yamila Kolonomos, she even co-wrote a book, “Sparks of the Macedonian Sephards.”
The book, which came out in three languages, Ladino, Macedonian and English, describes the history of Macedonia’s Jews and includes traditional recipes and colorful folk proverbs.
When Namiceva came across the voluminous documents the Bulgarians kept about their Jewish subjects, she shifted her research focus to the wartime era.
Prior to deporting the Jews, the Bulgarian officials forced them to wear yellow badges and confiscated all their financial assets. Consequently when a Jewish family required money to buy something they had to fill out forms and seek permission to withdraw funds.
“The forms evoke a very detailed description of each family,” she explains.
“You can picture the scene as you read about someone with an ailing father requesting a small amount of money for medicine, another who wants to buy a bicycle for a child.”
Studying the records of more than 600 Jewish families, Namiceva estimates that she perused more than 25,000 pages of documentation.
“I sometimes had the feeling that the persons mentioned had become a part of my daily life, bit by bit becoming close to me,” she recalls. “That’s why the day I discovered the envelopes, I felt like they were traces of my own personal tragedy.
The other researchers in the room around me thought that I had become mad, sitting there, crying over some old worn-out papers. They simply couldn’t realize how deeply I was touched by the destinies of the people whose names were written on the envelopes.”
Ricardo’s testimony and those of other families connected to the envelopes (see “Survival sagas,” p. 35), verifies Namiceva’s theory about the origins of the envelopes. The story of Ricardo’s rescue also raises the unresolved question of the extent to which the Jews were aware that the labor camps they were told about by the Bulgarians were really death camps. Would Ricardo’s father have been willing to give up his only child if he thought that their destination was just a labor camp? What went through his mind when he spotted Moise Benadon? By March 1943, during the time of the Macedonian deportation, the Treblinka gas chambers had already been in action since July 1942 with Warsaw ghetto deportees as the first victims. The Nazis continued to insist that Treblinka was a labor camp, and the Allies, even if they had intelligence information to the contrary, failed to spread the word.
Consequently, what the Jews sequestered in the Skopje tobacco factory in March 1943 knew and didn’t know – along with the other Jews being rounded up throughout Europe at that time – remains one of the great unresolved questions of the era.
Regardless of what Eliyahu Asael knew or didn’t know, Namiceva tells Ricardo when the topic is raised, he would have been a very brave man to have acted to save your life.” She points out that the Bulgarian army lined up three rows of soldiers behind the fence surrounding the factory. “It was a very difficult situation and very few people tried to disobey or escape.”
For Ricardo Benadon, the trip to Skopje helped him come to terms with his past.
He also felt that it was important that his son Patricio accompany him on the journey.
“It will ensure that the family story continues to be passed on,” he notes.
For Jasmina Namiceva, who had spent years looking at names on pieces of paper and trying to imagine the faces behind those names, Ricardo had literally brought history to life. It was the ultimate reward for discovering an important piece of historical evidence.
“It was a touch of destiny that I would be the one to open the box [of the envelopes].
It’s something that happens to a researcher once in a lifetime,” she concludes.
Assistance in the preparation of this article was provided by Imperial Tobacco and  the Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia.