Hi Story/Her Story: Bouena Sarfatty(Part II)

While in Athens, Bouena Sarfatty miraculously avoided arrest because she had realized the significance of local dress.

Nazi poster by Dieter Kalenbach 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Nazi poster by Dieter Kalenbach 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Bouena Sarfatty had been actively working in the soup kitchen (Matanot La-Evionim). Especially after the Nazi conquest of Salonika her affiliation with the Red Cross enabled her to visit the young Jewish men who had been consigned to forced labor. She later composed poems in Ladino, some of which described the terrible conditions there and how she nonetheless tried to encourage the mothers of these boys upon returning from her visits with them.
After her traumatic experience when she appeared at the Baron de Hirsch ghetto to distribute milk for the children whose mothers had not appeared as usual, she realized that the situation had deteriorated significantly. Because the head of the Jewish police/collaborator Vital Hasson despised her, she also understood that her life was in danger.
Therefore, after returning home, she informed her fiancé that they must flee the city; he suggested that they marry the next day, before departing for Athens. Bouena was advised by a non-Jewish friend not to remain in her own house that night.
The following morning, when she appeared at the synagogue at the arranged time, she discovered that Haim had arrived first and had been fatally shot by the Germans. Bouena was arrested on the spot and taken to Pavlos Melas, a military camp being used by the SS mainly for interring political prisoners. She was held there and interrogated frequently, as she was suspected of having been in contact with the partisans, which was not the case. She was a likely candidate because in addition to speaking Ladino and French fluently, she could also converse in Greek.
While incarcerated, she devised a clever plan for making contact with the outside world: she chatted in Greek with her prison guard, encouraging her to seek out an excellent tailor who could make her a lovely blouse. Once the guard appeared at the tailor’s, word got out as to Bouena’s whereabouts, enabling the partisans to execute a successful escape plan; they masqueraded as German officers, drugged her guard and released the prisoner.
Bouena now had no choice but to leave Salonika, but flight plans needed to be carefully thought out. After roaming around northern Greece while awaiting word that the papers she needed were available, she was informed that she would now be known as Flora Tivoli of Livorno. Daniel Modiano, a friend of the family with close ties to the Italian consul, procured the papers for her and told her when to board a southbound train. He accompanied his charge, who was wearing a black veil in hopes of not being recognized. When Bouena realized that Hasson was at the station, presumably to help the consul identify forged papers, she had a fit of alarm.
In her memoirs, she explained that he “recognized me despite my veil. The consul looked him in the eye, and Hasson remained silent. There were many people around who were ready to kill him if he did say something.”
Bouena eventually arrived in Athens, where she joined the partisans and was given a Greek identity; she was now Maritsa Serafamidou of Comotini. At first she was affiliated with the Loyalists and later with the Communist partisan group; she was often on the move.
While in Athens, she miraculously avoided arrest because she had realized the significance of local dress. A Gestapo roundup was carried out at a cafe where Bouena and two other Salonikan Jewish women refugees happened to have been sitting (separately). The Germans arrested the other two women, whose clothes made them easily recognizable as being from Salonika. Bouena, on the other hand, was dressed like a Greek peasant woman, cleverly carrying her shoes under her arms as would a peasant. As a result she was not even interrogated, for the police had not given a second thought to the peasant woman’s presence. (To be continued.)
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the academic editor of Nashim. Her forthcoming book is An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty (IUP, March 2013).