Bouena Sarfatty of Salonika (Part I)

Bouena was unique, but not only because of her artistic and musical talents.

swastika armband (photo credit: courtesy)
swastika armband
(photo credit: courtesy)
Bouena Sarfatty was born in Salonika, Greece, on November 15, 1916 to a well-known family of Sephardim who could trace their origins to the Spanish expulsion of 1492. Bouena’s father died when she was only two years old, at which time her brother, Eliaou, became the head of the family. The household consisted of his five younger sisters, their mother and their mother’s mother. Eliaou was determined to care for all of these women, making sure that his sisters received a good education as well as arranging for their debutante presentations.
Bouena was taught sophisticated embroidery by her mother and aunts; the Sarfatty women were renowned for their outstanding workmanship. Her native language was Ladino, but she was also fluent in French after attending the Alliance Israélite Universelle school for girls. She had a deep love of Sephardi culture, especially for traditional songs and proverbs, and was blessed with a phenomenal memory. Recordings of renditions of previously unknown Ladino songs she knew are available at the National Music Archives of the National Library in Jerusalem. Bouena also composed Ladino poetry and refrains later in her life.
Bouena was unique, but not only because of her artistic and musical talents. She was a highly spirited young lady dedicated to her community, and proved her mettle time and again. Bouena had been engaged to a young man named Chaim who was recruited to the Greek army and sent to fight Mussolini’s troops after they attacked Greece on October 28, 1940. When Hitler sent his army in to save his ally from shaming him (by losing), the Greek soldiers retreated and Chaim was sent home with his comrades-in-arms.
Following the Nazi invasion of Salonika on April 9, 1941, the lives of the Jews in the city changed drastically.
In the meantime, Bouena had been volunteering at the Matanot La-Evionim Association (gifts for the needy), distributing food to the endless numbers of hungry souls in the city and supplying condensed milk to children from needy families. She and her friend, Sarah Trabout, were devoted to their work at the soup kitchen. However, when Vital Hasson, the head of the Jewish police (politofilaka) decided that Sarah was the desired bride for his brother, Bouena acquired a powerful enemy because of her objection to the match. Sarah herself was appalled at the prospect, but Hasson, an underhanded, power-hungry man with little regard for his fellow Jews, threatened the Trabout family. Sarah was left with no choice but to marry the younger Hasson. Bouena was devastated, and poor Sarah cried her eyes out as she and her groom were bombastically paraded through the neighborhood in a limousine.
Unbeknownst to the majority of the community, deportation plans were already at an advanced stage. When the mothers from the Baron de Hirsch neighborhood did not show up for their children’s milk at the regular time, Bouena was concerned and consulted with the Red Cross. A representative of the organization offered to have her driven to the ghetto in his official car; she loaded the milk and set forth. Unfortunately, she had no idea that this ghetto, which was adjacent to the railroad, had been sealed off that day, March 15, 1943, in order to expedite the first deportation.
Upon seeing Bouena enter the ghetto, Hasson was infuriated and proceeded to taunt and abuse her, forcing her to drink huge quantities of milk until she retched and soiled her clothing. He then instructed her to distribute the remainder of the milk. After this harrowing experience, she feared for her life and realized that she could no longer remain in Salonika.
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, 2013).