David P. Boder Interviews Nino Barzilai; August 04, 1946; Paris, France

  • David Boder: [In English] Chicago, June the 26th, 1950. This is Spool 9-21B, the second half of Spool 9-21. The first half is Dr. Lipschitz which we called 9-21A, the second is Mr. Nino Barzilai which we call 9-21B.
  • David Boder: [In Spanish] You have to speak in this direction . . .
  • David Boder: [In English] Paris, August the 4th, Sunday, in the home for adult Jews. We are now going to interview a gentleman from Greece, Señor Nino Barzilai . . . who speaks Spanish.Nino Barzilai's native language was Ladino, which was spoken by many Sephardic Jews (Jews who originally came from Spain) who lived in the Balkans. Ladino contains elements of Spanish and Hebrew. Ladino's Spanish component enabled Nino Barzilai to speak Spanish in a fluent manner.1
  • David Boder: [In Spanish] Mr. Barzilai, can you tell me if you were born in Greece?
  • Nino Barzilai: Yes, Sir. I was born in Thessaloniki, Greece.Thessaloniki or Salonika was home to the most flourishing Sephardic Jewish community in the world before the Holocaust. Nearly all of its pre-war Jewish population of some 56,000 perished in the Holocaust, most of them in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The vibrant Sephardic Jewish community of Salonika, the heart of Sephardic world Jewry, was almost totally annihilated.2
  • David Boder: How old are you now?
  • Nino Barzilai: Fifty-four years old.
  • David Boder: Oh, you are fifty-four! You don't look . . . you don't seem that age! So, tell me . . . have you always lived in Greece?
  • Nino Barzilai: No, Sir. I lived in Spain for twenty years. When the war was declared, the Spanish Civil War, I came back to Greece where I had my family.The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) began with a military revolt led by General Francisco Franco against the republican government in Spain. The revolt was supported by conservative elements in the country. When the initial military coup failed to win control of the entire country, bloody civil war ensued, which was fought with great ferocity on both sides. The nationalists-as the rebels were called-received aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans received help from the Soviet Union as well as from the International Brigades, sympathetic volunteers who came from other European countries and the United States.3
  • David Boder: Are you married?
  • Nino Barzilai: Yes, sir. I have a fifteen-year-old son.
  • David Boder: What about your wife?
  • Nino Barzilai: My wife is also here with me.
  • David Boder: They are here with you. So, please tell us . . . how were you affected by the occupation of Greece by Germans?
  • Nino Barzilai: Well . . . you see . . . as I have told you, we came back to Greece because we had some relatives, and we were going to wait till the end of the Spanish Civil War to come back to our place. When we arrived in Greece, the Italian-Greek War started and, naturally, we had no chance of coming back to Spain, either because communications had been interrupted or because the Civil War had not come to an end in Spain.The Italian army attacked Greece on October 28, 1940. The Greeks fought valiantly, and the war stalemated for a time. Even though the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, Spain was a ravaged and devastated country.4
  • David Boder: And what did you do for a living, Mr. Barzilai?
  • Nino Barzilai: In Greece, I sold fabrics for women's garments. I was well established . . . I had my own office . . .
  • David Boder: In Greece.
  • Nino Barzilai: In Greece, Athens, near [unintelligible].
  • David Boder: And what did you do in Spain?
  • Nino Barzilai: In Spain I was in the business of bijouterie.The business of bijouterie Mr. Barzilai refers to is the jewelry business.5
  • David Boder: So, you came back to Greece. Were the Germans already there?
  • Nino Barzilai: When I came back to Greece, the Germans had not invaded yet.
  • David Boder: OK, then . . .
  • Nino Barzilai: Later, the Italian War started . . . Italy and Greece, and then, after some time, the Germans came and occupied Greece. We left Salonica, and moved to Athens, where we settled.Mr. Barzilai and his family were among the thousands of Greek Jews who fled to Athens seeking sanctuary in the benevolent Italian zone of occupation. In 1941, the Athenian Jewish population was some 3,500. During the time of the Italian occupation (April, 1941-September, 1943), it rose to between eight thousand to ten thousand.6 As I told you, I had a nice business there, but when the Germans came, they published an announcement in the newspapers: all Jews were summoned and they had to present themselves as Portuguese foreign subjects, so I had to do it . . .The Germans invaded Greece on April 6, 1941 and by the end of the month, along with its Italian and Bulgarian allies, conquered the whole of the country. Athens, where the Barzilai's had fled, was in the Italian zone of occupation until Italy went over to the Allied side in September, 1943. On September 8, 1943, the Germans occupied Athens. From the outset, they instituted anti-Jewish such as the measures such as the confiscation of Jewish property, which resulted in the impoverishment of the community and plunged many Jews into destitution.7
  • David Boder: Are you Portuguese?
  • Nino Barzilai: Yes, I am.
  • David Boder: Were you born in Portugal?
  • Nino Barzilai: No, Sir. I am [unintelligible] my family was from [unintelligible] . . . so . . . I presented myself to the German authorities as Portuguese, with Portuguese documents. And since the Chief Rabbi was a relative of mine and happened to have the same name as my father, the Germans took me for the Rabbi's son.Rabbi Barzilai courageously refused to cooperate with the Germans. He destroyed the Jewish communal lists they demanded and exhorted the Jews to flee. He escaped with the help of the Greek partisan network to the mountains of central Greece where he issued calls to the Western powers to aid the main Greek resistance group to save the Jews and fight the Germans. A number of Greek Jews were active in the resistance.8 They sent me to a concentration camp in Haidari, Athens, where I spent five and a half months doing forced labor.The Haidary concentration camp operated from September 2, 1943 to September 20, 1944. It was located in the town of Haidary near Athens. The majority of its inmates were transported to Bergen-Belsen or to Auschwitz.9
  • David Boder: What kind of labor did you do at the concentration camp?
  • Nino Barzilai: We had to move stones and sand during the whole day, from one place to another. It was hard and we were hit and punished a lot.
  • David Boder: What did you do with the sand?
  • Nino Barzilai: They "invented" this labor for us to work, to make us feel tired, because we transported stones from one place to another, and the following day, we would move the same stones back to their original place. We were not working on the fortification nor doing any other tasks, we just carried stones and they made us work every day [unintelligible].Moving stones and sand for no purpose and other forms of useless labor were used in many concentration camps for tormenting and weakening the prisoners.10
  • David Boder: You can continue, we have good reception.
  • Nino Barzilai: After more than five and a half months in the Haidari concentration camp, all Jews from Athens were brought to the same camp. We were together . . . for about eight days . . . all Jews coming from Athens.
  • David Boder: Still in Greece?
  • Nino Barzilai: Yes. In Greece. And the day of our deportation came . . . we were woken up at four in the morning and we were given ten minutes to get ready to depart.
  • David Boder: How many people do you think there were in that camp?
  • Nino Barzilai: I think there were around two thousand people.
  • David Boder: Two thousand Jews. Look Mr. Barzilai, in this research, we usually do not speak about the mem— . . . about papers, but since you have the memorandum about Jews in Greece and we do not know much about this, we are going to make an exception and I will ask you to read the memorandum you have here.
  • Nino Barzilai: Allow me to tell you that in the convoy that was sent to Poland all foreign subjects were included and we were sent in a separate convoy. This means the Argentine subjects stayed in the Haidari camp while the Spanish and Portuguese subjects were placed on a separate train, telling us we would be sent to Spain and Portugal in a period of 12 days.Portugal and Spain remained neutral throughout World War II. Contrary to most Latin American countries, which declared war on Germany in 1941 and 1942 (after the United States had entered the war), Argentina maintained a policy of neutrality during the war motivated by anti-American, anti-democratic and anti-communist sentiments among its ruling elite. It was not until March, 1945, two months before the German surrender, that Argentina declared war on Nazi Germany.11 After having traveled for 8 days by train, we arrived in Germany, we were taken to Bergen-Belsen camp where we were held for 14 months.Bergen-Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp near Hanover, Germany, established in April, 1943. During the first eighteen months of the camp's existence, five satellite camps were established, one of which was the "neutral camp" in which Mr. Barzilai and his family were interned.12
  • David Boder: In Bergen-Belsen.
  • Nino Barzilai: In Bergen-Belsen, Germany. And from there . . . when the English were near Berlin,What Mr. Barzilai meant was that the British army was nearing the camp which was liberated on April 15, 1945. The British found 60,000 emaciated and starving prisoners. 14,000 died in the first five days following liberation, and another 14,000 perished during the weeks following.13 we were taken on another train to Börgermoor. We stayed there, on a train, for one night.Boegermoor was located in Lower Saxony, not too far from Hanover. It was one of the first concentration camps established in Nazi Germany. It was liberated on April 22, 1945. Those on the Barzilai's deportation train were freed by American troops before they reached Boegermoor.14
  • David Boder: Where were your wife and your son?
  • Nino Barzilai: I found my wife and my son on the train that was taking us to Germany, to Bergen-Belsen.
  • David Boder: All right.
  • Nino Barzilai: The Germans took us to the train station, and from there we departed on a joint convoy both Spaniards and Portuguese.
  • David Boder: OK.
  • Nino Barzilai: And, I was together with my wife and my son in Bergen-Belsen.
  • David Boder: Were you in the same block?
  • Nino Barzilai: We were in the same camp, but in different barracks.
  • David Boder: I see.
  • Nino Barzilai: Women and men were separate.
  • David Boder: I see.
  • Nino Barzilai: As I told you, we were there for 14 months and we were placed on a train and we were told we were to be taken to Spain, but we came to Börgermoor. There, there were a number of bombings by Americans, that lasted for a whole night. In the morning, when we woke up, we noticed the Germans had left the train and we had been left on our own in the camp . . . completely abandoned. A number of us marched to some nearby German houses to see what was going on. We were looking for some food, because we did not cook, and we had eaten all the food we had been given for the journey. We found some potatoes and we came back to the train where we boiled them to eat something. Meanwhile, there was a rumor that the Americans had arrived. And some time later, we happily received the Americans who had come to [unintelligible]. Their first concern was to give us something hot to eat, and we were served a soup right there on the train. After a day, we were told we were going to be transported to another place. We were told to gather in the park of the town to march together to some houses they had prepared for us to stay in. So we all marched . . . [unintelligible]These and other initial contacts which liberated concentration camp inmates had with the American army were most positive.15
  • David Boder: What did you do during those 14 months in Bergen-Belsen?
  • Nino Barzilai: We, as foreign subjects, did not work. We were locked in the barracks.
  • David Boder: Didn't the Spaniards . . . or somebody from the neighboring areas come . . . or from . . . [unintelligible]?
  • Nino Barzilai: Nobody. Nobody did anything for us. Many letters were written but there were no replies.
  • David Boder: Were there only Jews?
  • Nino Barzilai: All of us were Jews.
  • David Boder: All Jews . . .
  • Nino Barzilai: In Bergen-Belsen we were together with Argentine subjects, Turkish subjects.Although Turkey had fought on the German side during World War I, it was neutral during World War II so those Jews with Turkish citizenship received some protection.16 Before we left, the Turkish subjects had been freed. They were freed eight days before us. We learnt about it some days later, when we left.
  • David Boder: Who freed them?
  • Nino Barzilai: It was said they had been escorted to the Swiss border, and there, the Consulate took care of them.
  • David Boder: OK. Then, tell me . . . well . . . tell me . . .
  • Nino Barzilai: As I have told you, after being freed by Americans, we were sent to France . . . the first French station we reached was . . . [audio interruption]
  • David Boder: No, no . . . it will be good, wherever . . . What happened then? [unintelligible] Don't worry, it is just fine.
  • Nino Barzilai: I really can't remember. We were taken directly to Paris and all those who had been deported reached Paris very thankful to the French government and to the French people in general because of the support they offered us. We were given everything we needed, they dressed us, because we were almost naked and barefoot, we were given great food and none of us will ever forget what France did for us.In particular, the Jewish Committee for Social Action and Reconciliation was able to provide food and shelter for some 75% of the some 40,000 Holocaust survivors who came to France following their liberation.17
  • David Boder: Good. And what are you doing now, Sir?
  • Nino Barzilai: We are still in the center located on [unintelligible] Street. We still have not found a house to settle. My son is learning a trade in the French school.
  • David Boder: What trade is he learning?
  • Nino Barzilai: Woodworking.
  • David Boder: Oh, woodworking.
  • Nino Barzilai: As I am an electrician, I have been given a job.
  • David Boder: So you are working.
  • Nino Barzilai: Well, I will soon start to work. We believe we can stay here in France, in this area.
  • David Boder: To settle here.
  • Nino Barzilai: Yes. To settle here. I have a list that will be of great interest to all Jews from Greece who are still abroad. It is a list of the few Jews that returned to Greece in each Greek province. It includes the inhabitants before the war, and the ones left or those who returned.
  • David Boder: Good.
  • Nino Barzilai: In the Province of Didymoteicho, there were 900 Jews, and 33 have returned to this date, so 96% are missing. In Orestiada town [audio interruption] . . . 3 have returned, 98% are still missing. In Alexandroupoli, 140 Jews, 97% are missing; in Komotini, there were 819, 28 have returned, 96% missing; in Xanthi, 550, 6 have returned, 99% are missing; in Macedonia, in Kavala, there were 2,100 Jews, 42 have returned, 98% are missing; in Drama, 1,200, 79 have returned, 97% missing; [unintelligible] 600, only 3 have returned, 98% missing; in Thessaloniki, the great Jewish community, there were 56,000, 1,950 have returned, 96% are missing.Greek Jewish losses as a result of the Holocaust were staggering and heartbreaking. Some 65,000 of the 75,000 Jews in Greece in 1939 were murdered. Mr. Barzilai's lists provide some indication of the awful death toll.18
  • David Boder: 96% missing?
  • Nino Barzilai: Missing, Sir. Veroia, 460 Jews, 131 have returned . . .
  • David Boder: Well, Sir . . .
  • Nino Barzilai: 32%.
  • David Boder: Can you give me a copy of this document or can we get it somewhere?
  • Nino Barzilai: I will be pleased to give it to you, Sir.
  • David Boder: All right.
  • Nino Barzilai: I will give you the copy. Let's continue . . . [unintelligible].
  • David Boder: [unintelligible]
  • Nino Barzilai: Kastoria, 900 Jews, 35 have returned, 96% missing; Florina, 400 Jews, 74 have returned, 84%; Thessalia, 520, 360, 31% . . .
  • David Boder: Well, Sir, [unintelligible] if you give me the copy. Then, Sir . . . I thank you for this information and particularly [unintelligible], because I am trying to go to Mexico, and a report . . . [ends abruptly]
  1. Nino Barzilai's native language was Ladino, which was spoken by many Sephardic Jews (Jews who originally came from Spain) who lived in the Balkans. Ladino contains elements of Spanish and Hebrew. Ladino's Spanish component enabled Nino Barzilai to speak Spanish in a fluent manner.
  2. Thessaloniki or Salonika was home to the most flourishing Sephardic Jewish community in the world before the Holocaust. Nearly all of its pre-war Jewish population of some 56,000 perished in the Holocaust, most of them in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The vibrant Sephardic Jewish community of Salonika, the heart of Sephardic world Jewry, was almost totally annihilated.
  3. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) began with a military revolt led by General Francisco Franco against the republican government in Spain. The revolt was supported by conservative elements in the country. When the initial military coup failed to win control of the entire country, bloody civil war ensued, which was fought with great ferocity on both sides. The nationalists-as the rebels were called-received aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans received help from the Soviet Union as well as from the International Brigades, sympathetic volunteers who came from other European countries and the United States.
  4. The Italian army attacked Greece on October 28, 1940. The Greeks fought valiantly, and the war stalemated for a time. Even though the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, Spain was a ravaged and devastated country.
  5. The business of bijouterie Mr. Barzilai refers to is the jewelry business.
  6. Mr. Barzilai and his family were among the thousands of Greek Jews who fled to Athens seeking sanctuary in the benevolent Italian zone of occupation. In 1941, the Athenian Jewish population was some 3,500. During the time of the Italian occupation (April, 1941-September, 1943), it rose to between eight thousand to ten thousand.
  7. The Germans invaded Greece on April 6, 1941 and by the end of the month, along with its Italian and Bulgarian allies, conquered the whole of the country. Athens, where the Barzilai's had fled, was in the Italian zone of occupation until Italy went over to the Allied side in September, 1943. On September 8, 1943, the Germans occupied Athens. From the outset, they instituted anti-Jewish such as the measures such as the confiscation of Jewish property, which resulted in the impoverishment of the community and plunged many Jews into destitution.
  8. Rabbi Barzilai courageously refused to cooperate with the Germans. He destroyed the Jewish communal lists they demanded and exhorted the Jews to flee. He escaped with the help of the Greek partisan network to the mountains of central Greece where he issued calls to the Western powers to aid the main Greek resistance group to save the Jews and fight the Germans. A number of Greek Jews were active in the resistance.
  9. The Haidary concentration camp operated from September 2, 1943 to September 20, 1944. It was located in the town of Haidary near Athens. The majority of its inmates were transported to Bergen-Belsen or to Auschwitz.
  10. Moving stones and sand for no purpose and other forms of useless labor were used in many concentration camps for tormenting and weakening the prisoners.
  11. Portugal and Spain remained neutral throughout World War II. Contrary to most Latin American countries, which declared war on Germany in 1941 and 1942 (after the United States had entered the war), Argentina maintained a policy of neutrality during the war motivated by anti-American, anti-democratic and anti-communist sentiments among its ruling elite. It was not until March, 1945, two months before the German surrender, that Argentina declared war on Nazi Germany.
  12. Bergen-Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp near Hanover, Germany, established in April, 1943. During the first eighteen months of the camp's existence, five satellite camps were established, one of which was the "neutral camp" in which Mr. Barzilai and his family were interned.
  13. What Mr. Barzilai meant was that the British army was nearing the camp which was liberated on April 15, 1945. The British found 60,000 emaciated and starving prisoners. 14,000 died in the first five days following liberation, and another 14,000 perished during the weeks following.
  14. Boegermoor was located in Lower Saxony, not too far from Hanover. It was one of the first concentration camps established in Nazi Germany. It was liberated on April 22, 1945. Those on the Barzilai's deportation train were freed by American troops before they reached Boegermoor.
  15. These and other initial contacts which liberated concentration camp inmates had with the American army were most positive.
  16. Although Turkey had fought on the German side during World War I, it was neutral during World War II so those Jews with Turkish citizenship received some protection.
  17. In particular, the Jewish Committee for Social Action and Reconciliation was able to provide food and shelter for some 75% of the some 40,000 Holocaust survivors who came to France following their liberation.
  18. Greek Jewish losses as a result of the Holocaust were staggering and heartbreaking. Some 65,000 of the 75,000 Jews in Greece in 1939 were murdered. Mr. Barzilai's lists provide some indication of the awful death toll.
  • Contributors to this text:
  • Transcription : Roberta Hopson
  • English translation : Patricia Sanner
  • Reviewer : Adriana Barrós Tomé, Andrea Castro
  • Footnotes : Elliot Lefkovitz