This Saturday, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we will be hosting a special screening of Sterne (Stars in German). Because of the importance of the day and the richness of the film’s subject matter, we will publish three blog posts this week dedicated to it: two on the topic of Sephardim, and one a special message from our Director.

Sephardic Jews and the Holocaust, Part I: An Introduction to Sterne, Sephardim and the Impacts of the War

Sterne film takes place in a secluded Bulgarian village in 1943, Walter, an artist and sergeant in the Wehrmacht, lives a quiet life far away from the war. Then one day a transit camp is set up for Jews arriving from Greece. Ruth, one of the Greek Jews, asks Walter to help a pregnant woman in the camp. From there his whole life changes…(we won’t spoil the story from there). 

There are a number of things that make this film remarkable and unusual, both in the present day and especially for its time period:

  • It won the 1959 Special Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival
  • It was an East German film, which usually experienced isolation during this period
  • It broke with conventions during the Cold War in its depiction of Wehrmacht soldiers and Jewish suffering and resistance.
  • It has dialogue in Bulgarian, German, Greek, and Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews.

This last item, the focus on Sephardic Jews, is one that I find personally engaging and fascinating. Sephardic Jews are not usually a part of the mainstream narrative of the Holocaust. My own grandmother and her family lived in Tunisia during the Nazi occupation, and I have always felt their experiences were not really represented in that narrative, which focuses largely on Central/Eastern Europe. I imagine many others with Sephardic backgrounds have experienced this same sort of exclusion from the conversation about what atrocities befell their families, to the point where it becomes confusing or even minimized.

What is a Sephardic Jew?

There are two large subcultures within Judaism: Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. These are not the only Jewish subcultures, but represent the two largest groups that are most familiar to American Jews.

Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe and their descendants. Most American Jews today are Ashkenazim, descended from Jews who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. As this article states, this is “the Jewish ethnic identity most readily recognized by North Americans — the culture of matzah balls, black-hatted Hasidim, and Yiddish”

Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants. Sephardic Jews represent the descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. The word Sephardi derives from the Hebrew word for Spain, and this culture was greatly influenced by Islamic culture, as many of the expelled Jews flourished under Muslim rule after they fled Spain. A lesser-known fact is that some of the earliest colonists of the United States were Sephardic Jews.

Sephardic Jews in traditional dress

Sephardic Jews During the War

As University of Washington’s Professor Naar has stated: “I think the first common assumption about the relationship between Sephardic Jews and the Holocaust is that there isn’t any. The Holocaust has generally been studied and remembered as a primarily Ashkenazi phenomenon. The history of Sephardic Jews, an extremely diverse set of populations, is not well known in scholarly or public contexts (both Jewish and non-Jewish) in the United States. The experiences of Sephardic Jews during the Holocaust are even less known, less discussed and less studied…Not until 2003 was a commemorative plaque in Judeo-Spanish added to those already extant since the 1960s in twenty other languages spoken by the victims of Auschwitz as part of the camp’s memorial.”

The Judeo-Spanish plaque at Auschwitz

According to the USHMM, when World War II broke out, the European Sephardi community was concentrated in the Balkan countries of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. In Sterne, the Sephardic Jews in focus are those from Greece. Northern Greece fell under complete Nazi control in 1941, and Southern Greece fell in 1943.

There is a huge amount of information about what befell each country’s Jews during the war, which would probably take a blog post the length of a novel to write. To summarize it briefly, “according to authorities on the subject, 85 percent of Greek Jews and 80 percent of Yugoslavian Jewry were murdered by the Nazis, along with about 20 percent of the Bulgarian Jewish population.”

Greek Jews During the War

Salonica, a greek hub of Sephardic Judaism, is widely recognized as suffering some of the biggest losses of the Holocaust. As this article states:

“Before the outbreak of World War II, there were around 56,000 Jews living in the Greek port city of Salonica. By the end of the war, nearly 98% of the Jewish community from Salonica had perished from gassing, forced labor, starvation and disease in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Only 11,000 Greek Jews, from a total pre-war population of 77,000 survived the Holocaust, a figure that includes approximately 1,100 who returned from the Nazi death camps.”

The Holocaust was a devastating blow to the Sephardic Jewish community, almost succeeding in destroying its unique cultures and traditions. Here are a few images of Greek Jews before and during the war. These images are courtesy of Kenya Dworkin, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Modern Languages, and a wonderful new friend who has really enlightened me about Sephardic Judaism and inspired this blog post. She will also be speaking at Saturday’s event.

Pic#4 Saloniki, Greece, 1928-29 First grade students in Alliance school.jpg
Saloniki, Greece, 1928-29 Pre-war picture of first grade students in Alliance school in Salonika.
Pic#3-A group of young Greek Jews possed in front of a tobacco store front.jpg
Greek Jews before the war.


Pic 1-Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-168-0894-21A,_Griechenland,_Saloniki,_Erfassung_von_Juden.jpg
​Some 7,000 Jewish men ordered to register for forced labor assemble in Liberty Square in German-occupied Salonika. Salonika, Greece, July 1942.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Ioannina, Greece. Morning March.jpg
Morning of March 25, 1944, 7 months before the withdraw of the German occupation forces from Greece: a GESTAPO squadron aided by the Greek collaborationist police push onto trucks 1725 men, women and children of the Jewish community.

In the second part of this blog series, I’ll discuss in more detail the unique culture of Sephardic Jews, including the connections to Islamic culture…some of which may come as a surprise to those who have a preconceived idea of what Judaism looks like!


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