UW News

October 5, 2016

‘A Hug from Afar’: A Sephardic family’s journey of escape as World War II looms

UW News

Devin Naar is the Isaac Alhadeff Professor of Sephardic Studies in the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies — part of the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies — and an associate professor in the Department of History.

Naar composed the foreword for “A Hug from Afar: One Family’s Dramatic Journey Through Three Continents to Escape the Holocaust,” by Claire Barkey Flash, and arranged for the Sephardic Studies Program to digitize the archives on which the book is based. Flash’s daughter Cynthia, a UW alumna, edited the book and published it in February with the Bellevue-based Flash Media Services. Naar discussed this extraordinary book and the wartime experiences of Sephardic Jews with UW Today.

What is the story told, through letters and documents, in “A Hug from Afar”?   

The story highlights the voice and tenacious drive of one young woman —  Claire Barkey — and her attempts to ensure her family’s safety and survival during World War II. What is unusual about Barkey is that she is a Sephardic Jew from the island of Rhodes.

Coming in November:
“Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece,” by Prof. Devin Naar. Book launch
Nov. 3, 7 – 8:30 p.m., UW Tower Auditorium. Learn more here.
Also: Read Naar’s article about “A Hug from Afar.”

This means that her ancestors had been living in Spain until 1492, at which point King Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews residing in their kingdom. Many fled across the Mediterranean Sea to what was then the Ottoman Empire, which included the island of Rhodes after 1522. Until the 20th century, descendants of those Jews from Spain, known as Sephardic Jews, continued to speak a language based on medieval Spanish, known as Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish) — a language now nearing extinction.

Born on Rhodes after the island came under Italian rule in 1911, Barkey began composing letters in Ladino at age 9, in 1930, to her uncle, who had immigrated to Seattle. What begin as the musings of a young girl about her family and daily life in her tight-knit community turn more tense and urgent as the burdensome impact of the Great Depression grows, the desire of young Jews on her island to emigrate increases, and the hardening of fascist and anti-Semitic policies of Mussolini in the lead-up to war leave their mark.

Through the correspondence that Barkey maintained with her uncle, Raphael Capelouto, and through her uncle’s generosity and via petitions to American Congress, the family was ultimately able to escape Rhodes and spend the years of World War II in a refugee camp in Tangier, Morocco, before eventually being reunited in Seattle.

A Ladino letter written by 9-year-old Claire Barkey on the island of Rhodes to her uncle Raphael Capeluto in Seattle. "Notice her use of Italian-style orthography, a clear influence of the local cultural environment on the island, then an Italian colony," the UW Stroum Center notes. Dated March 24, 1930. Goes with a Q and A about the book A Hug from Afar.

A Ladino letter written by 9-year-old Claire Barkey on the island of Rhodes to her uncle Raphael Capeluto in Seattle. “Notice her use of Italian-style orthography, a clear influence of the local cultural environment on the island, then an Italian colony,” the UW Stroum Center adds. Dated March 24, 1930. From the UW’s Sephardic Studies Collection.Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, courtesy of Barkey family

The letters are significant not only because they document the life of one young Jewish woman and her family’s harrowing experiences of the Second World War, but also because they provide specific insight into the world of Sephardic Jews, whom we hear less about in connection to the Holocaust, and because they were penned in the flowing Sephardic Jewish vernacular, Ladino, which few people continue to speak today and even fewer write. Kudos to Claire’s daughter Cynthia for putting the project together, and to Claire’s brother Morris for his expert translations into English.

How does this family’s story relate to the larger experience of Sephardic Jews during World War II?

The experiences of Sephardic Jews tend not to be part of our popular understandings of the war and the Holocaust. Typical narratives tend to focus on the experiences of Jews in western, central and eastern Europe — Ashkenazi Jews in Germany, Hungary, Poland, etc.

The experiences of those Jews in southeastern Europe, along the Mediterranean Sea, often fail to be incorporated into the stories we tell about this dark chapter in human history. But it is true that the Nazi occupation forces extended their reach far into the region, occupying Greece, as well as Rhodes, an island in the Aegean Sea near the Turkish mainland.

The Sephardic Jews of Greece and Rhodes experienced devastating loses during the Second World War. Most of the Jews of mainland Greece were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau beginning in the spring of 1943, including nearly 50,000 from the city of Thessaloniki (Salonica), which had once been home to the largest community of Ladino-speaking Jews in the world. The Jewish population of that city decreased by 95 percent rendering it one of the most decimated Jewish populations in the entire continent.

The Jews of Rhodes similarly met their fate in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. They were among the last Jews to be deported to Auschwitz — shortly before the war ended. They also had the misfortune of experiencing the longest voyage from their homes to the Nazi death camps, having been rounded up in Rhodes, sent by ship to the port at Athens, interned in a concentration camp there, and then sent by train to Poland. The entire treacherous journey lasted three weeks. Of the 1,600 Jews deported from Rhodes, fewer than 200 survived.

The devastation of the Jewish community of Rhodes is therefore representative of the broader plight of Sephardic Jews during the World War II — a catastrophic event that led to the dissolution of the longstanding Ladino-speaking Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean.

What might we learn from this story in light of the refugee crisis now underway in Europe? 

The story of Claire Barkey and her family as they fled their native island on the verge of the Nazi occupation — and thereby averted almost certain death — resonates deeply with the plight of refugees across the world today. But as Claire’s desperate letters make clear, few places in the world were willing to accept them. In fact, only two places offered the family refuge: Tangiers and Shanghai. Remarkably no other country in the world offered to open its doors to this family — not even the United States.

In this regard, the Barkeys were not alone. Thousands of Jews petitioned various countries for admission but few were granted entrance, especially into the U.S., even if they already had relatives there. The family of Anne Frank had applied for a visa to join relatives in the United States; it was rejected.

My own great uncle in Salonica, Greece, likewise applied for a visa to join my grandfather and other relatives in the United States. It, too, was rejected. Like members of Barkey family who remained on Rhodes and like the Franks, my Naar relatives who remained in Salonica were also murdered in the Nazi death camps. Fortunately for the Barkeys, Tangier afforded them an unusual escape route whereas many others could not get out and ultimately perished.

Viewing the experience of today’s refugees through the lens of the Barkey story cannot but provoke empathy and compassion for those displaced in our own age, who seek shelter and a new beginning in foreign lands.

What is remarkable about the Barkey story is to recognize just how rare it was, how unusual it was, for a family to get out in time; most did not make it. Now as we observe from the distant comfort of the U.S. the conflict in Syria, which has already resulted in a remarkable 400,000 deaths, we would hope that our country would be able to do more to aid refugees than it had in the past. But so far, it remains more of a hope than a reality.

Are the Barkey family’s documents archived with the UW Sephardic Studies Program? How large has that library now grown? 

Yes, the family’s letters and documents have all been digitized as part of our  digital library and museum and will soon be available online. There, one can access the original texts in Ladino, the nuances of penmanship, the creases on the page, the sense of the age of the materials. There, these documents gain their significance not only because of the text written on them, but also because they constitute historical artifacts with multiple dimensions and layered clues as to the lives of their writers and readers, and the paths that they traversed across continents and oceans.

The Barkey papers join a growing set of original documents and books written in Ladino or otherwise relevant to the Sephardic Jewish experience that have been incorporated into our collection. We now have more than 200,000 digitized pages of material that constitute the largest digital collection in UW Libraries, managed in partnership with the Digital Initiatives. The collection includes more original Ladino books than the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library and continues to grow each day.

While most of the materials stem from individuals here in the Seattle area, our reputation is growing and individuals and institutions from across the country and abroad increasingly send us material to digitize, incorporate into our library, and make accessible to interested scholars, students and community members.

The goal remains to bring the history, culture and language of Sephardic Jews — for a long time forgotten or invisible within American public consciousness — out into the open for all to see and explore.

What do you think readers will take away from reading the story of the Barkey family?

Readers will take away a sense of the character and determination of a young woman to rescue her family at all costs, and they will also catch a glimpse of the now lost world of the Sephardic Jews of the island of Rhodes.

They will see, unexpectedly, the legacies of that world that continue to echo right here in Seattle, home to one of the largest communities of Sephardic Jews in the country — especially those from Rhodes. They will realize that even though the world of the former Ottoman Empire, the atrocities of the Holocaust, and now-largely-defunct Spanish-Jewish dialect seem so distant in terms of time, space and culture, they have all made their mark right here at home in Seattle.


For more information about the book or the UW’s Sephardic Studies Program, contact Naar at 206-616-6202 or denaar@uw.edu.