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The title of the lecture, ‘An Ode to Salonika: the Ladino Verses of Boueno Sarfatty,’ was not particularly enticing, but I decided to go along anyway out of the goodness of my heart and a sense of duty to the organising group, the Giving Circle. In the event, I was taken by surprise and completely captivated by the erudition, mental agility and linguistic ability of the speaker, Renee Levine Melammed, as well as by the subject of her book, the fascinating woman called Boueno Sarfatty.

Renee Levine Melammed, who originates from America, is now Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. As she explained to her audience, she started her academic career by studying texts relating to the Spanish Inquisition (not the funny one invented by the Monty Python crew but the real, cruel one that put an end to one of Jewry’s most splendid communities), the subject of her doctoral dissertation. One thing led to another, and as well as acquiring the ancient languages required for her Ph.D., Professor Melammed also delved into ancient texts relating to Jewish women, eventually publishing a number of books on the subject. Today she is academic editor of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, published by IUP, and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

Professor Melammed, kept us spellbound for over an hour as she described the series of incidents and coincidences that led her to meet the subject of her book, after having studied allied subjects and mastered the Ladino language. The result of ten years’ work, travels and research, her latest book, ‘An Ode to Salonika: the Ladino Verses of Boueno Sarfatty,’ contains the Ladino original of the poems, some two hundred in all, written by Boueno Sarfatty, together with Professor Melammed’s English translation of them on facing pages, as well as an account of Boueno’s life story.

Boueno Sarfatty, who was born into a prosperous and respected Sephardic family in the Greek port-town of Salonika (Thessaloniki) in 1916, had a long and checkered life. After growing up in the wealthy Jewish-Greek community of the town, she lived through the German invasion of Greece, serving to help  her fellow-Jews by distributing food and medications. Although she was captured and imprisoned for her activities by the Germans, she was helped to escape by the Partisans, whose ranks she had joined.  The Jewish community, which accounted for the majority of the population of Salonika, was completely destroyed during the German occupation. Most of its members were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered, and their homes and property were appropriated by their Greek compatriots. The poems she wrote describing the various incidents of her eventful life, provide a graphic account of what happened to one woman who was blessed with considerable talents and abilities.

After the war Boueno met and married Max Garfinkle (see photo above), who was serving as quartermaster for the British relief unit and at the same time working for the Jewish underground. The couple went to live in Max’s kibbutz, Ein HaShofet, but Boueno did not manage to find her place there, and in 1947 the couple moved to Montreal. While there she wrote her memoirs, and had a son, Eli, now a respected physician, who survives her, together with his wife and four children.

Boueno Sarfatty died in 1997 but to hear Professor Melammed describing her life it seems as if she is still very much with us, representing, in Professor Melammed’s words, ‘a feisty survivor-partisan-heroine of the decimated but once vibrant Salonikan Jewry.’