Of all the Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the Greek city of Thessaloniki (Salonika) may have suffered the greatest losses. Out of 77,377, only 10,226 people survived.
Albert Rosa was one of the “lucky” 14 percent.
Interestingly, everyone in that Sephardic community might have survived had it not been for an accident of history that placed “La Madre de Israel,” the most populous city of Sephardic Jewry in the world, on the Greek side of the border with neighboring Turkey.
Those who managed to get to Turkey escaped the worst horrors of the Holocaust. Those who remained in Greece died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
The word “Sephardim” comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad. Sephardic Jews are the descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal after 1492.
Some of the Sephardim managed to get to Spain’s possessions in the Netherlands and even the Americas. Others retreated into the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
Many were attracted to the prosperous trading city of Thessaloniki, the city to whom St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was addressed. The Jewish community lived in relative peace under Ottoman rule.
As a result of the Turkish defeat in World War I, Thessaloniki became the second-largest city in Greece, which granted full rights of citizenship to the Jews.
During World War II, Benito Mussolini attacked Greece, but his wellequipped armies were repulsed. On April 8, 1941, Adolf Hitler intervened to save his Axis ally from defeat. Under German occupation, walled ghettos were quickly created in Thessaloniki. The city’s Jews were deported to forced-labor and concentration camps, where they were killed either through maltreatment or in the gas chambers.
Albert Rosa and his family were among these. Out of 70 members of his family, he is the sole survivor.
He watched as his sister was beaten to death and his brother, Daniel, was hanged for trying to protect him from the Nazis as the boys searched for food.
The most painful moment, after his family had been sent to Poland and put in the Auschwitz concentration camp, was when he realized his grandparents, parents and all the younger members of his family whom the Nazis considered useless for slave labor had been gassed.
One day, he asked another inmate at Auschwitz what was being burned because of the terrible smell coming out of aseries of chimneys.
The remains of these family members were quickly burned in crematoriums. Their ashes were mingled with those of thousands of others and disposed of without any monument. There was no place where they could be mourned.
The Soviet Army moved into Poland. The retreating Germans forced the survivors at Auschwitz on a “death march” to Dachau in Bavaria. When Dachau was liberated by the Americans, Rosa joined them in “killing Nazis.” By then, he weighed only 80 pounds.
After the war, he joined the Irgun, the Jewish underground army fighting to create the state of Israel. He was captured by the British and taken to a prison on the island of Cyprus, where he was tortured.
He eventually came to the United States, working first as a janitor and finally starting a deli and wine business.
For 55 years, he said nothing about his Holocaust experiences. But now in his late 80s, he feels that his story must be told.
The history honors society Phi Alpha Theta has arranged for Albert Rosa to speak Thursday at 4 p.m. in Cal Poly’s Chumash Auditorium. The event is free.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.