A synopsis of Devin Naar’s life story sounds like the flyleaf of a historical fiction novel: Mystery, intrigue, found boxes of dusty archives, world travel…and even a little romance along the way. I’m calling the copyrights to it right now.
Naar, who is in Seattle this week to give a talk at Ezra Bessaroth to commemorate the deportation of the Jews of Rhodes to Auschwitz, where 1604 of them perished, is a scholar of Sephardic and Greek history. He’s also in town to find a place to live with his fiancée, Andrea Soroko, because he’s going to be the Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at UW starting this fall.
Naar, 28, traces his foray into Sephardic studies back to his childhood. Though he’s surely given his biography tons of times, he says, “The more that I think about it, the more that I can come up with ‘Oh, this instance influenced [my path]’.”
Naar grew up in New Jersey with a general knowledge of his ancestry. He incorporated Sephardic traditions into his bar mitzvah, he remembers a photo of his grandfather in Ottoman-style getup, and as a child when he heard his old relatives talk, he assumed that old people just get funny accents—not that they were speaking English with a Ladino accent. He never internalized the centuries of Salonikan influence on his genealogy.
“‘Naar? What kind of name is Naar?’” his friends would ask. It was only through the course of his research that he came to discover that the now-Greek city of Salonika (Thessalonica) once had hundreds of Naars. In fact, Salonika was once 50 percent Jewish and considered “the Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
So, what happened?
Tomorrow night at EB, Naar will present on “From Salonika to Rhodes: Remembering the Sephardic Aegean,” where he will depict the life and culture of the Salonikan and Rhodes Jews, and their ultimate diaspora and destruction.
After over four centuries of thriving Jewish life around the Aegean, the Salonikan Jews were deported by the Nazis in 1943, the Rhodes Jews in 1944. A fact often overshadowed by the sheer destruction of the Eastern European Jewish communities is the decimation of the Salonikan Jews from around 60,000 to about 2000. The Rhodes community was reduced by 90 percent. Overnight, Jewish life in Greece vanished. Remnants of these communities – those who got out before the war and survivors, exist in pockets around the US. Seattle, of course, is one of them.
“My studies were initiated by my desire to bridge the gap between the sense of estrangement on the one hand, and a very strong sense of intimacy with that world,” said Naar.
“I was interested in the fate of my grandfather’s oldest brother, who stayed behind in Salonika, and who did not come to the United States,” he explained. “And it was in questioning about what happened to this great uncle of mine, and his wife and two kids, that piqued my interest in the Holocaust. But the details of their story were not transmitted to me.
“And one of my great-uncles one day gave me a stack of papers,” Naar continued. “They were letters. And the only thing I could understand on these letters were the dates: 1938, 1939 – gap – 1945, 1946.”
The letters were written in an old, now-little-used Ladino script called Solitreo. Naar located the alphabet in a book and began to decode letter by letter. The first word to come together? “Alemanes.” Germans.
“They were deported and perished in Auschwitz,” said Naar.
After graduating from Washington University, where he studied history and wrote his thesis on the emigration of Jews out of Salonika at the beginning of the 20th century, Naar spent a year in Salonika on a Fulbright, learning Greek, perfecting his Ladino, and researching this lost community.
“I wound up finding a trove of archives,” he said. “Basically, these were the archives of the Jewish community that the Nazis had confiscated during the Second World War, and some of them were returned after the war.”
Jewish community archives – everything from census records to letters from Jewish prisoners requesting matzoh on Passover – ended up all over the world. Naar even traveled to Moscow to study some of them, which had ended up there as war spoils.
And it just so happened that one collection of archives ended up in New York, just a stone’s throw from his hometown. And imagine what he found: The census records that began with the letter nun. He had found the records of Salonika’s Naars.
Naar has just scraped the tip of the iceberg. While on the Fulbright he created guides to the archives, but the Jewish world is in need of Ladino translators, scholars and researchers. “There are just tons of archival materials,” he said, “just waiting for young people like ourselves to uncover.”
After the year in Greece, where he learned Greek and created an exhibition of archives at the Jewish Museum of Salonica (called “With Their Own Words: Glimpses of Jewish Life in Thessaloniki Before the Holocaust”), Naar continued his studies at Stanford under Sephardic scholar Aron Rodrigue. His dissertation, which won an award for best-written, is titled “Jewish Salonica and the Making of the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans,’ 1890-1943.”
His move to Seattle seems fated, in a way: A mentor from Washington University tipped him off to the open position at University of Washington, and back in 2007 an article came out in the New York Times called Salonika “The Seattle of the Balkans.” (Indeed, Salonika has been described as both the Seattle and the Jerusalem of the Balkans.)
As for Salonika nowadays, still little is left of the Jewish presence. The enormous Jewish cemetery, which contained four centuries of graves, was destroyed during the war. Now that area is central Salonika.
“What is perhaps most shocking is what is on top of the Jewish cemetery, which is the Aristotle University of Salonika,” said Naar.
The tombstones were “repurposed” “to repair churches, to build patios, to line latrines and a cafeteria and make the yacht club,” he went on. “I mean, there were 400,000 pieces of good marble there…. I went to a suburb in the hills about five miles outside the city and there you can see a wall built around a private home built out of Jewish tombstones, with the inscriptions facing out.”
It took until the 1990s for Greece to start to acknowledge its past. “At one point 50 percent of Salonika was Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews,” he said. “You cannot understand anything about the city or about the country or about the region if you leave out half the population of the second biggest city in the country.”
In 1997 the first Holocaust monument was created, but “it was in the boonies,” said Naar. “When I was there in 2005, they moved it to the center of town because [Israel’s president] Katzav was coming to visit. And they thought, ‘This is embarrassing.’
“In one sense,” he continued, “that’s where the Jews entered the narrative of Greece: Their destruction. And this is not particular to Greece. You have this in other countries, where the Holocaust represents the Jewish experience there and omits the centuries of living culture.”
Naar knows he has a lot of work to do. Few materials on the particulars of Sephardic life exist, and he wants to “amplify and to create more nuance and more dimension to its story.”
In addition, “One project I’d like to do is write a history of several different neighborhoods in Salonika. Another project that I’d like to do is write a history of Sephardic Jews in America that is beyond New York.
“I would like to do a larger project about the migration of the Ladino speaking Jews out of the Ottoman Empire…and also look at the relations that were maintained among those diaspora communities,” he said.
Amidst his travels, schooling and hours locked away with dusty archives, Naar was able to find love, too. He met his fiancée, Andrea, at Washington University. She will be teaching English in Mukilteo this fall, and they have a wedding planned for next summer in Los Angeles.
I presume, when I write my novel, I’ll end on that note. Or, maybe, that’s where I’ll begin.