Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century

The Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre and UCL’S Institute of Jewish Studies were delighted to welcome Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein (UCLA) to discuss her fascinating book, Family Papers on Thursday 14 OctoberThe result of meticulous historical research, involving painstaking deciphering of thousands of pages of family correspondence, this book vividly captures the history of the Levy family, from Ottoman Salonica to the late twentieth century. So involved in the Levy saga did Professor Stein become in the course of her research that she continues to be included in family correspondence and has become an adopted member of this widespread and intriguing family.  

Tracing the descendants of Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, a family history entwined with the history of the city of Salonica, Professor Stein spoke of a family of printers, civil servants, teachers and – ultimately – emigrees. The tumultuous twentieth century, in which the city was rocked by the great fire of 1917 (which impacted the Levy family directly and destroyed much of the Jewish quarter of the city) and, later, by the Second World War and the deportation and subsequent murder in the Nazi camps of the majority of Salonica’s Jews, profoundly changed the shape of the Levy family tree. Some branches were cut off completely and, for many men, women and children descended from Sa’adi, few traces remain other than photographs and, of course, the letters they wrote and received.  

One of the most intriguing parts of Professor Stein’s talk was the discussion of what was not communicated in those letters between family members, and what was deliberately omitted from the Levy family’s collective memory. In the course of her research, Professor Stein uncovered a member of the family who had acted against his family and against the Jewish community of Salonica: Vital Hasson. Nazi collaborator Hasson was, according to records, the only Jewish collaborator executed by the state for wartime crimes. His name and his deeds are never mentioned in any of the surviving family correspondence. Stein discussed the dilemma she faced as a historian first and foremost, but also as a friend to the twenty-first century Levy descendants, on whether to publish this hitherto forgotten piece of family history. 

In her talk, as in her book, she wove a rich, detailed and evocative account of this Sephardic family and their lives and movements across the globe and over the centuries.