Ya’acov (Jack) Handeli
00:05:00 German occupation period
00:21:56 Greek Jews in the concentration camp
00:28:41 Camp selections
00:33:10 Daily life and survival in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp
00:42:38 Death marches/liberation
00:48:19 Postwar period
“So here I was, alone in the world, without my brothers any more. There was no one around from my neighborhood, or school, or from the area I used to life in. Only the strong ones remained, but I did not know any of them. Of the people I had known as a child, of the many people that had been part of my surroundings, none was left. I already knew what had become of my parents, brothers and sisters; my Belgian friend was no longer alive, either. I was alone.”
Ya’acov Handeli, the youngest son of Salomon and Dudun (née Ben Nathan) Handeli, was born in Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece, in 1928. He had two older brothers, Yehuda and Samuel, and three older sisters, Perla, Lucie, and Bienvenida. Ya’acov’s grandfather Yehuda also lived with them. Like many others in the large Sephardic community of Thessaloniki, Ya’acov’s family spoke Ladino at home. They also had friends among the Greek Orthodox population. Ya’acov’s father, together with the Zakkai brothers, owned a flourishing business that sold construction materials. All the Handeli children went to school, and later on, Ya’acov even attended a private school, at which Jewish and Christian boys studied together.
In October 1940, Italian forces invaded Greece. Samuel fought in the Greek army, was wounded, and returned home. In April 1941, the German Wehrmacht occupied Thessaloniki, and gradually the German occupation authorities imposed restrictions on the civil liberties of the Jewish population. As of late 1942, Thessaloniki’s Jews were told that they would be resettled to Cracow; Ya’acov’s father bought tools, so that he would be able to make a new start. In spring 1943, the SS deported the approximately 56,000 Jews of Thessaloniki to Auschwitz; only 2,000 of them survived. The Handelis reached Auschwitz on April 14, 1943. Shortly thereafter, Ya’acov’s parents and sisters were murdered in Birkenau, and he himself, with his two brothers, was quarantined for 40 days in the Auschwitz I concentration camp, then sent to the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. There Ya’acov had to witness the death of his two brothers. When he himself was close to becoming a Muselmann, he had a stroke of luck and was sent to the kitchen to wash the soup vats; there he was protected by the Greek boxer Jacko Razon.
On January 18, 1945, the SS forced Ya’acov Handeli and the other prisoners to go on the death march to Gleiwitz, and from there he was sent to do forced labor in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Finally the SS transported the prisoners to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he was freed by British troops on April 15, 1945. Ya’acov Handeli worked for some time for the U.S. Army and learned English. Then he joined the Haganah, and in 1948 he emigrated via Marseille to Israel, where he fought in the War of Independence. In 1950 he left the army, and he spent the next 34 years working for the United Jewish Appeal. Ya’acov Handeli married Rachel, whom he had met in the army. The couple had a daughter and a son. In 1992 Ya’acov Handeli published an account of his survival, initially in Hebrew under the title מהמגדל הלבן לשערי אושוויץ (From the white tower to the gates of Auschwitz), and an English version in 1993: A Greek Jew from Salonica Remembers. Ya’acov and Rachel Handeli live in Jerusalem today.
(MN; transl. KL)