By David Barzilay
The intriguing tale of the location and fate of a Jewish baby placed in the Municipal Foundling Home of Thessaloniki during WWII.
It is March 4th 2016 an email pops onto my screen from some unknown group of researchers based in Thessaloniki, Greece. They introduce themselves: “ We are a group of researchers in Thessaloniki working on a common academic project related to the Shoah. Aliki Arouh, genealogist and researcher archivist of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, , Aigli Brouskou, an anthropologist, researcher of the Municipal Foundling Home of Thessaloniki ‘Agios Stylianos’ and Areti Makri, archivist at the State Archives in Thessaloniki and a researcher”.
The letter then continued to describe the more specific case that they had focused their attention on, namely, “ Our research has been revolving around the special case of a newborn infant who arrived as an exposed child at the Foundling Home of Thessaloniki in March 1943, stayed there for two years under the name of Achilleas Mouratidis, and was subsequently retrieved by one of his maternal uncle”. ………………..Having finally located you we would like to share with you documents and information about members of your family that you had no knowledge of……………”.
At this point suspicion arises as to the legitimacy of this group. Was this some hoax of someone trying to extract money or information from me? As the letter continues they categorically declare that they are not demanding any monetary compensation for their work.
Having overcome the 'hoax' hurdle, I declare myself a willing participant in sharing whatever information I can in completing their project. After an intense email exchange, the intriguing, convoluted and remarkable tale of their quest to find me unfolded.
In April 2015, Aliki Arouh is invited to Aigli Brouskou’s presentation of her new book “Because of the Crisis I Give You My Child”. The very same day, Maria Vassilikou (historian) was doing her research in the Archive of the Jewish Community. Among many pages being studied by her, she comes across a letter from Agios Stylianos relating to four circumcised babies that were placed in the orphanage of Agios Stylianos in 1943 during the German occupation of Thessaloniki. Maria shared this information with Aliki and the name of 'Dario Massarano' surfaced.
Achilleas Mouratidis 1945
Aliki recalling the document she was given days earlier, becomes intrigued and poses the question “what has become of these orphans?”. Also present was Areti Makri who was now intrigued by all of this and pursues her own line of investigation. The following day she sends an email to Aliki “I am sending you two documents that may be of some interest for your research”.
The seed of the investigative process has been planted. But where does one begin to unravel the enigma of the baby orphans of Thessalonika? The only information available was the name 'Dario Massarano', the Orphanage admission name one of the babies. How does one proceed from there?
Aliki, an accomplished Jewish archivist, begins digging through her files and focused her attention on the Massarano family. Fortunately, one of the documents that survived the war was the 1941marriage certificate of Yaacov Massarano, age 31, and Mathilde Barzilay, age 20. On the 4th of March 1943 Mathilde gave birth to a baby boy named Dario Massarano. In the process of her investigation a whole lineage of family members are also discovered. While all this is a fascinating discovery of its own merit it did not reveal anything in terms of locating the mysterious Dario Massarano.
On April 17, 1943, the Massarano couple arrive at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Yaacov is registered as being married with no children and tattooed the number 119945.
The researchers were now faced with the question: What happened to the Massarano's new born infant? Did someone take him, protected him, and cared for him? Maybe? Perhaps he was yet another victim of the Nazi fervor to exterminate European Jewry and never survived the war years. These were some of the daunting questions asked and loomed as a monumental task to resolve.
The email that Areti sent to Aliki following Aigli’s presentation revealed some information on the origins of one of the orphans at Agios Stylianos. As it happened, Areti was working on a completely unrelated project which was the investigation of one Ioannis Stathakis. A prominent lawyer but mysterious and suspicious personage.
The archivist discovered that Mr. Stathakis was a close friend of Nathan Barzilay, a prominent business figure and well known in Thessaloniki social circles. While researching the lawyer's documents, Areti discovered an interesting letter which a 'Richard Barzilay' had sent to Stathakis. The letter requested that the lawyer describe and document some events that took place in 1943.
What connection, if any, exists between Stathakis, Richard Barzilay and baby Dario Massarano? The plot thickened but remainded muddy.
A faint ray of light and hope began to dimly shine. Stathakis in his response to Richard Barzilay describes how Nathan Barzilay requested of him to care for and protect his grandson who was just born. Fearing for his own safety and feeling unable to properly care for this infant, the lawyer entrusted the baby to a constable at the local police station who subsequently delivered the infant to the Municipal Foundling Home of Thessaloniki, Agios Stylianos.
A new question loomed before the researchers: who was Richard Barzilay and why was he writing to Stathakis. Once again more questions had arisen with no answers. Another intriguing document is found where a Jacques Barzilay is making a request of Stathakis to hand over some of the Jewelery that Nathan Barzilay had entrusted him with in order that he and his brother Moise can use it to help them survive the post war years.
The investigation becomes more complicated with no path to a resolution in sight.
Finding baby 'Dario' had now become an obsession for Areti. The research group resorted to searching all available social media platforms, the two most obvious being 'Yad Vashem' and the 'USC Shoah Foundation'.
From the Yad Vashem site a document surfaced in which a Greek couple from Athens were bestowed the Righteous Among the Nations honour for saving the life of 'Beatrice Matalon'. What connection did this lady have with anyone? At first glance this appeared to be just unrelated collateral data of no particular relevance. A closer look at 'Beatrice's' testimony interestingly revealed that she was the wife of Richard Barzilay and that she had a stepson David Barzilay. The interest in this data escaladed but what was the connection between all these people?
One still had to find the connection between all these people. More research was required. More paths to pursue. More frustrations.
With a passion that only a committed researcher would understand, Areti viewed and studied all these documents. Using a polyglot of intuition, professional acumen, pure intellect and perhaps some serendipity she arrived at the conclusion: David Barzilay and 'Dario Massarano' were one and the same person. 'Dario Massarano' was the son of Mathilde Barzilay who was the daughter of Nathan Barzilay and the sister of Richard Barzilay.
So now it was clear that the baby orphan survived the war, was retrieved by one of his uncles, Jacques Barzilay, and was given the name David Barzilay.
The magic and excitement of success. Hard work, passion and perseverance were rightfully rewarded.
The question of “Who” has now been resolved. The USC Shoah Foundation provided the solid proof of David’s existence. As Areti said “There we found the oral and written testimony of the man we were looking for all this time, telling the world the part of his story that we knew nothing about until then.” David’s detailed testimonial in 1998 provided that proof. To quote Aliki, “Until we started the coordinated research, Dario was another name on the long list of Holocaust victims. As the pieces came together, I was wildly delighted to scratch Dario’s name off it.”
The great conundrum was about to unfold. The rest of this journey of discovery at first seemed very simple, almost trivial. David Barzilay resided in Montreal and it was almost a banal task to find their orphan boy and to connect with him.
Facebook yielded no additional information. So with much hope and expectation, the Troika (the name David had affectionately given to the three researches who 'discovered' him) sent a concise explanatory email describing their research to an internet derived address in Montreal, Canada.
By that time the Troika had developed an emotional and personal attachment and identification with their unknown David. Much to their chagrin there was no reply to their email. More frustration as another email sent to a supposed cousin also yielded no results.
Silence; the shadow of defeat; maybe failure. The fairy tale project, their bubble of success and joy seemed to have burst.
In spite of having exhausted all social media pathways and meeting abject failure the Troika group were on the verge of giving up. Where do we go from here? How do we proceed?
We were so close and yet we are still so far from him.
Perhaps the Troika had an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. As it turned out Areti’s husband, Apostolos Zikoulis, an insurance agent, had some dealings with Taly Mair who was the director of Athen’s Jewish community. In passing he mentions to her the research that his wife is engaged in. Some weeks pass and on a social evening outing Taly Mair, Areti and her husband chance to meet in some bar. Introductions are made and soon the two women are engaged in the discussion of the Dario Project. In passing, Taly mentions the name of Ishie Gitlin, a prominent figure in the Mexico Jewish community. So what? That didn’t solve anything. The impasse is still there.
Bells rang in Areti’s head as she recalls the name of Ishie from Facebook as being a friend of David dating back to their student days in Manchester, England. She requested Taly to forward the original introductory letter, sent to David almost a year ago, to Ishie who hopefully would know his whereabouts and subsequently relay it to him.
The email chain had succeeded marvelously. I received the letter and the rest was and is history as they say. A slew of contact, email exchanges and Skyping' followed. A partnership has been established. The Troika can fully complete their project now that the baby orphan has been found. All parties are happy and glow in their success.
David Massarano’s case can be said to illustrate a trend, a solution that was considered by the Jewish population who were about to be deported: they have actually left behind them a number of babies. David Massarano’s case is one of these cases, and it is the only one that is fully attested, by archival material, documentation, and by oral testimony, passed down to the protagonist of this story.
David Massarano/Barzilay with members of his Troika. (Left to right) Aliki Arouh, Areti Makri and Aigli Brouskou
I would like to extend my gratitude to Dr. W. Weiser and Sandra Zelikovic for their valuable commentaries.
David Barzilay (M.Sc., M.A., Ph.D.) having lived in several countries after the second world war finally settled in Canada since 1968 and lives in Montreal, Quebec. He taught physics at Champlain College, St Lambert for 44 years and recently retired. He is married and has two adult sons. He ardently pursues his interests in science readings, photography, traveling and engaging in a variety of sporting activities.