The Family Name Varsano: My entire life people would ask me “Varsano, sounds Italian, are you Italian?” I was always told that we were Sephardic Jews and that Varsano was actually a Spanish name, Ladino to be technical but most people don’t know what that is. However, I was never really sure if I had Italian heritage and when you’re eating in an Italian restaurant it seemed better to be Italian somewhere back in time. Then a couple of years ago I took a DNA test and it turns out that I’m up to 20% Italian which was mostly a surprise to me and one of the inspirations for moving forward with the Varsano Roots Project.
Varsano Family Mysteries
- Does the Varsano family name originate from Provence, France?
- How long did the Varsano family live in Italy? When and where?
- Did the Bulgarian Varsanos live in Salonica before moving to Bulgaria?
A. Biblical Holyland & Diaspora
- 10th Century B.C.E. Arrival to 2nd Century CE
Following their exile from the Holy Land, most Jews went to Rome, the capital of the Empire, in search of a better life and more favorable economic conditions. Roman law also ruled the area of modern day France. The 4th Century produced the first written documentation of the Jews in Gaul. The Gauls considered the Jews as Romans and thus they enjoyed the freedom of worship, the right to serve in military service, and the right to hold public office. Jews were integrated into the greater society in both language and appearance.
- 4th Century CE – 14th Century Arrival to 12 Century – 14th Century Departure
Vars County is in the Dauphine Provence, the region of Province Cote d’Azur, it bordered by Nice from the East and Marseille to the West. It is the frontier of Provence and the French Riviera. Cote d’Azur has six major counties and Vars is one of them. Historical records indicate that the cities of Draguignan and Toulon had Jewish populations from as early as the 4th Century of the Common Era up to the 14th Century.
1180-1350 Arrival to 1391-1492 Departure
Varsano literally means one who is from Vars in medieval Spanish. I was unable to determine precisely when my family immigrated to Spain, but I may assume it was sometime after King Phillip retracted Jewish expulsion in 1180 but before 1394 when all Jews were expelled from the kingdom of France. When they arrived in Spain, they were absorbed into a flourishing Jewish community that had existed since the 4th Century. Since Vars county was in the South of France on the Mediterranean, my family probably made a relatively short journey around the Gulf of Lions to Northeast Spain. They most likely settled in a city with a sizable Jewish population with a similar climate and feel to Toulon or Marseilles along the Mediterranean Sea. Barcelona of Valencia Catalonia was the closest such city which offered safe harbor.
History Professor Llorenc Mercadal Fernandez adds that the Varsano Family went to Barcelona, Gerona in Catalonia, and la villa de Caceres. The existence of the “la sinagoga de los franceses,” or French Synagogue, in the Jewish Quarter of Barcelona further confirms the claim.
In addition to blaming the Jews for the Bubonic Plague, the Catholic Church was stepping up its efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. In the year 1391, the 700,000 Jews that lived in Spain were cut into thirds. 1/3 were killed or exiled. 1/3 converted to Christianity and 1/3 survived as Jews. The Jews of Barcelona were also forced to convert to Catholicism. According to Professor Fernandez, Victoria Lopez Varsano (or Barsano) was burned at the stake for observing Shabbat and her sister was put in “perpetual prison.” Also, Rogelio Varsano was punished for prayer in “jude mode.”
D. Iberian/North Africa/Italy
- 1391-1492 Arrival to 1541 Departure: Kingdom of Naples
E. Ottoman Empire & Turkey
- 1492-1541 Arrival to Bulgarian Independence in 1878 and Greek Control of Salonica in 1912
Salonica Jewish Quarter: “The Etz Hayim quarter was located in the streets Varsano (Pharoh), Etz Hayim Havrasi (Theodorou Laskareos), Hisar (Pausaniou) and the perpendicular street Kastilya Havrasi (Aghiou Nikolaou) that begins from the seashore and continues northwards.” The Varsano Synagogue of Salonica was founded by the Varsano Family during the Ottoman Period on Etz Hayim Havrasi Street in the Etz-Hayim quarter. “It probably stopped functioning before 1917.”
- 1912 Greek Control to 1949 Departure
La Liberté, 26 May 1916 – In the week preceding the Israelite feast of Passover, one could read, in the French newspapers of Salonika, this notice “- to the officers and soldiers allies” –
“The Chief Rabbi of Salonika has the honor to invite all the Israelite officers and soldiers of the Franco-English armies located in Macedonia to kindly attend the Seder service as well as the dinner which will be organized in their honor during the first two evenings and the first two days of Passover.
The premises of the Chief Rabbinate were The premises of the Chief Rabbinate being too small to contain all the guests, the rooms of the Varsano Restaurant, rented for this purpose by the Israelite community, will also be reserved for some of the guests…
In 1928, Ovadia Varsano was a small private Jewish School in Salonica with 32 students.
During WWII, Saby (Sampetai) Varsano was one of 876 Jews in the Greek resistance to the Nazi occupation.
Greek Holocaust Survivors and Victims (Partial List, Over 300 murdered)
- 1878 Independence to 1948 Departure, a few Jews including some Varsano remained after Israel Independence
Bulgarian Holocaust Survivors and Victims (Partial List)
- VARSANO, JACQUE (Video Interview)
- Birth date: 2 Jul 1894
- Birth place: Sofia, Bulgaria
- VARSANO, BUCO
- VARSANO, SAMI
- Sex: Male
- Place of Birth: Sofia, Bulgaria
- Date of Document: 3 Nov 1940
- Document Location:Haifa
- Date of Entry: 1 Nov 1940
- Place of Entry:Haifa
- Ship Name: SS Pacific
- Present Nationality:Bulgarian
- Languages Spoken: Bulgarian, Hebrew, Spanish
- Information Obtained: Was A Private In The Bulgarian Army. Discharged About A Year Ago
- First Reference: Nisim Cohen Kibutz Mabarot Nathania
- ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION TO PALESTINE (RG 17)
- Varsano, Luisa
- 1948 Arrival to Present