Provence and France

Provence 12 Century to 14th Century

Based on the assumption Varsano means “from Vars” in Spanish (or Italian), the Var or Vars area of nearby Provence, France is the likely source of origin. Modern-day France has several areas that use the name Vars or Var. The village of Vars in the Haute-Saone department is located in eastern France closer to Germany and Switzerland. Nearby Vesoul in Haute-Saone had a very small Jewish population in the 12th and 13th Centuries, but it seems unlikely that the ancestors of the Varsano family made the long journey to Spain from that region. A much more likely source of the Varsano ancestry comes from the Vars commune in the Hautes-Alpes department, southeastern France which is much closer to Spain with a larger Jewish population during the middle ages. The France commune is similar to a township or incorporated municipality in the United States.

The Vars name originates from the Var River. Var derives from the Latin Varus and Indo-European root meaning “water or river,” also “bent outward.” The Var River rises near Col de la Cayolle in the Maritime Alps and flows southeast to the Mediterranean Sea between Nice and Saint-Laurent-du-Var. The Var River is often calm but prone to disastrous flooding during stormy weather which serves an apt analogy for the history of the Varsano family – long periods of calm, punctuated by short bursts of great tragedy. The river has served as a border for various kingdoms throughout history and shares a similar international history as the Varsano Family.

The commune of Vars is in the Dauphine Provence, the region of Province Cote d’Azur, it is 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 communes and Vars is one of them. There is also a popular ski resort named Vars located in Hautes-Alpes. La Foret Blanche (The White Forest) connects to the resorts of Vars and Risoul and the area is surrounded by the summits of the Massif des Ecrins National Park, the Ubaye Valley, and the Queyras Nature Park.

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. During the 12th and 13th Centuries, northern Provence was the Papal State of the Comtat Venaissin, and Jews were allowed to live there in relative peace. Jewish communities arose in Avignon, Carpentras, L’Isle-sur-Sorgue, and Cavaillon known as the Arba Kehilloth, or four Holy Communities.  Those periodically persecuted but mostly tolerated Jewish communities constructed synagogues and the temples of Carpentras and Cavaillon. Those Jews wrote in Hebrew, but spoke a local dialect, Provençal. In the 12th century, there were more Jews than ever before within the territory of modern-day France: approximately 100,000 which represented about ten percent of the population. Over half of those Jews were settled in southern France where they became significant portions of the greater population.

In “The Four Holy Communities: The Jewries of Medieval Provence” in Commentary Magazine,  Allan Temko writes “As often as not, they were assigned the contemptible title of serf, but in reality they were tributary vassals of the great lords and, in this capacity, their “men.” Jews could not change their residence or transfer their allegiance, but they bore no resemblance to agricultural workers bound to the soil. These southern Jews resided in the same cities as in antiquity, often, it is thought, in quarters they had by now occupied for a millennium. In the complex feudal mosaic of the Mediterranean coastlands, many of them lived under either the direct or indirect rule of the Counts of Toulouse. These enlightened princes governed a vast system of fiefs, extending the width of Provence and Languedoc, which even in the first half of the 12th century were so penetrated by heterodox beliefs that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux came there to preach angrily in the name of the Church Militant. With the exception of Spain, nowhere else in medieval Europe
did Jews possess such ease in social intercourse and as much prominence in commerce, finance, and politics—in spite of periodic humiliations.” They could survive but not thrive, relegated to moneylending, secondhand textiles and brocante (used furnishings).

Toulon is a port city on the Mediterran that had a sizable Jewish population at certain times during the Middle Ages. The predecessors  to the Varsano most likely lived here before spreading out to other parts of  the Vars commune.  Jews in Toulon shared the same rights and duties as the other citizens until the mid 14th Century. On the night of April 12 and 13, 1348, which corresponded with Palm Sunday, the Jewish street, known “Carriera de la Juteria,” was attacked, the houses pillaged, and 40 Jews slain. The Jewish community was falsely blamed for causing the Black Death and Christians around Europe attacked Jews starting in Toulon.

Draguignan is the capital of Var department and also had a significant population of Jews in the 12th, 13th, and 14th Centuries. Toward the end of the 13th century, the city was important community of wealthy Jews with an ancient synagogue.  During the middle of the 1300s, the community of approximately 250 persons was centered around Rue Juiverie. The Jewish population continued to grow for many decades despite the nearby persecutions of Jews. Eventually, the Jews of Draguignan were expelled in 1489, but the Varsano family relocated to Spain well before the official decree.

Hyères is another coastal town in Vars that had Jewish community that was 300 strong in the middle of the 14th century.  The poet Isaac b. Abraham ha-Gorni was a native of Hyères. According to Cecil Roth in Geneose Jews of the Thirteenth Century, “Parucus (i.e., Baruch?), Jew of Hyeres, was witness or intermediary in various transactions connected with the import of salt to Genoa in the early part of 1253, his home town being an important center for the salt-marshes.23 Later, he took up residence apparently in Toulon, but continued his business-visits to Genoa, purchasing grain there in 1257. The relationship between the Jews and other merchants seems to have been cordial.” Similar to nearby Toulon, Jews in Hyères were scapegoated and attacked in April of 1348 following the Black Death plague. The plague moving westward from the coast toward the interior, and consequently the attacks against Jews followed a similar path. Perhaps, the Varsano family ancestors traveled inland to escape persecution and eventually made their way to the Iberian peninsula.

In the. nearby Dauphiné region, which was under the rule of the king of France during the 14th Century, the Jews were somewhat tolerated at a time when most Jews were exiled from Kingdom of France. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “In 1355 and 1404, it was explicitly stated that the Jews of newly-incorporated regions would continue to enjoy their former liberties and exemptions. However from 1355 the privileges which were granted to the Jews of Dauphiné were only valid for a limited period, even though they were renewable. These privileges specified in particular their freedom of residence, right to acquire houses, freedom of trade, and moneylending. Heavy financial burdens and the complaints against Jewish moneylending made many Jews leave Dauphiné, especially after 1390.”

The Jews of Vars most likely fled to safer places after the 1348 attacks. Similar attacks took place in Barcelona and other areas of Catalan, but the Jews fleeing Provence must have felt more secure under Spanish rule. By the late 14th Century, it seemed like Provence and the Southern region of France were no longer hospitable places for Jews.

France 20th Century

1943-1945 Holocaust – Buco and David Varsano, etc.

1964 Marseilles – Mordecai and Elaine Varsano