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? If so, why  did they move from Salonica, the Jerusalem of the Balkans?

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.

B.             France

  • 4th Century CE – 14th Century Arrival to 12 Century – 14th Century Departure

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. It 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.  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.”

TOULON, port in the Var department, S.E. France. In the second half of the 13th century the Jews made up an appreciable proportion of the population of Toulon: at a general municipal assembly held in 1285, 11 of the 155 participants were Jews. They shared the same rights and duties as the other citizens. The community came to a brutal end on the night of April 12/13, 1348 (Palm Sunday), when the Jewish street, “Carriera de la Juteria,”
was attacked, the houses pillaged, and 40 Jews slain; this attack was probably related to the *Black Death persecutions. Faced with an enquiry set up by a judge from Hyères, the assailants fled; however, they were soon pardoned. After this date, in addition to a few converted Jews, there were in Toulon only individual Jews who stayed for short periods; one such man was Vitalis of Marseilles, who was engaged as a town physician in 1440.

Draguignan is the capital of Var department, S.E. France. Toward the end of the 13th century, when the poet *Isaac b. Abraham Ha-Gorni visited Draguignan, there was already an important community of wealthy Jews, who gave an unfriendly welcome to the poet, mistrusting his licentious behavior. The ancient synagogue, no longer standing, a beautiful building with a 23-m.(75.4-ft.)-long facade and a single spacious hall without the support of columns, was built during the same period. During the middle of the 14th century the community of 200 to 250 persons was governed by an administrative council and two bailiffs. In the 15th century, the number of Jews in Draguignan had increased so much that the accommodation in the Rue Juiverie had become inadequate. There were numerous Jewish physicians, one of whom received a salary from the municipality. In 1489
the Jews in Draguignan were among the first victims of the edict of expulsion from Provence. Five accepted baptism to avoid being expelled. During World War II, there were about 12 Jewish families living in Draguignan. A new community of Jews of North African origin established there numbered approximately 100 in 1968.

As a result of a *blood libel in Valréas in 1247 ten Jews were martyred there; in several other places Jews were imprisoned and their belongings were confiscated. However, when the Jews were expelled from France in 1306, the exiles were welcomed in Dauphiné, as were the Jews who arrived from the Comtat-Venaissin in 1322. In 1348, the Jews were accused in several localities of Dauphiné of having spread the Black Death. In 1349, Dauphiné’s existence as an independent state came to an end. In exchange for a considerable payment, the dauphin Humbert II ceded Dauphiné to the king of France, the eldest son of the king of France henceforth assuming the title of “dauphin.” The undertaking to respect “the institutions and the customs of the country” was equally honored with regard to the Jews. Though they were now in the Kingdom of France, their residence in Dauphiné was not contested. 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. 

C.             Spain

  • 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 commune 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 that 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
    • Apulia
    • Calabria

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.”

1.  Greece

  • 1912 Greek Control to 1949 Departure
  • Salonica

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

2. Bulgaria 

F.              Israel

  • 1948 Arrival to Present

G.             Netherlands

H.             USA

I.               South America