Provence and France

Provence 12 Century to 14th Century

Most likely due to persecution in the Roman Empire and seeking a more prosperous existence, our nameless Jewish ancestors made their way west to the southern part of modern-day France. Around the 12th Century, several Jewish communities in Provence began to thrive. The inhabitants of these Jewish settlements had been exiled from Judea over a thousand years prior and had presumably made the slow journey through the lands of the Roman Empire. Some of these Jews were the predecessors to the Varsano family since the origins of the Varsano family name are found in Provence.

Based on the assumption Varsano means “from Vars” in Spanish, 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. It’s also further from the common routes of the Roman Empire. 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 Vars name purportedly 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. While it’s unlikely that these early Varsanos of the Middle Ages were enjoying the ski slopes of the Alps, there were several cities within Vars and surrounding areas that had a significant Jewish presence.

Historical records indicate that the cities of Draguignan and Toulon had Jewish populations from as early as the 4th Century C.E. 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. They s 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 Mediterranean 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.  According to Cecil Roth in Genoese Jews of the Thirteenth Century, Some Jews of Hyeres exported salt to Genoa in the early part of 1253, the town being an important center for the salt-marshes. Jewish residents moved freely between Hyeres, Genoa, and Toulon purchasing grains and other commodities. 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. Continue to Spain

France 20th Century

Jews communities existed in France and Provence throughout the centuries, but the only evidence of Varsanos living in France was during the tumultuous 20th Century. Unfortunately, Jews in general and Varsanos specifically didn’t fare very well in France during WWII.

Buco Varsano

Buco Varsano
Buco Varsano from Holocaust Archives

According to Alfons Varsano, Buco’s nephew, his life story is one of adventure that ends in tragedy. Buco (Bechor} Varsano was born February 2, 1894 in Silistra, Romania which later became part of Bulgaria. His parents were Leon Varsano and Mazal Ventura Varsano. Buco was military officer during WWI in 1918 but did not want to fight and deserted. First he left for Turkey and later one move to France where he became a business man in Paris, France. He lived at 47, Av St. Foy Nevilly, Seine.

During WWII, as the Germans approached Paris, Buco left for Vichy and then to Cannes. He took up residence at the Hotel Cavendish in Cannes but was arrested by the French Gendarmes while walking on the street. Origin of Deportation was Drancy, Camp, France. He was on the last mass transport from Drancy which left from the Paris-Bobigny railway station on July 31, 1944 and then sent to Auschwitz part of Convoy 77. The train arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 3, 1944. He died at Auschwitz on an unknown date less than a year before the camp was liberated by Allied forces.

According to Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the transport from France to Auschwitz was horrific. Some of the details are as follows:

“…The deportation list, compiled at Drancy comprises 1,321 names from 37 countries, among them 330 children under the age of 18… About 800 of these Jews had been interned in Drancy, following mass arrests in Paris in July. The rest came from Lyon and from shelters and children’s homes run by the UGIF… On the first night in the camp they occupied a dormitory with bug infested wooden bunk beds where they slept on the bare wood without blankets. The next day, their luggage was searched for jewelry and cash, and they were subsequently brought to the ‘Kanzlei’ called point of interrogation. Being disinfected was the next step of absorption into the camp. After that, they were allocated to some cleaner but unfinished premises. Each of them received the yellow badge and a colored number indicating a category of inmates to which they had been assigned: red for people to be soon deported, purple for people whose situation required further clarification, and green for people who were to remain and work…
The transport consisted of 30 cars. Some of the cars had a pail of water as well as a box of extra provisions. The floor was partly covered with straw.  The train arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 3, 1944. In preparation for the arrival of the Hungarian Jews in the spring, railway tracks had been laid to lead into the camp, through the now infamous gatehouse building. Yvette Lévy remembers these moments as “the landing on the planet of lunatics. Impossible to forget. The night, the floodlights, the men in striped prisoner’s garb, the SS screaming, the dogs barking …”
The deportees disembarked at the very end of the ramp and the SS immediately began with the selections. 291 men were tattooed with the serial numbers B3673 to B3963 and 183 women received the serial numbers A16652 to A16834. (This data is based on the Auschwitz Chronicle). The remaining deportees were immediately murdered in the gas chambers. Entire families with five or six children were wiped out. The youngest child was 15 days old. Yvette Lévy: “But even then we still didn’t fathom what it meant to be pushed to the right. It took a while, one or two days till we understood what had happened to that long column of people on the right.” In 1945, after the liberation of Auschwitz there were 214 survivors from this transport, 146 of whom were women.
Read the entire description of the Drancy Convoy:

Name Charles VARSANO

Conflict 1939-1945
Rank and regiment [Victimes civiles]- Déportation
Cause of death Mort(e) en déportation
Comments Âgé de 18 ans
Reference # 2505985

Post World War II

Despite persistent antisemitism, post-war France has been much more hospitable to the Varsano family.

Maurice Varsano was a sugar trader in Morocco, but after WWII he emigrated to Paris, France. In post war France, Maurice along with his business partner Jacques Roboh started the sugar trading company Sucden in 1952. According to the Sucres et Denrées (Sucden) website, “The company still acts as a mediator for sugar-producing countries and uses a system initiated by Maurice in the 1950s when he conducted a trade deal with Fidel Castro to sell Cuban sugar to Japan and North Africa. Maurice’s relationship with Castro proved valuable, as he was one of the only traders who would consider working with Cuba following the political revolution.

Maurice later created the subsidiary Amerop Sugar Corporation, opening up trade opportunities for Sucden in Latin and North America. These industry investments led to Maurice’s reputation as being one of the most important entrepreneurial figures of international trade by the early 1970s.

Maurice’s son, Serge Varsano, took over after his father’s death in 1980. Under his leadership, the company expanded into the cocoa industry and formed a relationship with the Ivory Coast to purchase 400,000 tonnes of cocoa.”  His son, Dimitri Varsano, continues to the family tradition as co-head of sugar trading at the French commodity broker Sucden. In 2023, Sucden was listed as the 8th largest family run business in France with annual revenue of $7.1 billion.