12 March 2012

Ottoman Roots of Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy was a prominent politician who served as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent suburb of Paris and twice as Interior Minister. Yet, until he became President in 2007, not much was known about his family history.

Then an article appeared in a Le Monde blog called "La Turquie pour les nuls" (Turkey for Dummies) telling the stroy of his maternal great uncle, Ascher Mallah Effendi. I think it was penned by a researcher and high school teacher by the name of Olivier Chartier. The blog no longer exist but the article got reproduced hundreds of times. It became popular because it shed light to Sarkozy's Ottoman and Jewish ancestry. The former pleased Turks for the irony it represented with Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey's EU membership and the latter seemed to tickle antisemites of all kind.

The French text is more or less reproduced here.

I subsequently realized that most of the information came from a couple of articles that appeared earlier in an online publication called European Jewish Press. The later piece expanding on the introduction provided by the first one.

This is the Sarkozy Family Story

Sarkozy's maternal grand father Benedict (born Aaron, nicknamed "Beniko") Mallah was born in Thessaloniki (Salonika) in 1890 as an Ottoman citizen. Mallah sounds like it has something to do with Allah but it means angel in Hebrew, as Malak does in Arabic. The family is Sephardim as they were forced out of Spain (Sepharad in Hebrew, hence the denomination) with the Alhambra Decree in 1492. They first moved to Provence in France and then to Salonika.

In Medieval Europe, Salonika was the only city of its size to have a majority Jewish population. Besides the Sephardim, Ashkenazim also moved in gradually and by "1519, the Jews represented 56% of the population and in 1613, 68%."

Benedict's older brother Ascher Mallah was born ten years earlier (1880 according to most sources and 1881 according to others). He graduated from the Ottoman imperial college (Mekteb-i Sultani or Lycée de Galatasaray, as it was later known).
Ascher Mallah vient au monde en 1880, un an avant la naissance de Mustafa Kemal dans la même ville. Il sera diplômé, avec la mention « très bien » du « Lycée impérial de Galatasaray » en 1900. Son Diplôme de Bachelier-ès-Lettres et ès-Sciences est délivré le 14 juillet 1900 à Constantinople par le Ministère ottoman de l'instruction publique. Au Lycée impérial de Galatasaray « Ascher Mallah Effendi », fils de Jacob Mallah, né à Salonique en septembre 1880 étudie, entre autres, la littérature turque et française, la langue arabe, la langue persane, l'histoire générale et l'histoire de l'Empire ottoman. Il étudie également la géographie générale et la géographie de l'Empire ottoman, la philosophie.
This is a copy of his diploma (pdf).

And this is him at the time looking very Ottoman,

The Mallah family was quite prominent in Salonika.
The family included Uncle Moshe, a rabbi and Zionist who published and edited, in 1898, El Avenir, the leading Greek paper for the Zionist movement. Cousin Asher was a Greek Senator who, in 1912, helped establish the Technion and served as the Greek Zionist Federation's first president. In the 1930s, he helped Jews immigrate to Israel, where he himself went in 1934. 
This is a better picture of Ascher. He is the one sitting in the front row.

The slow but steady departure of the Jews of Thessaloniki which began after Salonika became Greek in 1912 turned into a veritable exodus  after the Great Fire of 1917 which destroyed maybe 40 percent of the city and a larger portion of Jewish neighborhoods.

Beniko was one of the first ones to leave after Salonika became Thessaloniki and he moved to France in 1913 to study medicine.

He joined the army as a doctor and while serving, he met his wife Adele Bouvier who was an army nurse. They got married on 19 October 1917 after Beniko changed his name to Benedict and converted to Catholicism upon her family's insistence. They had two daughters Suzanne and Andrée.

André Jeanne Mallah is Sarkozy's mother.

An interesting footnote about European prejudices, despite Benedict's conversion, the family had to flee France during the Vichy regime.

Sarkozy's father was Hungarian. His original name is nagybócsai Sárközy Pál or Pál István Ernő Sárközy de Nagy-Bócsa. A good friend of mine of Hungarian origin wrote to me in 2007 to provide the amusing etymology of the name:
The original spelling of the name is Sárközy. Sárköz is a place in Hungary and the "y" indicates "person from". Taking the word apart even more, "sár" is "mud" and one of the meanings of "köz" is something like "having to do with".
Pál Sárközy was born in 1928 in Budapest
into a family belonging to the lower, untitled Hungarian nobility. His paternal ancestor was elevated to the untitled nobility of Hungary on 10 September 1628 for his role in fighting the armies of the Ottoman Empire. 
The Sarkozy family fled to Germany in 1944 when the Red Army entered Hungary. I am not sure of their political affiliations but running into Germany in 1944 is a peculiar choice. They returned at the end of the war to find all their possessions confiscated. Pal Sarkozy moved to France (with a slight detour in the French Foreign Legion, where a fellow Hungarian doctor gave him a medical discharge instead of sending him to Indochina) and met Andrée Mallah in 1949.

They got married and had three sons, Guillaume, Nicolas and François.

One other interesting bit of history to note: Sarkozy's first wife was Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz. Her father was André Ciganer or
de son vrai nom Aron Chouganov, né à Bălţi (actuelle Moldavie) en 1898, est issu pour moitié d'une famille de propriétaires terriens juifs de Bessarabie et pour autre moitié de Tziganes de Moldavie (d'où le nom Chouganov/Ciganer).
In other words, she had Jewish and Roma ancestry. Besserabia (or Moldavia) was no longer part of the Ottoman Empire when he was born so, she does not have as clear Ottoman roots as him.

But, if you happen to know a little bit of Hungarian history and culture, her lineage encompasses a touch of irony.

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