Behind the Headlines the Jews of Salonika

It was one of the most illustrious Sephardic Jewish communities, and it was at the epicenter of Greek Jewry. And then the Nazis laid waste to it.

On the eve of the Holocaust, the port city of Salonika was very much of a Jewish city. The 5,000 Jews, who comprised about a third of its population, occupied a place of importance comparable to the Jews of New York City today. “The Jews were the kings, ” says Christos Stathopoulos. “The kings.”

Stathopoulos, who manages the Capsis Hotel, is not old enough to remember Salonika’s distinct Jewish flavor.But he has heard stories from his father, who had good relations with the Jews.

Albert Naar, the 37-year-old secretary of the Jewish community, can only read about the greatness of the Jewish Salonika. But he, too, is impressed. “An Italian poet from Ferrara called Salonika the Mother of Israel, and he was right. This was a city that came to a standstill on the Sabbath.”

Today, 41 years after the first deportation of Jews to Polish death camps began, Salonika is home to between 1,100 and 1,300 Jews. “We are a little community with a big tradition,” Naar observes, his voice betraying pride and sadness.

JEWISH COMMUNITY, SINCE 140 B.C.E.

Salonika, or Thessalonika, has had a Jewish community since 140 B.C.E. Under the Romans, the Jews were granted autonomy. During the Byzantine period, Salonika attracted Jewish setters from nearly all parts of Europe, and they established synagogues whose names — Italia, Aragon, Lisbon — reflected the origin of its worshippers.

In the 17th century, the pseudo-messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, appeared in Salonika, but was expelled by communal elders. Later, he converted to Islam, and a group of his believers numbering in the hundreds followed his lead.

The sect they formed was called the Doenmeh, and until the 1920s, Salonika was their center. By the turn of the 19th century, Salonika had some 15,000 Doenmehs who, though nominally Moslems, preserved Jewish customs. With the end of the Greek-Turkish war in 1924, they moved to Istanbul.

The Doenmehs, who built a magnificent mosque in central Salonika in 1903, lived close to the Jews. Like the Doenmehs, the Jews were well represented in every economic sector. “We did every thing,” explains Naar. “We were the bankers and the fisherman. We were the doctors and the stevedores.”

“We played a central role in commerce and the arts,” says Andreas Sefiha, the vice president of the community. “We were educated. We knew foreign languages. We had an enormous capacity for achievement.”

CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE COMMUNITY

According to Naar, the Jewish elite of Salonika–which came under Greek control in 1912 — were of Italian and Spanish descent. Families like the Allatinis, the Fernandez and the Modianos contributed immensely to Salonika’s development, and to the Jewish community.

Prior to 1939, Salonikan Jews could boast of community-run hospitals, mental asylums, orghanages, daily newspapers, rabbinical seminaries and book publishing houses in Ladino, French and Hebrew. And relates Naar, the unofficial historian of the community, there were 37 synagogues in town.

The Jews of Salonika had their misfortunes: the fire of 1917 destroyed neighborhoods and rendered residents homeless, and election riots in the early 1930s smacked of anti-semitic overtones.

Yet Jews here were at one with Salonika, and at least one visitor, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist Revisionist leader, marveled at the community’s vitality and diversity.

NAZIS DESTROY THE GOLDEN AURA

The golden aura that seemed to surround the Jewish community was forever broken with the entry of German troops into Salonika on April 9, 1941. Newspapers were suppressed, buildings were requisitioned, people were arrested, sections of the city were cordoned off, and wholesale expropriations were undertaken. In 1942, adult Jewish males were rounded up for forced labor battalions.

On March 15, 1943, the Germans took the final step. They started to deport the Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Damaskinos, the Archbishop of Greece, issued an appeal to the collaborationist Prime Minister, pointing out that Greek Jews “have proven themselves not only valuable contributors to the economic growth of the country, but also as law-abiding citizens who understand fully their duties as Greeks.” It was to no avail. Ninety five percent of Salonikan Jewry perished in the concentration camps.

Meanwhile, the Nazis razed the huge cemetery that contained 400,000 tombstones, some dating to the 15th century. The Aristotelian University now stands on the grounds of the cemetery, and to this day tombstones with Hebrew markings turn up as paving stones throughout the city, the Germans having used the cemetery as a quarry. The Germans, too, carted away unique manuscripts and ritual objects, and leveled all but three of the synagogues.

With the German occupation over, the Jewish survivors returned to Salonika. But several thousand, unable to begin anew and unwilling to bear their bitter memories, emigrated. The majority of emigrants went to Israel, joining relatives who had gone there during the British mandate.

Among those who came back were Sefiha’s parents, who were hidden by Christians, and Naar’s mother and father, who survived the rigors of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

CONTEMPORARY COMMUNITY IS YOUNG, VITAL

Salonika’s contemporary Jewish community, although miniscule, is young and vital. Only 25 percent of its members are 60 and older and, thanks to pre-war property holdings, the community can support itself in a fairly fine style.

There is a Jewish day school, and a modern seven story old people’s home which is said to be half filled. A summer camp for children is maintained, as is a kosher butcher shop. There is a rabbi, and a ritual slaughterer comes in from Athens — which has displaced Salonika as Greece’s premiere Jewish community.

If you ride around the city, you can see traces of the grandeur that was once Jewish Salonika. The Allatini mansion, constructed in the 1880′s, is now used as City Hall. The Femandez villa, closed off by a wrought-iron fence maybe 10 feet high, is in a decrepit state, black birds flying in and out of its open windows. The Monastir synagogue, found at 35 Syngrou Street, remains in good shape, having been spared by the Germans because of Red Cross intervention.

But who remembers the glorious past? The Jews cannot forget, for the burden of history is heavy. But young Greek gentiles have little knowledge of the Jewish impact on Salonika, claims Sefiha, an industrial equipment and machine tools wholesaler.

Greek school texts reportedly gloss over the former Jewish presence, and, although two of the city’s streets are named for Jews, Salonika has yet to build a monument to the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

“There is nothing here to commemorate the Jews of Salonika,” Sefiha lamented. A day later, however, I learned that Salonika plans to make amends for the omission.

Joseph Lovinger, president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, informed me that Salonika’s mayor had told him that the city plans to build a plaza later this year in honor of the martyrs who died during the war.

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