Recovering the cultural memory of Salonica’s Jewish community.
The dynamic port city of Salonica, once home to the Young Turk movement that overthrew the Ottoman sultan in 1909 and the city over which the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Ottomans fought during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, is today a largely forgotten corner of the former Ottoman Empire and the second city of contemporary Greece. Salonica and her Jews—who remarkably numbered half of the city’s diverse inhabitants a century ago—once played key roles in the region’s culture, politics, and commerce. But the historic significance of the city in modern times—and particularly that of its Jewish residents—has largely been excised from academic and popular consciousness, a veritable “orphan of history,” as one scholar put it.
The historic significance of Salonica in modern times—and particularly that of its Jewish residents—has largely been excised from academic and popular consciousness.
The city’s invisibility to the outside world runs counter to my own upbringing, which was filled with stories from my Salonican-born relatives, all centering around this vibrant place and its people. Enchanting tales were told of my great grandfather, a rabbi and kabbalist, walking down the streets of Salonica side by side with a priest and an imam, or composing protective amulets for farmers who repaid him with live poultry and fresh produce; or my grandfather and his brother riding their prized possession—a bicycle—along the sea with the White Tower in the distance; or my great uncle and his wife and their children remaining in the city and “disappearing” during World War II. But how exactly did they disappear? Just as importantly, how had they lived? I wanted to access this lost world of Jewish Salonica—both to understand the world from which my family came and to restore a voice to the city and its Jewish community.
That community was once such an integral part of the city that into the twentieth century the port of Salonica closed on Saturdays in observance of the Jewish Sabbath—and the Sephardic Jewish vernacular, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), could be heard on every street corner. But during the Second World War, the Nazis occupied the city and, in 1943, deported nearly fifty thousand Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not only the impact of the Holocaust, but also the forces of exclusivist Greek nationalism, contributed to the erasure of the imprint of Jews (and Muslims) on the city. Of the nearly sixty prewar synagogues, only one remains. Atop of the once vast Jewish cemetery now sits the campus of Aristotle University. To this day the experiences of Jews and Muslims remain absent from local school textbooks, even as an interest in the multicultural past of the city has begun to develop in recent years.
Obscured by the desolation of the Holocaust and the homogenizing influence of modern nationalism, however, lies a vibrant history. In the period between the world wars Jews in Salonica grappled with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and their newfound position within the consolidating Greek nation-state. As city-centered activists and local patriots, Jews in Salonica were outliers in the decades surrounding World War I. The war rendered not the city, but rather the nation as the primary category of geopolitical organization. The principle of national self-determination solidified the predominance of the nation-state—one nation, one people, one language, one religion, one history—as the ideal political structure for a new world order. Local and minority cultures were eschewed in favor of national solidarity in a global landscape defined by national boundaries and governed by the League of Nations (and now by the United Nations).
In the period between the world wars Jews in Salonica grappled with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and their newfound position within the consolidating Greek nation-state.
Despite the popular Greek image of Salonica (or Thessaloniki) as exclusively “Greek” (by which is meant Greek-speaking Greek Orthodox Christian), Salonica’s Jews did not view themselves as the victims of the ineluctable triumph of ethnic nationalism. Rather, the archives of the Jewish community from Salonica as well as Jewish and Greek newspapers from the period prior to the Second World War reveal how Salonica’s Jews invested considerable energy into developing creative strategies to bridge the divide between the Ottoman Empire and modern Greece and to renegotiate their position in the city, their new country, and on the world stage. This previously unstudied set of local sources at the heart of my research reveals the many ways in which Salonica’s Jews understood their experiences, their aspirations, and their anxieties in their own terms, through source materials penned in their own words.
These new sources reveal that visions of the city as “Greek” did not supplant the notion of Salonica as a “Jewish” city, but rather both narratives emerged in contest and in conversation with each other. Jewish leaders developed a repertoire of images of their city that they hoped would legitimize their position in Salonica and safeguard their role moving forward. They presented themselves as fundamentally Salonican by emphasizing their sense of belonging to the city to which they expressed an inalienable sense of rootedness that they hoped would endure.
These new sources reveal that visions of the city as “Greek” did not supplant the notion of Salonica as a “Jewish” city.
Some claimed that Jews historically belonged in Salonica and deserved to continue to play a key role in it. They envisioned themselves as both Jews and as Greeks and embraced the city’s status as Greek—the Macedonian Metropolis. Others argued that Jews reigned sovereign over Salonica, both historically and in the present, and should continue as such—the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Yet others viewed the city as a distinctly Sephardic Jewish center—the Citadel of Sephardic Judaism. All visions of the city emerged as local Jews claimed a sense of belonging to the city and viewed the city itself—and no greater terrain—as a kind of homeland. Others would harness their political engagement in the city in support of broader ideological movements, including liberalism, socialism, or Zionism.
It was also the city that inspired Jewish intellectuals in Salonica to articulate a collective voice, an aspiration rendered ever more urgent by an anxiety that their story would never be told and their existence would be forgotten. In 1911, one local Jewish writer lamented that his community, lacking a written history, constituted a “family of mutes,” and postulated: “Only God knows if it will ever be possible to write [our history] and if a historian will be found to fill this void.”
Beginning in 1936, local educator and banker Joseph Nehama began to fill the lacuna by writing a history of the Jews of Salonica in French. He hoped those Salonicans and their children living abroad would read his work and bolster the memory of their “ancestral hive.” After surviving the Holocaust in Bergen Belsen, Nehama later worried that it would be impossible to write another history of Salonica’s Jews because the Nazis had confiscated the communal libraries and archives; the Jewish cemetery with thousands of historic inscriptions had been destroyed; and more than ninety percent of the city’s Jews had perished in Nazi camps. With what sources could a new narrative be composed? Nehama worried that his community would be enveloped in “a shroud of oblivion.”
As a grandson of a Salonican, I felt like Nehama was speaking to me. I set out in search of the archives of the Jewish community of Salonica and, by tracing the paper trail in Greek and American government and military records, discovered that they had not all been destroyed, but rather were scattered across the globe. The Nazis had sent the Jewish libraries and archives confiscated in Greece, along with those captured throughout occupied Europe, to Frankfurt, where they had planned to create the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, a museum to commemorate the people the Nazis had planned to wipe off the face of the earth. In a perverse irony, an act so intimately linked to the mass murder of humans contributed to the preservation of some of their cultural heritage.
Miraculously surviving the war, some of the libraries and archives were dispersed once again, buffeted by shifting political currents: The Soviets captured some of the material and locked it up in a secret military archive in Moscow until the collapse of the Soviet Union; the Americans discovered other material from Greece in Germany and sent some of it to New York and another part back to Salonica; during the military dictatorship in Greece some of the returned archives were later siphoned out of the country in 1970, and deposited in an archive in Jerusalem. I dug a long-forgotten remaining cache of archives out of the basement of a Jewish communal building in Salonica in 2005. All of these collections have now been reunited on microfilm at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. By drawing on these previously understudied source materials, I sought not only to transform the mythic Salonica from my youth into a more dynamic and multifaceted portrait of the complex realities of the city, but also to remove that shroud of oblivion and to open a new chapter in the history and memory of Salonica.