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.