Jewish Community of Thessaloniki (Salonika)

Part 1 of 3

Jewish Community Of Thessaloniki

The monument in memory and honor of the fifty thousand Jewish Greeks of Thessaloniki, who met a horrible death in the nazi death camps, stands erected at the intersection of Alexandrou Papanastasiou and Nea Egnatia streets.  It was unveiled by the president of the Republic Mr. Konstantinos Stefanopoulos on Sunday, November 23, 1997 CE.  It was designed by the brothers Glid, and depicts the seven candled menorah and flames all entangled in a mesh of human bodies.


Menorah Monument

The Jews of Thessaloniki March Through Time

For more than twenty centuries, Thessaloniki was the shelter for the persecuted Jews of Europe.  Uprooted throughout their long history from other historical centers of the Diaspora, they were transplanted in this city, creating a large and vibrant Jewish Community, indisputably one of the most important ones in the world, especially during the period 1492-1943.

Precise indications about the chronology of the first settlement of Jews in Thessaloniki are lacking.  They may have arrived from Alexandria, Egypt, around 140 BCE.  However, we do not possess any hard evidence that would have allowed us to nail down with certainty this event, that remains to this day, an unsolved historical problem.

The ancient Jewish Community of Thessaloniki constituted a typical example of a Judaic community in a Mediterranean urban center of the Hellenistic and Roman era.  Its members were called Romaniotes.  They adopted the Greek language, while retaining several elements of Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as the Hebrew script.  Paul visited this community during the early formative years of Christianity.  And it is in his travelogue, described in the Christian Acts of the Apostles, that we come across the first written proof of Jewish presence in the city.

According to tradition, the oldest synagogue in Thessaloniki was called “Ets Ahaim” (The Tree of Life).  During the Ottoman era and intersection of the present-day Kalapothaki and Dimosthenes streets, near the city port.

During the Roman era, the Jews of Thessaloniki enjoyed wide autonomy.  Later, after the East-West division of the Roman empire, certain Byzantine emperors cast their eyes on the Jews, imposing special taxation and/or restrictive measures on religious freedom and worship.  A few attempts at forced conversion did not produce appreciable results, since even the ecumenical synods disapproved of the practice, stating repeatedly that Jews had the right to live in freedom and according to the laws and traditions of their religion.

Mid-Byzantine Thessaloniki flourishes in spite of wars in the region, as well as the successive raids of the Slavs and Bulgarians.  Its population exceeds 100,000 inhabitants in the middle of the 12th century.  Around that time (1159), Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela departs from Saragossa, Spain, on a long journey that will last more than 13 years.  Upon arriving at Thessaloniki he notes: "After a two-day sea voyage, we arrive at Thessaloniki, a big coastal town, built by Selefkos, one of Alexander’s four heirs.  Five hundred Jews live here, headed by Rabbi Samuel and his sons, well known for their scholarship.  Rabbis Sabetal, Elias, and Michael also live there as well as other exiled Jews who are specialized artisans."

During the two following centuries, Thessaloniki was plagued by many misfortunes: its siege and destruction by the Normans (1185), its conquest by the Franks of the Fourth Crusade, and its subsequent occupation, first by the Epirus Principality (1244), and then by the Empire of Nikaia (1246).

Raids by Serbs, Bulgarians and Catalans followed, as well as the Zealots uprising (1342-1349), and its first conquest by the Turks (1387).

It is during that time (1376), that the first settlement of Ashkenazi Jews takes place in Thessaloniki.  They arrive, persecuted, from Hungary and Germany, throughout the 15th century.

A small group of Jews from Provence will settle in Thessaloniki in 1394, while during the period of the Venetian rule (1423-1430), large numbers of Jews from mainland Italy and Sicily will also settle here, establishing new synagogues and creating, in turn, their own distinct communities.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 26, 1430, the army of Sultan Murat II appears before the city gates.  Thessaloniki will capitulate after a three-day siege.  Generalized looting, massacres, enslavement and deportations occur, perpetrated by the invading troops.  Murat II will be forced to personally intervene, on behalf of the population, in order to put an end to the bloodshed.  He will personally set free, at his own expense, many prisoners, and he will take measures for the revival and repopulation of Thessaloniki.  To that end, he will resettle into Thessaloniki, Turks from Yiannitsa, as well as Christians to whom he grants certain privileges such as communal autonomy and various tax exemptions.

All of the above can be considered as pre-history of the Jewish presence in Thessaloniki.  The pivotal point is the settlement of 15,000-20,000 Spanish (Sephardic) Jews after 1492, who will make a lasting and seminal contribution to the destiny of the Jewish Community, but also to that of the city as a whole.  Those persecuted Jews found shelter in the capital of Macedonia, thus giving her a new profile for the future.

The event that sealed the fate of Spanish Jewry was the Reconquista, i.e. the bloody, step-by-step recovery of the Iberian peninsula into Christian hands, at the expense of the Arabs who were entrenched there since the beginning of the 8th century.  The end of the Reconquista occurs on January 2, 1492, when the Arab state of Granada is conquered and dissolved forever.  It is then that the political and economic circumstances that had in the past dictated the official policy of tolerance towards minorities and the absence of preferential treatment based on race or religion, seized to be operative, and that policy was immediately reversed.  Ferdinand and Isabella now become “Catholic Kings” exclusively, whereas during the war years, they wished to be called King and Queen of three religions.

Thus dawns 1492, the fateful year for the Spanish Jews.  A royal edict on March 13 of that year, forces all Jews to either convert to Christianity, or leave the country b the coming August at the latest.  It is estimated that around 50,000 Jews were nominally baptized and remained in Spain.  The rest, more than 250,000 strong, opted for the road to exile.  Some went north, to France, England, the Netherlands.  Others chose Italy or Northern Africa.  However, the majority settles in areas under Ottoman jurisdiction.

Sultan Bayazit II, at the request of Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, Eliyia Kapsali, allowed their entrance into the realm, and ordered local commanders to extend a cordial and warm welcome, and to help them settle down.

Rare picture of the Cemetery in Thessaloniki (Salonika) before it was destroyed by the nazis during WWII

(Note the horizontal orientation of the tombstones)

(Click to enlarge)

Click to enlarge

Thus, the Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, will settle in all the large urban centers of the Ottoman Empire.  Most of them, around 20,000 will perfer Thessaloniki, which still hadn’t recovered from the destruction incurred during its conquest by the Turks.  Maybe they were attacted to the city’s strategic location as a key port in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Alternatively, they may have been encouraged by the Sultan, seeking to re-populate the deserted city with a fresh, dynamic, urban population.

With their arrival, the deserted city wakes up from its torpor and gradually becomes again a first class financial center.  Comparable to that of the Roman and Byzantine years.  The Sephardim gave commerce  a new push, and exploited the mines of the Gallikos river and those of Sidirokapsa.  The first printing shop in Thessaloniki, around 1510, was established by the immigrants.

The century that followed the expulsion from Spain is also a cultural golden era.  Thessaloniki becomes an important center of theological studies, attracting students from around the world, while giving rise to scholars of high repute, such as Rabbis, poets, physicians.  Their reputation will spread across Europe.  It is during that era, in 1537, that Thessaloniki will be honored with the title “Mother of Israel”, by Samuel Usque, the Jewish poet from Ferrara.

The fame of the community will attract other persecuted Jews who will seek refuge in its welcome embrace.  Jews from Sicily and Italy, also persecuted by Ferdinand and Isabella, will follow the exiles of 1492.

Emmanuel, King of Portugal, will follow the example of Ferdinand and Isabella, a few years later.  On December 5, 1496, he orders the Jews of Portugal to either convert or leave.  The Exodus of the Portuguese Jews starts at the end of  October 1497, and a large number head towards Thessaloniki.  However, even the ones nominally baptized who stayed behind, the so-called Conversos or Maranos, will be forced into exile during the period between 1536 and 1660, victims of the “purity of blood” ideology (“Limpieza de sangre”).

New waves of refugees arrive during the 16th century, coming from Provence, Poland, Italy, Hungary, and Northern Africa.  “Until the end of the 17th century.  It was very rare for a ship to dock at the Thessaloniki seaport without disembarking a few Jews”, writes P. Riscal (J. Nehama).

Thus, Jews will prevail in numbers.  In 1519, according to Ottoman archives, 1,374 Muslim families, along with 282 singles, in all 6,870 persons, inhabited Thessaloniki.  The Christian population is comprised of 1,078 families along with 355 singles, to a total of 6,635 persons.  The Jews number 3,143 families together with 530 singles, or approximately 15,715 persons.

The Jews will settle in the almost deserted neighborhoods of the area below Egnatia street, spanning the length from the Vardar square to the current Diagonios (crossroads of Tsimiski and P. Mela streets).  Ottoman files record 16 Jewish neighborhoods since the beginning of the 16th century.  There, the Jews will congregate separated into autonomous communities according to their place of origin.

The center of each community is the synagogue.  In fact, it is not only a religious and administrative center, but also an indication of the tendency of each group of immigrants, to preserve its individuality and autonomy with respect to each other.  However, the fluidity of the dividing lines between the communities, as well as the business activities that some of them undertake from the beginning of the 16th century onwards, and particularly in textile manufacturing, give birth to intense political infighting.  The quarrels manifest themselves especially at times such as the election of the Rabbi or secular administrators, or when some notables seek to arbitrarily impose their own opinions.

Furthermore, the increasing business activities, as well as the fact that the various communities have to deal with the Turkish authorities, give rise to a growing need for a common front.  Thus, the seed of the union of the independent synagogue/communities into one federation is planted.  This federation is loose in the beginning, but gradually, conditions dictate a closer cooperation.  An off spring of this unifying trend is the joint establishment of the “Talmud Torah a Gadol” synagogue-school, in 1520.

Sixteenth century sources inform us that light industry, especially textiles, is the main occupation of the majority of the Jewish immigrants imported production know-how and methods previously unknow in the region.

From 1515 onwards, the Ottoman State covers all its requirements in textiles for army uniforms from Thessaloniki Jewish textile manufacturers.  Furthermore, it is agreed that, using these products as a medium of exchange, the poll tax levied on the community members, is paid in kind.  Starting in 1540, the synagogues become themselves producers, employing their poor members as salaried workers.  The profits from these business ventures are used for the maintenance of their charitable and educational institutions.

In 1568, a Community delegation to Constaninople, under the leadership of Moshe Almosnino, succeeds in securing a new Sultan edict, reconfirming all the written priviledges that were initially granted by Suleiman the Magnificent and were burned during the fire of 1545.  Thereafter, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki is treated as “Musselnik”, i.e. and autonomous administrative unit, reporting directly to the Sublime Porte.  It also secures the right to acquire raw materials at prices lower than market prices.

Thus the Jews of Thessaloniki will enjoy a period of prosperity, that will not be curtailed before the beginning of the 17th century, with the discovery of the new sea routes, the decline of Venice, and the involvement of the Ottoman Empire in a succession of destructive military campaigns.  As a consequence of the economic malaise, cultural decline will follow.  It is during this period that biblical studies will decline in favor of mysticism in the form of the study of the Cabbala.

It is within this setting of mysticism and spiritual turmoil that Sabbetai Sevy of Smyrna (Izmir), appears in 1655 in Thessaloniki, declaring himself to be the long-expected Messiah, self-appointed King of Israel, and savior of the Jewish people.  The appeal of his message will worry the Turkish authorities, causing his arrest and condemnation to death in 1666.  Sabbetai Sevy is forced to convert to Islam in order to save his life.  The Jews had been already split into those who believed in him, and those who considered him a crook and an imposter.  The former, around 300 families, will follow him in defection, thus creating the peculiar social minority of “Judeo-Muslims”, that came to be known as “Donmeh”.

This group defection shook the community.  Hundreds of families as well as professional guilds were split, making it impossible for the independent community-synagogues to function effectively and cope with the problem.  The situation was further aggravated by the economic crisis, hindering the ability of the separate communities to support their cultural and welfare institutions.  This gradually set off a process of integration, whereby the individual communities had to relinquish authority and rights to a more centralized federal governing body, in order to achieve better administrative control, and face the new challenges more effectively.  Finally, around 1680, the small independent communities formally unite under the leadership of a single council comprised of three Rabbis and seven secular members.

Thus, it is apparent that the Jews managed to maintain their sense of communal organization and solidarity even during those years of material and cultural stagnation caused by the religious strives and divisions, the unfavorable economic circumstnces, and the oppression of the Yenitsars.

The Community will emerge from this “Middle Age” era to its Renaissance, around the middle of the 19th century.  Material well-being and cultural awakening go hand-in-hand, influenced by the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the neocolonial campaigns of the European powers towards the East.  The new trends and ideas take shape in the “Haskala” movement among the Jews, with intellectual ventures beyond the narrow confines of the biblical and post-biblical tradition, and towards the study of contemporary secular thought and art.  This process of emancipation is further assisted by the new socio-political conditions prevailing in the Ottoman territories as a result of the Porte’s attempt to move away from medieval despotism, towards a new, modernized image.  The Yenitsar body is dismantled in 1826, while for the first time, some civil rights are being granted to the non-Muslim constituents of the Empire, with the edicts (firmans) of Hati Humayan and Giulhade (1836 and 1854).

The increasing appearance of western industrial products will also contribute to the city’s overhaul and expansion, transforming it into a city-agency of commerce and industry.  Part of the Byzantine fortifications are torn down in 1869.  The fires of 1890, 1896, and 1898 will offer the opportunity for an urban transformation.  The burned down districts are being redesigned, narrow streets are widened, fresh running water is being introduced along with electricity and the streetcar, as well as the railroad, which from 1871 onwards, will connect Thessaloniki with Constantinople to the East, and Europe to the West.  New infastructure works at the port are being inaugurated, modern banking institutions open to the public, and in 1854, the first modern industrial complex is created: the Allantini flour mill, owned by the Allatini family, Jewish immigrants from Italy.  Jews own 38 out of the 54 commercial enterprises of the city, and constitute the overwhelming majority of its workforce.

Even though Thessaloniki retains its multinational structure, the demographic and financial superiority of the Jewish Community, will constitute one of its more distrinct features.  By the end of the 19th century, Thessaloniki will number more than 70,000 Jewish souls, i.e. about half of the total population.

Social welfare is broadened and dispensed through modern charitable institutions, such as “Matanoth Laevionim” which provides student meals.  “Torah Umlahu” supporting financially poor students and taking care of their eventual professional arrangement, the “Allatini” and “Aboav” orphanages, the “Lieto Noah” psychiatric asylum, the “Baron Hirsch” hospital  (today the “Ippocrates”), the “Bikour Holim” health care institution, and, later, the “Saul Modiano” home for the elderly.

Education is reformed with the modernization of dozens of district schools and the traditional “Talmud Torah” school, and with the inauguration of the “Alliance Israelite” school in 1873. Jewish children constitute the majority within the numerous foreign schools.

Inside of the Jewish Primary School of Thessaloniki

The Community will receive thousands of refugees, victims of the pogroms in Czarist Russia.  In 1891, housing them, along with the victims of the fire of 1890 (and later the fire of 1917) in the newly created neighborhoods of Baron Hirsch, Kalamaria, Rezi Vardar, etc.  The first two above mentioned districts constitute the first attempt at modern city planing in Thessanloniki.

It is also interesting to note that the first newspaper to circulate in Thessaloniki in 1864, is the Jewish “El Lunar”, “La Epoca” will follow in 1875 and, later, “La Imparciale”, “Le Progrns”, “Journal de Salonique”, “La Libertn”, “Opinion”, “L’ Independent”, and the Zionist “La Nation”, “El Avenir”, “Renacencia Judia”, “La Esperanza”, “Pro Israel”, and others.

Continued on Page 2


This document was made available with the permission of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki [September 2000 CE]

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