Letter from Thessaloniki

Letter from Thessaloniki

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Thessaloniki
January 27, 2005

This is the story of a city that most assuredly deserves telling. Somehow, for too many Jews, it seems to have fallen through the cracks of Jewish history, though the city was at the epicenter of that history for centuries.

Named for the sister of Alexander the Great and variously referred to as Thessaloniki, Salonika, Saloniki, and Salonica, it was at the crossroads of great civilizations-principally the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman-for much of its history. Indeed, one could argue that the fault line between East and West ran through the city and the surrounding region, known as Macedonia.

The first Jews, probably hailing from Alexandria, Egypt, settled there before the Common Era and came to be known as Romaniote Jews.

The Apostle Paul, according to the Acts of the Apostles, preached on three occasions to the Jews of Thessaloniki around the year 50 C.E., perhaps, scholars believe, at a synagogue called Etz Ahaim, "Tree of Life."

The noted rabbi and writer Benjamin of Tudela (Spain) visited Thessaloniki in the twelfth century and wrote in his travelogue: "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 craftsmen."

It is the story of a city where the first Ashkenazi Jews, fleeing persecution in Central Europe, arrived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

An estimated 15-20 thousand Jews from Spain settled there to escape the Spanish Inquisition, thanks to the warm welcome accorded them by the Ottoman Empire, the ruling power from 1430.

Jews from other European countries, including Portugal-which, following the Spanish example, in 1496 ordered the Jews either to convert to Catholicism or leave-also found both haven and opportunity in Thessaloniki.

In 1537, the poet Samuel Ushkue of Ferrara (Italy) famously described Thessaloniki as the "City and Mother of Israel."

It is the story of a city, second only to Safed, where Kabbalah was studied with particular fervor and intensity, and where Solomon Alkabetz, who wrote "Lekha Dodi," the beautiful Shabbat hymn, spent time.

As many as 30,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki by the start of the seventeenth century, fifty years before the first Jews, also of Sephardic origin and fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition from Recife, Brazil, set foot in what is today the United States.

Shabbatai Zevi of Smyrna (today Izmir, Turkey), the self-proclaimed seventeenth-century messiah and king of Israel, attracted as many as 300 Jewish families to his religious bandwagon in this city. To save his life, Zevi converted to Islam, and his followers, who came to be known as Donmehs (apostates), became a curious Muslim-Jewish hybrid.

It is the story of a city whose Jewish community counted as many as thirty synagogues, mostly named for the towns and regions where Jews originally hailed from (e.g., Provencia, Castilla, Aragon, etc.), and became a model of Jewish communal life, with centers of religious study, schools, a hospital, orphanages, an asylum for the mentally disabled, and an old-age home, as well as many newspapers, including the first to be introduced in the city, El Lunar, published in Ladino, in 1864.

Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language, was widely spoken after 1492 (Greek was the lingua franca for Jews until then) and helped define the overwhelmingly Spanish character of the Jewish community right up to the twentieth century.

Jews came to be an innovative and dynamic, if not dominant, force in the commercial and cultural life of the city.

The bustling port was closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, given the number of Jews who worked there, principally as stevedores. Interestingly, many Jewish stevedores from Thessaloniki who immigrated to Palestine played a leading role in developing the port of Haifa.

In a display of interfaith coexistence that shouldn't be forgotten, least of all these days, Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians lived in relative harmony and mutual respect, though not without the occasional flare-ups, especially by the Christians against the Jews.

It is the story of a city where, in 1900, the Jews numbered approximately 80,000 (of a total population of 173,000) and, according to Jewish Heritage in Greece, in addition to thirty synagogues, "there were ten (Jewish) clubs, a college, four high schools, and fifteen grade schools."

At that time, Greeks, Turks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Armenians, and Jews all gave the city a bustling and polyglot atmosphere, further enhanced by the popularity of several French schools, but its unique character was about to be challenged. In a book on the city, family life and the historical backdrop, Farewell to Salonica, Leon Sciaky, a Jew of Spanish origin, poignantly captured the moment:

The century was drawing to a close. Stealthily the West was creeping in, trying to lure the East with her wonders. Almost inaudible as yet was her whisper. She dangled before our dazzled eyes the witchery of her science and the miracle of her inventions. We caught a glimpse of her brilliance, and timidly listened to the song of the siren. Like country folk at a banquet, we felt humble and awkward in our ways. But vaguely we sensed the coldness of her glitter and the price of her wooing. With uneasiness we gathered tighter the folds of our homespun mantles around our shoulders, enjoying their softness and warmth, and finding them good.

It was in Thessaloniki that Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, was born, and where the movement of Young Turks developed to challenge what they viewed as the authoritarian and arbitrary rule of the Ottomans, eventually ousting Sultan Abdul Hamit II.

Zionism developed strong roots that came out into the open after the end of Ottoman rule in 1912, since until then Jews were hesitant to speak publicly about a Jewish state while the Ottomans controlled both Palestine and Thessaloniki. David Ben-Gurion, Itzhak Ben-Zvi (Israel's president from 1952 to 1963), and Ze'ev Jabotinsky were among the early Zionists to visit and come away impressed by the vitality and sophisticated organizational structure of the Jewish community.

Thessaloniki was formally incorporated into Greece in 1913. King George, the Greek monarch at the time, made a point of affirming that the Jews, like all minorities, would be treated as full and equal citizens of the state.

In the interwar period, Jews for the first time began to leave in large numbers, as many as 30,000 departing. The city's economic difficulties and the devastation wrought by a fire of unknown origin in 1917 that destroyed much of the infrastructure-including virtually all of the synagogues-and left 50,000 Jews homeless, contributed to the exodus. Jews headed for Palestine, the United States, other European countries, and South America.

In 1931, false rumors circulated that Jews were conspiring with Bulgarian nationalists to separate Macedonia from Greece, resulting in physical violence against Jews and an outcry from extremists that Jews were not "pure Greeks" and therefore could not be trusted. Hundreds of Jews fled their homes, and some Torah scrolls were desecrated, according to a report prepared for the American Jewish Committee by an eyewitness in the city. Greek officials, led by Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, promptly condemned the attacks and sought to restore order.

On the eve of the Second World War, Thessaloniki still had a Jewish community numbering 50,000 and was considered to be the world's greatest center of Sephardic Jewish culture and civilization.

It is the story of a city that, in 1940-41, contributed many of the nearly 13,000 Jews who fought in the Greek army, 343 as officers, against the Nazi invaders and their allies. More than 500 were killed in battle.

Thessaloniki was occupied by the Nazis on April 9, 1941, and severe restrictions were immediately placed on the Jews.

The Nazis attacked not only the living but also the dead. They destroyed the vast Jewish cemetery dating back two millennia, looting it and using the headstones for construction purposes.

In 1942, all Jewish men aged 18 to 45 were conscripted by the Nazis into forced labor in Greece and then released, though only temporarily, when the Jewish community paid an enormous ransom. To date, despite repeated approaches to the German government, the Thessaloniki Jewish community has been unable to receive restitution of the funds. The German position has been that all wartime claims with Greece were settled in the 1960s. The Jewish community has now taken the matter to the Greek judicial system and a decision from an Athens court is expected within the next few months. Whether the German government would recognize any court decision in favor of the community remains to be seen.

Shortly thereafter, in a matter of months in 1943, 46,000 Jews from Thessaloniki-overwhelmingly the descendents of those Jews exiled from Spain almost exactly 450 years earlier-were deported in cattle cars to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Only 1,950 Jews survived. In other words, 96 percent of the community was wiped out, the highest fatality rate of any major Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe.

In Greece, a few brave individuals, most notably Archbishop Damaskinos and the Athens police chief, Angelos Evert, sought valiantly to protect Greek Jews against deportation. In a remarkable letter to the Greek prime minister, the archbishop wrote: "Our Holy Faith recognizes no distinction, superiority or inferiority, based on race or religion, holding as doctrine that 'There is neither Jew nor Greek,' condemning therefore any tendency to create any discrimination or racial or religious distinction."

After the war, some survivors struggled to rebuild their lives in their cherished city despite innumerable obstacles, while others preferred to move on, mostly to Palestine.

Those Jews who remained gradually reestablished a semblance of Jewish communal life, but had to cope on a daily basis with an overwhelming and wrenching sense of loss. Where once there had been pulsating Jewish energy in every nook and cranny of the city, after the war the community was defined above all by empty spaces, recurring nightmares, irretrievable loss, lingering fear, and only the occasional dim echo of glorious times past.

It is the story of a city where, in 1997, a striking public memorial, the first of its kind in Greece, was dedicated to the victims of the Shoah in the presence of the Greek President Konstantinos Stefanopoulos and other dignitaries, including a delegation from the American Jewish Committee. The monument has since been defaced more than once.

King Juan Carlos of Spain visited a year later and was astonished to encounter Jews who continued to speak Ladino 500 years after their forced exile. As a memento, the community head gave the king a silver box engraved with a key, a reminder that those Jews forced to leave Spain kept the keys to their homes and passed them on from generation to generation.

Some 1,000 Jews currently live in Thessaloniki, somehow valiantly managing to maintain a school, two synagogues, a home for the elderly, a small museum, a cemetery, and, above all, a proud heritage.

It is the story of a city where the Jewish community has engaged in protracted on-again, off-again negotiations with governmental authorities for compensation for the land once occupied by the vast Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis and now used as part of a local university. Resolution of this problem is long overdue.

There was a telling comment about the city from Professor Ari Goldman of Columbia University, writing in the International Herald Tribune last year about his shock at the attitude toward Jews he encountered traveling in Europe: "After all the hatred I've heard from European academics, I would like to bring a few here to Salonika to show them what Jews without political power look like."

Today, while attention is focused on the dramatic gathering of world leaders and camp survivors in Auschwitz, Greece marked its second annual observance of a national Holocaust Remembrance Day. The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, was the keynote speaker and struck just the right tone, and not for the first time, I might add. Again and again, he's proved himself to be an unusually good friend of the Jewish people. The American Jewish Committee, which strongly supported the Greek Jewish community's effort to have the day designated, was represented at the memorial events in Thessaloniki, as were many Greek dignitaries and diplomats from the United States, Germany, Spain, France, Canada, and, of course, Israel.

As I scanned the audience in Thessaloniki, regrettably, I didn't see any of those European academics Ari Goldman referred to. I can't say I was surprised, though. Their intellectual and moral certitudes might have been called into question, and we wouldn't want that to happen, now would we?

In the final analysis, the wartime tragedy that befell Thessaloniki is a permanent reminder of the ultimate evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators. To think of what was lost is to be overcome by a crushing weight, a deep and dizzying descent into a hellish mix of grief and rage.

But we must struggle to remember that it is also the story of a city that stood as a towering symbol of the glory that was Jewish civilization here for 2,000 years. And yes, the determination of a tiny cluster of Jews-the heirs of that tradition-to find the strength to carry on, to keep the flame lit against all the odds, in this sparkling city on the Aegean Sea, cannot help but serve as an inspiration.

Date: 1/27/2005
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