Soul of Salonica

Violent endings and new beginnings are the weave in this tormented tapestry of three great faiths and peoples inhabiting this bewilderingly exotic city

By Alex Rose

Thessaloniki  – also known as Salonica – is today the second largest city in Greece. Once the second largest city in the Byzantine Empire and later the second busiest port in the Ottoman Empire, I was fascinated to read in Lay of the Land,When Jews Thrive, the World Thrives”, that Israel’s 2022 Genesis Price recipient, Dr. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, was born and educated in this ageless cultural crossroad.

“The Jerusalem of the Balkans”. According to the 1913 census, the city’s population was 157,889, comprising 61,439 Jews, 39,956 Orthodox Greeks, 45,867 Turks, 6,263 Bulgarians and 4,364 “foreigners.”

For me, it is of particular interest in that my maternal grandmother and a cousin were the only family members to find their way from Salonica to Jerusalem shortly prior to the commencement of WWII.

So they too were spared the horrors that befell the Jewish community there under the Nazis.

Out in Time. The writer’s maternal grandmother Reina Calderone, who left Salonica for Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of WWII.(Courtesy Alex Rose)

Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950” by historian  Mark Mazower is described by  the Guardian’s Jan Morris as “A tremendous book about a city unique not just in Europe, but in the entire history of humanity.” The 509 page book consisting of of 23 chapters and includes a number of historical photographs, provides a history of a fascinating, turbulent city and a brilliant guide to Salonica’s rich past.   It unearths the buried past and recounts the haunting story of how the three great faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism  – that shared the city were driven apart.

Europe meet the Orient. The history of a bewilderingly exotic city of clashing cultures and peoples, from the glories of Suleiman the Magnificent to its nadir under Nazi occupation.
Salonica is the point where the wonders and horrors of the Orient and Europe have met over the centuries.

Salonika’s  initial character was Byzantine – a synthesis of imperial Rome, the Greek language and Orthodox  Christian faith. Subsequently, the big upheaval was the advance of the Ottoman Turks into the Balkans from Anatolia in the 14th century.

Lost Legacy. Little remains from the 2,000-year presence of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, though its contribution has been pivotal to the city’s culture, society and economy.

Under the rule of the Ottoman Sultans, one of the most extraordinary and diverse societies in Europe, lived for five centuries amid its minarets and cypresses on the shore of the Aegean, alongside its Roman ruins and Byzantine monasteries. Egyptian merchants and Ukrainian slaves, Spanish-speaking rabbis – refugees from the Iberian Inquisition – and Turkish pashas rubbed shoulders with Orthodox shopkeepers, Sufi dervishes and Albanian brigands.

Thriving Jewish Life. A Jewish family from Thessaloniki, Greece seen in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

In essence, it was generally inhabited by people of the three faiths who for the most part lived peacefully.

Flames over Salonica. In 1917, a massive fire roared through the Mediterranean port city of Salonica, Greece, then home to the largest and most dynamic Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jewish community in the world is depicted in this “Study for 1917 Fire —Salonika” (2016) by Harry I. Naar (Courtesy of Naar via JTA)

Mazower describes in Chapter  16 ‘The Great Fire’ of 1917, as “one of the seminal issues.”  He quotes the British journalist and author Collinson Owens:

“……the wailing families, the crash of falling houses as the flames tore along, swept by the wind; and in the narrow streets, a slow moving mass  of pack-donkeys, loaded carts, camels carrying enormous loads; Greek boy scouts [doing excellent work]; soldiers of all nations as yet unorganized to do anything  definite; ancient wooden fire-engines that creaked pathetically as they spat out ineffectual trickles of water; and people carrying beds [hundreds of flock and feather beds], wardrobes, mirrors, pots and pans, sewing  machines [every family made a desperate endeavor to save its sewing machine] and a general collection of rubbish.”

The damage was  almost incomprehensible.

No less than three quarters of the old city had been destroyed, according to an official report. Close to ten thousand buildings were destroyed and over 70,000 people had lost their homes. The Jewish community was worse effected, for the fire had consumed its historic quarters; most of its thirty-seven synagogues were gone, its libraries , schools, club buildings and offices.

Surviving Synagogues. The Yad Lezikaron Synagogue in Thessaloniki commemorating the victims of the Holocaust which the writer’s wife  Renee visited in 2015. Out of 40 synagogues before WWII, only left are the  Monastir and Yad  lazikaron, the last working synagogue, which includes the ‘remains’ from the destroyed synagogues. (Photo Alex Rose)

In Salonica, fires were such a regular occurrence that prayers against them formed part of the local Yom Kippur (holiest day of the year in Judaism) service. This fire dwarfed all previous fires suffered by Salonica as it destroyed the essence of the Ottoman town, and its Jewish core. Out of the ashes, an entirely new town began to emerge, one molded  in the image of the Greek state and its society.

The Shoah

In Chapter 22, Mazower addresses, “Genocide”. On 6 April 1941, German troops  attacked Greece from the north and three days later entered Salonica. The country was partitioned, while Salonica and its region were among  the strategically vital areas which remained  under the control of the German army.  As the resultant death toll rose, fear of famine gripped the population. Emaciated adults were collapsing on the pavements. The wife of the Swiss consul  upon arriving home at the end of 1941, reported:

 “The specter of a contrived  extermination of a whole population cannot be dismissed as a hallucination conjured up by starved stomachs, but rather viewed as a logical appraisal of German  behavior in Greece since the invasion of Russia.”

Around this time, Hitler’s ideological commissar, Alfred Rosenberg was setting up a research center in Frankfurt for the study of world Jewry. When Greece fell , he immediately sent a team to Salonica – “one of the main Jewish centers, as you yourself know”, he told Martin Bormann. In October 1941, Heinrich Himmler warned Hitler that the city’s large Jewish population posed a threat to German security.

Alfred the Monster. Nazi theorist and ideologue Alfred Rosenberg  who played a decisive role in shaping Nazi philosophy and ideology, sent a ‘team” to Salonica.

It came as a shock when on July 8, 1942, the local Wehrmacht commander in Salonica instructed all male Jews aged between 18 and 45 to present themselves for registration. From eight o’clock in the morning, the following Saturday, 9,000 Jewish men stood in lines in Plateia Eleftherias while their names were taken down. The round-up on July 11 helps one to realize how the Final Solution unfolded: not only through instructions from Berlin, but also through the voluntary participation and initiatives of local  authorities.

Something less than 5% of Salonika’s Jewish population escaped deportation compared with perhaps 50% in the Greek capital a year later.

Lost World

In Chapter 3, “The Arrival of the Sephardim”, we read and lament of so much of the Jewish character of the city that was lost.

By1668, the Jews were such an integral part of Salonica that it seemed impossible to imagine they had not always been there.  And indeed there had been Jews in the city before there were any Christians. At the conclusion in the paragraph prior to Chapter 23 – “Aftermath” – we find according to German records, approximately  45,000 people reached Auschwitz  from Salonica and within a few hours of arrival, most of them had been murdered  in the gas chambers.

Hell on Wheels. A railway officer walks in front of a train that was used by the Nazis to carry Jews from Thessaloniki  (Salonica) to Auschwitz during the WWII. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

The tragedy of this transition is captured in Devin E. Naar’s 18 August 2017 article in Times of Israel, ‘A century ago, Jewish Salonica burned’, which he describes in his sad subhead:

“The home to the largest and most dynamic Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jewish community in the world was rebuilt, only to be destroyed anew”

Salonica had suffered from a series of fires in its history, but during the four centuries under the benign rule of the Ottoman Empire, the city’s residents were permitted to rebuild without much state interference. Not so after ‘The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917’. The Greek government, which had only recently annexed Salonica during the Balkan Wars (1912-13), saw in the fire an opportunity to transform once and for all Jewish and Ottoman Salonica into Greek Thessaloniki.

They Came, They Conquered, They Murdered. Invasion of German army into Greece spelled disaster for most the Jews of Salonica.. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)

As much as Salonika’s Jewish community rebounded from the fire of 1917, the destruction wrought by the German occupation was insurmountable. Beyond the dispossession, deportation and murder of almost all of Salonika’s Jews by the Nazis, the entire character of the city was irrevocably transformed. Several dozen synagogues, with the exception of one or two, were destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators; visual traces of the Jewish presence in the built environment were gone.  

A journalist further lamented:

The most important thing that the fire destroyed was the Jewish soul of Salonica. It is a terrible story.”

About the Writer:

Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until emigrating to the USA in 1977 where he spent 26 years as an engineering consultant, much of it at Westinghouse. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York ( Committee for Accuracy in the Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon. His writings appear frequently in Times of Israel – The Blog.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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