Saturday, 29 March 2008

Jewish Thessaloniki: "Madre de Israel's" unsung requiem

In a forgotten part of Thessaloniki's rich history lies the fundamentalrole the Jews played in giving the city the importance of the "Jerusalem ofthe Balkans"


The Modiano Market is one of the places that keeps its Jewish name in rememberance

Byzantine metropolis

Thessaloniki (Salonica), capital of Macedonia and Greece's second city, was founded shortly after the death of Alexander the Great. It reached its apogee in Byzantine times, becoming second only to Constantinople. Salonican brothers Cyril and Methodius christened the Slavs and devised them an alphabet. Salonican architects dotted Bulgaria and Serbia with fine churches. Splendid stone-and-brick churches, lost amid a concrete mass of post-war apartments, massive walls and a fort testify to Byzantine glory. Falling to the Turks in 1430, Thessaloniki was savagely plundered, its population slain, its churches converted to mosques. Mosques and bedestens remind us of the five centuries of Ottoman occupation. Yet hardly anything remains of a community that once shaped Salonica more than any other: the Jews. For 420 years, Thessaloniki was predominantly Jewish and Spanish-speaking. Strolling the city, however, it's as if the Jews never existed.

Sephardic Queen

Jews have always been part of Thessaloniki's uninterrupted urban life. Paul addressed its Hellenised Jews in his Epistles; passing through, he preached in the Synagogue. Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish rabbi who travelled extensively through Southern Europe and Byzantium in the 1170s, mentions a 500-strong Jewish community. Those Jews are called Romaniots, from "Romania," the name Byzantine Greeks used for their state. Few Romaniots survive today in Greece and Turkey, remnants of the most ancient Jewish communities in Europe.

Jews were tolerated in "Romania"; Ashkenazim and Italian Jews fled to Thessaloniki. Yet the tide making it a Jewish metropolis came from Spain, shortly after the Ottoman conquest. In 1492, the Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabel marked the unification of Spain by expelling all their Jewish subjects who wouldn't convert. About 100,000 left Spain in one of history's most massive Jewish migrations. They became known as Sephardim, from S'farad, Spain's Hebrew name. Sultan Beyazid invited them to settle in his vast realm. This was a gesture dipped in symbolism. The Ottomans, invoking Rome and Constantinople's claims to World Rule, were stretching a helping hand to those Catholicism rejected. The invitation later extended to Spain's Muslims and to Jews expelled from Sicily, Provence, Naples and Portugal.

Symbolism aside, the invitation served practical aims: Turks, nomadic warriors themselves, relied on others to administer and farm their vast empire and develop commerce. The Sephardim were experts in anything from trade to manufacture, farming to printing. They settled in all major ports and commercial centres of the Levant; 20,000 came to Thessaloniki. Thanks to them, Ottoman Jewry became the Diaspora's largest community and Thessaloniki the only city with a Jewish majority of 60 percent. Jews returned their protection with gratitude and loyalty while bringing over many innovations, from the printing press to irrigation systems.

Many newcomers carried their home keys, hoping exile would be temporary. (Some Salonican families still keep keys to some home in Toledo, Tarragona or Cordoba.) They were never to return. Instead, they turned Salonica to a mini Spain-in-exile. They stuck to their tongue, an old form of Castilian mixed with Catalan, Italian and Portuguese and known as Judeo "Espanyol." Each community was grouped around a synagogue, named after their land of origin: Castillia, Aragon, Calabria, Evora, Otranto... Their scriptures were written in Ladino, a medieval Castilian written with Hebrew letters. Thessaloniki's quarters were also given Sephardic names: Rogos, Pulia, Aguda. The Sephardim brought Spanish music and cuisine; they founded Talmudic schools renowned all over the Diaspora. Unsurprisingly, Thessaloniki acquired the name "Madre de Israel" Foreign travellers often baptised it "Jerusalem of the Balkans." A bewildered Spaniard, in a speech before the Athenaeum of Madrid in 1916, spoke of "Spaniards without a country" and of a "Barcelona of the East"

Jews and Greeks: conflicts of interest

The interior of the Ehal, Monasterioton Synagogue

The Sephardim were the only nation invited over, voluntarily settling in the Ottoman realm. Unlike Balkan Christians, they were never subject to forced conversions or "child tax," a notorious practice whereby Christian families were occasionally obliged to hand over a male child as "tax" to the authorities, to be raised as a Muslim. Oppression and humiliation nourished Christian hatred for the Turks; Jews, on the other hand, felt unending gratitude for their saviours from the Inquisition. While the Christians' constant aspiration was the destruction of the Ottoman state, Jews identified with it and its interests to the very end.

Jews and Greeks were commercial rivals. In Thessaloniki the case was settled. The Jews had the advantage of their language skills, ties with and knowledge of the West. As their loyalty to the state was unquestioned, the Porte entrusted them the manufacture of uniforms for the Janissary corps. Soon, Thessaloniki became one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of cloth in the Levant, while remaining the Ottomans' main European port. Manufacture and exports of cloth, as well as the port, remained in Jewish hands. Jews made Thessaloniki the economic centre of the Balkans.

Greeks, about half of the population before the Sephardim tide, dropped to less than a quarter. Next to a Jewish 60 percent, Greeks felt a minority in the city they regarded as theirs. Jews, on the other hand, saw "Salonik" as a Jewish city under the Sultan. They weren't a minority and didn't act like one; quite unlike Diaspora Jews, anxious to keep a low profile, they developed an assertive behaviour. Comfortable behind their numbers and economic pre-eminence, they regarded themselves Salonica's masters. They hardly ever bothered to visit Jerusalem, under the same Sultan's realm. To them the New Jerusalem, the Madre de Israel, was Salonica.

Greeks return

In a hotel lobby in Pera, Istanbul, I discuss the fate of Salonican Jewry with visiting Rena Molho, herself Sephardi and the community's most acclaimed historian. "Salonican Jews didn't want Greek rule. It wasn't about fearing Greek anti-Semitism. Jews had had a fairly good deal under Byzantine rule; they knew no organised anti-Semitism existed among Greeks. The reason they preferred Ottoman rule was purely economic: the feared annexation to Greece would deprive Salonica of its Balkan hinterland, turning it to a border town. Borders would hamper economic activity. One must not forget that Salonican Jews earned their livelihood from manufacturing products they sold to the markets in the Balkans and abroad. The Empire's end would mean loss of markets and the end of capitulations, hence loss of tax privileges. More than half of Salonica's Jews were living in dire poverty, relying on communal assistance," she explains. "Maintaining opportunities was crucial"

The city's richest and most cultured were Sephardic. Some of their seashore villas, in an exuberant eclecticism, still survive along Vas Olgas Avenue, once a tree-lined boulevard along Thessaloniki's most affluent suburb. Villa Allatini now houses the Prefecture. Villa Bianca of the Fernandez family and Villa Mordokh serve as galleries. Many studied abroad, in Italy and France, producing celebrated architects and doctors. Yet comfort was a privilege of the few. Much against modern stereotypes on Jewish affluence, travellers mention downtown Jewish quarters as stinking, squalid and miserable.

As the Balkan states allied against the Turks, the Empire's end was imminent. Salonica's Jews campaigned to have Thessaloniki proclaimed "an international city" guaranteed by the Great Powers, against claims by the Balkan states. Internationalisation was seen as the only way to guarantee the Jews' economic position. Greek resentment was expected. Jews would be termed "conspirators" and "foreigners" for decades.

Greeks liberated Salonica on 27 October 1912, during the first Balkan War. Lootings of some Jewish shops by Greek mobs, much condemned in the European press, took place. Yet trouble ended there. "The Greek state adopted a markedly pro-Jewish policy, in order to calm Jewish anxieties and win over Salonica's majority. Foreign powers like Austria, Italy and France started offering passports to Jewish merchants, in an effort to gain indirect influence. The Greeks adopted cautious and pro-Jewish policies," Molho explains. Overall, the transition to Greek rule was very smooth. The Ottoman Zabita (gendarmerie) continued to police the city alongside the new Greek police while the city's Muslim mayor remained in office and the Sabbath a public holiday.

Unhappy end: fire and genocide

Former Jewish properties in the rebuilt fire zones

Greek Thessaloniki retained a Jewish majority until 1922. It was a pluralistic community and favoured a policy of assimilation. "For the first time and due to pro-Jewish policies, the Jews experienced a feeling of citizenship and belonging," Molho stresses. Socialists were the second important group. In this industrial city, Sephardi Avraam Benaroya had founded the "Federacion," a socialist workers' organisation joining mostly Jews. The Federacion would form the nucleus of the Greek Communist Party (KKE). Right wing Greeks would for decades brand communism as a Jewish product, even though the majority of Salonican Jews were conservative. In the absence of anti-Semitism, Zionism remained marginal. "Which Palestine are you talking about? Palestine's here," the saying went.

The first calamity befell the community in 1917 while the city was inundated by allied troops fighting in the First Balkan War. A fire devastated downtown, wiping out the Jewish quarters and Synagogues. Jews lost their homes, their shrines, their records, the priceless Torah scrolls and artefacts their ancestors had carried from Spain. "Accusations that the Greek state was behind the fire are unsubstantiated. The strict legislation on rebuilding proves the calamity was an accident," Molho is categorical. "The fire nevertheless provided an excellent opportunity to the authorities to rebuild on a Hellenic ideal," she continues. The Ottoman town and its Jewish core disappeared, replaced by a modern city centre filled with wide boulevards and grand public buildings in a neo-Byzantine eclecticism. This was the largest urban planning project ever undertaken in Greece. As most of downtown was reserved for public buildings, it lost its Jewish character.

The arrival of 100,000 Greek refugees after the Asia Minor disaster made Greeks a majority in town for the first time since 1430. Tension grew between the newcomers and the Jews. The interwar years were marked by a religiously inspired anti-Semitism, culminating in an attack on one of the city's Jewish slums, Campbell, in 1931. Jews fought bravely in the ranks of the Greek army during the Second World War. Yet this did not prevent tragedy: the Germans entered Thessaloniki in 1941, and two years later the 500-year old Sephardic community would end in the crematoria of Germany, Austria and Poland. The city's synagogues were desecrated and the 500,000 tombs of its Jewish cemetery, Europe's largest, bulldozed.

"Entre Mosotros"

Rozy Shaltiel wears the Star of David

Only about 2,000 Jews, an amazing medley of ethnic backgrounds, live in today's Thessaloniki. Each household has spine-chilling stories of suffering, death and courage to narrate. At the community's old people's home, we chat in Spanish with Director Victoria Benuziyo, and my friend Rozy Shaltiel. They are of the last few to be fluent in Judeo Esanyol, a living museum of medieval Spanish. "We speak singing," Victoria alludes to the marked Italian influence on their accent. If I didn't speak Italian and Catalan, I'd have difficulty understanding her. "It was easy for the Nazis to spot who was Jewish and who wasn't. They could tell by the accent," they explain. Victoria was a baby when the Germans arrived. She knows nothing of her father, perished in one of the concentration camps. She hid with a Christian family in Athens. "They changed my name to its Greek version Niki. Every morning before my adopted father went to work, he'd wait for me to come to the doorstep and wish him farewell, 'the Virgin be with you'." Victoria's mother survived and took her to Thessaloniki after the war. Separating from her adopted family was a nightmare. Rozy and her parents survived Bergen Belsen.

"We grew up in a vacuum. No grandmothers, no aunts, no elderly survived the camps. Their traditions, their stories perished with them," Victoria explains. "I'm not religious. But I'm a Jewess to the bone. For me Judaism is a culture, an identity." Her aunt Matica Lizzi with her five children fled to Athens and survived the war selling cigarettes on the streets, hiding some gold for safety. "Every day she'd say, 'The day I'll see our flag raised on the Acropolis, I will distribute my gold to the poor.' Which she did." Rozy's aunt Stella was dating a Christian boy when she was deported to Auschwitz. She survived and had to renounce her faith to marry him (civil marriage wasn't available at the time). "I can only pray in Judeo-Spanish," Rozy confides. "I go to churches and light a candle to my uncle's memory. My prayer goes, En Gan Eden que estes theio Giorgo (may you be in the Garden of Eden, uncle Giorgo)" The two women put some of the blame for anti-Semitism on Jews' aloofness. "One of the typical phrases of Thessaloniki Jews was 'No favles, stamos entre mosotros? (Don't speak; are we among ourselves?). It's a pity people didn't know much about us," they say. Things are different today. "Most young students who come to learn Judeo-Espanyol are Christian. This is indicative," Victoria, who teaches, argues. Books are printed on the cuisine of the Sephardim; CDs with their music sell well.

The community has deep grievances. The campus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, built on the site of the former Jewish cemetery, which was "ravaged during the war," was donated by the community to the state. Not even one plaque commemorates the fact that auditoria and courtyards stand where once thousands of graves were. "Clara Hirsch donated the Hirsch hospital to the state, on the condition that its name be preserved. Yet the state renamed it Haghia Sophia," laments Rena Molho. Official guides to the city downplay the role Jews played in its history. The names of buildings survive: the Modiano market, the Villa Allatini, the Gatenyo-Florentin and Stein mansions. But do young Salonicans know they were built by, or for, Jews? "It is a myth that the Greeks simply assisted the Jews during the war," Rena says. "Although there's no proof, we're almost convinced it was Greek quislings who asked the Germans to destroy the cemetery. For decades, the municipal authorities wanted to use it as building space. No other Jewish cemetery was destroyed in occupied Europe. And it was Greek Christians, not Germans, who guarded the Jews in the forced labour camps in 1942, where thousands died. " "When we returned from the camp, we found squatters in our house. 'So many died, was it you who had to survive?" they told us. We had to go to court to claim it back," an elderly Salonican says.

Thessaloniki has a complex story, full of shadows and sorrow. "It's such a burden to know we're struggling against time to preserve some memories, but that when we ourselves pass away it will all be erased," Victoria says. "We holocaust survivors are destined to witness the death of Judeo-Espanyol, the death of Jewish Salonica"


Bruce said...

It's a very moving account. I have written a fictional short story about a young Jewish boy who escapes Salonika before the deportations. This account helps me see my characters in a more complete light. Thank you.

LogicalmanUSA said...

This is one monumental story and history, that tragically, is largely unknown, including to the world Jewry of today.