The Jerusalem Of The West
ARTICLE by Willard Manus

Because it is to Athens what Chicago is to New York, Thessaloniki is known as Greece's second city and for that reason has been bypassed in recent decades by most tourists. The Greeks themselves haven't done a good job of promoting Thessaloniki, despite the fact that it is not only a waterfront city but a gateway to the Balkans and East Europe and can boast of an international trade fair and film festival every year.

In 1997, however, the city was designated as "the cultural capital of Europe," completing a European Union cycle of cities which started with Athens seventeen years ago. The institution was intended to preserve a city's cultural heritage within the framework of a united Europe. It spurred the Greeks to schedule a plethora of cultural and sports events and, even more significantly, to confront the city's origins and recent history.

For the greater part of this century, Thessaloniki (or Salonika as it was known during its Ottoman Empire days) was virtually a Jewish city. Some 60,000 Jews (more than half the pre-war population) lived there, having arrived over the centuries from such countries as Hungary, Germany, Spain, Sicily and Portugal to find safe harbor from pogroms, economic hardship and wars.

The Jews lived in their own quarter, ran the port, started the rag trade, worked as artisans and bakers, built 32 synagogues and innumerable libraries. Thessaloniki was all but closed on Saturdays. A marked silence hung over the commercial heart of the city from late Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, when life began again. Jews were merchants, bankers, policemen, garbagemen, doctors, lawyers, water sellers and stevedores. A Jewish poet called Thessaloniki "Metropolis of Israel, city of Justice, mother of Israel, like Jerusalem."

In August of 1917, however, a fire broke out in the Jewish quarter. Fanned by an ill wind, the flames spread through the heart of the city, leaving it in ashes and over 50,000 Jews homeless. Nearly all of Thessaloniki's synagogues were destroyed, most of its libraries as well and, as one writer has said, "the accumulated wisdom and occasional foolishness of centuries of secure and settled life were destroyed."

The Jews who had not emigrated to Palestine began to regroup and rebuild, only to face a holocaust of another, more destructive kind when the German army entered the city on April 9, 1941. The Jews were isolated into three ghettos, forced to wear the yellow badge, and to register all of their personal belongings. The pipeline to the concentration camps began to run two years later. By war's end, only about 2,000 Jews returned to a city that was all but unrecognizable in terms of a Jewish presence.

The Greeks blotted out all traces of Thessaloniki's Jewish past. Few histories, guidebooks or textbooks mentioned the Jews; there were no museums or exhibitions dedicated to Jewish life and culture; and the one monument erected to the WW II victims, a small park called the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, had its sign mutilated: the word "Jewish" was blacked out in both Greek and English.

All that has finally begun to change. Thanks to its E.U. designation--and to pressure within from both Jewish and non-Jewish Greeks--Thessaloniki is beginning to come to terms with its own past. An imposing downtown statue to the victims of the Holocaust was unveiled a few years ago as part of a Memorial Week. The monument stands at the junction of Nea Egnatia and Papanastasiou Streets, where the Hirsch Jewish Settlement House once was located.

Related concerts, exhibitions, TV documentaries, a CD of Jewish music of Thessaloniki, the completion of the Thessaloniki Museum of the Jewish Presence, and the publication of a number of books have followed.

It is also now possible to visit some of the remnants of Thessaloniki's Jewish past, notably several turn-of-the-century villas and the Monasterion Synagogue, built in 1927 and saved only because the Red Cross requisitioned it during the war. Don´t miss a visit to the famous Jewish-owned bookstore, Molho's, at 10 Tsimiski St. It has been in existence for 115 years.

Those who can't make it to Thessaloniki can look forward to the forthcoming feature film by noted Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, a big-budget historical drama set in 1917-18 and dealing with the great fire and its impact on not just the Jewish community but on the Christian and Muslim population as well.

For a list of books dealing (in English) with Thessaloniki's Jewish past--contact the publisher John Chapple at