Jewish Sites In Thessaloniki

Feature by Willard Manus

"Thessaloniki has long been considered Greece's foremost multi-cultural city because for many centuries its history has been marked by the peaceful co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Between 1492, in fact, and 1912, the Jewish community was the largest of all ethnic communities living here. This thriving community set the tone of Ottoman Thessaloniki, making it known as the most famous Jewish city in the world, widely referred to as the Jerusalem of the Balkans."

With that passage, Reno Molho introduces her new book, JEWISH SITES IN THESSALONIKI (Lycabettus Press). Molho further explains how she came to write the book: "Visitors now coming for the first time to Thessaloniki encounter a basically Byzantine city because historical events, such as the devastating fire that destroyed most of the Jewish monuments in 1917 and the annhiliation of the Jewish community during the German occupation, erased the city's Jewish character. Reconstruction after the end of World War II, which reached its peak in the 1960s, made the few remaining traces of the two-thousand-year Jewish presence in the Macedonian capital even less evident.

"A major step remedying this situation was taken when the National Research Foundation of Spain published an attractive volume in Spanish, with photographs, about the history of the most important Sephardic communities in the Ottoman Empire. When I was asked to write the chapter about the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, I sought help from my friend and colleague Vilma Hastanoglou-Martinidis. The material we wrote for that chapter we are now presenting here in expanded form as a separate publication in the belief that the historical overview, the 35 illustrations and descriptions of the sites, and the maps will both fill a void in the bibliography and enable foreign and local visitors to discover, even in part, the surviving traces of the Jewish and multi-cultural nature of Thessaloniki."

What follows is a 20-page history commencing in 513 B.C. when the first Jews arrived in Thessaloniki, after having fled slavery under the Persian emperor Darius I. In 331 B.C. when Alexander the Great conquered Mesopotamia, the Jews welcomed him as liberator and followed him in his campaign against Egypt. The Jews eventually became Hellenized and remained so even under the Ottoman conquest of Salonica. The authors provide many fascinating details about the life of the Jewish community, such as the development of their own Judeo-Spanish language (ladino), the move into the higher echelons of commerce, banking and crafts (although most Jews worked as stevedores and fishermen). The capsule history concludes with a brief chapter on the Nazi takeover of the city in 1941 and the eventual implementation of the Final Solution, which led to the destruction of 96% of the Jewish population.

The authors also contribute biographies of several famous Thessaloniki Jews: the poet/playwright Shlomo Reuben Mordechai; the journalist Sam Modiano (my neighbor when I lived in Athens); and the historian Joseph Nehama, among others. Color photographs (and captions) take up the next thirty pages, beginning with the three remaining synagogues in Thessaloniki. Other illustrations include Villa Allatini, the Ouziel Residential Complex, various neoclassical and neo-renaissance villas, the Yahoudi Hammam (now a museum), the Modiano Central Market (still in use today), the Jewish Museum, old and new Jewish cemeteries, and the Holocaust Memorial Menorah. This bronze sculpture first stood in what used to be the Jewish Quarter but was moved in 2007 to Freedom Square. Now a modern shopping center, the square has an infamous history; during the Occupation, the Germans used it as an assembly area for registering Jewish men for deportation to slave-labor and concentration camps.

All those with an interest in Greek-Jewish history--or who are simply planning to visit Thessaloniki--would do well to order a copy of this insightful and attractive paperback book. (Visit www.lycabettus. com or call the Athens-based company at 30-210-6741-788).