Hanukka at the historic center of Thessaloniki in Greece.The weather is cold but the sun is shining. The shops are festive and the streets buzzing, but with less shopping bags in evidence than in previous years. The economic crisis is taking a toll on the local economy, and young and old alike look for ways to emigrate to Europe, America or Australia, for job opportunities or to live with better-off relatives. It is certainly a strange mix of holiday atmosphere and hard reality, which confuses when one is used to the openhearted, outgoing Greek mentality.
For a Jewish visitor, this strange mix is present at every corner of the city, but for different reasons. Thessaloniki, a city founded in antiquity, with a Romaniote (ancient) Jewish community, became a predominantly Jewish city in the Middle Ages due to the influx of Sephardi Jews from Spain and Europe in Ottoman times.
The Jews set the commercial vibe of the port city and established institutions of education, religion and culture, and numerous synagogues commemorating their place of origin: Aragon, Italia, Evora, Gerush Sefarad, Lisbon, Mograbis and Sicilia being the names of just a few.
In my mind, Jewish life in Thessaloniki is associated with miracles.Because, although Jewish life in Thessaloniki flourished, the community was often faced with the threat of destruction throughout history, and survived.
For example, in August 1917 a great fire devastated the city center, where the Jewish quarter was located. The fire devastated over a quarter of the city, destroying the market, businesses and homes, leaving more than 70,000 homeless – among them more than 50,000 Jews. The fire also destroyed 32 synagogues, 17 communal and 65 private midrashim
(prayer houses), and the central synagogue, Talmud Torah.
The city center of Thessaloniki was redesigned by French architect Ernest Hebrard, and soon new buildings, covered markets, houses, businesses and institutions were erected. Life and commerce flourished again, and Jewish life was re-established. The Sarfati synagogue, built in 1921 on Pittakou Street, and Monastirioton synagogue, built in 1927 on Syngrou Street, were among the new synagogues built after the fire by the flourishing Jewish community.
The Holocaust was another shock, devastating the Jews of Thessaloniki. Following the German occupation of Greece in 1941, the community was isolated and looted, its young men sent to perform forced labor, the ancient Jewish cemetery destroyed – on top of which the university extension was later built – and finally, 54,000 Jews were deported to death camps by July 1943. A small fraction of families and individuals with foreign papers were protected by foreign governments, or helped by Christians to flee or hide.
Overall, more than 96% of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki perished. The survivors re-established Jewish life again after WWII. Out of more than 60 synagogues in the city, only Monastirioton was preserved, by the Red Cross as a storehouse. A smaller prayer hall, Burla synagogue, was also re-established for daily prayers near the city market, using the marble pulpit from a synagogue in the Baron Hirsch quarter, and the elaborate marble ark of Sarfati synagogue. In 1984, when a new office building was built on the Burla site, Yad Lezikaron synagogue was established on the ground floor, reusing the historic interior pieces from the Burla synagogue.
Thanks to miracles, Jewish life in Thessaloniki is flourishing again. Despite the general crisis, the community is on a path of renewal and reconstruction. For the past three years, through the leadership of its president, David Saltiel, the Jewish community has undertaken to renovate the city’s two synagogues, enlarge the Jewish museum and create a new Holocaust museum. The community has also initiated the restoration of other synagogues, such as the Romaniote synagogue in Trikala, to serve the local Jewish community and a growing influx of tourists.
Monastirioton synagogue was re-inaugurated on May 15, 2016, after a meticulous historic restoration. Today, it is nominated for the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage. Yad Lezikaron synagogue, was re-inaugurated on December 13, 2017, after an overall refurbishment and restoration of the historic ark, which was cleansed of later additions and restored to its past glory. Both synagogue projects were undertaken by the author, in collaboration with local KARD Architects, under the supervision of David Frances, the engineer of the Jewish Community Technical Office.
The candle lighting at the Yad Lezikaron synagogue re-inauguration was followed by a celebration with the Jewish school pupils at the Jewish club. The synagogue’s colorful stained glass windows, renovated interiors and restored ark were aglow. New marble plaques commemorated the names of the synagogues of Thessaloniki through the ages, reminding us of the miracle of resilience and continuity since antiquity. Jewish men and women filled the prayer hall with joy and love. Jewish children singing Hanukka songs filled our hearts.
This year in Jewish Thessaloniki, it was a special Hanukka celebration of miracles and light.
The author is a Greek-Israeli architect, the founding chairman of NGO ECOWEEK, and the author of The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia (Gavrielides Editions) and The Synagogues of Greece (Bloch Publishing Co.).