Hanukkah at the historic center of Thessaloniki in Greece. The weather is cold but shiny. The shops are festive and streets buzzing with shoppers, but with less shopping bags than the previous years. The economic crisis is taking a toll on the local economy, and young and old 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 with 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, Sicilia, were the names of some of these synagogues.

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 quarters were located. The fire devastated 32% of the city, destroying the market, businesses, and homes, leaving more than 70,000 people homeless – among them more than 50,000 Jews. The fire also destroyed 32 synagogues, 17 communal, 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. 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 that nearly devastated the Jews of Thessaloniki. Following the German occupation of Greece in 1941, the community was isolated and looted, its young Jewish men were sent to forced labor, the ancient Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki was destroyed – on top of which the university extension was later built, and finally, the community - 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, to serve the community as its central synagogue. A smaller prayer hall, Burla synagogue, was also re-established for daily prayers near the city market, using the marble Bimah from a synagogue at the Hirsch quarter, and the elaborate marble Heikhal 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, re-using the historic interior pieces from Burla synagogue.

Thanks to miracles, Jewish life in Thessaloniki is flourishing again. Despite the general crisis, the community is in 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 two synagogues of the city, 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 Heikhal, 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 colorful stained glass windows, renovated interiors and restored Heikhal were glowing with light. 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 community men and women filled the prayer hall with joy and love. Jewish children singing Hanukah songs filled our hearts.

This year, at Jewish Thessaloniki, it was a special Hanukkah celebration of miracles and light.

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