Salonika – Echoes from the Jewish past

The first Jews arrived in Salonika in the 2nd century BCE from Alexandria, giving rise to the city's rich Jewish history, one also filled with tragedies.

 ARCH OF Galerius.  (photo credit: Nahum Schnitzer)
ARCH OF Galerius.
(photo credit: Nahum Schnitzer)

Salonika, Thessaloniki in Greek, seemed the ideal travel destination for us: a two-and-a-half hour direct flight from Israel, relatively inexpensive, with availability of kosher food, a number of attractions inside the city and plenty of possible day trips, as well as a rich Jewish history and past. So off we went for a week in Greece’s second-largest city. 

The first Jews arrived in Salonika in the 2nd century BCE from Alexandria. A Jewish community existed there during Hellenistic and Roman times. Salonika’s earliest congregation, Etz Haim, dated from that period and continued to exist into the 20th century. According to Christian sources, the Apostle Paul preached in the city’s synagogue but his “good news” was received less than enthusiastically and he was obligated to leave after three weeks. The Byzantine emperors, with one exception, were hostile towards their Jewish subjects, as were their Latin successors. 

Benjamin of Tudela, the famed Jewish traveler, found 500 Jews in the city in 1169. 

The Turkish conquest of the city in the 15th-16th centuries allowed for significant Jewish immigration, but it was the 1492 Expulsion from Spain which brought the largest numbers of Jews to the region. While there were Greek-speaking Jewish communities (Romaniotes) in Thessaloniki since antiquity, the newly-arrived speakers of what was to be known as “Ladino” became the majority. Their synagogues are memorialized on the walls of Yad L’Zikaron, the only active synagogue in Salonika. There, one can read the names of their original homes, such as Aragon, Portugal, Puglia, Castile, Lisbon and Italy.

By the early 20th century, Jews made up the largest single ethnic group in the city. On Shabbat and Jewish festivals, commerce was halted and the main port was closed. 

 ARISTOTLE STATUE (credit: Nahum Schnitzer)
ARISTOTLE STATUE (credit: Nahum Schnitzer)

The legendary mayor of Haifa, Abba Houshi, recruited 300 Jewish port workers and seamen and their families from Salonika to live in Haifa in the 1930s to operate the port in that city. This probably saved their lives from the horrors that were yet to come. 

Salonika was the home of many illustrious individuals and families, among them Yaakov ibn Habib, author of Ein Ya’akov; Shlomo Alkabetz, composer of “Lecha Dodi”; and Samuel de Medina, author of over 1,000 halachic responsa. 

In modern times, Rabbi Meir Uziel, later chief rabbi of Israel, served as the city’s chief rabbi; and Leon Recanati, founder of Israel Discount Bank, hailed from Salonika. The Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv was built as the initiative of Salonika Jews. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was born and educated in Thessaloniki.

Popular Israeli singer Yehudah Poliker has roots in that city and wrote a song about survivors returning to Thessaloniki after their ordeal in the concentration camps: “Faces pale, the remnants of the living, refugees from the death march, tattered and patched, they come to cry in your streets.”

The many Jewish tragedies of Salonika

THE CITY has known many Jewish tragedies, not the least of them the conversion to Islam of Shabbtai Zvi, a charismatic figure who was looked to as the Messiah by many Jews all over the world. Initially, he was well-received when he preached at the Shalom synagogue, but after hearing him announce that he was the “true redeemer,” the rabbis of Salonika expelled him. The Muslim Turkish authorities, concerned about unrest, imprisoned him in 1666 and gave him the choice of “conversion or death.” He chose the former and thus deflated the popular enthusiasm for his messianic movement. 

This debacle profoundly shook the Jewish world, leaving most of his erstwhile followers disillusioned and devastated. 

But over 300 of Salonika’s Jewish families converted to Islam along with Shabbtai Zvi and formed a separate community, calling themselves Ma’aminim (“believers’). The Muslims called them Donmeh (“apostates or turn-coats”) and the Jews also regarded them as such. They maintained their own mosque and cemetery and married only among themselves. They were crypto-Jews, observing some Jewish observances while pretending to be faithful Muslims, while fusing Sufi and kabbalistic teachings. 

In the early 20th century they built the Yeni Mosque in Salonika, a building – constructed in an eclectic Moorish-European style – that is in use today as an exhibition hall by the Thessaloniki municipality. This community was transferred to Istanbul in 1923, in the context of an exchange of Muslims for Greek Christians and still residually exists there, more active in antisemitic fantasies than in reality. 

A fire in 1917 destroyed much of the city, including the Jewish neighborhoods, leaving tens of thousands homeless and spurring Jewish emigration. 

The greatest of the tragic chapters in the city’s history took place in the Holocaust period, which began in Thessaloniki in 1941. By the end of the war, the community was nearly entirely exterminated. Ninety-five percent of the community, numbering a total of 43,850 Jews, was deported. Only 2,000 Jews remained and that number has dropped to an approximate 1,200 Jews today. The city, once known as ir va’em b’Israel (a Jewish metropolis) has sadly declined.

The behavior of Salonika’s official chief rabbi Tzvi Koretz, in that period, is deeply disturbing and casts a shadow until this day. Originally from Galitzia (Poland), a graduate of a German rabbinical seminar and the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin, Koretz was a controversial figure from the time he arrived in Salonika in 1933. 

Initially unfamiliar with the language and religious traditions of Salonika Jewry, liberal in his own religious practice, he was a strange choice. But the community was moving away from tradition and the feeling was that a Western chief rabbi could create valuable alliances with the authorities, while the local rabbis could take care of religious affairs. He was most successful in expanding his own personal power and influence, hobnobbing with politicians and royalty, living lavishly and eventually becoming the head of the community – a position that had always been filled by a layman – thus controlling community finances and properties as well as serving as chief rabbi. 

The Nazis arrested Koretz and imprisoned him in Vienna under shameful conditions. Upon his return to Thessaloniki after the greater part of a year in prison, he resumed his rabbinic duties. As a German speaker, he was also made head of the Salonika Judenrat and urged compliance at every turn. 

When ordered to turn over lists of Jewish residents and properties to the German authorities, he did so. On the other hand, he pleaded – tearfully but unsuccessfully – with German-collaborationist Greek prime minister Ioannis Raillis, to act against the deportation of Jews. Koretz also attempted to ameliorate the plight of Salonika’s Jews. He was eventually deported to Bergen-Belsen and survived until liberation, only to die of typhoid immediately afterward. 

Was he a traitor or a victim of his own weakness and misconceptions?

Immediately after the war, he was bitterly condemned, by survivors as well as Greeks, but later on, more nuanced voices began to be heard. In the context of the horrors of the time, Koretz’s delusions of the possibility of survival through obedience are more comprehensible.

More egregious was the head of the Jewish police in the Salonika ghetto, Vital Hasson, the only Jew ever tried and executed for active involvement in murdering the victims of the Holocaust. Convicted and put to death by a Greek court after the war, he had carried out the deportation of Salonika’s Jews, including his own father; and personally committed shockingly vicious acts of violence that terrorized his townspeople. 

EVEN AFTER reading about the tragic events that beset Salonika Jewry in the last century, we were not prepared for the poignancy and sadness that we felt during our visit. And although there is no hope that this community will ever be restored and rebuilt to its past glory, there are some encouraging signs of life in the Jewish community today. 

What Jewish sites can a traveler see in Thessaloniki? We visited the Jewish Museum (11 Agiou Mina Str.) which houses an impressive collection of artifacts and didactic presentations that vividly trace the history of the community from antiquity to the modern period. We learned about what once was but is no more: Jewish newspapers in a number of languages, educational institutions, benevolent and philanthropic organizations, sports teams, Zionist associations, a rich religious and cultural life.

Upon request, it is possible to visit the Monastir Synagogue (35 Syggrou Str.), the only Jewish place of worship that survived the Holocaust. Used by the Red Cross as a storage facility during the war, it remained intact. Built in 1927, it follows classical lines with a touch of Art Deco and originally served a community that relocated to Salonika after the Balkan Wars in the early part of the last century. It is usually open only for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but we attended the bar mitzvah there of a young member of the community. Ask at the Jewish Museum and arrange a visit. 

The synagogue in use every day, Yad L’Zikaron (26 Vasileos Irakleoy Str. – opposite the Modiano Market) is in the Jewish Community building (built in 1984). The entrance to the synagogue is not visible from the street – you need to go into the building’s lobby to see the Hebrew sign and door on your left. Note that you will need to show your passport and undergo a security check. 

To attend Shabbat services, you will need to send a photo of your passport to in advance or bring a photocopy before Shabbat. There are services every day, minyan or not. Shabbat evening services were very moving for us – the children who study in the Jewish elementary school came in towards the end of services and joined the rabbi in singing “Shalom Aleichem” and reciting kiddush with great enthusiasm.

 The rabbi of the community, Chief Rabbi Aharon Israel, is originally from Haifa and masterfully leads prayers and reads the Torah, delivers sermons and serves as mohel as well. 

On Shabbat morning, when the ark was opened, the congregation sang in Ladino: Bendito Su nombre del Senhor del Mundo. Bendito Tu corona y Tu lugar. (“Blessed is the name of the Lord of the World, blessed is Your crown and Your habitation.”) This is a poetic translation of the traditional Aramaic prayer. 

Thessaloniki’s Shalom Restaurant in the Astoria Hotel is under the direction of Chabad’s Rabbi Yoel Kaplan (originally from Safed) and serves as the base for the local Chabad House. We visited during the week and had our Shabbat eve dinner there as well. We met travelers – mostly from Israel – and the atmosphere was friendly and warm. The food was adequate and it is possible to buy kosher bread there during the week. We heard enthusiastic divrei Torah from Rav Yoel and from the woman in charge of the restaurant, Tehillah, also from Israel. Eating there was an experience. 

Since some Salonika Jews were often quite affluent in the early part of the 20th century, there are a number of villas – palatial homes that were the residences of Jewish families, many built after the great fire of 1917 – such as Villa Morduch, Villa Allatini, the Ouziel complex and Villa Modiano. Most of these structures are now museums or public institutions. 

Not far from the Yad L’Zikaron synagogue, you can see the 16th-century Yahudi Hamam (“Jew’s Bath”), once a bathhouse and mikveh, today picturesque with a flower market in the foreground.

SALONIKA DOES not lack Holocaust memorials. Perhaps this is a reaction to the reported tendency of the local population to ignore or forget the city’s Jewish past and the near-total destruction of this community. While many Greeks showed compassion and concern  – and some risked their lives – for the victims, others who had bought formerly Jewish homes from the German authorities were reluctant to relinquish them after the war. By no means were there attacks on the survivors, as occurred in other places, but forgetfulness and willful ignorance are still a problem. 

You can find stolpersteine, literally “stumbling stones,” brass plaques embedded into the sidewalk memorializing deported Jews, in the harbor area and in front of the former location of the Jewish high school. 

At Eleftherias (Liberation) Square along Nikis Boulevard, we saw a moving memorial to the Jews deported to the concentration camps. Shaped like a menorah, it is formed of the twisted figures of agonizing human beings. The Jewish cemetery of Salonika, largely expropriated and destroyed, has its own memorial to the victims.

The city features the impressive Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (with a collection of artifacts and a symphony hall); the Museum of Byzantine Culture; MOMus, the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography; the iconic White Tower of Thessaloniki (not so white anymore), a former Turkish prison now a history museum; and the Arch of Galerius and Rotunda which the 4th-century Roman emperor Galerius commissioned as part of an imperial precinct linked to his palace. 

A Roman forum is currently being excavated due to the expansion of the underground metro. Along the harbor promenade, you can see Aristotle Square, the aforementioned White Tower, the statue of Alexander the Great and a modern sculpture of seemingly floating umbrellas. 

At night, the open markets become centers of nightlife, restaurants and music. Neighborhood tavernas often feature local singers and musicians. Thessaloniki is the home of a renowned university and other centers of learning. Except for the summer break, the city is alive with young people and hosts many cultural activities and festivals year-round. 

Northern Greece is filled with many natural wonders and historical sites within a few hours of Thessaloniki and no trip is complete without seeing at least some of them. 

We went on an organized bus trip to Meteora, the site of breathtaking rock formations rising an average of 1,000 feet into the air, many large enough to accommodate entire monasteries. Pozar’s hot springs, the Edessa waterfalls and the beaches of the Halkidiki peninsulas are known to be delightful. 

Mount Olympus, Dion and their nature reserve are famous among readers of mythology as well as flora and fauna enthusiasts. 

One of the most memorable highlights of our visit was a guided tour of Pella and Vergina, towns associated with Alexander the Great and his family. Nearby, we visited the town of Veria, which still has an intact Jewish quarter and a restored synagogue, despite the disappearance of the local Jewish community. 

It would be hard to write about Salonika without mentioning the local people we met, both Jews and gentiles. I found them pleasant and welcoming, as well as warm and helpful. We have already mentioned the Jewish history in Salonika; additionally, all of its residents have gone through difficult times in the very near past: political instability, economic woes and COVID. Yet there is a love of life that pervades the city and makes it an attractive destination for visitors. 