Thessaloniki: A magnificent synagogue revealed from the past

Monastiriotes Synagogue was among the very few that survived WWII, thanks to the intervention of the Red Cross that used it as storehouse.

CONGREGANTS GATHER at the historic Salonika Synagogue (photo credit: Courtesy)
CONGREGANTS GATHER at the historic Salonika Synagogue
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When members of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki entered the synagogue of Monastiriotes in Thessaloniki on Sunday, May 15, they encountered something different for the first time in over 70 years. The synagogue opened its doors for the community to celebrate two festive occasions: the 68th anniversary of independence of the State of Israel, and the completion of the complete restoration of this historic monument for the first time since it was built in 1927.
The synagogue was designed by Czech Jewish architect Eli Ernst Levi and funded by families that moved to Thessaloniki from Monastir, most prominent among which was the Aroesti family. After WWII, it is at this synagogue that the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust held their first meetings.
Pain and sorrow were mixed with the urgent task of rebuilding a community board and institutions, and reestablishing Jewish life in a city once counting more than 50,000 Jews among its population. Thessaloniki lost 96 percent of its Jews. The community lost people, but also its institutions, libraries, the ancient Jewish cemetery, nearly 60 synagogues and midrashim, and its central synagogue, Beth Shaul, which was destroyed by the Nazis following the deportation of the Jewish community in 1943.
Monastiriotes Synagogue was among the very few that survived WWII, thanks to the intervention of the Red Cross that used it as storehouse.
The building, due to its central location and prominent size, has served as the central synagogue of the city since then. Yet, the building was neglected. A severe earthquake in 1978 caused damage to the building and structural interventions caused futher damage to its original decoration.
The marble 10 Commandments crowning the central arch of the synagogue façade were removed after they collapsed during the earthquake.
Services were added ad-hoc, from exposed electric wiring on the walls to a toilet structure in the courtyard, which for women, descending from the ezrat nashim [women’s section], was both difficult and often dangerous. Security considerations forced the community to protect the entrance foyer with wire mesh, affecting the original architectural character of the synagogue and its relationship to the street.
Until today. Under the leadership of David Saltiel, president of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, a team of architects comprised of the undersigned and the office of Kard Architects based in Thessaloniki, and under the supervision of Jewish community engineer David Frances, undertook to restore the building and bring back its historic character and beauty. Thanks to grants from the Federal Republic of Germany and the Herbert Simon Family Foundation, the undertaking encompassed every possible corner and detail of the synagogue: from hiding exposed wiring to revealing the original hidden decorative terrazzo floor tiles; from revealing original wall paintings to replacing and adding damaged decorative plaster decorations; from reconstructing the toilets to installing new stairs and an elevator to make the ezrat nashim accessible to persons with disabilities for the first time; from replacing existing heating, cooling and lighting systems to improve performance and to reduce energy costs and the environmental footprint of the building to erecting again – for the first time since 1978 – the 10 Commandements at the top of the synagogue façade.
BEING INVOLVED in this project could not be more emotionally loaded for me. I was born to the Athens Jewish community, with roots in the Romaniote communities in Jannina and Chalkis. Upon completion of my graduate studies in architecture I decided to devote my professional skills to the study, survey and dissemination of knowledge on Greek synagogues. In the past 20 years I have completed a PhD at the National Technical University of Athens on the subject and published in the US (The Synagogues of Greece, Bloch Publishing Co., New York) and Greece (The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia, Gavrielides Editions, Athens). I disseminated my work in numerous articles, lectures and exhibitions including at Yad Vashem and the Goethe Institute in Thessaloniki.
But throughout this long journey, the urge to preserve the Jewish heritage of Greece was not only an academic pursuit but primarily a dedication to survival. Great amounts of energy were spent to publicize the sale or planned demolition of synagogues in the 1990s by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, or to prevent the Athens Jewish community from destroying the historic Ianniotes synagogue in 2008. The leadership of the Greek Jewish communities preferred to muffle my voice rather than take my advice. And as a result, historic jewels such as synagogue Beth El in Komotini and the elaborate synagogue in Xanthi, although they survived the Holocaust and Nazi barbarism, were demolished and lost forever.
But two decades later something changed. President Saltiel, a true visionary with the sense of mission of a leader in an important, but dwindling community, took the initiative to preserve this monument, instead of following the destructive example of other cities. Thanks to president Saltiel’s commitment to the history and preservation of the heritage of the ancient Jewish community of Thessaloniki, no efforts were spared toward a historic restoration that would bring pride and memory back to the community and the city of Thessaloniki. Thanks to president Saltiel’s vision and Mayor Yiannis Boutaris’ commitment to unveiling the historic layers of the city of Thessaloniki – primarily the Jewish one – despite the crisis throughout Greece, Jewish tourism in Thessaloniki is growing year-round, and the restored synagogue of Monastiriotes is already booked for tourist visits for the next several months.
The inauguration of the restored synagogue of Monastiriotes was a real celebration. A celebration of the city of Thessaloniki for having now a unique architectural and historic landmark. A celebration for the Jewish community over the pride and joy its central synagogue brought them again. A celebration for Israel for having one more point of reference on the map of Sephardi Jewry in the Diaspora, in an ancient city once called “Mother of Israel,” and a Jewish community from which David Ben-Gurion was inspired for the State of Israel. It was also a celebration for me personally: the closing of a circle of great loss for Greek Jewish heritage, and the start of a new paradigm of cooperation, dedication, love and pride in Jewish heritage, to be restored and preserved for present and future generations.
The author is an architect, environmental consultant and educator, expert in the architecture of Greek synagogues and author of The Synagogues of Greece (Bloch Publishing Co., New York) and The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia (Gavrielides Editions, Athens).