On August 18, 1917, a fire began in Thessaloniki, Greece, that destroyed some two-thirds of the city, including most of its Jewish quarter. As a consequence of the fire, which left some 70,000 people homeless, it has been estimated that close to half of the city’s Jewish population left Thessaloniki.
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Thessaloniki was at the time, as it is today, the second-largest city in Greece, after Athens. By Greek standards, it was a modern city, and its port was one of the most important in the eastern Mediterranean. Thessaloniki for years had a Jewish majority, the only such city in the Diaspora, a community that began when Jews, encouraged to do so by Thessaloniki’s Ottoman rulers, began emigrating there from Spain following the Expulsion in 1492 (although there are signs of a Jewish presence going back to Byzantine times). So dominant was the Jewish population in the city’s trade that Saturday was the official day of rest for Thessaloniki’s business community and its port.
Following the First Balkan War, in 1914, the city passed from Ottoman control to Greek. During World War I, French and British troops were billeted in Thessaloniki, which became a major transit center for soldiers on their way to fighting in Bulgaria. Although the cause of the fire has not been definitely determined, one theory is that it started in the French encampment. (Another is that it was caused by an unattended kitchen fire in a civilian home in the central Mevlane district.)
The fire began in the area between the upper section of Thessaloniki and its port. By August 19, it had destroyed the city’s commercial center. There were some half-hearted attempts by British and French forces to fight the fire, but the Allied armies’ unwillingness to interrupt the supply of water from their camps and hospitals to the cause, combined with poorly organized fire-fighting services, allowed the fire to wreak significant destruction.
About one square kilometer of the city was destroyed - all of Thessaloniki’s southwestern quadrant - including nearly all of the waterfront. Among the Jewish population, most of its 37 synagogues burned down (neither were the city’s churches or mosques spared), and some 50 percent of the Jewish residents lost their homes. More than half of Thessaloniki’s 7,700 shops were destroyed as well, many of them owned by Jews, and many of the city’s newspapers went permanently out of business.
According to an official report, “all the banks, all the business premises, all the hotels and practically all the shops, theaters and cinemas were reduced to ashes.” It is said that 9,500 buildings altogether were lost in the fire, which died out only after 32 hours.
For then-Prime Minister Eleftherios Venezelos, the wholesale destruction provided an opportunity to rebuild Thessaloniki along European standards. Although he acted quickly in calling in the French planner Ernest Hebrard, the logistical ramifications of the decision obviously slowed down the entire process. A consequence was the departure of much of the city’s population, not only from Thessaloniki but from Greece in general – in the direction of Western Europe, the United States and Palestine.
Those who remained were given a choice either to live in their rebuilt neighborhoods, or to leave for Thessaloniki’s outlying areas. Many of the Jews chose the latter alternative. They were convinced in fact, writes Mark Mazower in his book “Salonica: City of Ghosts,” that the government’s intention was to drive Jews from the city’s center, a charge that was denied at the time. Nonetheless, if ethnic Greeks constituted a minority of Thessaloniki’s population of 157,000 in 1913, notes Mazower, by 1928, they were 75 percent of its population of 236,000.
By the start of World War II, Jews constituted less than 40 percent of the population – their numbers had declined from 93,000 to 53,000 -- meaning that there were fewer left to murder when the Germans occupied the city in 1941.