Thessaloniki Strives to Revive Its Jewish Past, but Encounters a New Form of anti-Semitism

More than 95 percent of Thessaloniki’s Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Today, the Greek city’s mayor is taking pains to restore a Jewish history that had also been eradicated.

Erika Perahia Zemour’s parents fell in love in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. A year later, they returned to her father’s ancestral city of Thessaloniki, two of the 1,000 or so Greek Jews who survived Auschwitz and made it back home.

But theirs was a bitter homecoming. “Why have you returned?” former friends and neighbors asked her parents, Zemour, 63, recalls. “Their homes had been looted, all their belongings gone. They only decided to stay here because they found other surviving relatives.”

Unlike the parents of Zemour, who heads the Jewish Museum in Greece’s second city, the vast majority of the once-vibrant Jewish community of Thessaloniki perished in the Holocaust: 96 percent of the city’s prewar Jewish population of 55-60,000.

The community now numbers fewer than 1,000 members and three synagogues. Many of them feel the physical extermination of Salonican Jews in the Holocaust was followed by a different kind of annihilation: The gradual imposition of almost total oblivion about the history, influence, and accomplishments of the city’s Jewry.

“It is indicative that travel guides of the city, published as late as 2005, present a history of Thessaloniki that starts with Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great, moves on to the Byzantine era, and then skips 400 years, going straight to the liberated Salonica,” says Zemour.

Giannis Tsouflidis

A Jewish city

The city was annexed to Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1913. But only a few modern-day Thessalonians know that when the Greek army entered the city victorious in 1912, it arrived in what was essentially a Jewish city.  

A Jewish Salonica family in 1917. The majority of Thessaloniki's residents were Jews at the time.

“The Jews were not a community; they had created a city. The boatmen were Jewish; the thieves were Jewish; the rich merchants were Jewish; the whores were Jewish. Ladino was spoken everywhere.” This is how Iosif Vaena – a pharmacist in Thessaloniki, whose family originally came to Greece from Spain after the Expulsion – describes the city at that time.

Vaena, 35, is a passionate researcher of the often arcane aspects of Salonica’s Jewry. He points out that it was even suggested that Thessaloniki become an autonomous Jewish city. The great powers of the time initially gave some thought to the idea, but in the end agreed to the annexation of Thessaloniki by Greece. 

In the early 20th century, Salonica’s 80,000 Jews formed the majority of the city’s population of 157,000. The city’s Jewry maintained 40 synagogues and 50 chapels, was active in all areas of the city’s economic and social life, and owned over half its total real estate.

It was during that time that David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi visited Thessaloniki, the former arriving in 1911 to study a functioning Jewish society that could serve as a model for the future state of Israel. 

Such was the influence of the city’s Jews that, before the Sunday rest was imposed by law in 1923 by the Greek government, all shops – both Jewish and non-Jewish – closed on the Sabbath and during Jewish holidays.

The first Jews are thought to have arrived in the region in 513 B.C.E., long before the founding of Thessaloniki in 315 B.C.E. by King Cassander of Macedon, who named it after his wife, Thessalonike, a half sister of Alexander the Great.

The apostle Paul would preach in the synagogue of those early Hellenized Jews, called Romaniotes. The presence of the Jewish community remained uninterrupted throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras, but took a dramatic turn in 1492 C.E., when an estimated 20,000 Sephardim found refuge in Ottoman Thessaloniki (or Salonica) after the Spanish Expulsion. Their community thrived for four centuries, earning Thessaloniki the moniker “Mother of Israel” and “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”

The demise of Salonica’s Jewry

After annexation to Greece, several events contributed to the demise of Thessaloniki’s Jewry. The great fire of 1917 destroyed the city center, where most of the Jews lived, forcing many to leave the country. Then the influx of 100,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor in 1923 turned Jews into a minority, for the first time in many generations.

Α decade of continuous retreat ensued: Jews were stripped of their right to vote in national elections; confined to two Jewish parliamentarians, elected in separate ballots; while a pogrom in 1931 was followed by an exodus to France and Palestine. The Holocaust delivered the final blow.

After the war, the city’s Jewish past remained hidden, an aberration to be overlooked. Even today, there are only a handful of places in Thessaloniki to remind its current population of 1 million of that Jewish past.

One is a modest monument honoring the victims of the Holocaust. The sculpture occupies an inconspicuous spot next to a gigantic parking lot in Freedom Square, where the Nazis rounded up the first group of Jews on March 15, 1943, before deporting them to the death camps.

On July 11 1942, 9,000 Jewish men aged 18-45 were ordered by the German army to come to Freedom Square to be registered for forced labor. Jews called the day "Black Sabbath." Photo by Bundesarchiv

A famous photograph of the roundup has immortalized that atrocity and is displayed prominently in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, next to the Bundestag. Sofia Christoforidou, a local journalist who visited the memorial recently, commented that “there are probably more Japanese who have seen the photograph in Berlin, than Thessalonians in their own city.”

Another site is the Jewish Martyrs’ Square, occupying a plot donated by the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, which has a number of offices responsible for specific sectors (running the synagogues and school, welfare, medical care). The street sign identifying the square is vandalized so often, the Jewish Community’s technical office always keeps a stockpile of spares.

A vandalised sign at Jewish Martyrs' Square, Thessaloniki. Photo by Iosif Vaena

The latest addition is a monument honoring the Thessalonian Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes, which was revealed earlier this month. It is situated at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The largest institution of tertiary education in Greece and the Balkans was built on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery that stood there for five centuries, the largest of its kind in Europe before being destroyed by the Greeks in 1942.

‘One of our own’ 

The silence about the Jews was suddenly broken recently when the Greek press reported triumphantly the name of the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano. “The Literature Nobel goes to one of ‘our own’,” declared the online edition of Greece’s best-selling weekly, Proto Thema, referring to the French novelist’s roots in Thessaloniki.

Indeed, Modiano’s father, Allen, descends from a family of Italian Sephardim who had lived in Thessaloniki for many years. One of the city’s landmarks, the Stoa Modiano – a beautiful bazaar – bears the family name. Two of the family’s villas have survived and are used as military and ethnographic museums. According to the local press, in 2007 a tavern inside the Stoa Modiano hosted a family reunion, with 140 participants representing various branches of the family from all over Europe.

A modest sculpture monument honoring the victims of the Holocaust. Photo by Giorgos Christides

But for many, the accomplishments of Modiano and other offspring from the city’s Jewish community – among them the Dassault family of the French industrial and media group; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy; and the Carasso family, which founded food giant Danone – should not be cause for celebration, but an opportunity for the city to reflect on the troubled history of its Jewish population and the persistent anti-Semitism of the wider Greek society.

According to a survey released in May 2014 by the Anti-Defamation League, Greece is the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, with 69 percent holding anti-Semitic views. Which is why, perhaps, the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki is the rare instance of a cultural institution in Greece that features a police sentry box outside its premises. The museum owes its embassy-style protection to the fact that it is considered a potential target for anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish demonstrators.

New mayor, new era

Thessaloniki mayor Yiannis Boutaris.

Thessaloniki mayor Yiannis Boutaris, who was first elected in 2010 and reelected earlier this year, has been the first major figure in Thessaloniki to take both concrete and symbolic steps to restore the city’s Jewish heritage. 

For Boutaris, the eradication was not only an insult to the Jewish community, but the city itself. “The political and ideological status quo propagated the view that Thessaloniki’s history is only ancient Greek and Byzantine. Unfortunately, this one-dimensional view resulted in the city losing its identity,” he says.

Boutaris advocates giving back Greek citizenship to those Jews who survived the Holocaust and fled Greece in the 1950s. He has also signed Thessaloniki up to the National Martyrdom Cities Network, and in 2013 he organized a Holocaust remembrance event in the city, the first of its kind there.

The mayor also plans to revamp Freedom Square and move its Holocaust monument to a more central and prominent place. 

In his speech at the unveiling of the university monument honoring the city’s annihilated Jewry, Boutaris did not hold back. “At long last, Thessaloniki can say openly that it feels ashamed: For the Thessalonians who collaborated with the conquerors; for the [Greek] neighbors [of Jews] who confiscated properties and betrayed those who tried to escape; and, above all, for the city authorities of the time, who agreed without hesitation to allow the municipal workers to destroy 500 years of memory and turn the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe into a place of the skull.”

These initiatives have also brought tangible benefits. Overnight stays from Israel increased by 358 percent in 2013 (compared to 2011), while French Jews regularly tour the city and the Salonika seder is a staple for Passover vacationers.

His most powerful gesture, however, came last August, when he wore the Star of David at his inauguration ceremony. “We sent a powerful message for the loss of 50,000 of our fellow citizens in the Holocaust, and the annihilation of millions of Jews in Nazi camps,” Boutaris explained. 

Erika Perahia Zemour, director of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. Photo by Giorgos Christides

Zemour says she owes Boutaris a lot. “He made me feel I had a place in the city again; I have endless love for him.”

As part of this new wave of historical awareness, public schools have been increasing their visits to the Jewish Museum. A record number of school visits was recorded in 2013, despite resistance by some parents and headmasters.

Those visible signs of change make Zemour optimistic. Her only regret is that her father and mother – who died in 1999 and 2007, respectively – cannot witness it. “It would have made them very happy. But unfortunately, change came too late for them."