Jerusalem of the Balkans
by Dr. Rena Molho
The time between
1850 and 1919 was the last period during which the city-state of Salonica,
or Thessaloniki as of 1913, depended on the local Jewish community. The
Jewish presence exercised a decisive influence on all the factors that
had an impact on the city’s physiognomy, not only during the last
sixty years of the Ottoman domination, but also during the first decades
of the Greek administration. During this time the Greek government, aiming
to establish its power, adopted policies that favoured the Jews. The Jews
of Salonica, representing the majority of the city’s population,
had not participated in the wars of national liberation conducted by the
Balkan minorities. Nevertheless, they had a great influence on the city’s
In the beginning of the 19th century the decadence that characterised
the Jewish community was reflected on the city. According to the French
consul, Salonica was a shadow of its past prosperity. Post 1850, however,
the penetration of the Great Powers in Macedonia, the changes in commerce
caused by the war in Crimea (1853-56) and the civil war in America (1861-1863)
turned Salonica into the “depository of Europe”.
The opportunities presented urged some Jewish community leaders to try
and take advantage of the urban renovations and the Ottoman Reforms, by
convincing their coreligionists, to contribute to the best of their capacity.
In this way the reorganization of the venerable Sepharadic community contributed
to the economic and cultural renaissance of Salonica. At the same time
the city confirmed its role as a “Metropolis of Israel”.
Almost all the travellers that visited Salonica in the 19th century reported
that the most impressive characteristic of this multinational city was the
numerical preponderance of the Jews. While the demographical data delivered
by these visitors and the censi are not always exact, it is significant
that they converge in their reports. They all confirm that the Jews represented
50-55% of the total population.
Fallmerayer who visited Salonica in 1842, suggested it should be named Samaria,
given that at the time there were 36,000 Jews among the 70,000 inhabitants.
According to a Greek schoolbook of 1882 (G.K. Moraitopoulos), in 1870 Salonica’s
population consisted of 50,000 Jews, 22,000 Muslems and 18,000 Orthodox
Christians. In the first census conducted by the Ottoman government between
1882-1884, the city’s population numbered 85,000 inhabitants, among
which 48,000 were Jews. But even in 1902, when the population increased,
the second Ottoman census once again showed that among the 126,000 inhabitants,
62,000 were Jews.
According to the first unpublished census conducted by the Greek government
in 1913, the Jews represented less than 50% of the population, even though
they remained the largest single group. It was reported that in a population
of 157,889 souls, 61,439 were Jews, 45,889 were Muslems and 49,956 were
Greek Orthodox Christians. There was also a small number of Bulgarians,
Levantines and Armenians. Finally, as was reported in the newspaper L’Independant
in 1919, in the census conducted by the Jewish Community after the Great
Fire in 1917, in a population of 170,000 souls Salonica numbered 90,000
Salonica’s particularity during this time is better comprehended when
compared with the 31 Jewish communities of other Greek towns. None had more
than 2,500-3,000 members. Furthermore, in other important Ottoman urban
centers such as Istanbul or Izmir, the Jews never rose above the 5-10% of
In addition to the
high number of its members, the Jewish community occupied the most favourite
part of the city. Until the fire of 1890, all the Jewish neighborhoods,
along with two Christian Orthodox and two Muslem ones, extended as far
as the northeastern part of Salonica, taking up the entire center of the
town and the seafront. Limited in size and densely populated, this area
was also the commercial center of the city, the “agora” or
marketplace and the port/ Many streets had Judeo-Spanish and sometimes
Turcified names, in honour of the local rabbis or synagogues such as Castillia
Havrasi Djadesi (Castillia Synagogue Street), Haham Asher, Haham Matalon,
Boyadji Davi (David the Painter). Several of them were still in use when
Salonica was annexed to Greece in 1913. The majority of the seventeen
Jewish quarters mentioned in the Ottoman fiscal registers also had Judeo-Spanish
names: Rogos, Pulia (Apulia), Baru (Barukh), Bedaron (Beit Aron), Malta,
Kulhan, Etz Haim, Aguda, Levyie. The only exceptions were the neighborhoods
of Aghia Sofia, Djedide, Tophane, Findik, Kadi, and Salhane Yeni Havlu,
which had Ottoman names.
The neighborhoods of the various congregations in most cases carried the
name of the main building that often was the most representative temple.
Thirty-two, among the one hundred synagogues of the Jewish neighborhoods,
could be considered as parochial or parish centers. While there was a
central communal administration as early as 1680, the parochial temples
preserved certain rights including the collection of taxes, the registration
of births. Members’ contributions covered the cost of their maintenance
and functioning. The following list of names and date of foundation shows
the national origin and the time of arrival of its members. At the same
time it confirms that Salonica, just as Istanbul, was for many years the
refuge for the Jews expelled from other places.
I. Communal Synagogues and Jewish Neighborhoods in Salonica till 1917.
ha Haim, Ier e. av.J.C.
ou Varnak, 1376
Italia Yashan, 1423
Gueruch Sfarad, 1492
Katallan Yachan, 1492
Kalabria Yachan, 1497
Sicilia Yachan, 1497
Mayorka Cheni,fin XVIe s.
Katallan Hadach, fin XVIe s.
Lisbon Yachan, 1510
Talmud Torah Hagadol, 1520
Lisbon Hadach 1536
Nevei Tsedek, 1550
Sicilia Hadach, 1562
Beit Aron, 1575?
Italia Hadach, 1582
Italia Cheni, 1606
Har Gavoa, 1663
Mograbis, XVIIe s.
of the ramparts of Salonica in 1866 and especially the fires of 1890 and
1917, destroyed the most important and the most densely populated part of
the commercial sector (2,000 - 10,000 buildings respectively) and forced
the Jews to disperse throughout the city. This change introduced a new dimension
into the Jewish character of Salonica.
At the same time, the introduction of trams in 1891, facilitated transport
in the commercial center and the port. Parallel to the foundation of new
neighborhoods, the creation of industries in the suburbs, most of which
were created by Jewish businessmen, absorbed a large number of Jewish workers
who moved into the area. The application of Ottoman Reforms of 1856, which
guaranteed equality among citizens and the new relations formed between
social groups that emerged from the city’s economic rebirth in the
end of the 19th century, contributed to the creation of mixed neighborhoods.
In the most aristocratic of the new mixed neighbourhoods, known as countryside
or Campagnas because they were located in the suburbs, Fakima Modiano the
wife of the wealthiest banker and benefactor Saul Modiano, built the biggest
synagogue in the city named Beit Shaoul. During this time the middle class
lived in the center of the city, between the Christian Orthodox neighborhoods
of Kamara and Saint Dimitrios, and in the new neighborhood Angelaki, renovated
by the municipality in 1917, in order to receive part of the 52,000 Jewish
fire victims. A new synagogue, Beit El, was built in the neighborhood of
Saint Dimitris, near the seafront (today Mitropoleos Street). The Jewish
Community founded two new neighborhoods, one in Vardari and one in Kalamaria,
in the two opposite ends of the city, to house the poor whose houses were
destroyed by the fire in 1890, and a third one near the railway station,
where thanks to the donation of Baron Moise de Hirsch, they were able to
accommodate the Russian Jews that fled the pogroms in Russia, in 1891. Among
the victims of the terrible fire of 1917 many working class Jews moved to
the neighbourhoods of Agia Paraskevi, Keramitsi and Karagatch, changing
in this way the areas’ national composition.
At the same time the Community bought the military camps nos. “6”
and “151” and the one named “Campbell” in 1918,
and founded the neighbourhoods for Jewish workers. The large number of working
class neighbourhoods reveals the social composition of the Jewish community,
characterised by an important working class (Table II).
II. The Professional Pyramid of the Jews in Salonica in 1919.
6,100 small merchants
7,450 office and shop clerks
7,750 craftsmen and workers
9,000 porters, dockers, boatmen and fishermen
Education and its Social and Political Impact
XIX century, the total absence of vocational and professional training
of the poor led the community into economic and social stagnation. Despite
their power, the rabbis had not been able to modernise education. Instruction
in the elementary schools attached to the synagogues was insufficient
from every point of view and regressing for lack of funds. The Talmud
Tora, a famous rabbinical academy founded in 1520, attracted a lot of
people, but not students. They were poor homeless families, settled in
the main building of the school out of despair. Furthermore, the educational
level of the rabbis-teachers, melamdim, remained extremely low. They were
totally inadequate as a result of an old rabbinical law granting hereditary
right to Talmud Tora teachers, not otherwise required to possess any diploma
before they could exercise such important functions. Moreover, they were
In the past, the Greek Christian immigrants from Europe had brought to
their country the principles of the Enlightenment. Similarly, it was the
westernized Jews who introduced the principles of modern education in
Salonica. Moise Allatini, a wealthy Jew of Italian descent, was among
the first benefactors who dedicated himself to the reorganization of the
educational system. He had acquired a western culture while studying medicine
in Italy. Allatini gained the support of a small group of progressive
Jews imbued with western ideas. By 1856, having gained rabbinical approval,
Allatini was successful in establishing a school fund, Hessed Olam (People’s
Wisdom) to finance the first Jewish western type school. It was organized
in 1856 by Dr. Lippmann, a progressive rabbi from France, who became the
headmaster in the Talmud Tora. Three years later, Lippmann was forced
to leave, having met with strong reaction from the local teaching rabbis.
The school closed down in 1861, but in the five years of its existence
it educated a group of youngsters who were now able of corresponding with
European firms and of improving their relations with their fellow citizens,
Christian orthodox and Moslem.
Increasingly, people were becoming aware of the benefits of education.
Foreign powers, wishing to expand their influence in Salonica, established
western type schools attended mostly by Jews. At the same time, private
schools appeared, reflecting the rise in demand for education.
In the meantime, in 1862, the Alliance Israelite Universelle , founded
in 1860 in Paris, began to establish the first secular Jewish schools
in the Empire. WHICH EMPIRE? Alliance education consisted of a combination
of secular and religious instruction, the study of a European language
and the local languages, as well as the teaching of a craft to poor students.
Ascher Covo, the Chief Rabbi of Salonica, had given his consent for the
creation of a modern school as early as 1864. He soon cancelled its creation,
however, for fear that it would be under the control of the French government.
The Alliance had no way of imposing itself in Salonica, though it had
already established both a local and a regional board by 1862-63. The
fact that the majority of the city’s multi-ethnic population was
Jewish, prevented the occurrence of anti-semitic incidents that had urged
the organisation’s intervention in other Jewish communities. Nothing
could be done while the rabbinical autocracy was in control of the community’s
policy. By 1873, however, havoc was created by the constant inflexibility
of the rabbis, who criticized the people for sending their children to
foreign schools while they themselves offered no alternative. The youth
reacted by shaving their beards and breaking the Shabbath and other Jewish
laws, ignoring the threats of excommunication. The controversy reached
its peak with the intervention of the Chief Rabbi who called the Turkish
police to arrest a French Jew publicly eating pork, taref. Obliged to
give satisfaction to the anger of the French Consul, the Turkish Vali
proceeded in revoking the rabbi’s right of arrest. From that day
on, the Chief Rabbi was no longer considered a temporal leader.
The progressive group wasted no time and the first French Jewish school
for boys, better known as Moise Allatini school, was opened in Salonica
in October 1873. The school fund, promptly reorganized as Sedaka ve Hessed
(Justice and Wisdom), provided for the first supplies. Evidently, besides
contributions, the new school similarly to all the others created by the
Alliance, was also supported by the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Jewish
Community, that had imposed a special tax on commerce. An additional source
of income came from tuition paid by about 60% of the students who could
afford it. The ideological understatement reflecting equal opportunity
for all and the responsibility of the rich for the development of their
society, constituted the guiding lines in the communal reorganization
and leadership, controlled now by laymen.
One of the largest and most beautiful buildings of the Jewish area was
rented and equipped to receive its first 200 students. By 1912, it reached
close to 1,000 students. To avoid violent reaction by the communities
of Istanbul, Edirne and Larissa, the Local Board employed the old teachers
for Hebrew and chose its students from private schools or from the poorer
layers of society. WHY A REACTION? The policy of accepting non-Jewish
students, was considered the best way of avoiding ethnic antagonism, commonly
observed in religious school children. Alliance’s initiative in
establishing a dialogue between the different ethnicities introduced new
moral values that benefited Salonica more than any other Ottoman city.
The beginning of the educational venture marked a return to the Golden
Age. Schools were founded one after the other in Salonica. In 37 years,
1873-1910, the Alliance alone created nine new schools of all levels.
Among them three were clearly vocational schools, while six out of nine
were girls’ schools.
The girls could not be excluded from the educational project since they
were destined to be mothers and therefore long time educators. The first
school for girls, occupying the space next to the boy’s school,
was founded in September 1874.
The popularity enjoyed by the schools allowed its founders to raise the
necessary capital that in 1876 bought them an imposing villa, conak. It
had a huge garden and spacious classrooms for the various subjects taught.
It also housed a kindergarden called Asile, established in 1881 with the
support of Baron’s Moise de Hirsch’s family. Kindergarden
children were taught while playing, according to the Pestalozzi educational
method, also applied in France. In the four years of elementary schooling
students were taught accounting, history and foreign languages. The language
of instruction was French, since this was the lingua franca in the Eastern
Mediterranean. Italian was also popular, especially in the Girls’
school, replaced by French in 1889. This limited variety, however, defined
only by commercial career requirements intensely pursued in Salonica,
did not meet the organisation’s aim to westernize the mores of the
oriental Jewish society. Following the specific suggestions of the Central
Board of the Alliance in Paris, the Salonica Jewish Community changed
its educational program substituting Ancient History with Ottoman History
The teaching of local history did not simply consolidate the patriotic
feelings of the students, but became a popular subject of conversation
between them and their parents, who were also introduced to the western
values of order and discipline acquired by their children at school. Other
subjects such as Arithmetic, Physics, Geography, Natural Sciences, World
and Jewish History and Religion were taught yearly. Optional subjects
such as Painting, Music and Gymnastics, were taught only if the day’s
schedule did not exceed 6-7 hours. In the Girl’s school, where Sewing,
Linear Painting and Home Economics were mandatory, the hours of the teaching
of Hebrew were reduced.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Salonica had reached an unprecedented
commercial development and foreign schools were encouraged to establish
separate commercial high school sections that attracted many Jewish students.
Modern Jewish schools felt obliged to follow this trend. In 1904, Joseph
Nehama organized and taught the commercial courses in the three higher
grades of the Boy’s school.
In 1910 when the schools were rebuilt, their high school sections were
officially recognized as establishments of secondary education, both by
local and European university authorities. Salonica’s schools were
thereafter considered to be model institutions among the 140 schools created
by the Alliance. This was due to the fact that some students reached their
graduation at 18. A small number of graduates continued their academic
studies in French and Swiss universities. This educated elite, sharing
the same motivation and ideals with other Alliance graduates, now for
the most part in commerce, joined with the latter to become the future
leadership of the community.
The Alliance, however, dictated that westernization of the oriental Jewish
society could only be obtained by transforming its social structure through
professional diversification. The poorer Jews in Salonica were still facing
enormous problems not being adequately represented in the crafts and limited
to exercising the most unhealthy and least lucrative trades. At the same
time, Christian Orthodox and other craftsmen settling in the city were
offering better quality products and reduced prices in all crafts. Therefore
vocational training of the lower classes, amounting to 80% of the Jewish
community, became imperative.
As of 1877, Salonica was the second city after Istanbul to acquire a vocational
school established by the Alliance. Twenty different crafts were taught,
but the long apprenticeship period required prevented poorer students
from completing the course. Attendance of needy students rose when the
Local Alliance Board and the Community resolved to provide a small monthly
allowance and a warm daily meal, thereby alleviating the burden of maintenance
carried by the parents. A set of tools to be received at the end of the
course encouraged the apprentices to complete their training and become
good artisans. In less than 10 years, Jewish artisans reached a level
that allowed them to work and earn money even while studying.
Salonica’s Jews were prejudiced against manual crafts since those
were underpaid compared to the commercial professions that offered a more
promising income after a shorter period of schooling. A number of means
were used to fight against this prejudice including a long newspaper campaign
and the creation of special societies such as Alliance at Work , the Association
des Anciens Eleves and the Club des Intimes, concentrating their activity
in promoting the craftsmen. The Association des Anciens Eleves created
its own apprenticeship division where, in special night school elementary
courses, workers learned to calculate the cost of different articrafts
and were taught to read the newspapers. The prestige acquired by the artisans
at the beginning of the 20th century was confirmed by their high class
customers as well as by the success of their Arts and Crafts exhibition
in 1909, the first to be organized in Salonica.
In 1887 the Alliance also established the first exclusive Vocational Girls’
School, which was immediately filled to capacity with 368 students. While
most girls did not receive any schooling being occupied mostly by sewing,
knitting and carpet weaving at home, they were eager to get out and change
their social status. In 1910, the popularity of vocational training led
to the foundation of another school called Nouvelle. At those institutions,
known as ateliers, girls learned to make hats, girdles and bras, as well
as dresses. The most capable amongst them became atelier head mistresses.
The success of the vocational schooling of the lower classes had its counterpart
in the creation of popular schools. In 1897 the Local Board of the Alliance
established 3 new schools in the working class neighbourhoods of Hirsch
and Calamaria. In 1904 it also took under its control one more school
for Girls, directed until then by the Crosby missionaries.
Evidently the advantages of the Alliance education had impressed the people
and soon everybody aspired to attend the new schools. Unable to withstand
the pressures of the Local Board and the Communal Council, Juda Covo,
Head of the Rabbinate in 1887, gave his consent for the reformation of
the Talmud Tora. Extra taxes were voted, one on Kosher meat and another
on the communal contribution, while everyone, rich and poor, non-Jews
and Jews, synagogues and the Alliance, raised money to assist the project.
The Talmud Tora teachers were now considered communal employees and were
paid regularly. The Headmaster of the Moise Allatini School organized
the progression of studies, the time schedule and divided the students
into 5 grades, to be raised to 8 in 1892, when the school was rebuilt.
Ottolenghi, a progressive Italian rabbi, became the Headmaster and deployed
great efforts to modernize the teaching of Hebrew through reading books
instead of chanting. He also introduced the teaching of Hebrew Grammar,
Italian, French, Arithmetic and even Turkish, but the resistance of the
old teachers (melamdim) did not allow the school to progress.
It was only in 1910 that the Talmud Tora underwent radical changes. Rabbi
Dr. Itshak Epstein, the new headmaster from France, believed that culture
should precede knowledge. He therefore adopted exactly the same courses
as were taught at the Alliance schools, while giving equal weight to the
teaching of Hebrew studies. The new educational attitude had also influenced
the religious kindergarden system.
The Alliance influence is also noticed in all the other schools of the
city that were interested in holding on to their Jewish students. Non-Jewish
schools, such as the Italian, but also private Jewish ones such as the
Altcheh, the Gattegno, the Ovadia, and the Pinto, opted for the French
Jewish educational method. By 1917, the Alliance had also taken under
its control all the communal schools of Regie Vardar, Calamaria, Aghia
Paraskevi, Vardar de Hirsch, “151”, Caragatch and “no.6”
quarters. The upkeep of their financial support depended on the three-monthly
report of the school inspectors who saw that the Alliance instructions
were duly followed.
Last but not least, by 1912 the Alliance extended its influence to the
private religious educational sector composed then of 28 one-room schools
(hedarim and hevroth), comprising 3,000 students, taught under deplorable
conditions. Twenty-four of the old schools merged into seven new establishments
following the Talmud Tora model. With the support of the Alliance, the
Ottoman government and the Jewish Community, the merged schools absorbed
2,250 students of which 780 were girls. They comprised 49 classes of 40
students each, taught by 67 male and female teachers, responsible for
kindergarten, elementary and high school education to be completed in
eight years of studying according to a specific schedule provided by the
By the beginning of the 20th century Jewish educational establishments
in Salonica had imposed French culture to such a degree that the French
considered them to be the most expedient centers of their propaganda.
French was even taught in the German Zionist school created by the Hilfsverein
in 1910, since a Zionist leader visiting Salonica had realized that the
local Jews had an irreversible respect for French civilization.
The “frenchification” of the Jews of Salonica confirmed their
faith in western ways and values. They were deeply attached to the Alliance
and felt indebted to it not only for its financial support, but also because
they were aware that if it was not for the organization educational uplift
they would neither have risen from their backward isolation, nor would
they be equipped to participate in the modernization of their hometown.
The Macedonian capital had indeed undergone a tremendous change by the
turn of the 20th century and was considered to be a modern commercial
center, second only to Istanbul. This has been mainly attributed to the
Jews who had become the force behind the city’s economic and social
activities. In the 35 years that the Alliance had operated in Salonica
it had succeeded in educating 8,500 children. The graduates often occupied
the best positions in the city’s banks, shops, administration and
services. The socio-professional transformation attained was revolutionary.
The Jews were now in every profession and were thereby represented in
all social strata. They were not simply responsible for the smooth functioning
of the city, but also determined its social and political dynamics. Until
1923, when the obligatory Sunday rest was enforced by law by the Greek
government, all Jewish or non-Jewish shops closed on the Shabbath and
on Jewish holidays. Between 1865 and 1918 more than 40 newspapers and
periodicals were published in Salonica. Among them thirty-five were in
Judeo-Spanish and five were in French. Thirteen of them, the most popular,
were satirical, nine were Zionist, nine were of general interest, five
were socialist and one of a “royalist” tendency (Table III).
Liberalism, as a result of westernization became of paramount importance
to the Jews. The success of the Young Turk revolution, first manifested
in Salonica in 1908, has been mainly attributed to their support. They
had developed their first Zionist associations such as the Kadima, 1897,
Macabi, Bnei Brit, Bnei Zion and Bnot Israel , Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl,
the Nouveau Club, Bialik, Geoula, Menora, Hatehya, Hashahar, Mevasseret
Zion and the Associacion de Jeunes Juifs in 1916. An equal number of assimilationist
associations asserts the pluralism of their society. Most importantly,
however, they were the main founders of the Socialist Federation of Salonica
(1909), the most prominent at the time in the Empire. The fact that it
drew its members from all the ethnicities in the city, reflects the good
inter-community relations that prevailed at the time in Salonica. A few
years latter this would facilitate the incorporation of the Jewish community
into the Greek state
III. The Jewish Press in Salonica, 1865-1941
CHARACTER OF CONTENT
1 El Lunar
3 El Avenir
4 Nuevo El Avenir
5 La Libertad
6 El Impartial
7 Jornal del Lavorador
8 La Nation (bimonthly)
9 El Tiempo
10 Tribuna Libera
11 Solidaridad Obradera
13 El Liberal
14 El Combate
15 Boz del Pueblo
16 El Progresso
17 La Esperanza
18 El Pueblo
19 La Rennassencia Judia
20 El Foburgo
21 La Verdad (La Verite)
content of Jewish interest.
S.Levy, local and international news.
M.Mallah, Zionist and commercial.
E.Arditti & E.Frances, Zionist, liberal.
M.Besantchi, of general interest
Union of Workers’ Federation.
M.Cohen, of Assimilationist orientation.
D.Matalon,O.Schiacky, Zionist, Nouveau Club.
A.Matarasso, L.Nefussi, of general interest.
I.D.Florentin, of Royalist propaganda
D.Matalon & D.Botton, organ of Bna'i Brit.
Zionist, organ of Zion. Feder. since 1919.
E.Arditti, M.Besantchi & E.Veissi, Zionist.
Organ of the Fire victims.
23 El Puntchon
24 Il Martio
25 El Tiro
26 El Chamar
27 La Vara
28 El Burlon
29 El Muevo Kirbatch
30 El Coulebro
32 La Trompeta
33 La Gata
I.Mordoch, I.Florentin & M.Matalon
35 El Maccabeo
Annual of the sports Zionist club Maccabi.
Le J. de Salonica
Progres de Salonica
39 Le Progres
40 Pro Israel
& D. Levy, of general and
Alb. Matarasso & V. Salaha, of zionist interest
A. Matarasso, Laz. Nefussi & M. Besantchi, of
D. Levy, general and commercial interest.
A. Recanati, zionist.
At the turn
of the 20th century the Jewish Community was governed by a General Assembly
of 70 members who were elected for 3 years by the tax-paying members of
the community made up of 10% of the male population. The candidates had
to pay a relatively large sum of money (100 piastras) in addition to the
communal tax, petcha, they had to be literate and at least 25 years old.
The General Assembly would normally be in session once or twice a year,
following a public announcement in the press; it embodied the legislative
power, approved the Community’s budget, the election of the Chief
rabbi and the seven members of the Religious or Spiritual Council-Ruhani,
and it settled all the affairs for which the communal constitution had
The governing board of the Community, known as the Communal Council, had
12 members and was elected by the members of the General Assembly who
were at least 30 years old. It had executive power, managed the current
affairs of the Community and convened every week. The Counseling Board
had 6 members appointed by the Communal Council from among the community
members who possessed foreign citizenship and were over 35 years old.
The Religious or Spiritual Council was composed of seven rabbis, had only
religious jurisdiction and convened when necessary. It appointed the members
of the religious courts in collaboration with the Chief Rabbi and the
Communal Council. Finally, the Financial Council-Gashmi administered the
Community’s economic matters and was accountable to the Ottoman
and, after 1913, the Greek authorities.
The Chairman of the Communal Council had the title of the President of
the Jewish Community and together with the Chief Rabbi, represented the
community to the judicial and governmental authorities of the state.
Communal Services and Clerks
The Communal administration was divided into four sections that consisted
of the following 15 subdivisions (Table IV):
Table IV: The
Communal Administration of the Jews in Salonica in the 20th Century.
1. Managing Director’s Office
2. Communal Secretariat
3. Assembly’s General Office
4. Office of Communal Tax
5. Chief Rabbinate
6. Chief Rabbinate’s Secretariat
7. Office of Accounts
8. Etat Civil
9. Cashier’s Office
10. Religious Courts :
b. Widows and Orphans
II. EDUCATIONAL MANAGEMENT
1. Inspector’s Office
III. FUNERAL SERVICE & MAINTENANCE OF CEMETARY
1. Manager’s Office
IV. MANAGEMENT OF JEWISH NEIGHBOURHOODS
personnel consisted of about 100 clerks, working in different services.
An additional 100 rabbis and clerks of the rabbinical body were teachers
of Hebrew, Jewish history, law, and tradition-halaha- in the local schools;
others were judges in the religious courts-dayanim-, circumcisers and
slaughterers -moelim and shohetim-, appreciators for Communal tax purposes-maarihim-,
cantors-hazanim- and finally others were in charge of the synagogues and
the talmudei tora.
In 1935 the Community’s services from 15 were reduced to 12 and
the Community’s personnel from 100 to 44 clerks. This number does
not comprise those performing religious functions.
Funds and Connunal Property
The petcha, communal
tax, was the main direct tax since it served as the basis for the communal
budget and was obligatory for all the members of the community over the
age of 21. Special employees, the maarihim, calculated it as a percentage
of the taxes that every Jew paid to the state. Other direct taxes were
related to inheritance, such as the 10% paid on the property inherited
by women. The tax on the dowry that the groom received in cash was determined
according to the size of the dowry. There was also a tax of 1% on imports
and exports conducted by Jewish merchants.
The gabelle was an indirect tax that was also one of the main sources
of income to the communal budget. It was a consumption tax on the different
food products requiring the Rabbinate’s approval for kashrut. The
gabelles gathered from the consumption of meat financed the educational
establishments; the gabelle on the wine was used for the salaries of the
rabbinical body; the gabelle on cheese was used for the medical and pharmaceutical
aid to the poor; the gabelle on the sugar and the matzot for Pessah paid
for the free distribution of these goods to the poor. Except for these
last gabelles, which were paid for directly by the consumers, all others
were paid by the merchants.
The Community’s personnel budget derived from the fees collected
by the various Communal services issuing documents such as marriage or
death certificates, marriage or circumcision licenses, or registration
in the Communal registers. When a Jew applying for a certificate was found
to be owing money to the Community, his application was not met until
he paid his debt.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Tanzimat reforms introducing individual
taxation, and the economic development that Salonica underwent during this
period, had a positive effect both on the Jewish population and on the Community.
Naturally, once the Community was relieved of its past tax obligations,
it was able to assemble sufficient funds to make interesting and long lasting
investments in real estate. This can be seen by the property appearing on
the list of Jewish communal buildings destroyed during the 1917 fire (Table
Table V. Destruction of Jewish Monuments in Salonika during the 1917 fire
VALUE IN DRACHMAS
Synagogues (all communal except one)
furniture and equipment
17 communal oratories
65 privately owned oratories
450 scrolls of parchment
1 Clinic (Meydan de Lube)
1 electrical bakery for making matzoth
10 rabbinical libraries
Buildings housing various philanthropic institutions
5 schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle
3 communal schools
5 yeshivot and 1 theological seminary
The “Association of the Alumni of the AIU” premises
Buildings of the “Club des Intimes”, “Nouveau
the “Kadima society” and 3 more sports associations
After the 1917
fire, however, the Community’s property was reduced to 750.000 drachmas
since the only buildings that were saved from destruction were the following(Table
VI. Jewish Communal Buildings Preserved after the Fire:
school of the Alliance israelite universelle «M.Allatini»
A plot of land of unknown size in the area of the Hirsch hospital
A plot of land where the Red Cross quarters were located until 1942
The Hirsch neighborhood in Kalamaria until 1942
The Hirsch school in Kalamaria
The Djedid Han until 1942
The Oriental passage until 1942
The Hirsch hospital until today
The plot of land of the railway station until 1942
The building of the Bank of Commerce until 1942.
The building of the Telegraph office until 1942.
The artesian wells
Another 3 Alliance schools
In 1924 the Community’s
income from real estate amounted to 1,750.000 drachmas. This fund was
used for medical and pharmaceutical aid to the poor whose number had increased
significantly after the fire. It also financed social, educational and
philanthropic institutions, the maintenance of synagogues and occasionally
projects for the restoration of the Communal property. The Community owned
plots of land in various locations in the city that amounted to a total
surface of 20,000 square meters worth 4,000,000 drachmas. It also owned
23,000 square meters in the burnt zone worth 23,000,000 drachmas. Unfortunately,
they did not possess the funds necessary for rebuilding. Neither were
they able to negotiate a loan until 1929.
Social Institutions of the Community
The Bikur Holim, a traditional institution, provided free medical and
pharmaceutical aid to the poor accompanied by volunteers who tended the
sick in their homes. In 1924, the Bikur Holim had under its care 15,000
poor. In the same year it had an income of 260,000 drachmas while its
expenditures reached 385,000, (its budget was 125,000 short). During the
interwar period, it possessed three clinics in Kalamaria, Vardar de Hirsch
and Pinhas, while the fourth one, in the center of town, had burned down.
The Charles Allatini orphanage established in1908, had 35 residents in
1920. In 1924 its income was 130,000 drachmas while its expenditures were
150,000, ( its budget presented 20,000 drachmas loss).
The Kupat Yetomot, a fund for providing dowries to poor Jewish girls had
an income that derived from a tax of 10% on legacies inherited by women
and of the 1-2% tax charged on dowries. In 1923 a new orphanage for girls
was established by a donation from the philanthropist Meir Aboav who gave
his name to the institution.
The Matanot Laevionim, founded in 1901, provided a warm meal to poor students
and orphans. In 1920, it had 850 students of various Communal institutions
in its care. In 1924, the Matanot possessed a central hall for the distribution
of meals and had four other departments in the Jewish working class neighbourhoods
of the city. In the same year its income was 115,000 drachmas while its
expenditure reached 145,000 drachmas ( a loss of 30,000 drachmas). During
W.W.II, assisted by the Red Cross, the Matanot distributed daily hot soup
and 250 grams of milk to 5,500 children.
There was, however, such a great number of poor Jews in Thessaloniki that
the Communal resources did not suffice to assist everybody’s needs.
These were, in part, met by a respectable number of other institutions
established through private initiative, such as the Hevra Zdaka ve Hessed,
created by the great philanthropist Moise Allatini, the women’s
association Bienfaisance, the Alumni of the Italian School, the Agudah
Ezra le Yoldoth, the Agudah Yeshoua ve Rahamim, Tsror ha Haim and many
It seems that at the beginning of the 20th century the economic situation
of the Jews of Thessaloniki improved sufficiently to enable most of them
to contribute towards the creation of the most important and well equipped
hospital in the East. This was the famous Hirsch Hospital inaugurated
in 1908 with 40 beds reaching 80 in the interwar period. Half of these
were kept for the free hospitalisation of the poor, while the rest were
for paying patients . The hospital consisted of various departments such
as General Pathology, Surgery, Gynecology, Skin and Venereal Diseases,
Ophthalmology and ORL.
In 1924, the Hirsch hospital had a budget of 360.000 drachmas, but its
expenses rose to 450.000 creating a deficit of 90.000 drachmas. During
the First World War it was transformed into a military hospital. In 1919
it was returned to the Community. At the end of the Second World War with
the destruction of the local Jewish community, the hospital was sold to
the Greek State on condition that the main donator’s name, Clara
de Hirsch, would be preserved at the entrance. In 1908, a small clinic
for the mentally ill, known as Asile des Allienes, was established by
a group of intellectuals. In 1924 with a budget of 120,000 drachmas for
25 inmates, it had a deficit of 30,000.
Another philanthropic association was the Community’s Hevra Kadisha
comprising volunteers, who took part in the burial of the dead, assisted
by some of the personnel working in the synagogues. The poor were buried
To understand the social situation of the Jews of Thessaloniki, one ought
to take into account the number of Jewish working class neighbourhoods that
were created to house the homeless victims of the 1890 and 1917 fires. In
fact, most of the Community’s funds were allocated for the creation
and the maintenance of these 8-9 neighborhoods that were equally spread
to the east and the west of the city’s suburbs. Most of the inhabitants
could not even afford to pay the minimal rent that ranged from 60 to 400
drachmas, the price of one kilo of meat. Tables VII, VIII & IX describe
the state of the inhabitants, the budget and the quality of construction
in these neighbourhoods during the 1920s.
Table VII. The 285 Families in Vardar de Hirsch in 1897
54 poor, able to
pay only a small part of the rent
families (former merchants),
hardly able to afford half the rent
[93 families paying part of the rent]
85 widows, deprived
of all means of existence who could not afford their yearly rent.
45 disabled, supported
by public charity.
62 Russian refugee
families, exempted from rent.
[192 families depending entirely on charity]
VIII. Budget of the Vardar de Hirsch Neighborhood in 1897 in Fr. Franks
Alliance Israelite Universelle contribution
of Boy’s school personnel
of Girl’s school personnel
Educational material and school repairs
Repairs to housing
Salaries of rent collectors, doctors, pharmacies
and care expenses for the sick
Table IX. Jewish Neighborhoods Following the 1917 Fire
State property houses:
houses hastily built from wood
45 detached brick buildings comprising 2 apartments of 2 rooms each
houses comprising 1,028 rooms in brick, 228 of them made into kitchens
50 houses in brick, consisting of 4 rooms each
6 houses in brick, composed of 3 apartments of 3 rooms each and
3 solid wooden constructions in double partition
75 wooden constructions and a great number of constructions in brick
According to the
information in Table IX, most of the families lived in one room, while there
must have been cases where two families shared one single room. By 1920,
however, there was an elementary school, a synagogue, a medical center,
public baths and a communal supermarket in every neighbourhood. Furthermore,
the Community appointed special committees who, in collaboration with the
inhabitants, supervised cleanliness and order. This organisational ability
testifies to an additional aspect of the long tradition that helped this
community confront and solve its problems efficiently in times of crisis.
from a Multinational Empire to a National State
In 1913, the annexation of Salonica by Greece was viewed with some apprehension
by the Jews as the city would be cut-off from its vast Macedonian hinterland,
lose its commercial importance in the Balkans and become a border town within
the Greek national state. As the propaganda of the neighbouring countries
coveting Salonica tried to gain the Jewish population on its side, the Community
took action officially sending its proposals to the Great Powers explaining
that to safeguard its interests, Salonica ought to become an international
At first, this plan was given serious consideration since it also served
the interests of both the Great Powers and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
But at the end of the second Balkan war, this changed and the Great Powers
agreed to the annexation of Salonica by Greece. The International Zionist
Committee then urged the Community to give its allegiance to the Greek
government since it had kept its promise for a fair treatment of the Jewish
In 1914, the Community decided to accept Greek sovereignty and presented
the Greek state with a memorandum requesting certain priviledges that
safeguarded the preservation of its cultural identity. Impressively, all
the requests were temporarily satisfied. Within the Greek state the Jews
were enjoying the same civil rights as all the other Greeks. The festivities
organised throughout the city in November 1918 to celebrate the first
anniversary of the Balfour declaration and the joy that accompanied these
activities, with no equal in any of the Jewish communities in Europe,
reveal the Jewish character of Salonica.
The fact that, while the city was becoming Greek, the community affirmed
its cultural identity and at the same time maintained its social and economic
equilibrium confirms the exceptional character of the Jewish presence
in Salonica. This is what in the past had urged great Zionist leaders,
such as Ben Gourion, Ben Zvi and Jabotinski, to visit what they considered
to be a model of a Jewish city that could inspire them in Palestine.
The Great Fire of 1917 and the arrival of 100.000 Greek refugees that
settled in Thessaloniki after the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1923, reduced
the importance of the community and during the interwar period its members
represented only 20% of the city’s population. But even though they
were turned into a minority, the Jews in Thessaloniki continued to be
active in every domain.
Thessaloniki’s most ancient Jewish community stopped its continuous
development only with the arrival of the Nazis, who eliminated 96% of
its population and succeeded in destroying its cultural wealth and monuments.
They looted the Community’s archives and religious treasures, bombed
most of its 60 synagogues and schools, desecrated its 400,000 Jewish graves
cemetery and murdered almost 50,000 Jews living in the city in 1943.
Today, the Jewish community has less than 1,000 members and maintains four
synagogues, an elementary school, an old people’s home and a Jewish
club. Following their long tradition, the Jews of Thessaloniki participate
in the economic and cultural life of their city and try to keep alive the
spirit of their forefathers through lectures, symposia and concerts that
draw a very wide attendance. A Jewish Museum and Research Center have been
recently founded to help preserve the vestiges of a way of life that is
today a memory.