The Jerusalem of the Balkans
Salonica 1856-1919
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 historical development.
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 Jews.
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 the population.

The Jewish neighborhoods

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.

Table I. Communal Synagogues and Jewish Neighborhoods in Salonica till 1917.

Ets ha Haim, Ier e. av.J.C.
Achkenaz ou Varnak, 1376
Mayorka, 1391
Provincia, 1394
Italia Yashan, 1423
Gueruch Sfarad, 1492
Kastilia, 1492-3
Aragon, 1492-3
Katallan Yachan, 1492
Kalabria Yachan, 1497
Sicilia Yachan, 1497
Mayorka Cheni,fin XVIe s.
Katallan Hadach, fin XVIe s.
Apulia, 1502
Lisbon Yachan, 1510
Talmud Torah Hagadol, 1520
Portugal, 1525
Evora, 1535
Estrug, 1535
Lisbon Hadach 1536
Otranto, 1537
Ichmael, 1537
Tciana, 1545
Nevei Tsedek, 1550
Yahia, 1560
Sicilia Hadach, 1562
Beit Aron, 1575?
Italia Hadach, 1582
Italia Cheni, 1606
Shalom, 1606
Har Gavoa, 1663
Mograbis, XVIIe s.

The demolition 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).

Table II. The Professional Pyramid of the Jews in Salonica in 1919.

750 professionals
1,900 businessmen
6,100 small merchants
7,450 office and shop clerks
7,750 craftsmen and workers
9,000 porters, dockers, boatmen and fishermen

Modern Education and its Social and Political Impact

During the 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 seriously underpaid.
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 in 1886.
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 Alliance.
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

Table III. The Jewish Press in Salonica, 1865-1941
Judeo-Spanish Newspapers

1 El Lunar
2 La Epoca
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
12 Avanti
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)

J.Nehama, content of Jewish interest.
S.Levy, local and international news.
M.Mallah, Zionist and commercial.
D.I.Florentin, Zionist.
E.Arditti & E.Frances, Zionist, liberal.
M.Besantchi, of general interest
Union of Workers’ Federation.
M.Cohen, of Assimilationist orientation.
I.D.Florentin, Antizionist.
D.Matalon,O.Schiacky, Zionist, Nouveau Club.
Ch.Amon, Socialist.
A.Benaroya, Socialist.
A.Matarasso, L.Nefussi, of general interest.
A.Benaroya, Socialist.
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.
I.Schiacky, Socialist.
Judeo-Spanish Satirical Journals
22 El Kirbatch
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
31 Charlo
32 La Trompeta
33 La Gata
H.Ch.Alvo, I.Cohen
I.Mordoch, I.Florentin & M.Matalon
34 Guerta d'Istoria
35 El Maccabeo
Sh.Eliezer Bensantchi(Almanach).
Annual of the sports Zionist club Maccabi.
French Newspapers

36 Le J. de Salonica

37 Le Progres de Salonica
38 L'Independant

39 Le Progres
40 Pro Israel




V.Cohen(Sheridan) & D. Levy, of general and
literary interest.
Alb. Matarasso & V. Salaha, of zionist interest
A. Matarasso, Laz. Nefussi & M. Besantchi, of
general interest.
D. Levy, general and commercial interest.
A. Recanati, zionist.

The Communal Administration

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 no provision.
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 :
        a. Divorces
        b. Widows and Orphans

  1. Inspector’s Office
  2. Secretariat

  1. Manager’s Office

  1. Accountant

The Community’s 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.

Communal 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.

The Communal Property

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 V).

Table V. Destruction of Jewish Monuments in Salonika during the 1917 fire in Drachmas.

32 Synagogues (all communal except one)
Synagogue 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 Club”
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):

Table VI. Jewish Communal Buildings Preserved after the Fire:

The school of the Alliance israelite universelle «M.Allatini» till 1942.
A plot of land of unknown size in the area of the Hirsch hospital until 1931
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
One synagogue.

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.

The 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 others.
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 for free.
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
         39 impoverished 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]

Table VIII. Budget of the Vardar de Hirsch Neighborhood in 1897 in Fr. Franks


Rent of houses
Rent of shops
Communal contribution
Alliance Israelite Universelle contribution


Salaries of Boy’s school personnel
Salaries 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
Students clothing



Table IX. Jewish Neighborhoods Following the 1917 Fire





State property houses:


Aya Paraskevi



Ex-Nereshkine hospital

Ex-hospital “151”










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 a kitchen

3 solid wooden constructions in double partition

75 wooden constructions and a great number of constructions in brick and cement


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.

Salonica: 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 city.
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 population.
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.