Jews of Thessaloniki
by Yakov Benmayor
It is believed
that Jews from Alexandria, who arrived in 140 BCE, were among the first
Jews to settle in Thessaloniki. During the Hellenistic period a Jewish
community was formed. They concentrated in an area near the port of the
city. The center of their social and religious lives was their synagogue,
Etz haHayim. Legend has it that the apostle Paul preached for three consecutive
Sabbaths in this same synagogue before he was forced to leave town.
granted autonomy to the Jewish community whose members lived in various
parts of the town and were not concentrated anymore around the port. They
are traders, craftsmen but also farmers and silk growers. The supreme
leader of the community is the Rabbi who, assisted by 6 notables, deals
with the everyday needs and duties of its members.
The Jews of Thessaloniki during the Roman and later the Byzantine periods
had Greek names and spoke Greek. This ancient community came to beknown
as the "Romaniotes".
splitting up of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, Thessaloniki became the second
most important city - after Constantinople - in the Byzantine Empire. The
Byzantine emperors, in their efforts to "Christianize" their subjects,
were hostile to the Jewish communities in their territory. Constantine the
Great and Theodosius the 2nd enforced anti-Jewish laws. Justinian the 1st
prohibited public fulfillment of the mitzvot (religious commandments). He
prohibited the recitation of the Shema’ and in his famous Codex Justinianis,
Jews are branded as second class citizens. He even decreed that Pessah must
be celebrated after the Greek Orthodox Easter. Basil the 1st, the Macedonian,
and Leo the 3rd, the Philosopher, forced the Jews to convert or leave the
country. One of the very few emperors who acted favorably toward the Jews
was Alexius I Comnenus, who during the First Crusade alleviated their taxes.
spite of the hardships they suffered during the Byzantine period, the
Jewish community of Thessaloniki flourished. Most of the Jews were merchants,
engaging especially in the silk trade. In 1169, the famous Jewish traveler,
Benjamin of Tudela, visited Thessaloniki and mentions that at that time
there was a thriving community of about 500 Jews or Jewish families in
second half of the 14th century Thessaloniki attracted Jews, among the
first being Hungarian Jews in 1376. In 1423 Andromachos, the governor
of Thessaloniki, sold the city to the Venetians. The Venetians either
out of religious fervor or out of pure commercial reasons imposed heavy
taxes on the Jews, causing another emigration of quite a few Jews of Thessaloniki
to more hospitable areas. Those who remained though, being an organized
community, sent a special delegation to Venice to convince them to alleviate
the burden. The outcome of the efforts of this delegation is not known
today. It is well known however that the change in their status and their
living conditions came from another source altogether:
the Turks occupied Thessaloniki. Sultan Murad the 2nd had personal experience
of the beneficial effects a Jewish population could have in his kingdom,
since he had many Jewish advisors and doctors. He therefore declared that
he favored the return of any Jews who were obliged to leave Thessaloniki
in the last years. At approximately the same time Jewish refugees from
Eastern Europe started arriving in the city. Rabbi Yitzchak Tsarfati from
Hungary describes the living conditions in the Ottoman Empire in one of
his letters to his friends in Hungary:
Germany, my brothers, you cannot dress as you wish. They force you to
be untidy and miserable. They beat you, they pelt you with stones, they
convert you by force, they persecute you and take away all your belongings...
. In Turkey, on the other hand, you can dress anything you wish, even
gold or silver made. You are treated magnanimously, you can have anything
you wish and everyone has a roof over his head... . Oh Israel, abandon
this cursed land, leave this Hell of yours and come here to reap the fruits
of the heritage the Lord gave to us, come here to rest and live in peace.
In 1470, after a pogrom, Bavarian Jews arrived in Thessaloniki and formed
the Ashkenazi community near the existing Romaniote one. The two communities
differed in every aspect: clothing, eating habits, religious rites, prayer
books, etc. The Ashkenazi community continued to exist until the beginning
of the 20th century and its members were not fully assimilated into the
other Jewish groups in Thessaloniki.
In 1492, Ferdinand
and Isabella, the monarchs of Spain, signed the edict of expulsion ordering
all Jews to leave their kingdom. The Italian Jewish writer, Yoseph haKohen,
writes in mid-16th century.
armies of the Lord left, the refugees of Jerusalem who lived in Spain,
this cursed land, in the fifth month of the year 5252, that is 1492. From
there, they dispersed to the four corners of the earth. They left from
the port of Cartagena in 16 big ships full of a multitude of men, on a
Friday, the 16th of the month Av. And leaving the cities of the King,
what did they do? They went where the winds guided them: to the lands
of Africa, Asia, Greece and Turkey. And they live there until today.
After the expulsion from Spain and Portugal, great numbers of Jews streamed
into the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Bayazid issued an order to the governors
of the provinces not to refuse entry to the Jews or cause them difficulties,
but to receive them cordially. He even made the now famous remark that
the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) were considered wise, but
wrongly so, since they impoverished Spain (by the expulsion of the Jews)
and enriched Turkey.
the 15th and 16th centuries many Jews expelled from Spain, Portugal, Italy,
Sicily, and France, and refugees from North Africa, settled in Thessaloniki.
The largest numbers came in 1492/93 and 1536. Once in Thessaloniki, they
founded separate synagogues (congregations) kahal kadosh). These synagogues
were named after their native countries or towns: Castilia, Catalan, Aragon,
Majorca, Lisbon, Sicilia, Calabria, Puglia, Provincia etc.
Thessaloniki also received Marranos who were expelled from Portugal. The
Marranos were Jews from Spain and Portugal who preferred to convert instead
of leaving their countries. They continued however to practice Judaism
in secret. In fact, every time they had to enter a Catholic church for
Mass they said to themselves:
I worship not the wood, nor the stone but only God who rules the Universe
The Spanish Inquisition however, found out that these converts were not
real Catholics, therefore, they also were forced to leave. The arrival
of the Marranos caused various religious and social problems in the Jewish
Communities of Thessaloniki. They were regarded by the exiles from Spain
as inferior because they had converted. As early as 1514 though, the rabbinical
authorities of Thessaloniki had to issue a special haskamah (ruling) by
which the Marranos were regarded as Jews in every respect. In 1555, when
the Marranos from Ancona were persecuted by Pope Paul IV, the Jewish merchants
of Thessaloniki decided to boycott Ancona and incited the Jewish merchants
all over the Ottoman Empire to follow them in their act
century Thessaloniki had become the Jewish center of Europe. Persecuted
Jews from all over Europe come to Thessaloniki to live a normal life.
Says Samuel Usque, a Jewish poet of Marrano descent:
you are city and mother of Israel. Ir vaEm beIsrael. You are the faithful
tree of Torah and labor, full of flowers and imposing trees to glorify
Israel. Your land is fertile, watered by the rivers of compassion and
hospitality. It is here that any deprived or poor soul, persecuted from
Europe and other places in the world, will find refuge and consolation
and you will receive them compassionately like a mother, mother of the
people of Israel, like Jerusalem in the days of her glory.
It is estimated that by 1553 there were 20,000 Jews in Thessaloniki. The
location of the city and the fact of it being a port-constituting a key
point on the international trade route between the East and the West-helped
attract settlers. Merchandise from the East came to Thessaloniki and from
there it was transferred to the West and vice versa. The Jewish immigrants
maintained their relations with their coreligionaries and colleagues in
their countries of origin-France, Flanders, Egypt, and especially with
the Italian ports, above all Venice.
At that time, t here were three main concentrations of Jews in Thessaloniki:
a quarter next to the city wall at the port, that is, very close to the
main artery of trade; the Francomahalla, which means, the quarter of the
"Francos" (foreigners from Europe), which presumably consisted
of the elite of the Jewish inhabitants; and the quarter near the hippodrome,
which was primarily Greek. Thus, the Jews did not live near the Turks,
the rulers of the town who lived in the upper parts of the town. To stress
their dominant status, the Turks even issued a decree that the houses
belonging to the Jews had to be at least 2 meters lower than the Turkish
Jews of Thessaloniki engaged in the crafts, and the city became famous
for its Jewish weavers and silk and wool dyers. Nearby there were gold
and silver mines and many of the miners were Jews. There were also Jewish
farmers and fishermen, professions that were not be found among the Jews
in the rest of Europe mainly because they were not allowed to by the local
The organization of Jewish life in Thessaloniki was of a special character:
There were about 30 independent congregations which sometimes associated
themselves as a voluntary body that took care of the common interests
of the congregations. The takanot, the rulings, issued by this body had
to be accepted by every congregation for them to be valid. They included
women's rights, ethical matters, religious matters, etc. These takanot
were based on those of Toledo, Aragon, and Castile.
The heads of each community were called parnassim, memunim, nivrarim,
and anshei ma'amad, and were elected by all the members of each congregation.
A committee elected by the parnassim of each congregation decided what
proportion of taxes each congregation had to pay to the Turkish authorities,
according to the number of members and their financial state. Women, orphans,
and the poor were exempt from taxes.
Each congregation had the following communal organizations: hevra kadisha,
which was also called hevrat kevarim (burial society); gemilut hassadim
(philanthropic organization); bikur holim (sick wards); yeshivah (religious
school); and bet din (religious court). The religious head of each kahal
kadosh was the marbits torah or hakham shalem, who was elected for a limited
period of time and usually came from the town or country of origin of
the kahal kadosh. The marbits torah who taught at the yeshivah of the
congregation, was usually also its dayyan (religious judge), and delivered
sermons on Sabbaths and holidays. Jews were forbidden by the halakhah
(Jewish Law) to go to the Turkish authorities for matters pertaining to
inheritance and ketubot (marriage deeds). In mid-16th century a central
talmud torah (religious school) was founded, and served as a center for
education and later as an administration center common to all the congregations.
Thessaloniki became a center of Torah learning and attracted many students
the 16th century there were numerous important rabbis whose influence
spread beyond the borders of Thessaloniki and even the Ottoman Empire.
Among the most prominent were: Solomon Alkabez, the author of Lekhah Dodi;
Isaac Adarbi, the author of Divrei Rivot and Divrei Shalom, Moses Almosnino,
the author of many important works; and Samuel di Medina ("RaSHdaM"),
who left over 1,000 responsa and is considered among those halakhic authorities
whose decisions both in halakhah and in practice are very reliable.
Thessaloniki was also renowned as a center of Kabbalah, second only to
Tsfat. In addition to the rabbinical schools in Thessaloniki in the 16th
century, there was a bet midrash (school) for piyyutim (religious poetry)
and singing, as well as a bet midrash for secular studies where medicine,
natural sciences, astronomy, and other subjects were taught. The renowned
physician, Amatus Lusitanus, taught in that school when he settled in
Thessaloniki in 1558.
In the beginning
of the 17th century the city suffered from plagues and fires (1604, 1609,
1610, 1618, 1620), causing emigration; nevertheless, by the middle of
the century there were about 30,000 Jews, or half of the total population
of the city. Trade continued to flourish in spite of the drop in Venetian
trade, which resulted from the loss of Crete to the Turks in 1669. The
Jews continued to export grain, cotton, wool, silk, and textiles. Many
Jewish women worked in growing tobacco and in its industry. At the same
time fewer and fewer Jews worked in the crafts. Toward the end of the
century a decline in commercial activities took place as a result of the
decline of the Ottoman Empire, which had entered a state of continuous
war with various countries and peoples.
of all these troubles Thessaloniki remained a center of religious studies
and halakhah. The famous halakhic authority R. Hayyim Shabetai (d. 1647),
author of the Torat haHayyim, lived in the city during the first half
of the 17th century; other important religious authorities included Aaron
Cohen Perahyah, the author of Parah Matteh Aharon, and David Conforte,
author of Kore ha-Dorot. Thessaloniki became also an international center
of Jewish Printing. As early as 1512, Don Judah Gedalia printed in Thessaloniki
a Tanach, with perushim (explanations) of Rashi and Onkelos. The Soncino
family moved to Thessaloniki in 1525 and printed here their famous complete
Soncino Talmud. In later years, the community itself organized its own
associations to publish sidurim (prayer books). One of those associations,
established in mid-19th century, the Etz-haHayim society, exists until
today continuing to publish books of Jewish interest.
most influential event for the Jewish community in the 17th century was
the appearance of the pseudo-messiah Shabetai Zevi. Expelled from Izmir,
he arrived in Thessaloniki in 1657. In the beginning, he was very well
treated, and he preached in the Shalom synagogue; but when he declared
that he was the true messiah, he was expelled after a decision made by
the most important rabbis of the town. Later, he converted to Islam, and
13 years after his death, in 1683, a group of believers-some 300 Jewish
families-also converted to Islam. This sect was called the Doenmeh (in
Turkish "apostates") and their religious center was in Thessaloniki,
from which they spread to Constantinople and other places. Shabetai Zevi's
passage from Thessaloniki and the conversion that ensued caused turmoil
among the Jews in Thessaloniki.
In 1680 the 30 congregations merged into one, with a supreme council composed
of three rabbis and seven dignitaries. The three rabbis were elected for
life and could not be replaced unless all three died. The first triumvirate
was composed of Moses b. Hayyim Shabbetai, Abraham di Boton, and Elijah
Kovo. Another important step was the reorganization of all the rabbinical
courts into three bodies along the following lines: matrimonial; rents,
possessions (hazakot); and ritual matters (issur ve-heter). Each bet din
was composed of three rabbis who were elected by the triumvirate; they
were known for their impartiality and many Muslims and Greeks preferred
to try the cases they had with Jews in these courts instead of the Turkish
the 18th century, as the Ottoman Empire declined, the community's economic
situation worsened, and French merchants began to gain control of various
business sectors. In 1720-30 Portuguese Marranos, called "Francos,"
emigrated to Thessaloniki. Most of them were well educated and among them
were merchants and bankers. They did not pay taxes to the sultan since they
were considered as interpreters of the consuls. In the beginning they also
refused to pay the relevant taxes to the Jewish community, but after a decision
by its central committee, they acceded to the community's demands. The Jewish
population at that time was between 25,000 and 30,000. Nevertheless, both
religious and secular studies declined, and only study of the Kabbalah still
the second half of the 19th century the Turkish governors of the city initiated
a further expansion of the town. A new port was built in 1889, which helped
to develop trade. European culture and technology also began to flow into
Thessaloniki. Signs of this "westernization" became apparent among
the Jewish inhabitants also. In 1873 the Alliance Israelite Universelle
established a school, and additional schools along Western standards were
who had studied in Europe helped to eliminate epidemics. Westernization
helped in the development of trade, and in 1886 the Bank of Thessaloniki
was founded. As a result of this westernization liberalism became paramount
among the Jews of Thessaloniki. Nevertheless, this did not undermine the
traditional ways of the community and many new yeshivot were established.
The Hevrat Kadimah-for the spreading of the Hebrew language-was founded
in 1899, and the well-known teacher Isaac Epstein was brought to Thessaloniki
to teach Hebrew. The Jewish Press made its appearance as early as 1864 with
El Lunar and later in 1875 with la Epoca that was quickly followed by El
Avenir. These newspapers were written in Judeo-Spanish. Many more newspapers,
literary magazines and bulletins of various religious or Zionist organizations,
written in Judeo-Spanish, French, Hebrew and Greek continued to appear until
the beginning of World War II.
In 1887 Rabbi Jacob Kovo replaced the rabbinical triumvirate and was appointed
to the post of hakham bashi (chief rabbi). In 1900 there were approximately
80,000 Jews in Thessaloniki (out of a total population of 173,000).
1908, when the Young Turks rose against Sultan Abdul Hamid II, many Jews
were in their numbers. One of the first actions of the Young Turks when
they came to power was the recruiting of all non-Muslims into the Turkish
army. As a result many young Jews left Thessaloniki and emigrated to the
U.S. in order to avoid serving in the Turkish army. Since the Jews believed
that the new government was more liberal and tolerant than the former one,
they openly organized socialist and syndicalist movements. At the same time
the first Zionist organizations, Agudat Bnei Zion and Maccabee, appeared
in Thessaloniki. By the eve of World War II there were more than 20 Zionist
The Young Turk revolution marked a new "golden" era for the Jews
of Thessaloniki. Jews could be found in every profession: traders, tobacco
workers, lawyers, physicians, teachers, but also port workers. On Sabbaths
the city and the port came to a standstill since the Jews did not work.
In 1933, 300 seamen, stevedores, and porters and their families emigrated
to Palestine and settled in Haifa. Over the years other families from Thessaloniki
joined them. In 1936 some of them moved to Tel Aviv and laid the foundations
of the port there.
When the Greek army entered the town in 1912, King George of Greece declared
that Jews and all other minorities were to have the same rights as the Greek
population. After the Balkan Wars (1912-13), Thessaloniki could no longer
be used as the port for the Balkan states. Nevertheless, trade continued
to flourish since during World War I Thessaloniki became a center for the
soldiers of the Allied forces.
In 1917 a great fire destroyed most of the town, leaving some 50,000 Jews
homeless. The Greek government, which followed a policy of hellenizing the
town, was ready to compensate the Jews whose houses were destroyed, but
it refused to let the Jews return to certain parts of the town, causing
many of them to leave the country and emigrate to the U.S., England, France,
Italy, and Alexandria. In 1922 a law (no. 236) was enacted which forced
all the inhabitants of Thessaloniki to refrain from working on Sundays,
thus causing another wave of emigration. Some went to Palestine, while most
emigrated to Paris where they founded an important community.
1931, the Campbell riots, which accompanied the elections and were anti-Semitic
in tone, took place. Armed hooligans burned to the ground an entire Jewish
neighborhood consequently most of the Jews who lived in the Campbell neighborhood
left after the riots for Palestine. In 1935 there were nearly 60,000 Jews
in Thessaloniki, and in spite of the drop in Jewish population from the
turn of the century and all the riots and fires, the Jews continued to maintain
their status in the economic activity of the city. They integrated, more
or less successfully, in the Greek Society maintaining their own traditions
and language. The male population served in the Greek army and participated
in the Greek victory over the Italians in Albania, which marked the beginning
of the 2nd World War in this area.
first German armed columns though, entered Thessaloniki on April 9, 1941.
Two days later, the Messagero, the sole surviving Judeo-Spanish daily paper,
was suppressed, and a number of houses and public buildings requisitioned
for military needs, including the Jewish hospital founded by Baron de Hirsch
and bearing his name. The Germans nominated a new president of the community
to transmit their orders.
In the summer of 1942, orders were issued for all adult male Jews between
the ages of 18 to 45 to present themselves at Liberty Square to be enrolled
for forced labor. At the appointed day, 6,000-7,000 of them were packed
together under the broiling sun, until the afternoon, surrounded by companies
of soldiers armed with machine guns. Many were sent off immediately to malaria
stricken areas with very little food. Within ten weeks, 12% of those taken
After prolonged negotiations with the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki,
the Germans ultimately agreed to exempt the Jews from forced labor in return
for a ransom of two and a half billion drachmae, an exorbitant amount of
money for that period, which the community raised with great difficulty.
In December 1942, the ancient cemetery, containing nearly 500,000 graves
and dating back certainly to the 15th century, was expropriated and thus
became a quarry for the entire city. Tombstones of inestimable historic
value were removed regardless of age and could still be seen all over the
city as paving stones until some time ago.
this stage, the Germans replaced the president of the community with Rabbi
Dr. Zvi Koretz. The community hoped that since he spoke German, he would
be effective in his dealings with the German authorities. He became convinced
that by unquestioning compliance, the Nazis might be mollified. He therefore
urged the community to comply with the German instructions.
On February 6, 1943 a commission headed by Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner
arrived in Thessaloniki to put the racial laws into operation. Two days
later an order was issued forcing all Jews to wear the yellow Magen David;
their shops and offices had to be similarly marked. A number of areas were
marked off in those districts that were largely inhabited by Jews. It was
the first time in almost 2.000 years that the Jews of Thessaloniki were
forced to live in ghettos. The concept of ghetto was not known to the Jews
of Thessaloniki until that day. Any Jew who changed his residence without
permission was treated as a deserter and shot outright. No Jew was allowed
on streets after nightfall; no Jew was allowed to use the telephone; no
Jew could ride on the tramway.
Half a century before, Baron de Hirsch had paid for the construction near
the railway station of a number of little houses, to give shelter to Jewish
refugees from the Russian pogroms. On the morning of March 14, the inhabitants
of the Hirsch quarter were instructed to assemble in the local synagogue,
where they were informed by Rabbi Koretz that they were to be deported to
Poland. He informed them that they would find a new home there, among their
own people. The next morning, the inhabitants of the quarter were assembled
and marched to the station, where they were driven into the waiting cars,
which were soon overloaded to twice their capacity, closed, then sealed,
and off to Poland.
Hirsch quarter was now clear and ready to receive a new convoy. In During
the next few months, new convoys arrived from various Jewish neighborhoods
of the city and they were sent off to the Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination
camps. The last convoy left in the 7th of August 1943.
All told, 43,850 Jews, 95% of the Jewish population, were deported from
Thessaloniki in these months. Very few Jews of Thessaloniki found refuge
in the surrounding countryside where they joined the resistance, or in Athens,
where a significant proportion of the Jewish population was saved by the
help of the Christian population.
In October 1944, Thessaloniki was recaptured by the Greek and Allied forces.
A handful of Jews returned to the city whose history had been intertwined
so closely with their own for 2,000 years. They found their homes occupied
their property looted, all but two or three out of their 19 synagogues destroyed,
their five-century-old cemetery still used as a quarry.
the war, Holocaust survivors of the Thessaloniki community, together with
remnants of smaller communities, concentrated in Thessaloniki. As the Jews
of the other communities spoke Greek, Judeo-Spanish, which was the language
spoken by the Jews of Thessaloniki, all but disappeared as a spoken language
in the community. Bitter memories and harsh economic conditions in post-war
Greece forced many of the Jewish survivors to emigrate to Israel and the
Today, there is an organized community. Two synagogues are in use. Religious
services take place every day and on High Holidays. The children of the
community begin their schooling in the Jewish kindergarten and elementary
school. Their secondary education follows in Greek schools, but provisions
are being taken for Jewish education, handled mainly by the Mercaz Hadracha
assisted by teachers from Israel. There are two youth clubs and a community
center for all the ages. In Thessaloniki there is a Jewish Home for the
Aged. The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki organizes a summer camp for Greek
Jewish youth. The sports-minded youngsters have their Maccabi organization.
The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki is striving today to provide all the
means to its members in order to enhance their Jewish experience. We are
following the steps of our forefathers who created this Jewish town, and
hopefully we can become one day a new center of Judaism, a new Ir vaEm beIsrael.