The Jews of Thessaloniki
by Yakov Benmayor

The Early Years

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.

The Romans 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".
   
 
   
After the 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.

In 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 the city.

 

15th Century

During the 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:

In 1430 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:

In 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.


Excile from Spain

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.

All the 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.


During 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


16th Century

By mid-16th 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:

 

Thessaloniki 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 ones.


The 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 authorities.

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 from abroad.


During 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.


17th Century

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.

 

In spite 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.

The 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 ones.


18th Century

 
In 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 flourished.

 

19th Century

 
   
 
Toward 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 also built.

Physicians 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).

 

 

20th Century

 
   
 
In 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 organizations.

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.


In 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.

 

The War

 
   
 
The 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 had died.

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.

At 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.


The 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.

 

After the war

 
   
After 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 U.S.

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.