The Jewish Necropolis

Salonika, Jews and dervishes
By Nicholas Stavroulakis
Talos Press, Athens, 1993

The Jewish presence in Salonika is very ancient and extends back well into the 2nd if not possibly 3rd century B.C.E.. If the accounts we have are correct it would seem that the Jewish quarter was located from its inception on the eastern end of the harbor which supports theories that these first Jews were sailors from Alexandria. Certainly by the 1st century the Jews were firmly settled and had a synagogue that was visited by Paul of Tarsus and that continued to exist through subsequent re-constructions until 1943. It was to the east of this area, just outside the city walls, that evidence in the form of inscriptions indicated the presence of a Jewish cemetery that superseded an abandoned Byzantine necropolis. Unfortunately, these stones have been lost during or just after the Second World War.

Until just after 1492, the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, we have little knowledge of the Jews of Salonika other than that they were Romaniote, Greek speaking, and followed customs and traditionsthat had developed within the confines of Greco-Roman Christian civilization, (i.e. the Byzantine Empire). Beginning in 1493 there was a massive influx of Spanish - speaking Jews into the city. Some estimates give their number as many as 20,000. Sultan Beyazid II had offered them not only asylum but a city virtually their own, as Salonika, at that time was quite depopulated. Proximity and circumstantial evidence indicate that the old cemetery of the Romaniotes was expanded to accommodate the funeral needs of Sephardi arrivals, by the purchase of land to the east and north, extending to a line almost parallel to the city’s northern wall. It is likely that part of this expanded area had also been a former Byzantine cemetery, as many later Sephardi burials were marked with tombstones having Greek and, occasionally, Latin Christian inscriptions on the reverse sides. Burials were made here for over four hundred years, creating the greatest Sephardi cemetery in the Near East. The original Romaniote Jews of the city were eclipsed culturally and even linguistically by the Iberian Jews and eventually followed their burial usages. By 1912 it covered some 324,000 square meters and provided repose for over 300,000 dead. The known, the unknown, great rabbis, teachers and mystics, were to be found in this massive area, their graves marked with inscriptions, blessings, memories, and the final wishes of the living for eternal peace.

The vast proportions of this necropolis can still be traced. The western limit extended along the flank of the PAOK soccer stadium and the eastern limit followed approximately Pavlos Melas Street. The northern limit lay within the entire campus of the present day University of Thessaloniki, including an orphanage and a number of adjacent buildings and military barracks. The southern limit ended in the neighborhood known as Saranda Ekklisies (Forty Churches) and a collection of private dwellings. Along its entire length it was divided by a fairly wide path that had been created by Ottoman soldiers in the 19th century who moved back and forth from their barracks and the city by this shortcut through the cemetery. Burials were arranged in no particular order. Graves in certain areas were packed so tightly together that it was necessary to stand on one to find another or even to walk across them in order to reach a specific tomb. Already in the late 19th century the Jewish cemetery was posing problems. Under Sabri Pasha, the Ottoman governor of the city, plans were laid for not only the future expansion of the city but also for its conformation to a modern urban grid design. The old city of Salonika, tucked well within the limits of the medieval walls, had evolved into a maze of small streets and alleyways over which the eaves of houses often touched. For the most part Muslims lived in the upper city and acropolis, Jews within the harbor area and Christians around the edges and against the walls.

The most logical site for future expansion was that to the southeast just beyond the Jewish cemetery. This new extension of Salonika was named the Hamidiye (after Sultan Abdul Hamid II), and its new plan was set on a formal grid for the city streets. It was in this area that the Ma’min very quickly took up residence and in 1904 they constructed the last mosque of the city to be built. It became known as Yen Cami (the New Mosque). During the planning period of Sabri Pasha it had become very obvious that the Jewish cemetery was going to present problems as it made access to the new city from the old very cumbersome. Several attempts were made not only to suggest but almost to demand the destruction of the old cemetery and the incorporation of this vast area into the new zoning plans. To both Muslims as well as Christians, the intransigence of the Jews over the inviolate nature of their cemetery was incomprehensible. Greek Christians had (and still have) the custom of exhuming their dead after three year’s internment and then depositing the bones for a period of time in an ossuary. In the event that an ossuary becomes full it is not at all uncommon for the bones to be simply thrown out. The Muslims, on the other hand, could often be quite casual about burials and the dead on occasion were kept in very close proximity to the living. Around every mosque of the city could be found a number of tombs marking the burial place of especially holy sheikhs, donors or notables. Occasionally a revered and holy person would be interred in his, or her, garden and the site made accessible to visiting neighbors who continued to seek effective intercession, a cure for an illness, or an ear attentive to their needs.

ÏThe Jews of the city, however, kept a memory of the first desecration of the cemetery that had taken place between the years 1821-29 just after the Greek revolt broke out in the Peloponissos. At that time the neglected walls of Salonika were repaired and along the south flank, bordering on the cemetery, a good number of stones were requisitioned for incorporation into the fabric of the defenses. Now, however, late in the century the demands of Sabri Pasha were quite different insofar as actuall and was to be requisitioned. Despite considerable resistance, the Jewish community was finally forced to cede to his demands and a quite generous corner of the cemetery was confiscated to construct the new Hamidiye Avenue (present day Queen Sophias Ave.). Almost all of the requisitioned stones (naturally these bore inscriptions) were used in building the foundations of the new school (the Hamidiye) that was ultimately to evolve into the University of Thessaloniki. A precedent had been set for future encroachment by this institution.In response to the confiscation a group of Salonika Jews created an informal association. Their purpose was not only to protect the cemetery from future confiscations but to raise funds for the purpose of construction a wall around it. Under Ottoman law an enclosed area, (i.e. one set apart by a wall or fence), was almost inviolate. Such a wall had never been built simply due to the fact that the cemetery had grown naturally and quite informally into an area that was not considered of any value in the 16-18th centuries. Out of this informal association, a society officially representing the Jewish Community known as the Hessed ve Emeth was founded.

This endeavor, like the previous one, was almost immediately a failure. Funds could not be raised and the issue appears to have been dropped after the initial confiscations had been affected, the hope being that no further ones would ensue. In 1901 the society was dissolved and shortly afterwards, events such as the Young Turk Revolt and two Balkan Wars, diverted attention elsewhere. In 1913, almost immediately after the Greek seizure of Salonika, Jewish complaints were formally put to the authorities concerning a large number of acts of vandalism. Graves had been found desecrated and broken, apparently as a result of a search for valuables. The response was one of indifference and Jews were told to protect the great open zone as best they could.
It was not until after the great fire of 1917 that the question of confiscation was raised again. A French urban planner by the name of Edouard Hebard was called in by the Salonika authorities for the purpose of re-designing the entire inner (i.e. old) city that had been destroyed. Hebard envisaged future urban growth that would extend further to the southeast as well as beyond the northwest walls. Already the Hamidye area had been modernized and to link this with the newly designed inner city it became more and apparent that the Jewish cemetery was blocking access to either but also modernization and expansion of both. Hebard’s plan foresaw in particular the future growth of the University and the creation of an enormous park that would provide access to the old and new sections of Salonika. Discussion and appeals continued through until the late twenties. For many concerned Greek Christians the presence of such a vast necropolis within the very heart of the city was now not only bizarre, but odious. The scattered turbes and small cemeteries of the Muslims that could be found everywhere within the city were already being demolished

The Donme cemetery, the oldest section of which lay adjacent to the Jewish necropolis, was confiscated as were their two other cemeteries, which had been in use for some 150 years. (Not a single marker from these has been found.

Finally, in 1930, after a series of especially destructive acts of individual vandalism, a law was promulgated whereby the cemetery was to be confiscated and the remains of its dead moved to a new site. In the following year a series of vicious anti-Jewish riots, known as the Campbell Pogrom, took place in the city. (Campbell was the name of a quarter in Salonika that was almost entirely Jewish). Over a hundred graves were desecrated. Again the Jewish community appealed to the authorities. A special force, consisting of both Christians and Jews and financed through Jewish community funds, was created to protect the cemetery from further desecration. In 1936, under the Metaxas government, a decision was made to leave the cemetery intact but to plant it heavily so as to make it more attractive. In the following year, however, all attempts to save the cemetery were finally doomed when in 1937 the University was granted a sizeable initial area of some 12,500 square meters, and almost immediately disinterment under the direction of the Arch-rabbi began. The area proved to be one of the more ancient sections of the cemetery and the remains of many renowned rabbis and mystics, including those of Samuel Gaon (d. 1667), were moved elsewhere.

Soon after Salonika was seized by the Germans on 8 April 1941, a group of citizens, including members of the city council, requested that the Nazi command confiscate the entire cemetery. As decisions by the Germans had already been made concerning the ultimate destruction of the enormous Jewish community of the city, they were especially anxious to cull Greek Christian favor. In the following year a decision was given to the Jewish Community. Two large sections were to be immediately expropriated. One lay just before the University and the other was to the southeast near the Saranda Ekklisies. All graves of less than thirty years were allowed to remain and exhumation of the bodies in others was to begin immediately.

The cemetery was to be destroyed on removal of the interments. The process was horrendous as graves were demolished with no regard for either age or any possible historic interest to be found in the inscriptions. Mountains of bricks torn from facings were either confiscated by the Germans for their own purposes or allotted by sale or gift to Greek Christians. Working in close conjunction with the demolition squads was the archaelogist Pelekides who carefully went through great mounds of inscriptions in order to seize those bearing Latin, Greek or Byzantine inscriptions. Hebrew inscriptions were ignored and a sizeable number were carted off to be incorporated in the reconstruction work that was still in process on the church of St. Dimitrios. Within a month the great necropolis resembled a pockmarked valley on the moon. Across its ravaged surface could be seen shattered fragments of marble, piles of earth and bricks intermingled with remains of the dead.

There is no doubt that the destruction of the cemetery was part of the overall plan that was being put into effect for the destruction of the living community as well. The sight of this now quite literal field of death had a profoundly demoralizing effect on the Jews. It was as if the last contact with the city had been broken. Not long afterwards, on the 15th March 1943, the first of the deportations that were to send over 56,000 Jews to death without burial in Poland began. By the August of that year Salonika was a city rid of its Jews and all that was left of its rich Sephardi history was to be found in empty graves, shops and homes. The last vestige of pluralism had vanished almost without a race.
One of the most important aspects of this album is that it provides us with some clue as to the importance among the living that the great cemetery had for Salonika’s Jews. It was a place where the living and the dead met and maintained contacts that strengthened those who sought out ancestors, great saints, relatives and friends who had passed on the peace.