Thessaloniki is a particularly interesting destination for the Orthodox Jewish public. It was the only city in the Diaspora with a majority of Jewish inhabitants, while the Gentiles were the minority. The census of 1734 stated that the Thessaloniki population totaled 40,000 comprising of 20,000 Jews, 10,000 Muslims and 9,000 Christians. In a census conducted in 1880, Thessaloniki`s population numbered 85,000 – 50,000 Jews, 20,000 Moslems and 15,000 Christians.
There were 73 synagogues, 14 Yeshivas, as well as Talmud Torahs and Jewish schools of various kinds. Today, even in Tel Aviv, there is no such wealth of Torah. In light of the public controversy over opening supermarkets in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, Thessaloniki was a Sabbath-observant city, and all businesses and banks in the city were closed on Saturdays. The port of Thessaloniki was the only one in the world closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Above all, businesses, industrial enterprises and banks operating in Thessaloniki in the 19th century were owned by Jews.
The Jewish bookcase has many sacred books written by the rabbis of Thessaloniki. To name a few: "Lekach Tov" written by Rabbi Tobias Ben-Eliezer, "Ein Ya'akov" by a former Chief Rabbi of Thessaloniki, Ya'akov Ben Haviv and others. In the introduction to "Ein Ya'akov" the author greets one of the wealthiest people of the city who supplied him space for all the books he composed.
The chant "Lecha Dodi" that is sung every Friday evening was written in Safed by Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz who originated here. The famous Rabbi, Shmuel Di Medina (Maharasham), also resided here.
Thanks to them and other great Torah scholars, Thessaloniki was named "Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Two chief rabbis of Israel , Rabbi Yaakov Meir and Rabbi Meir Chai Uziel, also stemmed from here.
Prominent Israelis originating from Thessaloniki, are Minister Ofir Akunis, the Recanati and Carasso families, basketball star Moti Aroesti, as well as many others. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is the grandson of a Thessaloniki Jewish family as is Patrick Modiano, 2014 Nobel prize winner for Literature. The Dassault family, owners of the French aircraft factory that supplied Israel with Mirage fighter jets in the early years of the country, traces its ancestry back to this city.
The Jewish community in Greece heralds back to the days of the Prophets when Jewish slaves were exiled from Israel. The prophet Joel writes : "The children also of Judah and the children of Jerusalem have ye sold unto the sons of Jevanim, that ye might remove them from your
border." (4: 6) The prophet Isaiah: " And I will set a sign among them. And I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away …” (66/19).
Some of the Tana`im and Amora`im (Sages) had Greek names, e.g., Antigonos of Succo, Eliezer ben Horkanos, Rabbi Tarfon. Christian texts attest that one of Jesus` apostles delivered sermons in Thessaloniki synagogues in 50 CE, during Temple times.
Throughout history, Jews from the Mediterranean and Europe arrived to Thessaloniki. After the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, 20,000 Jews arrived thereto, where they developed the local economy and their heritage for over 400 years.
Very little remains today of this great, glorious past. The decline of this great Jewish community began 100 years ago. In 1917, a huge fire broke out in the city, destroying most of the lower city, with 31 synagogues and 10 Jewish schools burning down. The homeless numbered 70,000, 56,000 of which were Jews. The Jewish community never recovered from this catastrophe.
When one visits ancient European cities, one sees narrow streets and old buildings in the Old City, while the area outside the city center consists of modern neighborhoods with large, wide streets. In Thessaloniki it`s the opposite. In the lower city there are high-rise houses with modern-style squares, while the neighborhoods on the hills outside the city house older buildings. The Great Fire destroyed the lower city, resulting in it being redesigned in the urban style of the beginning of the century.
After World War One, the Jewish community suffered another blow. Greek Christians expelled from Turkey also reached Thessaloniki, becoming the majority of inhabitants. Among them were anti-Semitic fascists who attacked the Jews, tried to burn Jewish homes, even murdering young Jews. As a result, about 20,000 Jews left and immigrated to Israel. Many of them had worked at Thessaloniki`s docks. In Israel they contributed their experience to the development of the country`s ports. They worked in the Haifa port and in 1936 established the Tel Aviv port. They were instrumental in founding the Ashdod port in the 1960s. These new immigrants settled in the Florentine and Shapira neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, the Ben Zion neighborhood in Netanya and the moshav of Tzur Moshe.
The final blow to this fine Jewish community was dealt during the Holocaust. 56,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz where 95% of them were annihilated. Only about 1,900 Holocaust survivors returned to Thessaloniki, with most of them preferring to leave the city and immigrate to Israel or move to America. Today there are only about 1,000 Jews living in Thessaloniki, with half of them being elderly.
Recommended Tourist Sites
The tour of Jewish Thessaloniki should start at the Jewish Museum. The museum is housed in one of the few buildings not destroyed in the Great Fire. The fire also reached this building but, like the Burning Bush, was not consumed. The first floor is dedicated to the Thessaloniki Jewish cemetery with the left entrance wall being covered with a black marble gravestone which bears the names of the city`s Holocaust victims. The second floor houses an exhibition of the Community`s history. It is worthwhile seeing this exhibition to understand the city before taking a walk. All Jewish tourist attractions are within walking distance of the museum.
The Monastirot Synagogue, built 90 years ago in the heart of the Jewish ghetto, is well worth a visit. This synagogue is the only one to survive the Holocaust. The Nazis did not destroy it because it served as a Red Cross warehouse. In recent years, the Jewish community has renovated the synagogue and today prayers are held there three times a day. In June of this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited there, delivering a moving speech on Israel's relations with the Jews of Thessaloniki.
A wealthy, lonely Holocaust survivor established a “Kaddish Fund” that pays salaries to ten Jews, to come to the synagogue three times daily in order to complete a minyan for those who wish to recite Kaddish (the Prayer for the Dead) for their beloved relatives. I was told that the fund has enough money to pay these salaries for the next two hundred years. On Shabbat and holidays, many local Jews come to the synagogue, as do tourists from Israel.
If you come to one of these synagogues in Salonika in a group or family, I suggest sitting there, opening the prayer book in “Kabalat Shabbat”, and singing the song “Lecha Dodi”. This psalm was composed by the rabbi of Salonika 500 years ago, who immigrated to Israel and lived in Safed. Although he did not pray in the synagogues are now preserved in his city, but the poetry of his legacy in the city where he lived, can be an exciting and uplifting experience. This can be a powerful and unforgettable experience.
An international tourist attraction nearby is the Modiano Market. Eli Modiano, a wealthy Jew, built a large edifice with 144 shops and stalls where sellers and shoppers can trade under one roof. It has four entrances like the tent of our forefather Abraham. When it was built, it was the most modern "mall" in Thessaloniki, while still operating as a food and fish market until today. Recently, it was purchased by a mall company of malls which plans to turn it into a modern shopping mall, while at the same time preserving the original character of the exterior walls.
Outside the Modiano Market there was a small synagogue called Casa de la Plaza, where every day two afternoon "Mincha" prayer services were held in shifts. Half the market traders went to prayer services while the other half guarded their shops, and when they returned, vice versa.. The Nazis also destroyed this synagogue. On its ruins, a large office building was built, opposite one of the entrances to the Modiano Market. A Jewish family purchased its first floor and established a synagogue called "Yad LeZikaron" in memory of the Holocaust`s victims. The southern wall has spectacular stained glass windows, and the northern wall lists the names of thirty active Thessaloniki synagogues. The Jewish community recently renovated the synagogue , and while not having yet been officially inaugurated, it has already attracted many worshippers.
One street over is the “Hamam Yehudi”, behind the flower market. Built in 1492, it operated until 1912, with a separation between men and women. The local Greeks also called it the “Hamam Yehudi” , without them knowing the meaning of these Hebrew words (Hamam = Bath).
Jewish Villas and Palaces
The Jews left a mark on the economy and architecture of Thessaloniki, with some of the houses of the wealthy part of the city`s tourist sites.
Our walk tour should start at VILLA MORDUCH which was built as a palace for the Prince of Greece. The house was purchased by Shmuel Morduch, a leader of the Jewish community, with his family living there until 1940. Today the house serves as the offices of the municipality`s Culture and Tourism Department, providing free maps and brochures of the city.
Casa Bianka Thessaloniki`s most beautiful estate. Also known as “The Decoration of Thessaloniki," it was built at the outset of the last century as a residence for Dinu Fernandez-Diaz, a prominent member of the Jewish community. He named it after his wife Bianka. The house is also famous for a Romeo and Juliet love story. The daughter of the owner, Ilana, fell in love with a Greek army officer. The rabbis of Thessaloniki refused to marry them, thereby creating a community scandal. The family left in anger for Athens, where Ilana married. A few years later, Ilana and her husband returned to live in the beautiful villa. On the second floor she ran a private school for gifted children, most of them Jewish. Ilana and her husband died in an old agein 1965, in this house. Today, it serves as an urban art gallery. Besides observing the many paintings, it is also worth seeing the charming rooms and ceiling crannies, attesting to the splendid lifestyle of the rich in the past.
Nearby is Villa Alatini, home to the family of Jewish industrialist Moshe Alatini and his sons, with their factories nearby. The impressive red brick palace is surrounded by a beautiful garden. The Ottomans confiscated the building as a residence for Sultan Abdul Hamid II. After World War One, the house was returned to the Alatini family. The boys donated the building to the University of Thessaloniki. Before World War II it was converted to a military hospital. Today it serves as the offices of the Central Macedonia district.
From there one should go to the Villa Modiano where the Eli Modiano Family lived. Modiano was a wealthy banker and contractor who also served as president of the Jewish community. Today it is a folklore and costume museum and depicts rural life in Greece. In its front there`s a garden with tables and chairs in the shaded area suitable for resting and eating.
Another Jewish site is the Hirsch Hospital (IPPOKRATEIO HOSPITAL). It was founded by Mrs. Clara Hirsch, wife of Baron Morris Hirsch of Austria. During World War Two, the Germans confiscated it for their own purposes, with the British using it after the War as a military base. In 1950 it again became a hospital. To this day it`s considered the largest hospital in Thessaloniki.
Holocaust Memorial Sites
Near the seafront is the Freedom Square, where the Greeks celebrated their independence and liberation from Ottoman rule. But for Jews it symbolizes the opposite of freedom. During World War II, the Germans rounded up the city`s Jews there, where they abused and humiliated them. From this square, the Jews were paraded to the railway station, from where they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Today most of the square serves for public parking. On the corner of the square is the Holocaust Memorial, where you can see an iron tree with seven branches, like the Menorah, and its branches are made of human limbs. Above them are tongues of fire.
From there one can proceed to the old train station, following the route the Jews marched on their way to their deaths. In the corner of the station terminal, a memorial plaque was affixed for the city's Jews.
Train carriages, such as those used to transport the Jews to the death camps, are also parked inside the station. Currently only two tracks are used at the station. The rest of the iron bars rusted and are covered with bushes. White butterflies fly among the plants quietly and pastorally, in total dissonance to what happened there in the past. The Jews of Thessaloniki were taken from here in 18 transports from March – August 1943. Standing attention in their memory and gazing around, one is reminded that from here they last looked at their beloved city.
There are plans to build a large Holocaust Museum in this area. The municipality has allocated ten acres for the museum, and EU institutions have already contributed 10 million Euros, with the municipality matching this amount.
A half hour walk away is the University which was built on the grounds of the old Jewish cemetery. The Germans blew up the gravestones, dispersing thereby the bones of the dead. A commemoration monument was erected on the lawns of the university. The monument depicts a lamp falling on its side, with tombstone fragments incorporated. In addition to the monument, explanatory marble in five languages tell the story.
One of the tombstones reads:
"This place is a holy place.
You are stepping on what is left of the largest necropolis of the East. This place was the burial place for Thessaloniki Jews for hundreds of years. The most vibrant community in the Mediterranean basin found its last resting place here. Their graves reached the surrounding hills.
The evil forces were not satisfied with only destroying the Jewish people. They also wanted to obliterate their memory. So while sending the Jews to their deaths, they simultaneously destroyed the ancient graves, scattering the bones of the dead. Those buried in this cemetery died a second time … During the Nazi occupation, this glorious community was isolated. In the framework of the "Final Solution", most of the city`s Jews, numbering 50,000 souls, were annihilated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers. In their attempt to erase every trace of Jewish presence in the city, the Nazis began to demolish the Jewish cemetery already in December 1942.
This holy place contained the graves of more than 300,000 Jews. It stretched from Agentia Street to the "40 Accalias" area and covered the current campus area.
After the Holocaust, a new Jewish cemetery was set up on the outskirts of the city. At the entrance, there is a large plaza with an impressive Holocaust commemoration monument. At its head, there is a large mass grave where the Jewish bones scattered throughout the old cemetery have been reinterred. Engraved on its tombstone: "Here are the remains of our forefathers who remained in exile and were gathered in the ancient cemetery of our town from 1495 and which was destroyed by the cursed Nazis in 1942."Another monument, just behind, is dedicated to the killed Jewish soldiers who served in the Greek army in World War I and in the Balkan War. The site is very clean and well maintained. The gravestones in the new cemetery are uniform and orderly as in an Israeli military cemetery. The fences and the passageways are lined with fragments of tombstones collected from the old cemetery. The visit to the cemetery is veryemotional. There is a deathly silence, and an atmosphere of sacred melancholy engulfs visitors. There are many tall trees with birds flying among them, but even birds do not chirp in this holy place. This is a place of glory, splendor and silence.
Thessaloniki has other Jewish sites worth visiting. The president of the community, David Shaltiel, is working energetically to renovate and restore Jewish sites and to incorporate the lessons of the Holocaust. He runs classes in state schools, organizes special teacher seminars, as well as special workshops for local tour guides. One of his ambitious projects is the establishment of a Holocaust Museum on land in the old railway station. He also plans to set up a Jewish school for 1,000 students, knowing that most of the students will be non-Jews.
The symbol of Thessaloniki is “The White Tower" which is the main tourist attraction. It is a tower that was once part of the wall that surrounded the city. The only remains from the wall is the 10 story watchtower. The White Tower also has a Jewish aspect. It was once called “The Red Blood Tower”, where inmates on death row were imprisoned and executed. Before the prison was closed in 1890, one of the prisoners, who happened to be Jewish, persuaded the prison commander to whitewash the tower in exchange for a pardon. The commander agreed, thinking that the prisoner would not be able to paint higher than the ladders. But the Jewish prisoner tied himself the tower with ropes and succeeded in painting the entire outer walls. The white paint cleaned the tower's "red blood" and also cleaned the conscience of the city's residents. Today the white color has faded and disappeared, and in the six floors of the tower there is a museum of the history of the city – a must see!
The second popular tourist attraction is the Galerius Arch. It is part of an ancient Roman building. The Arch was commissioned by Emperor Galerius to commemorate his victory over the Sassanid Persians in 298 CE and took over a huge collection of Persian gold vessels, the only remains from the wall. The arch`s inner part is reminiscent of the Arch of Titus in Rome. The rainbow is located next to Agentia Street, next to the post tower.
Thessaloniki`s beautiful promenade reminds one of Bat Yam's boardwalk. Residential buildings line the shore. On the promenade is Aristoteles Square, from which the city`s main runs. The promenade begins at the edge of the port. Along it is the white tower, as well as sculptures and attractions. There are other tourist attractions there worth checking out with your hotel.
After a day's walk, it`s time for a romantic cruise in the Gulf of Salonika waters. Opposite the white tower tourist boats stand, offering a short cruise with a drink (coffee or ouzo) at a very cheap price. It is a wonderful way to end a day of walking in the city, to feel the whisper of the breeze and listen to the waves, while observing the beautiful promenade from the sea.
A visit to Greece must include going to one of the many taverns. The ODOS Taverna offers offer kosher food some nights, to the music of Greek bouzouki and organ players. The evening I was there a group of 65 Jews, almost all religious tourists from Israel, was also there. The Greek music and liquor elevate the soul. During the evening, Rabbi Kaplan of Chabad House dragged me to the dance floor where there was a partition (Mehitza) for separate dancing men for and women. It was hard to believe that there was dancing in Salonika just like at a religious wedding in Israel.
The Astoria Hotel is recommended for observant Jewish tourists, which has a kosher restaurant (as well as a non-kosher restaurant). The kosher restaurant also serves guests from outside the hotel.
On the restaurant floor there is also a Chabad House and a small prayer hall with a Holy Ark. Every day there is a shiur (study lesson) in Ein Ya'akov, written by the former Chief Rabbi of Salonika. For me it was an exciting experience. Chabad House sells dry and canned foods to go. There is no grocer in this "grocery store". Buyers can take products from the shelves and are expected to place payment in a bowl on one of the shelves. The local emissary, Rabbi Yoel Kaplan, and his brother Yossi, help each guest, enumerating Jewish sites, and help with contacting local Hebrew-speaking tour guides.
The trip to the airport provokes sad thoughts. This city was once a Jewish powerhouse. But it did not stand by its Jews in the face of the Holocaust catastrophe.
Worth reading before a visit there is Mark Mazower`s book, "Thessaloniki City of Ghosts". The book describes the co-existence of the cultures and religions in the city between 1430 – 1950.
In Tel Aviv, Miriam Masri heads “The Greek Survivors of the Extermination Camps Greek Jews in Israel". The organization helps Holocaust survivors and holds social activities. It is also glad to help and recommend routes and sites in Salonika. Phone number: 03-688-4928
The author was a guest of the Greek tourist chamber in Israel, GNTO. Special thanks to Mr. Charilaos Kalipidis and Mrs. Maria Poulouktsi for helping collect material for the research for this article.