Jews of Thessaloniki


Life and sad story of the Jews of Thessaloniki


Jews of Thessaloniki

There is evidence that the first Jewish settlers came to Thessaloniki from Alexandria in 140 B.C. This community expanded during the Roman period around the port area. It was granted by the Roman a certain amount of autonomy. The Apostle, St. Paul famously wrote his letter to the Thessalonicans and preached in the synagogue.

With the death of Emperor Theodosius the Great in 395, the Roman Empire split in two. Thessaloniki fell under the orbit of Constantinople, the Eastern Empire, better known as Byzantium. The Byzantine Emperors wanted all the subjects to convert to Christianity and various edits on this were enforced including edits by Heraclius (610-642) who prohibited public fulfillment of the mitzvoth and who feared a prophecy that the Empire would fall to a “circumcised race”. One Emperor who acted favorably toward the Jews, was Alexius I Comnenus, who during the First Crusade alleviated the taxes imposed upon them. During this period in 1169 Benjamin of Tudela visited Thessaloniki and mentioned that at that time there were about 500 Jews living in the city.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204 the entire region include the city of Thessaloniki entered a period of political turmoil and anarchy, with endless wars and rulers coming and going. In 1423 Andromachos, the governor of Thessaloniki, sold the city to the Venetians. The Venetians imposed heavy taxes on the Jews.  In spite of this turmoil the city flourished and the Jewish community constructed the “Etz hahaim ve etz hadaat”, a synagogue which survived into the 20th century.

In 1430 Thessaloniki was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Under their rule, conditions towards the Jews greatly improved as peace and the rule of law was established. In 1470 Jewish immigrants from Bavarian arrived in Thessaloniki and formed the Ashkenazi Community which settled next to the existing Romaniote, that is Jewish-Greek speaking Community. The two Communities differed in every way: clothing, eating habits, religious rites, prayer and books. The Ashkenazi Community continued to exist until the beginning of the 20th century.

During the 15th and the 16th centuries Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, and Jews from North Africa, Italy and France emigrated to the city. The largest wave of migrants came in 1492-1493 and 1536. Once in Thessaloniki they founded separate communities (“congregations” Kahal Kadosh). These communities were named after their native countries or towns: Sicily, Calabria, Majorca, Lisbon, Catalan and names of other regions from whence they originated. It was from this time that the Sephardic Spanish-Hebrew language started to be dominant but entirely supplant the other languages. The Rabbi, Josef Beit ha Levy, stated that “at Thessaloniki every Jew speaks his own language. Every group of people established their own community, support their poor and constitute a small independent state”. Thessaloniki also received Marranos who were expelled from Portugal. These were Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. It is mentioned though that they kept their Jewish belief. In 1514 the rabbinical triumvirate of Thessaloniki issued a special haskamah regarding the Marranos as Jews in every aspect.

During the 16th century, Jews continued to immigrate to the Thessaloniki, attracted by the city’s wealth, the tolerance of the Ottoman rulers and to escape the plagues that were ravaging Europe at that time. It is estimated that by 1553 there were 20,000 Jews in Thessaloniki.

The Jews carried out diverse occupations, from wealthy traders in grain, wool, cotton and silk, to craftsman working in textiles and jewelry making. The organisation of the Jewish life in Thessaloniki was based around approximately 30 independent congregations, who sometimes associated themselves as a voluntary body that took care of the common interests of the congregations.

By the middle of the 16th century there were about 30,000 Jews, half of the total population of the town.

In the 17th century there lived in the city the famous law teacher Hayim Shabbetai, author of “Torat Haim”. It was during this time that the community was riven asunder by the antics of one Shabbetai Zevi who proclaimed himself the true messiah. He was expelled from the city under orders from the rabbis. He later converted to Islam. 13 years after his death, in 1683, a group of his followers -some 300 Jewish families also converted to Islam. This sect was called the Doenmeh. Such was the turmoil created by Shabbetai Zevi that in 1680 the 30 congregations merged into one, with a supreme council composed of three rabbis and seven dignitaries.

In the 18th century, the wealth of the city and the size of the Jewish community began to decline as a consequence of competition from French merchants. In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire started to decline; however, this period began a “westernization” of the city’s population, Jews included. This contact with the west brought new ideas and new advances in medicine and teaching and also political ideas and beliefs.

By 1900 there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Thessaloniki, out of a population of 173,000. In 1908, when the Young Turks revolution started in Thessaloniki. These “young Turks” were young military officers and included Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and Enver Pasha the person blamed for the Armenian genocide. They rose up against the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II whose corrupt and decaying rule was blamed for the demise of the Empire. Many non-Muslims including Jews supported the Young Turks. Thinking the new regime was more liberal and tolerant they openly organized socialist and syndicalist movements. At the same time the first Zionist organizations, Agudath Bnei Zion and Maccabee, appeared in Thessaloniki. By the eve of World War II there were more than 20 Zionist organizations. In the first Balkan War in 1912, the Greek army captured the city from the Young Turks. King George of Greece declared that Jews and all other minorities were to have the same rights as the Greek population. 

In 1917 a great fire starting in a bakery in the port area destroyed most of the town, leaving much of the city’s inhabitants including some 50,000 Jews homeless. A great many Jews at this point chose to emigrate to America and also to France, Italy and Egypt. In 1932 the Campbell riots, which were anti-Semitic in tone, took place. An entire Jewish neighborhood was burned to the ground by hooligans, and most of the Jews who lived in the Campbell neighbourhood migrated after the riots to Palestine. In 1935 there were nearly 60,000 Jews in Thessaloniki. By 1943 it had declined to 56,000.

In 1941, the Nazis occupied Greece and almost from the beginning the Jewish community was persecuted. Jews were forced to wear the star of David and Jewish property was confiscated, including printing presses, which were handed over to Fascist newspapers, like the Ethniki Enosi Ellados (National Union of Greece) known as the 3Es and the Nea Evropi (New Europe). The notorious Sontercommando Rosenberg arrived in the city almost immediately after the city’s conquest and set to work drawing up lists of Jewish families and Jewish property. Jews were forbidden from entering coffee houses and restaurants, Rabbis were publicly humiliated from. Jews were beaten and terrorised, or were denounced as "communists" and executed. Two acts of viciousness and meanness include:

-          The desecration of the oldest Jewish cemetery. Now the site of the Aristotelis University of Thessaloniki. Still no plaque commemorating the cemetery has been installed.

-          On 11 July 1942 the public humiliation of about 10,000 able bodied Jewish males who were forced to excise in the heat in public until they collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration. Most were then taken away into forced labour to work on the railway, where many died from exhaustion.

In March 1943 the Germans asked the Archrabbi of the Community, Tovi Koretz, to provide them with a list of all members of the Jewish Community, which he did, probably out of fear and in the hope that this would appease them. In this fateful month the Fascists began to round Jews throughout Greece and deport them to the death camps. By 2 August 1943 about 56,000 Jews had been taken from Thessaloniki in a total of 19 railway dispatches. Most were destined for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. On the orders of the Military Commander of Thessaloniki, the notorious Dr Max Merten, Jewish owned property was confiscated and distributed among Germans or Greek collaborators. In the 1950s, Max Merten was put on trial, found guilty and with months released from prison. He returned to Germany and died in his bed. His early release was probably because he knew the Greek collaborators, many of whom after the war retained their stolen wealth and were in a position of political power.

Only a mere 1,950 Jews were ever to return. Some Jews with vague Spanish and Italian roots were saved by the Spanish and Italian consulates who gave them visas to emigrate. Bishop Gennadios of Thessaloniki gave the city’s clerics verbal instructions to advise their congregations not to show any sign of scorn or discrimination against the Jews when they were obliged to wear the yellow star. He even went as far as petitioning the German Military Commander of Thessaloniki, Dr Max Merten, to end the removal of Jews from the city.

The Jewish community today numbers no more than 900 persons. The community has two synagogues, the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, a cultural centre, a Jewish cemetery, the "Saoul Modiano" Home for the Aged, the Pedagogical Centre “Mercaz Adraha”, the Panhellenic Children Campings, a Choir and women organizations Wizo-Aviv.

-          In 1962 the Community of Thessaloniki erected a Holocaust Monument in the site of the cemetery.

-          In 1986 the Municipality dedicated the "Jewish Martyrs’ Square" in the memory of the Holocaust victims. This square is located between Priamou, Papanastasiou and Kleanthous streets.

-          In 1997 the Greek Government erected a Holocaust Monument in Eleftherias square.

-          In 2003 the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki erected in the site of the Jewish cemetery a War Memorial of the Greek Jewish soldiers, the “Monument of Colonel Mordochai Frizis”, who fell in the Albanian Front during the Greek-Italian War.

-          Also in 2003 commemorative marble plaque was placed in the French Institute of  Thessaloniki in memory of the Jewish students and graduates of the French School of  Thessaloniki murdered in the war.

-          In 2004, a marble commemorative plaque was also placed in the Old Railway Station of Thessaloniki.


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    Address Jewish Centre and Committee of Greece. Voulis 36; Athens 10557


    Telephone 00302103244315-8





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