22 April 2020
A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
sites in Jewish Thessaloniki
during this long ‘lockdown’
I had planned to be in Greece for Holy Week and Easter, which fell last weekend in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church, and I was due to fly back from Chania this evening (22 April 2020). But the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has cancelled all my travel plans.
I now even wonder whether I am going to get to Thessaloniki and Halkidiki at the end of August and the beginning of September, or whether I can plan to visit Crete later this year.
Meanwhile, I am offering a series of ‘virtual tours’ of favourite places in Greece, with a ‘virtual tour’ this evening of a dozen sites in Jewish Thessaloniki.
This is offered in the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ of a dozen historical sites in Thessaloniki, a dozen sites in Athens, a dozen churches and chapels in Crete, a dozen churches in Thessaloniki, a dozen monasteries in Crete, a dozen churches in Rethymnon, and a dozen restaurants in Rethymnon.
Most of my visits to Thessaloniki in the 1990s were working visits as a journalist. But I have often returned since then on city breaks and on family occasions, to visit Mount Athos, and to see the area where my grandfather was posted during World War I and where he caught the malaria that eventually led to his death.
Thessaloniki is the second city of Greece. This is the city of Aristotle and of Alexander the Great. In Byzantine times, this was second only to Constantinople as a political and cultural city, and with its walls, towers, churches and historical and archaeological sites, Thessaloniki remains a Byzantine city.
1, The Jewish Museum:
Thessaloniki was once the largest Jewish city in the world. The Jewish Museum at Agiou Mina 13 opened on 13 May 2001 and is a reminder of this unique Jewish community of Thessaloniki with its continued presence throughout the city’s 2,300-year history, a rare fact in Jewish history, even for Jerusalem or Alexandria.
Alexander the Great granted legal equality to Jews in 331 BC. This new freedom attracted many Jews to settle in Hellenistic cities and to become Hellenised. Jews settled in the newly-established Thessaloniki in 315 BC and there were new Jewish arrivals from Alexandria in 145 BC.
The Jewish community in Thessaloniki so influenced the Sephardic around the world, both culturally and economically, that the city was known among Jews for centuries as ‘la Madre de Israel’ or ‘the Mother of Israel,’ and to non-Jews as ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans.’
Until World War II, Thessaloniki had a major Jewish community, and for centuries it was the only major European city with a Jewish majority.
The Jewish Museum is housed in a listed building that dates from to 1906. In the early 20th century, this building housed the Bank of Athens and the French-language Jewish newspaper L’Intependant.
2, The Monasterioton Synagogue:
The Monasterioton Synagogue at the top of Syngrou Street is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki, which once had 40 to 50 synagogues. It was built in 1927 by Jews from Monastir in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The synagogue was saved during World War II because it had been requisitioned by the Red Cross as a warehouse. The building was structurally damaged by the earthquake in 1978, but it was restored by the Greek government.
In all, Thessaloniki has three functioning synagogues. The Yad Lazikaron Synagogue in the community offices at Vassileos Herakliou Street opened in 1984 and is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It was built on the site of the small Bourla prayer centre (Cal de la Plaza, or Market Synagogue) that had been operating since 1912, serving the many Jews who worked in the market nearby. The Saul Modiano Synagogue is a small synagogue in the Old People’s Home.
3, The Holocaust Memorial, Plateia Eleftherias:
The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at the south-east corner of Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) in the city centre recalls the 50,000 Greek Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. The memorial is a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a seven-branch menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies in death.
In the inter-war period, new laws were passed aiming to Hellenise the city. Slowly, the Jews became segregated and turned into second-class citizens. This policy legalised anti-Semitic activities and forced many Jews to emigrate. The Jewish population of the city fell from 93,000 people to 53,000 on the eve of the war.
With the arrival of the Nazis, hundreds of Jews joined the Greek resistance, while many others tried to go into hiding. On 11 July 1942, the ‘Black Shabbat,’ all Jewish men in Thessaloniki aged from 18 to 45 were rounded up in Plateia Eleftherias. Throughout the afternoon, they were forced at gunpoint into humiliating physical exercises.
4, The former Jewish Cemetery:
The centuries-old Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki was razed during the Nazi occupation, and the new campus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki was built on the site.
Recently, the university unveiled a memorial to the graveyard destroyed by the Nazis. The monument is a series of gravestones in a bed of green grass next to a broken menorah, and was seen as a late but significant move by the university and the city to recognise the past.
Last year (January 2019), however, vandals smashed the campus monument just days before the annual observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
5, The Jewish Studies Centre:
The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has re-established its Jewish studies programme, over 80 years after it was abolished by the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas. The university had a Jewish studies programme from 1930 to 1935 before it was abolished.
‘The establishment of a chair of Jewish Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has a special significance in a city whose history is directly linked to Jewish culture,’ the university said in a statement.
The decision was taken in co-operation with the city’s Jewish community, which agreed to fund the programme for its first year. The programme began in 2014-2015, offering undergraduate and graduate studies.
6, Yahudi Hamam:
The Yahudi Hamam (Γιαχουντί Χαμάμ) is an Ottoman-era bathhouse, but despite its name it was not built by the Jewish community. The bathhouse stands at the junction of Vasileos Irakleiou and Frangini streets and dates from the early 16th century. Its name means ‘Bath of the Jews’ and is a reminder that this area was predominantly settled by Sephardi Jews.
Sephardic Jews began to migrate to the city in large numbers when they were expelled from Spain in 1492. The first Sephardic Jews to arrive were said to have come from Majorca and were ‘repentant’ Jews returning to Judaism after forced conversions to Christianity. Later arrivals came from other parts of Spain, Portugal and Italy, and each new group set up its own synagogue, with names such as Castilla, Aragon, Old Catalonia, Old Italy, Sicily, Apulia, Lisbon, Portugal and Otranto.
The 20,000 Sephardim or Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in Thessaloniki brought an economic revival to the city. They were engaged in international trade, finance, medicine and pharmacology and introduced new crafts such as manufacturing arms and gunpowder, as well as textiles.
By the turn of the 16th century, when other Greek cities were in decline, Thessaloniki had 29,000 inhabitants. More than half of them were Sephardic Jews, and there were 31 independent synagogues. The new arrivals gave Thessaloniki an international character and made it the second most important port in the Ottoman Empire.
The 16th century was the ‘Golden Age of Salonica,’ when the Sephardic communities established libraries, an important Talmudic academy, a printing press and a conservatory for Jewish religious music and singing. Almost all the Jews of Thessaloniki spoke Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish. For more than four centuries, 50 per cent of the city’s population was Jewish, so Ladino was the main language, spoken too by many Christians and Muslims.
This building was also named Pazar Hamam, because of its location in the Bazaar or central market-place of the city. Yahudi Hamam served the local community until the early 1900s. Now, it is generally not open to the public, but it is occasionally used for cultural activities. It is surrounded by cafés, restaurants and shops, and the colourful flower market in Louloudadika (Λουλουδάδικα).
7, The Modiano Market:
Between 1878 and 1914, flour mills, hotels, cafés, brick factories, breweries, soap-works and silkworm nurseries, carpet and shoe factories and several large tobacco workshops were established in Thessaloniki, mainly by Jews. They built markets such as the Modiano Market, synagogues, schools and orphanages. All four theatres established at the time were by Jewish-owned.
Yet most of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki was working class and lived in poverty. The Workers’ Union, formed in 1909 by Jewish workers, became the most important socialist organisation in the Ottoman Empire.
The Modiano Market is Thessaloniki’s largest sheltered market. It was built in 1922 to designs by the Jewish architect Eli Modiano, and stands on the site of Kadi, a Jewish district destroyed in the fire in 1917. The market opened in 1925 as a central food market.
This impressive building, with its a glass roof and into four galleries, nowadays is home to many charming little tavernas and food shops.
8, Stoa Saul:
Stoa Saul, at the junction of Ermou Street, Venizelou Street and Vassileos Irakleiou Street, is a commercial arcade complex built by Saul Modiano, a renowned Jewish banker, in 1867-1871. It connects Vassileos Irakliou Street with Ermou Street and Venizelou Street and Ionos Dragoumi Street.
The arcade housed the offices of architect Eli Modiano and the Modiano Mortgage Bank. A a section of the arcade was destroyed in the fire of 1917. It was rebuilt in 1929, modifying the arcade to a Γ-shape. It is a tribute to and a reminder of the Modiano family, which began with Saul Modiano, a poor worker who became one of the richest men in the Ottoman Empire.
9, The Malakopi Arcade:
The Malakopi Arcade was once the building of La Banque de Salonique (Bank of Thessaloniki), founded by the Italian-Jewish Allatini entrepreneurial family. It was built on Chrimatistiriou Square built in 1907 to designs by the renowned architect Vitaliano Poselli.
The clock on the façade of the building is stuck at 11:07, the time a major earthquake struck Thessaloniki on 20 June 1978, devastating many buildings and leaving 45 people dead.
Today this is a shopping gallery known as the Stoa Malakopis.
10,Vasilissis Olgas villas:
Leoforos Vasilissis Olgas or Queen Olga Avenue is lined with once elegant fin de siècle villas, some now decaying and crumbling. This was once the most elegant and one of the richest areas of the city, and the home of many ruling families at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and each villa tells its own unique story. Some are galleries, others house cultural and historical institutions. Many retain their detailed colourful decorations, some even their impressive furniture, all influenced by the eclecticism of the 18th and 19th century.
Several villas have been preserved after painful restoration efforts, including the Villa Mordoch, the Villa Ahmet Kapanci (1890), the Villa Mehmet Kapanci (1893) and the Villa Bianca. Others are still sadly awaiting restoration after many decades, including the Villa Hirsch and the Salem Mansion at No 20.
The Salem Mansion was designed in 1878 by Xenophon Paionides (1863-1933) for the wealthy Jeborga (Τζεμπόργκα) Jewish merchant family in 1878. It was bought in 1894 by Emmanuel Salem, the most important lawyer in the city and an eminent member of the Jewish Community. It remained in his family for over 20 years and the family gave it its name, the Salem Mansion (Η Επαυλη Σαλέμ).
The three-storey Salem Mansion has an elaborate façade and is built with luxurious materials. It has baroque pediments, and its architectural styles combine elements of classicism, renaissance and baroque styles. The Salem family left in 1915 and the villa became the Consulate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was bought by the Italian state in 1924, and for it served as the Italian Consulate for more than half a century, until 1978.
The Salem family came to Thessaloniki with the wave of Sephardic Jewish refugees fleeing Spain and the Spanish Inquisition after 1492. They first appear as a prominent family in Thessaloniki around 1550, when Avraam Salem was practicing as a medical doctor. Other members of the family became involved in commercial life and were generous philanthropists.
Emmanuel Salem (1859-1940) was the first general secretary of the Bar Association of Thessaloniki and was one of the three most important lawyers in the city. He was a son of Rabbi Raphael Salem and became a leading member of the Jewish Community in Thessaloniki and one of the most prominent jurists in the field of international law. He was involved in founding a new water company, gas company, tram and electric company, and also in founding the Banque du Salonique.
After World War I, Salem was involved in negotiating the Lausanne Treaty in 1923. He received honours from many countries, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, France, Belgium, the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and the Vatican, and Greece conferred on him the Order of the Saviour. He spent his later years of in Paris, where he died in Paris in February 1940.
The Salem Mansion was damaged extensively by the earthquake that devastated Thessaloniki in 1978, and was abandoned by the Italian Consulate. The house still belongs to the Italian State and is deserted. Although this is a listed building and the grass is cut from time to time, all requests from the Greek State for its restoration have gone unanswered.
11, The Old Railway Station:
The devastating fire that raged through Thessaloniki in 1917 destroyed two-thirds of the Jewish districts, 45 synagogues, schools, shops and businesses. About 52,000 Jewish people were made homeless and most Jewish monuments and archives were destroyed.
In the rebuilding programme, the historic centre of Thessaloniki lost the Jewish character that had enriched it for centuries. But the city’s port continued to close on Saturdays as well as Jewish holidays until 1923.
The final act in the Jewish tragedy in Thessaloniki took place at the city’s Old Railway Station between 15 March and 2 August 1943, as Jews were stacked into livestock carriages and sent off to the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, where most of the 60,000 deported people died.
In all, 96 per cent of the members of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community were murdered in 1941-1945. Jewish cemeteries were erased, and most of their cultural wealth and surviving Jewish character of the city was destroyed.
Since 1951, the Old Railway Station has been used as a goods station. An old railway administrative building, built in 1871, has a monument with historic details of the Baron Hirsch Jewish district, established in 1892 to house Jews displaced by a fire.
More reminders of the Jewish presence were lost with the post-war reconstruction of Thessaloniki, which reached its peak in the 1960s, and then with the earthquake in 1978.
Only 1,200 Jews live in Thessaloniki today. The former Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, and the President of the Jewish Community, David Saltiel, were partners in honouring the pre-war Jewish presence and contribution to the city and ensuring the story of Jewish presence in Thessaloniki continues to be told.
12, Stumbling stones, Vassilisis Olgas Avenue:
Throughout Europe, I regularly come across the Stolpersteine or ‘Stumbling Stones’ by the German artist Gunter Demnig. His project places engraved brass stones in front of the former homes of Holocaust victims who were deported and murdered by Nazi Germany.
Demnig’s Stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials set into the pavement or footpath in front of these apartments or houses. This project began in Germany and has spread across Europe. So far, at least 73,000 Stolpersteine have been laid in at least two dozen countries across Europe, making this dispersed project the world’s largest memorial. I have seen them in Berlin, Bratislava, Prague, Venice, Vienna and in Thessaloniki.
‘Stumbling Stones for Thessaloniki’ was created by two Humanity in Action senior fellows, Regina Frentzou and Evanthia Panagiotou, as a social art project to recovery of collective memory and individual commemoration of the victims of Nazism in Thessaloniki. They were inspired during their experiences in Berlin in 2014, and felt there was a lack of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust in Greek cities, particularly in Thessaloniki.
El Malei Rachamim (‘God full of compassion’) is a prayer for the departed that asks for comfort and everlasting care of the deceased. It is said at Jewish funeral services, but different versions exist for different moments.
This version for the Shoah (Holocaust) is found in the Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah:
Fully compassionate God on high:
To our six million brothers and sisters
murdered because they were Jews,
grant clear and certain rest with You
in the lofty heights of the sacred and pure
whose brightness shines like the very glow of heaven.
Source of mercy:
Forever enfold them in the embrace of Your wings;
secure their souls in eternity.
Adonai: they are Yours.
They will rest in peace. Amen.