15 March 2024

Thessaloniki exhibition
in Paris museum recalls
the stories of Jewish life in
‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’

‘Salonika, Jerusalem of the Balkans, 1870-1920’ … the exhibition in the Jewish Museum of Art and History (mahJ) in Paris continues until 21 April (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

France is home to the third largest Jewish community in the world – after Israel and the US – with a Jewish presence goes back more than 2,000 years. Jewish people have lived in the Marais neighbourhood in Paris since the Middle Ages, and most Jewish people in Paris lived in the Marais until about 1985.

I spent some time in the Marais while we were in Paris last month, visiting synagogues, shops, cafés and other sites associated with Jewish life and history in Paris, and the two museums that document the history of Jews in France: the Shoah Memorial, the Holocaust Museum of Paris, opened in 2005; the Jewish Museum of Art and History (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme), commonly known as mahJ, has one of the finest collections in the world of objects of worship and art works.

The Jewish Museum in the Marais regularly hosts temporary exhibitions. The current temporary exhibition in mahJ, ‘Salonika, Jerusalem of the Balkans, 1870-1920,’ looks at Jewish life in Thessaloniki in Greece. The exhibition opened on 19 September 2023 and includes 150 photographs from the second half of the 19th century to the end of World War I.

Thessaloniki is the second city of Greece. It is the city of Aristotle and of Alexander the Great. In Byzantine times, it 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.

Thessaloniki was once the largest Jewish city in the world. The unique Jewish community of Thessaloniki has had a continued presence throughout the city’s 2,300-year history, a rare fact in Jewish history, even for Jerusalem or Alexandria. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jewish community made up the majority of the population of the city.

Alexander the Great granted legal equality to Jews in 331 BCE. This new freedom attracted many Jews to settle in Hellenistic cities and to become Hellenised. Jews settled in the newly-established Thessaloniki in 315 BCE and there were new Jewish arrivals from Alexandria in 145 BCE.

After Jews were expelled from Spain, many Sephardic Jews moved to Thessaloniki. It is said 20,000 Sephardic moved to the city after 1492. By 1668, they were the largest community in the city, so that the Jewish community in Thessaloniki influenced the Sephardic around the world, both culturally and economically.

Thessaloniki was known among Jews for centuries as ‘the Mother of Israel,’ and to non-Jews as ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’ … one of the photographs in the exhibition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The city was known in Ladino among Jews for centuries as la Madre de Israel or ‘the Mother of Israel,’ and to non-Jews as ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans.’ It was the only major European city with a Jewish majority, and until 1923 shopkeepers of all traditions and denominations closed on Saturdays and during Jewish holidays.

When Thessaloniki was incorporated into the modern Greek state in 1912 it became the economic capital and second city of Greece, but continued to be the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans.’ It remained so until the deportation of almost all the Jews of Thessaloniki by the occupying Nazis in 1943. In the spring and summer of 1943, 96% of the Jews of Thessaloniki were deported and killed, and the Nazis tried to erase all signs of the Jewish life and culture in the city.

I have visited Greece 40 or 50 times in the past 35 years and, after Crete and Athens, Thessaloniki is the place I have visited most. My first visits to Thessaloniki in the 1990s were working visits as a journalist. But I have often returned since on city breaks and on family occasions, to visit Mount Athos, and to visit the synagogues, the Jewish Museum and Jewish sites.

The popular Greek folksong Θεσσαλονίκη μου means every Greek knows the city as ‘My Thessaloniki.’ My grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), was posted there during World War, and it was there he caught the malaria that eventually led to his death. Had my grandfather died there and been buried in Greek soil, surely he too would have become a son of Greece, a son of Thessaloniki. Had he not been sent home from Thessaloniki, my father would not have been conceived … and I would not have been born. In some roundabout sort of way, this city is part of my life and part of my story, and this is ‘My Thessaloniki’ too.

All these memories and associations were brought to the fore once again when I visited the current exhibition in the Jewish Museum in the Marais in Paris last month. The prints by a local photographer Paul Zepdji and previously unpublished images by Ali Eniss, a keen amateur photographer, bring the vanished world to life.

The exhibition also includes French military documents, old postcards, brochures and magazines. The photographs and documents come from the 400-piece collection donated to the mahJ by Pierre de Gigord, a collector who was devoted to the history of the Ottoman Empire.

Pierre de Gigord’s collection is an important source for reconstructing Jewish life in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The great fire of August 1917 destroyed much of the city. The Jewish community saw its historic quarters, the municipal archives and more than 30 synagogues swept away by the flames. This makes Pierre de Gigord’s collection an important source for reconstructing Jewish life in the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’.

Pierre de Gigord was a keen traveller in the Orient and began assembling the richest private collection of early photographs of the Ottoman Empire in the 1890s. When his company Anastasia went out of business, Pierre de Gigord sold his collection to the Getty Museum. But it did not buy his glass plates of Thessaloniki, and these have been donated to the museum in Paris.

Ali Eniss was an interpreter at the German consulate during World War I and probably a spy. His photographs were discovered 40 years after he died and were sold to different dealers who eventually sent them to France.

The 150 works in the mahJ exhibition bring a vanished world back to life and tell the story of Thessaloniki from the second half of the 19th century to the end of World War I. The exhibits show men and women in traditional costumes, humble craftsmen, porters and shopkeepers, and members of the local ‘aristocracy’, linked by family and commercial ties to other parts of Europe.

Here I could see again the quays along the seafront, and the White Tower, the old cafés, restaurants and entertainment venues; elegant 19th century villas that are now decaying and crumbling; or the more deprived areas where industries were set up, making Thessaloniki the leading manufacturing city in the Ottoman Empire.

A devastating fire raged through Thessaloniki in 1917 and 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.

The exhibition also tells the story of Thessaloniki’s unique Sabbatean community. The Sabbateans or Dönmeh dated from the 17th century. They can be traced back to the followers of Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), a 17th-century rabbi and kabbalist from Smyrna who arrived in Thessaloniki claiming to be the Messiah.

They converted from Judaism to a form of Islam, but were said to have secretly held onto their Jewish beliefs and practices. They formed three main groups – the İzmirlis, Jakubis and Karakashi, and two smaller groups – the Kapantzi and Lechli. They married only each other (endogamy), and remained a closed group. But they became politically and economically powerful.

The banker Mehmet Kapantzi (1839-1924) was Mayor of Thessaloniki in 1908, and later Director of the Chamber of Commerce. His seafront villa was lavish and the building cost more than 40,000 gold sovereigns, a mythical amount in those days.

During the ‘population exchanges’ between Greece and Turkey following the ‘Asia Minor Catastrophe,’ Muslims and Sabbateans are forced to leave Thessaloniki in 1923, never to return. They were replaced by large numbers of Greeks, many expelled from the west coast of Anatolia.

Only 1,200 Jews live in Thessaloniki today, and the Monasterioton Synagogue on Syngrou Street is the city’s only surviving, pre-war working synagogue. 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, there are three surviving synagogues in Thessaloniki today, some surviving Jewish mansions on Vassilisis Olgas Avenue, the Modiano Market, and a new Jewish Cemetery in Stavroupoli. The Jewish Studies Centre at the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki, and the Jewish Museum tells the story of a unique community, and the Jewish Museum on Agiou Mina Street opened in 2001.

The current exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Art and History on Rue du Temple in Paris is curated by Catherine Pinguet and Nicolas Feuillie. It remains open until 21 April 2024.

Θεσσαλονίκη μου

Θεσσαλονίκη μου μεγάλη φτωχομάνα
εσύ που βγάζεις τα καλύτερα παιδιά
Θεσσαλονίκη μου μεγάλη φτωχομάνα
όπου κι αν πάω σ’ έχω πάντα στην καρδιά

Θεσσαλονίκη μου ποτέ δε σ’ απαρνιέμαι
είσ’ η πατρίδα μου, το λέω και καυχιέμαι

Thessaloniki, you great mother to the needy!
You are the one who gives the finest kids their start.
Thessaloniki, you great mother to the needy!
No matter where I go you’re always in my heart.
Thessaloniki, I will never be without you,
You are my home, I say it and I brag about you!

Shabbat Shalom

The exhibition on Thessaloniki at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris until 21 April 2024 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
31, 15 March 2024,
Lanfranc of Canterbury

Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury in the window above the High Altar in the Church of Saint Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Lent began over a month ago on Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and this week began with the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Lent IV), also known as Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day (10 March 2024).

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury (left) with Saint Dunstan, Saint Anselm and Archbishop Stephen Langton in the window above the High Altar in Saint Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 31, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury

Lanfranc (1089), Prior of Le Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury is remembered with a commemoration in Common Worship on 28 May. Lanfranc was born in Pavia, Italy, ca 1005. At the age of 35, he became a monk of the Benedictine Abbey in Le Bec, Normandy. There he founded the school that rose rapidly to renown throughout Europe.

William of Normandy appointed him Abbot of Caen in 1062, and then in 1070 Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. Lanfranc was a great ecclesiastical statesman, overseeing administrative, judicial and ecclesial reforms with the same energy and rigour that the Conqueror displayed in his new kingdom.

Lanfranc did not forget his monastic formation: he wrote Constitutions for Christchurch, Canterbury, based on the customs of Le Bec, and appointed many Norman abbots to implement his vision in the English abbeys. He died in 1089.

The Church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, London, was built ca 1080 by Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, who had accompanied William the Conqueror from Bec in Normandy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 7: 1-2, 10, 25-30 (NRSVA):

7 After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. 2 Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near.

10 But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.

25 Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, ‘Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? 26 And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? 27 Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’ 28 Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. 29 I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.’ 30 Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.

Archbishop Lanfranc depicted in a stained-glass window in Canterbury

Today’s Prayers (Friday 15 March 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Lent Reflection: JustMoney Movement.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Matt Ceaser, Movement Builder, JustMoney Movement.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (15 March 2024) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray Lord for the mission of the JustMoney Movement and their vision of a world where money is used to shape a fairer, greener future for everyone.

The Collect:

Merciful Lord,
absolve your people from their offences,
that through your bountiful goodness
we may all be delivered from the chains of those sins
which by our frailty we have committed;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for Jesus Christ’s sake, our blessed Lord and Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Merciful Lord,
you know our struggle to serve you:
when sin spoils our lives
and overshadows our hearts,
come to our aid
and turn us back to you again;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday: Saint Edward the Confessor

Tomorrow: Saint Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester

Archbishop Lanfranc depicted in a statue at Canterbury Cathedral

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org