Salonica is the second largest city in modern Greece. A port city on the Aegean Sea, it was an important center for the woolen industry, known for its carpets and embroideries. It is primarily known today for its tourism. Sadly for its tourist business, the old city was destroyed by fire in 1917. It was rebuilt in many styles: Renaissance, neo-Venetian, Morris, and toward the end Art Deco and Bauhaus. Fire and plague; Salonica suffered from the plague on three different occasions in the eighteenth century –1713, 1724, and 1762.
An older name, Thessalonika, is associated with the Christian apostle, Paul of Tarsus. Hence the Biblical texts, First and Second Thessalonians. Classical and Biblical. Like other cities where Paul preached, it had a large population of Jews.
Mark Mazower is most interested in the Medieval and Renaissance City. He does, however, describe the more recent centuries when its commercial life was dominated by Jews, coming from disrupted Jewish communities in Spain (the Marranos) and Italy. Jews were artisans, workmen, hamals (porters), fishermen, and peddlers, among other trades. They managed the popular sports halls, which were a source of accommodation between Greeks and Jews. Like Jews in many other cities, Salonica Jews participated in the rag-trade. Mazower sums up this varied immigrant population as ruled by Moslems, dominated by Jews, and surrounded by Christians.
A remarkable population exchange occurred over several years, 1933 to 1939, some voluntary some forced, a disaster fueled by a panic. It began when 40,000 Greeks fled Bulgaria. The Turks then expelled the remaining ethnic minorities. Maybe 30,000 Greeks and Armenians fled Asia Minor, harassed by Kemalist (Ataturk’s) forces. Another 200,000, responding to a panic fled Greece and other regions in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite a carefully negotiated agreement. The Greek refugees landed in poorly provisioned refugee camps. Typhus and cholera killed many of the refugees. One observer tells of a column 20 miles long, carts pulled by water buffaloes. A ship carrying 7,000 on board remained docked at the Salonica quay, “the Porte” as it was called. There was nowhere to go except to these camps.
It was raining.
Many of these refugees had left their homes in a rush and failed to grab the necessary papers. And without those papers, they could not be part of the formal exchange of Greeks and Turks. Vacant houses were looted. As were many of Salonica’s churches. Moslem populations were fairly well protected by the Kemalists; Jews would soon suffer a different fate.
For many centuries Salonica had been a major trading and manufacturing city in the Ottoman Empire. It was connected by railroad with Istanbul in 1890. Salonica began receiving populations of Turks, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Armenians (Starving Armenians), and various other national and religious minorities in Macedonia. In addition to the various mosques and minarets that shared the early twentieth-century city, there were several grand churches. Being a port city, its quay was lined with handsome warehouses and other testimonies to its industriousness. The Ottoman Empire kept a good census; in 1831 the city had 150,000 souls. By 1913, 180,000.
In a first-year course in European History, you learned about “the sick man of Europe.” About the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. One of the features was the declining livelihood of the Jews. But Jewish livelihoods recovered and Jews, mostly Sephardic Jews, came to dominate the life of the rebuilt central city.
Jews resisted assimilation. They were slow to learn Greek. They continued to maintain their support for the Zionists and a Jewish “homeland” within the Ottoman lands.
The Ottoman Empire had fought beside the Allies in the Great War, but joined Germany in World War II. The Germans occupied Salonica in 1941. Hence the Jews of Salonica. They were one of the largest remaining Jewish populations in the eastern Mediterrranean. In 1943 Adolf Eichmann sent in his henchmen and in January 1943 the “final solution” began. Jews were deported to labor and extermination camps. The Jews of Salonica met much the same fate as the Polish Jews. And thus ended centuries of Jewish life in Salonica.