Salonika: A pre-war Garden of Eden for Jews
By SRAYA SHAPIRO
(May 22) - It was the Salonikans who saved Tel Aviv from starvation
when, during the Arab revolt half a century ago, Jaffa port was closed to
A jetty was
constructed near the estuary of the Yarkon river. Launches carried sacks
of flour from a ship moored offshore, and former Salonikan stevedores
carried the sacks on their back from the jetty to a makeshift warehouse on
Only Salonika could do it: They had the role of handling the port
Up to the end of the Turkish era, a visitor described Salonika as a
garden of Eden for the Jews. And, although they wore the baggy
Turkish-style trousers and a tarboosh on their heads, the sailors on local
ships, the stevedores in the port and the obstreperous custom agents were
practically all Jews. And most of the landlords and the workers on the
land probably were too.
The story of the Jews of Salonika over the nearly 300 years that it was
under Turkish rule (it reverted to the Greeks and to its Greek name of
Thessaloniki in 1912) is told by some 10 scholars in Yemei Hasahar (The
Days of the Crescent), edited by Minna Rozen, who holds the chair for the
history and culture of the Jews of Salonika at Tel Aviv University.
Theirs was hardly a pastoral existence. Indeed, the bitter persecutions
they had to suffer under the Christian lords of Byzantium ceased under the
Ottomans. Salonika became a safe haven for refugees in search of relative
security from the intolerance of Spain and Germany. From Salonika and
other towns in the Balkans, Jewish traders were able to facilitate the
exchange of goods between western Europe, via Venice and Leghorn, and the
East, through Istanbul and Egypt.
Commerce was, of course, a traditional "Jewish" trade. But so
too were medicine, banking and textiles. Over the years, Salonika became
an important center of wool weaving.
The Salonikans invited experts to teach them how to produce all sorts
of salable commodities, including wine. But hazards lurked in many
quarters. Izmir, across the Aegean, vied for the same markets Salonika
nurtured, as did the other Balkan ports such as Ragusa (Dubrovnik).
The Sublime Porte - the central government in Istanbul - was interested
mainly in money. To taxes that existed under Christians were added new
ones, which the community could not sustain. The Jews tried the
impossible: Rabbi Moshe Almoslino led a delegation to Istanbul and, after
three years, obtained from the Sultan an exemption from certain dues.
However, Almoslino was not appreciated by everybody back home - some
people refused to participate in the expenses of the expedition because,
they claimed, they could do it more cheaply by bribing local officials.
Each group of immigrants insisted on having a synagogue of their own -
a phenomenon known throughout the Diaspora. But what caused a real rift in
the community was the tension between rich and poor. Francos, immigrants
from Christian countries who sought protection from the consuls of the
states from which they came, had made fortunes. The rabbinical
establishment often sided with the rich, yet there were instances, such as
one in Izmir, when the wealthy leaders of the community sacked a rabbi
whose adherence to the letter of the law was more than what they were
prepared to suffer.
But when Christian missionaries tried to make inroads into the Jewish
community, the rich reacted with parallel help to the needy. On the whole,
the mainly American Baptist missionaries who were active in the Levant in
the 19th century, were unsuccessful among the Sephardi Jews of Salonika,
Izmir and Istanbul.
Being a majority, however, did not give the Jews of Salonika any
political power. They could not exercise any influence on the political
history of the place they lived in. The Jews of Salonika were not able to
defend themselves when history put them at the mercy of the Germans
towards the end of World War II.
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