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Salonika: A pre-war Garden of Eden for Jews


(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 Jews.

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 the shore.

Only Salonika could do it: They had the role of handling the port duties.

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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