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The rise and decimation of the Greek Jewish Community 

The History of  Thessalonica  Jews

As already mentioned on Legacy Page the time that  the Jews first settled in Thessalonica is  not clear  yet. Some researchers claim that there were Jews in Thessalonica at the time of its founding (315 BCE).Others support that the Jews initially settled in Thessalonica in 140 BCE coming from Alexandria. Flavius Joseph talks about Jews in Macedonia. Another important reference to the presence of a organized Jewish Community in Thessalonica is to be found in the Acts of the Apostles. The relevant passage informs us that Paul visited the city in 50 CE and taught at the Synagogue on three consecutive Saturdays.

There is also evidence about the continuous existence of a Jewish Community in Thessalonica during Roman and Byzantine times. These Jews were called "Romaniotes". They had hellenized their names and spoke Greek. However, the most significant settlement was that of more than 30.000 Spanish Jews (Sephardim) who, being persecuted by the Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabella and the Inquisition, left Spain and settled in Thessalonica in 1492. More Jews exiled form Sicily, Portugal and North Africa arrived as well. All these people settled in the city of Thessalonica which was almost totally deserted after its conquest by the Turks in 1430. They occupied the area from Vardari Square to Diagonios Street and from Egnatia Street to the waterfront promenade.

Demographically, the Jews were the dominant element of the city and turned it into a first rate commercial center. The Sephardim distinguished themselves in the field of textiles, worked in the mines of Gallikos River and Sidirokapsa, founded the first printing house in Thessalonica in 1520 and many of them distinguished themselves as rabbis, physicians, philosophers, poets and law teachers. Thus, the fame of Thessalonica spread all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This is why Thessalonica was given the honorary title of "Mother in Israel".

The successful period was interrupted at the beginning of the 17th century. Commerce received a blow after the discovery of new sea routes and the city itself suffered consecutive fires and epidemics. Still, the determining event at the time was the appearance of a self-proclaimed Messiah, Sabetai Sevi (1655). His popularity alarmed the Ottoman Authorities who arrested him and condemned him to death (1666). In order the save his life Sabetai Sevi converted to Islam. Then  hundreds of  Jewish families followed his example.

This mass conversions truly shook the community which recovered only as late as the middle of the 19th century. A series of modernizing measures taken by the Ottoman authorities in the city enhanced the process of revival. The city expanded. It was lit by electricity, electric streetcars were installed, the port was modernized and a railroad connection with the rest of Europe was established. From 1873 the Jews received advanced European education thanks to the Alliance Israelite Universelle Schools. It was at that time that the first newspaper ever was published in Thessalonica. It was the Jewish paper "EL LUNAR" (1864). Industrial development was launched too, with the big steam mill of the Italian - Jews of the Allatini family (1854).

The Jews dominated the commercial scene, were active in all professions and were by far the largest labor force in the city. That is why the city streets were deserted on the Sabbath and on Great Jewish Holidays. In 1891, the Jewish Community founded the working-class neighborhoods of Baron Hirsch and Kalamaria and established a whole chain of brilliant and unique charity institutions. They created a welfare system that has not been equaled in any other Diaspora community (Allatini and Mair Aboave orphanages, the Baroness de Hirsch Hospital, Mental Asylum, Saoul Modiano Old People's Home, Bikour Holim Health Organization, etc.). The community had more than 30 Synagogues, numerous chapels and parish schools and the great traditional "Talmoud Torah Agadol" School. After the Greek revolution against the Ottomans in 1908, the socialist organization "Federation" was founded and the first Zionist groups made their appearance (Bene Sion, Kadima Macabbe, Misrahi, etc.).

On October 26, 1912 Thessalonica becomes Greek again. The leaders of the Community are immediately received by King George I and the Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos who promised to respect the rights of the community and offered full equality in the eyes of the Law. According, to the Greek Authorities Census, the Jews of Thessalonica numbered 61,439 as compared to 45,867 Muslim 39,936 Greek and 10,600 people of other origins. A few years later the City was devastated by the 1917 fire. The Community was cruelly hit. It numbered 53,000 homeless members. Almost all synagogues, schools and charity institutions were destroyed. For this reason many Jews emigrated in the period between the two Wars and especially after the sad incident of arson that destroyed the Kambel  neighborhood (1931). Most of them settled in the Land of Israel. Still, in 1940 the Community numbered more than 50,000 people. The Jews of Thessalonica lived peacefully along with their Christian neighbors. They fought bravely for their homeland during the Italian - German invasion in  1940-41, and 12,898 of them joined the Armed Forces (343 officers). They suffered 513 dead and 3,743 wounded.

Thessalonica's occupation by the Axis Forces (April 9, 1941) was the beginning of the end. The Nazis applied anti-Jewish measures from the very first days. They forbade the admission of Jews to cafes, cinemas etc. They took over the Hirsch Hospital and many Jewish houses, imprisoned members of the Community Council, looted the Community offices, destroyed its archives and all Jewish libraries. On July 11, 1942 all male Jews between 18 and 45 years of age were ordered to present themselves at Eleftherias Square. After incredible humiliations, their names were taken down and they were led to labor camps. The Community paid a 2,5 billion drachmas ransom  to free them. At the end of the same year all Jewish businesses were confiscated and the more than 2000 year old Jewish Cemetery was destroyed.

As of February 1943 the Jews were obliged to wear a Yellow Star badge on their breasts and live only in certain areas (ghettos). They were forbidden to work as members of the professions (lawyers, physicians, professors) and to belong to any club or institution. On March 15, 1943 the first train left for the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Until August 1943, another eighteen convoys would follow. They carried almost all the Jews, packed in carriages that had been designed for animals. Their destination was the place of their extermination. A very small number managed to escape thanks to the help of Christian friends or joined the Resistance Forces. These Jews returned to Thessalonica after its liberation in October 1944 and together with the few refugees from the death camps they managed to start a new life from the ruins. ( see Books On Greek Jewry )

Today, despite the extermination of 96% of its members, the Jewish Community of Thessalonica is once again a reality in the city. The age-old hymns echo in the three synagogues, the young members of the Community attend a proper Jewish primary school. An ultra modern Old People's Home provides residence to the elderly and a Community Center attracts the young. So, despite its tragic ordeal, the Jews of Thessalonica managed to rise from their ashes and offer a tangible example of vitality and spiritual strength.

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF THESSALONICA AFTER THE HOLOCAUST

It is well known that of the 50,000 Jews of pre-war Thessalonica less than 2,000 were saved. Soon after the liberation of the city from the Nazis (October 1944), the few Jews that had joined the Resistance Forces or had joined within Greece turned up. They gathered at the Synagogue of the Monasteriotes, the only one that had been saved from destruction, and elected a Governing Committee. This Committee managed to take back the Community's property and organized some sort of Community life with the help of organizations such as American Joint Distribution Committee and HIAS. After May 1945 those who survived the death camps gradually appeared in Thessalonica. The largest number of the survivors had neither family nor means of livelihood. Those who managed to get their homes or shops back found them empty, looted by the Nazis and their collaborators. They lived in the buildings of the Community institutions and were fed by the Community. Many of them emigrated en masse to the USA and Israel. In spite of all these difficulties the small Jewish Community started to reorganize itself and return to normal.

Today the Community has one Rabbi and three Synagogues. For the Shehita and Moeluth needs a specialist is invited from Athens. As for education the Community provides Jewish teachers from Israel or Greek-Jews who were trained in Israel. In the first few years after the War, the Community had entered an agreement with two private schools. So the children were all at the same place and could be taught Hebrew. Since 1979, the Community has its own private primary school and nursery. Every summer it organizes children's camps and also maintains a youth community center and the only Jewish asylum for the elderly in Greece.

In 1983, the Jewish Community of Thessalonica funded the construction of the "Hellenic House" at the Jerusalem University. It was honored for this reason by the Athens Academy. The Community was also honored by the City of Thessalonica which in 1986, dedicated a square in the city to the memory of the Holocaust victims. 

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF THESSALONICA TODAY.

ADMINISTRATION

The Jewish Community of Thessalonica is a Legal Entity under Public Law. It comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministries of Education and Religion and it operates according to Law No. 2456/1920 "On the Jewish Communities". It is accountable to the State and submits its budget and accounts to it for approval. Its highest authority is the twenty-member Community Assembly elected in a general election every four years. The Assembly elects through secret ballot the five-member Community Council that is its executive authority. The Council appoints specific Committees responsible for particular sectors (Cemetery, Synagogues, school, school care, welfare, medical care, management of real estate property, summer camps, public relations). The Community Services cover all activities and carry out the decisions of the Community Council and the Committees.

EDUCATION

The Jewish Primary School: Since 1979 the Jewish Community of Thessalonica has been running a six-year primary school and nursery attended by about 80 children. The school is housed in the traditional building of the charity organization "Matanoth Laevionim" where until the Holocaust free meals were served to poor students. The nursery admits children from the age of three and a half. In addition to the National Curriculum Hebrew, English and French as well as Jewish Religion and History are taught at the Primary School.
School Care: The Community's care for education is extended to secondary school pupils and students of Universities and Technical Studies Institutions. Students with inadequate means are supported with subsidies and loans and those who excel receive scholarships.
Summer Camp: Ever since the first post-War years the Community introduced the institution of summer camps for children, the only such camps in Greece. At first it was located on Perea beach, just outside Thessalonica, later in Chalkidiki and in the last few years at Plaka Litohorou, at the feet of Mt. Olympus.Today the camp hosts 150-200 children aged 7-15. They come from all Jewish communities in the country and from abroad.

YOUTH CENTER

The community maintains a Youth Center that organizes various recreational and cultural events such as dances excursions, congresses and seminars.

CLUBS - SOCIAL LIFE

In Thessalonica there are:

a) The Jewish cultural club "Brotherhood" which organizes various events at its locale on 24, Tsimiski Str.

b) The ladies organizations with a wide range of social and cultural activities.

c) The athletic club "MACCABEE" which maintains basket ball and table tennis sections.

d) The "Greece-Israel" Association which promotes closer bonds between the two peoples through various activities.

CHARITY ACTIVITIES

Welfare Care .The Community offers subsidies to its less privileged members and has recently introduced a series of measures in order to support young couples, so as to face its demographic problems. There is also a loan service for businessmen and small industry owners. The Community maintains a surgery and covers fully the medical and pharmaceutical needs of its less privileged members.

"Saoul Modiano" Old People's Home

The "Saoul Modiano" Old People's Home was founded with a donation by Saul Modiano, a Jew of Thessalonica who died in Trieste in 1924. It started operating in 1932 in its own building on Queen Olga Str. The purpose of the Home was to look after the elderly Jews of both sexes. The Home operated continuously until the German occupation. In 1943 its inmates shared the fate of the rest of the Jewish population of Thessalonica. They were exiled and exterminated in the Auschwitz gas chambers. Thus, the Home did not operate until 1974, when the Council of the Jewish Community of Thessalonica under the chairmanship of David (Dick) Benveniste decided to reopen the institution, thinking that it would serve the needs of Thessalonica's as well as the needs of the whole country's old people. 
The Community decided that a new building had to be erected in order to fulfill contemporary requirements and therefore undertook this task. The construction and provision of all necessary equipment were completed in 1981 and since then the institution has been in operation. The Old People's Home admits men and women who are members of the Jewish Communities of Greece and are over 65 years of age. It operates in a six-story building. Each floor has seven single and two double bedrooms, as well as a lounge. On the ground floor three is a synagogue, a restaurant and a reception hall. The institution employs the necessary administrative, health and auxiliary staff. The Community physician visits the institution and examines its residents once a week. There is also occupational therapy by trained staff.

All Jewish Holidays are observed and officially celebrated at the Old People's Home. The Community ladies and school pupils often take part in the Home's activities. Thus, in the few years it has been in operation thanks to the full and manysided support of the Jewish Community of Thessalonica, the "Saul Modiano Old People's Home has established itself as a genuine "Home for our Parents", a warm asylum where Jewish senior citizens live in a happy, dignified and comfortable environment, among people who embrace them with love and care.

THE NEW JEWISH CEMETERY

It is known that the Nazis destroyed the ancient Jewish cemetery of Thessalonica that covered an area of about 300,000 sq. m. at the place where the University Campus is situated today. The graves were looted and tombstones were scattered all over the city. After the liberation, the Community founded a new cemetery in the Stavroupolis area. Some tombstones from the old cemetery were carried there and a monument for the victims of the Holocaust has been erected.

SYNAGOGUES

a) The Synagogue of the Monasteriotes

The Synagogue of the Monasteriotes was founded with a donation by Ida Aroesti in memory of her husband Isaac. Families from Monastir in Yugoslavia who had settled in Thessalonica after the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and World War I (1914-1918), also contributed to the Synagogue's building and furnishing. The foundations were laid in 1925 and the construction work lasted for two years. The Synagogue was officially opened by the then Chief Rabbi of Thessalonica Chaim Raphael Habib on 27 Elul 5687 (1927). 
During the Nazi occupation the Synagogue of the Monasteriotes was the center of the ghetto sector that was created in the inner city. When the entire Jewish population was exiled to the death camps, the Synagogue was used by the Red Cross as a warehouse. This was the reason it escaped destruction by the Nazis and was maintained in relatively good repair. 
Immediately after the liberation in November 1944, the few Jews that had been saved by Christian friends and those who had joined the National Resistance Forces found refuge in this Synagogue. When normal Community life war restored this Synagogue became the central Synagogue of Thessalonica. 
In June 1978 the earthquake that shook the city caused serious damage to the Synagogue and its operation ceased until the fine task of its restoration was completed with funds furnished by the Greek Government that considered this Synagogue as one of the historical monuments of Thessalonica. Today it is in operation for the religious needs of the Thessalonica Jews.

b) "Yad Lezicaron" Synagogue

This Synagogue was opened in 1984 dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It was built on the site of the small "Bourla" prayer center (Caal de la Plaza) that had been operating since 1912 to meet the religious needs of the numerous Jews who worked in the nearby market place.

c) "Saul Modiano" Synagogue

There is also a small synagogue in the Old People's Home for their religious needs.

CULTURAL

1) The Center of the Course of Jewish history, in Thessalonica.

It was opened in 1985 as part of the celebration of the 2,300 year anniversary of the city's founding. It includes a permanent photographic exhibition covering the history of the Thessalonica Jews (traditional costumes, synagogues, Jewish press, traditional Houses and charity institutions, neighborhoods, Holocaust).

2) Museum of the Jewish Presence in Thessalonica.

It also includes a museum and a specialized library on the history and customs of the Jews of Thessalonica. It intends to set up on 1997, with the occasion of the Cultural Capital.

3) Publications

The Community has, in the last few years, funded a series of publications on its history and traditions. These publications are:

a) "Agada sel Pessach".

Editor: Barouh Schiby

It is trilingual (Greek, Hebrew and Spanish in Latin characters and "Rashi"). This book has been recognized as a true work of art.

b) IN MEMORIAM

by M. Molho and J. Nehama:

It is the story of the Holocaust of the Jews of Greece. It was written in French and had been published right after the War. It had been out of print for some time. The Jewish Community of Thessalonica organized its republication both in the original French version an in a Greek translation realized by George Zografakis.

c) "The History of the Jews of Thessalonica"

by J. Nehama in 7 volumes

The Community has funded the reprinting of the first five volumes that had been out of print while the author was still alive. The Community also funded the first publication of the last two volumes of this monumental work and also its Greek translation.

Other publications that were funded by the Jewish Community of Thessalonica are: "BIRKENAU" memories from the death camps by our fellow citizen doctor A. Menashe.

"The Synagogues of Thessalonica:

by Alberto Nar.

"The Proverbs of the Sephardim Jews of Thessalonica"

by George Zografakis.

The translations of the Hymns and the Prayer Book of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) by Asher Moissis.

A special edition of the "Chronika" magazine for the 2,300 year anniversary of the city of Thessalonica.

THE HELLENIC HOUSE

The Jewish Community, in an effort to encourage the research and study of Ancient Greek literature and to further contribute to the promotion of closer bonds between the peoples of Greece and Israel, undertook the construction of a wing at the University Complex of Jerusalem. This wing was named "The Hellenic House" and was opened on March 14, 1984; many eminent personalities from the world of politics and culture were present. The wing was dedicated to the memory of the Greek-Jewish students who were killed during the Holocaust.

The Jewish Community of Thessalonica was honored by the Athens Academy and the Rotary Clubs of Thessalonica for this historic gesture.

MODERN JEWISH MONUMENTS OF THESSALONICA

Among the very few modern monuments of our city that survived to our days some buildings that belonged to Jewish families or hosted charity institutions stand out.

The most important ones are:

"Villa Allatini" (198 Vassillissis Olgas Str.)

A work by the Italian architect Vitaliano Pozelli. It was built in 1888 as the summer residence of the Allatini family, a family famous for both its business and community activities. Between 1909 and 1912 it was used as the prison-residence of Sultan Abdul Hammid II, who was overturned by the New Turks. In 1926 it hosted the then newly founded University of Thessalonica while in the 1940-41 War it was used as a hospital. Today, Villa Allatini hosts the Prefecture of Thessalonica.

Other monumental buildings that belonged to the Allatini family and are still in use today are the mills on Antheon Str. and their Bank on Stock Market Square.

"Villa Fernandez" (Casa Bianca) (at the corner of Vassillissis Olgas and Th. Sofouli Str.),

Built in 1910 by the Italian architect Pierro Arigoni to be the residence of the Jewish businessman Dino Fernandez it has been associated with the romantic story of his daughter Aline's affair with Lieutenant Aliberti.

"Villa Mοrdoch"

Built by the Greek architect Xenophon Paeonides in 1905 to be the residence of the Turkish Division Commander Saifulah Pasha. In 1923 it was bought by the Jewish family Schialom and in 1930 by another Jewish family, the Mordochs. After World War II it housed successively the services of ELAS, the 3rd Army Corps, and the Social Security Institution in the City of Thessalonica. Today it is used by the Municipality of Thessalonica as an Exhibition Hall for paintings.

"Villa Jacob Modiano"

It was built in 1906 to be the residence of Jacob Modiano by the engineer Eli Modiano. In 1913 the villa was bought by the City of Thessalonica and offered as a palace to the then King Constantine. It was used in the period between the two Wars as the residence of the Governor General of Macedonia and it later housed the Military Medicine School. Since 1970 it has been housing the Macedonian Popular Art Museum. 
The visitor interested in the sites associated with the Jewish Community of Thessalonica can also visit the picturesque Modiano Market, the "Saul Modiano Arcade", the Hippocrates Hospital, built in 1907 by the Jewish Community with the support of Baroness Clara de Hirsch, and finally "Yenni Djami" built in 1902 by the "Donmes" (Jews who had converted to Islam in the 17th century) and used later as Thessaloniki's Archeological Museum. After the new Archeological Museum was finished, Yenni Djami is used for painting and sculptures expositions.

JEWISH COMMUNITY OF THESSALONICA

Useful addresses

1) Synagogue of the Monasteriotes:
35, Syngrou Str. tel. 524.968

2) Yad Lezicaron Synagogue and Center of Historical studies of Thessalonica's Judaism
24, V. Heracliou Str. tel. 223.231

3) Community Offices, Rabbinate
Community Center, "Brotherhood"
Club: Tsimiski 24, tel. 272.840, 277.803
221.030, 221.124

4) Cemetery and the Holocaust Monument:
Stavroupolis
(opposite the "AGNO" factory),
tel. 655.855

5) Jewish Primary School
"Talmud Torah Agadol":
7 Fleming Str. tel. 849.347, 837.177

6) "Saoul Modiano" Old People's Home
89, Kimonos Voga Str. tel. 848.473

7) Jewish Martyrs Square
Enclosed by Papanastasiou,
Priamou and Karakassi Str.



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