The rise and
decimation of the Greek Jewish Community
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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"
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"
There is also a small synagogue in
the Old People's Home for their religious needs.
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.
The Community has, in the last few years, funded a
series of publications on its history and traditions. These publications
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
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
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
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
4) Cemetery and the Holocaust Monument:
(opposite the "AGNO" factory),
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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