Social Organisation and Activity
Of the Jewish Community in Thessaloniki

by Albertos Nar

(extract from Queen of the Worthy, Thessaloniki, History and Culture,
Volume I, History and Culture ed. I.K. Hassiotis, Paratiritis, 1997, pp.266-295)

For more than twenty centuries Thessaloniki was a place of refuge for Europe’s persecuted Jewry. Historical communities of the Diaspora, ceaselessly displaced across space and time, were transplanted to this city and took root here, creating a large Hebrew Community, possibly one of the most important in the world, especially during the period 1942-1943. One account relates that Jewish mercenaries from Mesopotamia, serving in the army of Darius I in his campaign against the Scynthians settled in Greece in 513 BC. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Greece is included in the list of nations that accepted the scattered Jews: “Και καταλείψω επ’ αυτών σημεία και εξαποσταλώ εξ αυτών σεσωσμένους εις τα έθνη ...και εις την Ελλάδα και εις τας νήσους τας πόρρω...” (And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations ...and Javan [Ionia], to the isles afar off)[1]. The Book of Joel speaks of Hebrew slaves carried to Greece and sold there in the wake of the successive conquests of Judaea: “Και τους υιούς Ιούδα και τους υιούς Ιερουσαλήμ απέδοσθε τοις υιοίς των Ελλήνων” (The children also of Judah and the children of Jerusalem have ye sold unto the Grecians...)[2].

The first contacts between Athens and the land of Israel should be placed in the early years of the 6th century BC Great quantities of black-figure and red-figure have been found in Judaea, as well as coins from the period of Persian occupation, bearing the word “Yahoud” and the figure of an owl, the bird sacred to the goddess Athena which also appeared on the Attic drachma.

Although the sources relating to the Biblical period are limited, the existence of Hebrew communities in Greece from the Hellenistic period on is also poorly attested. The first documentary evidence from this period is a 3rd century inscription which was discovered in the Attic town of Oporos, and which refers to a slave from Boeotia whose name was “Μόσχος Μοσχίωνος Ιουδαίος” (Moschos son of the Moschion the Judaean). This inscription dates from the reign in Sparta of Areius I (309-265 BC), who corresponded with the High Priest Jonathan[3]. We must therefore accept that the development of close contacts of this nature pre-supposes the existence of Hebrew communities which spread over the centuries which followed.

With the insurrection of the Maccabees and the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, many Hebrew slaves were brought to Greece and sold. This is attested to by two inscriptions from the same period which were found at Delphi, as well as by the decision of the High Priest Jason III to seek refuge in Sparta, “Λακεδαιμονίων αναχθείς ως δια την συγγένιαν τευξόμενος σκέπης” (Having gone to Lacedaemonia on account of their common origin)[4].

During this same period we encounter Jewish communities in certain of the larger centres, including Sparta, Delos, Sicyon, Samos, Rhodes, Kos and Crete[5]. There is also a record of a treaty of friendship between Athens and Judaea[6].

The Hebrew presence in Greece was to continue and to spread. By the 1st century BC Jews had settled in Thessaly, Boeotia, Macedonia, Aetolia, Attica, Argolis, Corinth, Crete and Euboeia[7]. The Hebrew communities in Greece, which by this time had spread to all parts of the country, served as stepping-stones from which the Jews moved on to settle in other parts of the Balkan peninsula.

After the defeat of Perseus, the king of Macedonia, at Pydna in 168 BC, Thessaloniki became the capital of one of the four Roman districts (regiones) in the area. In the wake of the failure of the Andriscus revolt (149 BC), Macedonia was proclaimed a Roman Province (Provincia). Its capital was at Thessaloniki, which rapidly grew to be the largest city in Macedonia, and possibly in Greece. Its development was hastened by the destruction of Corinth, at that time the commercial centre of southern Greece (146 BC), and by the tracing of the Via Egnatia, the major imperial highway to the East, which was built between 146 and 120 BC by the vice-consul Gnaius Egnatius. Thessaloniki was now linked by road to the entire known world.

Artefacts found in the area occupied by the city at that time indicate that the cults of Dionysus, Hercules, Aphrodite, Demetra and Persephone, the Dioscurides and Artemis, were thriving in Thessaloniki before the advent of the Romans. Foreign cults, particularly those imported from Egypt – Osiris, Sarapis, Isis – were also in evidence[8].

This is most probably the period when the first Hebrew settlers, leaving the large Jewish community in Alexandria[9], took up the residence in Greece, arriving either in 168 BC after the insurrection of the Maccabees, or in 140 or possibly 103 BC. There is no documentary evidence to support this theory, however, which remains a major historical problem. The existence, nevertheless, of Jewish communities in Macedonia at this time is confirmed by other sources, including Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, and by a reference in a letter from emperor Caligula to the Roman Governor of Palestine (10 AD).

If, of course, one wishes to move into the realm of the legend and fantasy, one would have to cite the delightful account of the founding of Thessaloniki which is preserved in the writings of 17th century Turkish traveller Evliya Celebi. According to him, “the first builder of the city of Thessaloniki was the Prophet Solomon... There he built a huge palace, the traces of which are visible to this day... The Prophet Solomon lived in Thessaloniki for many years”[10].

Since we know, however, that the city developed very rapidly and that there certainly were Hebrew communities in Greece at that time, we must accept that a group of Jews, however small, selected the city on the Thermaic Gulf as a place in which to settle. In the words of Strabo, moreover, “τόπον ουκ εστί ραδίως ευρείν της οικουμένης ός ού παραδέδεκται τούτο τό φ’υλον (των Ιουδαίων), μηδ΄ επικρατείται υπ αυτού” (it is not easy to find a place anywhere in the world which has not received this tribe (the Jews) nor which has not been dominated by it).

That ancient Hebrew community in Thessaloniki was a typical example of a Jewish community in a large Mediterranean city during the Hellenistic and the Roman periods. Its leader was the rabbi who was the “Archisynagogos” (Ruler of the Synagogue). The other rabbis were called “didaskaloi” (teachers) or “sophoi” (sages). The Chief Rabbi was flanked by a lay council of elders (Gerousia), whose leader was designated by a variety of titles: “ephoros” (curator), “gerousiarches” (chief elder), “epistates ton palaion” (steward of the old ways), or “prostates” (defender). The members of the council were known as “rulers”, “elders” or “archipherekeitai”. The members of the Community, who were known as “Romaniotes”, had adopted the Greek language, although retaining many words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, as well as the Hebrew script. Performing their religious rites in perfect freedom, they quickly acquired considerable influence and gladly welcomed all the Gentiles who cared to approach them, without requiring any preliminary rites of initiation. There thus grew up alongside the Jewish community a small group of converts to monotheism. This then was the organised Hebrew community in the Thessaloniki of the earliest Christian period, the community which was visited by the Apostle Paul. And it was his journey, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, which provided the first documentary evidence of the existence of a Jewish community in Thessaloniki: “... όπου ήν συναγωγή των Ιουδαίων. Κατά δέ το ειωθός τώ Παύλω, εισήλθεν προς αυτοίς από των γραφών...” (... they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures)[11].

According to tradition, the oldest synagogue in Thessaloniki, and probably the one in which the Apostle Paul preached, was called “Es Achaim” (Tree of Life)[12]. This synagogue, during the period of the Ottoman domination and until the Great Fire of 1917, was located near the Port, approximately where Demosthenous Street meets Kalapothaki St. According to Turkish archival sources, this neighbourhood was also called “Ez Haim”. The name of the synagogue passed to the street running in front of it[13]. This of course does not mean that the “Ez Haim” district of the Ottoman period necessarily coincided with Thessaloniki’s ancient Hebrew quarter. We must therefore search for some other part of the city which might have been the site of this quarter and, further, inquire into whether the Hebrew presence in Thessaloniki was continuous from the time of the visit of the Apostle Paul to the mid-14th century. It is of course not easy to deal with such a long period of time, especially with the limited data at our disposal. Knowing, however, that Thessaloniki was an important political and economic centre throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras, we can, even on the basis of the few sources we have, attempt to sketch the history of the Hebrew community of that period.

It is well known that during the period of the Roman Empire the Jews of Thessaloniki were substantially autonomous. Later, with the division of the Roman state into the Empire of the East and the Empire of the West, certain Eastern Emperors paid more attention to the Jews, imposing special taxes on them, or restrictions on the practice of their religion. There were also efforts at modernisation, which however proved ineffective, being frustrated by a number of factors, including Ecumenical Councils, which decreed that the Jews should be free live according to the dictates of their religion[14].

In Thessaloniki, the presence of a Jewish community in the late Roman era is attested by the discovery of a funerary monument from the reign of Septimus Severus. The text of the inscription on the monument, “Tomb of Abraham and his wife Theodota”, leaves no room for doubt about its Hebrew provenance[15].

Thessaloniki’s prosperity continued throughout the early Christian period. A number of key routes passed through the city, and the artificial port built by Constantine the Great was of great benefit to trade and commerce. An inscription of this period mentions merchants from Syria. While these merchants may or may not have been Jews, it is certain that at about this time, probably just at the end of the 4th century (according to an inscription found near the church of Panaghia Chalkeon), there was a Samaritan synagogue in Thessaloniki, founded by the celebrate sophist Siricius, from Neapolis in Judaea[16]. According to topographical studies of Byzantine Thessaloniki, there was in the Omphalos district, near today’s Syngrou, Antigonidon and Philippou Streets, a Jewish quarter known as “palaia [old] Hebraϊs”[17]. The same studies place a second Jewish neighbourhood in the southern, seaward, end of the Hippodrome Quarter. It is not unlikely that there was a Jewish quarter in this neighbourhood, adjacent to the old Roman port (the “Church Docks”) which was later filled in, for the French Consul Germain in the city in the 18th century mentions an area near Hippodrome Square which was known as “the old Jewish Quarter”[18].

Another fertile source of information are the Lives of the Saints which refer to Thessaloniki, for they provide, in addition to their specific subjects, much important material on the general physiognomy of the city. The book of the Miracles of Saint Demetrius mentions a church dedicated to Saint Matrona. (This church, which was near the Via Egnatia, is also mentioned by the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Alexander.) In the account of the saint’s deeds we read: “Άθλησις της Αγίας Μάρτυρος Ματρώνης εκ πόλεως Θεσσαλονίκης. Αυτή θεράπαινα υπήρξε Παντίλλης τινός Ιουδαίας, γυναικός στρατοπεδάρχου εν τη Θεσσαλονικέων πόλει” (Miracle of the Holy Martyr Matrona of Thessaloniki. She cured a Jewess named Pantilla, the wife of a garrison commander in the city of the Thessalonians)[19].

A 7th century text states that “παίδες Εβραίων άφθονοι κατά το λεγόμενων των Βρογχθών μέρος εθεάσαντο” (many children of the Hebrews can be seen in the parts known as the Broncthon) (το των Βρόχθων μέρος)[20]. The “parts known as the Bronchthon” have not been identified, of course, and the major reconstruction which followed the terrible earthquake of 620, which literally shook the city to its foundations, makes it impossible to identify it with any certainty with any of the neighbourhoods mentioned above.

For five centuries after the earthquake of 620 the lack of written sources makes it impossible even to advance any hypothesis with respect to the Jews of Thessaloniki. Neither Theodoros Stouditis, who was banished to Thessaloniki in 795, nor Ioannis Cameniatis, who describes the disaster of the capture of the city by Leon Tripolitis and his Saracens in 904, make any mention of a Jewish community.

Meanwhile, mid-Byzantine Thessaloniki continued to flourish, despite the wars raging around it and the repeated invasions of the Slavs and Bulgars. By the middle of the 12th century the city had a population of over 100,000. And the accounts of the activities of the city are truly astonishing, especially the chronicles of Timarion, describing the festivals and the great St Demetrius Fair, which attracted merchants from all over the world. It was at about this time (1159) that Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela set off from Saragoza for a long journey, which was to last more than 13 years[21]. According to one source, Benjamin had undertaken to visit all the Hebrew communities in the known world and gather information on them. He began his travels in Italy. From Otranto he took a ship to Corfu, and then crossed to the mainland near Arta, traversed Rumeli and part of Theessaly, finally reaching Thessaloniki, where he noted: “After two days at sea we reached Thessaloniki, a large maritime city built by King Seleucus, one of the four successors of Alexander the Great. In this city there live about 500 Jews, under the leadership of Rabbi Samuel and his sons, who are distinguished for their learning. Besides the Rabbi Samuel, there are also the rabbis Sabbetai, Elias and Michael, and other exiled Hebrews who are skilled craftsmen”. The Hebrew community in Thessaloniki, according to Benjamin, was second only to that of Thebes, which had a Jewish population of 2,000, most of whom were silk weavers.

More valuable information about the Jews of Thessaloniki during this period can be gleaned from the chronicle of the Norman siege of 1185, as recorded by Metropolitan Eustathios. In his description of the city, Eustathios says that “’Ιουδαίω μέν γάρ και Αρμενίω ούς αγχιτέρμων Κρανιά και Ζερμέενικος φέρβουσιν” (the Jews and Armenians grazed their animals near the villages of Krania and Zermenikos)[22]. There is also a paragraph in a letter from Eustathios to the Patriarchate in Constantinople, in which he says that “the Jews have spread into every part f the city, and are even living in erstwhile Christian houses”[23]. Are we entitled to take this as an indication if the substantial spread of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki? This is not to be rejected out of hand, especially considering that one century earlier, once the Crusades had opened the road to the land of Israel, a pronounced Messianic movement had begun to run through the Hebrew populations of the West. Large companies of Jews who had left their houses to return to the land of their fathers passed through Thessaloniki. Some of these may have well preferred to remain in the city, thus augmenting its Jewish population.

In the turbulent years which followed, Thessaloniki suffered siege and destruction at the hands of the Normans (1135), occupation by the Franks of the Fourth Crusade (1204), followed by recapture, first by the Despots of Epirus (1224) and soon afterwards by the Emperor of Nicaea (1246). Then came successive waves of invasions – Serbs, Bulgarians, Catalonians – followed by the Insurrection of the Zealots (1342-1349) and the first Ottoman occupation (1387). Meanwhile, on the margin of these events, the first Ashkenazim immigrants arrived in Thessaloniki (1376) from Hungary and Germany, where they were suffering persecution[24]. The Ashkenazim had nothing in common with their Romaniote co-religionists, whom they found established in Thessaloniki. They sought neither to assimilate them nor to mix with them, but formed their own separate community (which also absorbed the small group of Spanish Jews from Majorca which arrived in 1391) and continued to adhere zealously to their own traditions, language and style of dress.

Successive waves of Ashkenazim continued to arrive in the Ottoman empire throughout the 15th century. One of their leaders, Rabbi Isaac Sarfati, who settled in Adrianople, wrote in 1454 to all the Communities of Central Europe recommending their members to follow his example and move to the lands of the Ottomans, where they would be able to live in peace and in accordance with the prescriptions of their faith[25].

The community of the Ashkenazim constantly augmented by new arrivals, that gradually overshadowed that of the Romaniotes, who receded into a second place, their numbers dropping to a mere 30 families[26]. As for the numbers if the Ashkenazim, figures from the early 16th century, found in a “tefter” (ledger) containing the Community Roll, indicate two groups of Jews, the Alaman (German Jews), with 68 families and 15 bachelors, and the Espania (Spanish Jews), with 539 families[27].

The community of the Ashkenazim continued to be reinforced by new arrivals who from time to time sought refuge in Thessaloniki. After the peak years of 1376 and 1470, a new wave of immigrants arrived in the mid-17th century from Poland and Hungary, fleeing the Cossack massacres. Again, towards the end of the 19th century, large numbers of Russian Jews arrived in Thessaloniki, victims of the persecutions of the Czarist regime. In 1934, a small group of Jews from Provence[28] settled in the city, followed, during the period of Venetian rule (1423-1430) by substantial numbers of immigrants from Italy and Sicily who built new Synagogues and, in their turn, formed their own community. Considerable information on the position of the Jews in Thessaloniki during this period may be found in the Archives of the Serenissima[29].

These facts illustrate the anguish of the inhabitants of a city in decline, with Turkish forces again appearing outside its walls. Many of its people moved away, among them numerous Jews. Those remaining are recorded as having requested, in 1425 and again in 1429, a reduction in the taxes they were required to pay, because “there are a few of us remaining and we are poor”. In these desperate circumstances, the Jews lived like brothers with their Greek fellows, mourning with them the death of Metropolitan Symeon, which occurred suddenly six months before the fall of the city to the Ottomans. “Λατίνων τε και αυτών Ιουδαίων ελεεινώς προς εκείνους διομιλούντων” (Latins and the Jews themselves associating with them in sympathy), wrote Ioannis Anagnostis[30] in his heart-rending account. The armies of sultan Murad II appeared outside the city gates on the morning of Sunday, March 26, 1430: Thessaloniki held out for three days. The entrance of the Turkish forces was followed by mass rapine, carnage and taking of prisoners. The Sultan was obliged to intervene personally to put an end to the bloodshed and the taking of slaves. He himself paid the ransoms of numerous prisoners, and saw to the rebuilding and resettling of the city, bringing in both Turks, from Yannitsa, and Christians, to whom he granted various privileges, including exemption from certain taxes and the right to autonomous communal self-government.

What was the fate of the Jewish community at this juncture? Despite the measures adopted by sultan Murad, the city appeared marginalised. Its total population, Greeks and Turks together, was no more than a few thousands, as we learn from the records of a census in 1478. As for the Jews, a register of the inhabitants of Constantinople in 1450 mentions a group of Jews from Thessaloniki (Cama‘at-i Yahudiyan-i Selânik) comprising 92 families[31]. Kritoboulos tells us that, in the wake of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, sultan Mehmed II immediately ordered the city resettled with forced relocations of people from other cities. Evliya Celebi refers to the resettlement of 50 Jewish families from Thessaloniki to Constantinople. These figures led American turcologist Lowry to the conclusion that the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki had been transported to Constantinople. While we must accept that a number of Jews from Thessaloniki did settle in the Ottoman Capital at that time, the information we have does not justify the conclusion that the entire community was transported. Nehama writes that the first Spanish Jews to arrive in Thessaloniki (in 1492) found there 2-3,000 of their co-religionists[32]. While this may be an exaggeration, for such a sizeable community would surely have been mentioned in the 1478 census, it is obvious that the Jewish community in Thessaloniki never ceased to exist and had probably been reinforced by a new wave of Ashkenazim in 1470. The Spanish Jews also found on their arrival in Thessaloniki the synagogues “Italia” and “Sicilia”. And in the writings of numerous Sephardic rabbis, including the great Talmudic scholar Jacob ben Habib (1445-1513), there is extensive discussion of the problems created by the coexistence in the city of Romaniotes and Ashkenazim and of the attitude it benefited the Sephardic community to adopt towards them.

All the foregoing may be considered as the prehistory of the Hebrew people in Thessaloniki. At this time, when Greece was being transformed into a collection of Helleno-Byzantine and Roman Catholic statelets, and into a part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, the decisive event not only for the Hebrew community but for the entire city was the arrival of this mass wave of Sephardim, who settled throughout the Balkans, but particularly in the Macedonian capital of Thessaloniki, changing the face of its Jewish community for the next five centuries.

The governing factor determining the attitude of Spain’s rulers to its Jewish population was the Reconquista, the struggle to recapture the Iberian Peninsula from the Arabs who had established themselves there in the 8th century. This struggle lasted, passing through various phases, until the end of the 15th century. And since it was vital to ensure loyal subject in the “vulnerable” reconquered areas, certain privileges were granted to the lower classes and to the Arabs and the Jews living in these districts.

The Reconquista ended on January 2, 1492, with the final defeat of the Arab state of Granada. And at that point of course there also ceased to exist all the national, political, and financial reasons which had dictated the acceptance of the minorities and led to the absence of any form of racial or religious intolerance. Ferdinand and Isabella, the “Spanish monarchs of the three faiths”, as they liked to be called during the years of war, suddenly became “Catholic Monarchs”. And so we come to the fateful year of 1492. A royal edict was promulgated on March 13 of that year, obliging all Jews either to become Christians or leave the country by the following August[33]. It had been estimated that approximately 50,000 Jews had themselves baptised and remained in Spain.

The rest, more than 250,000, preferred the path of exile. Some went north to France, England and the Low Countries, some preferred Italy or Africa, but most chose the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Bayezid II, spurred by the Chief Rabbi of Constantinople, Elijah Kapsali, opened his dominions and ordered the local governors to treat them well and to help them establish themselves.

Thus it was that the Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, settled in all the major urban centres throughout the Ottoman Empire. The largest group, about 20,000, chose Thessaloniki, which had not yet recovered from the ravages of its capture by the Turks. They may have been drawn by the key geographical position of the city, it may also have been that the Sultan was anxious to build up the city’s active population. With their arrival, the desolated city was roused from its lethargy and transformed into a leading economic centre, as it had been during the Roman and Byzantine eras.

The Sephardim would give a new boost to trade and commerce. They would exploit the mines of the Gallikos river and the Sidirokapsia. They would, in about 1510, establish Thessaloniki’s first printing press. “The commercial climate established by the Jews”, wrote Professor Apostolos Vakalopoulos, “was the prime factor in the stimulation of the economic progress of the Greek inhabitants of the city, apart from any of the other more general causes of their economic development, which began early in the 17th century and which, as we know, prepared and fostered their national awakening”[34].

The century, which followed the exodus from Spain, was also a golden age of scholarship. Thessaloniki developed into an important centre of the theological studies, attracting students from all over the world and producing outstanding figures, rabbis, poets and doctors, whose fame spread through Europe. In 1537, Thessaloniki was glorified by Samuel Usque, a Jewish poet from Ferrara, as the “Mother of Israel”.

The renown of the Israelite community of Thessaloniki attracted other persecuted Jews, who sought refuge and welcome in this city. The initial groups of exiled Sephardim, from 1492, were followed a year later by Jews from Sicily and Italy, again driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella. Their example was soon followed by their fellow monarch Dom Manuel of Portugal, who on December 5, 1496, ordered the Jews residing in his country to become Christians or leave: many of these people settled in Thessaloniki. But even those who had themselves baptised and stayed behind, the so-called “conversos” or “maranos”, were driven out between 1536-1560, victims of the policy known as “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood).

Throughout the 16th and the early 17th century, new waves of refugees arrived from French Provence, Poland, Italy, Hungary and North Africa. “By the end of the 17th century”, wrote P. Risal [Nehama], “it was rare for a ship to dock in Thessaloniki without leaving behind a handful of Jews”[35].

Gradually the Jewish population of the city overtook the Christians and Muslims in numbers. In 1519, according to Ottoman archives, the population of Thessaloniki numbered 1,374 Muslim families and 282 bachelors, for a total of about 6,870, 1,078 Christian families with 335 bachelors, for a total of about 6,635, and 3,143 Hebrew families with 530 bachelors, for a total of 15,715[36].

Having settled in the Sultan’s domains of their own accord, the new arrivals were not considered an enslaved population. They enjoyed the status of “Kendi Gelen”, which conferred upon them numerous privileges and liberties, in contrast to the Romaniotes, the old Byzantine Jewish community, who were considered “Sorgun” and were taxed, and restricted in their choice of domicile, accordingly.

The Jews occupied the ruined and almost deserted areas of the city below Egnatia Street, from Vardaris Square to today’s Pavlou Mela Street. From the early 16th century, Ottoman archival documents refer to 16 Jewish neighbourhoods: Rogoz, Aya Sofia, Kaldirgöc, Pulia, Leviye, Aguda, Yeni Havlu, Baru, Findik, Kadi, Bedaron, Kühlan, Salhâne, Tophâne, Malta and Ez Haim[37].

Within these neighbourhoods, the Jews congregated in thirty separate and autonomous communities, according their place of origin. The epicentre of each community was its synagogue, which in reality was not only a spiritual and administrative centre but a tangible example of the autonomistic tendencies of each group, which stubbornly tried to preserve its independence of the others. By the end of the 17th century Thessaloniki had the following synagogues:[38]

Name Origin of members Founded in
1. Ez Achaim ve Ez Adaat
1st century BC
2. Ashkenaz
Ashkenazim (Central Europe)
3. Provencia
France (Provance)
4. Italia Yashan
5. Sicilia Yashan
Italy (Sicily)
1423 or 1493 or 1505
6. Gerush Sepharad
7. Castilia
Spain (Castile)
8. Mayor Rishon
Spain (Majorca)
9. Catalan Yashan
Spain (Catalonia)
10. Aragon
Spain (Aragon)
11. Neve Shalom
Italy (Calabria)
12. Pulia
Italy (Apuglia)
13. Evora
1512 or 1535
14. Ishmael
Italy (Calabria)
15. Lisbon Yashan
16. Talmud Torah a gadol
Central Synagogue
17. Portugal
18. Estrug
Italy (Apuglia)
19. Catalan Hadas
Spain (Catalonia)
16th century
20. Mayor Seni
Spain (Majorca)
16th century
21. Lisbon Hadas
Portugal (Lisbon)
22. Otranto
Italy (Apuglia)
23. Kiana
Italy (Calabria)
24. Neve Sedek
Italy (Calabria)
25. Yahia
26. Sicilia Hadas
Italy (Sicily)
27. Beth Aaron
Italy (Sicily)
28. Italia Hadas
29. Italia Shialom
30. Shialom
31. Ar Gavoa
Italy (Apuglia)
32. Mograbish
North Africa
17th c. (before 1680)

As we can see, Thessaloniki’s synagogues took their names from the place of origin of their members, and reconstituted, in Thessaloniki, the Spain of the 15th century, from the expulsion of the Sephardim in 1492 to the extermination of their descendants in the Holocaust of 1943.

The supreme organ of each synagogue/community was the assembly. It was ruled over by the Rabbi, who bore the title of Rav of Marbits Torah. His decisions (Askamoth) were binding on all. He was assisted in his work by a seven-member lay council (Maamad Hakaal), headed by a president (Parnas) and a treasurer (Gabai). Its members were called “Memounim, Nivrarim, Gevirim”, and were addressed by titles such as Don, Seňor, Ham, Chelibi.

The Rabbi and his seven-member council appointed the lower religious functionaries, the Hazan (cantor), the Moel (the circumcisor), the Chohet (the ritual slaughterer), and the Melamed (teacher). They also drew up the community budget, transmitted state orders or demands, exercised fiscal responsibilities apportioning the tax burden among the various members of the community, and adding the assessments necessary to maintain the community foundations, and transmitting to the authorities any individual or collective petitions. This autonomy was completed by the jurisdiction of each synagogue/community’s rabbinical court (Beth Din) over all maters of family law or inheritance. Each synagogue/community also had its own primary school (Hevrá), seminary of higher theological studies (Yeshiva) and philanthropic institutions to look after its poor.

But the fluidity of the boundaries between the communities, as well as the business activities practised by some of them from the early 16th century on, especially in the textile industry, gave rise to fierce political rivalries which frequently broke into open conflict when it came time to elect a Rabbi or when certain of the leaders tried to impose their own views in an arbitrary fashion.

More and more, however, business activities needed to be handled on a broader common front, especially when dealing with the Ottoman authorities. And therein lay the seed of the association of the independent synagogue/community into a federation, initially loose but gradually tighter as time went on and circumstances made it necessary. The fruit of this trend was the common synagogue-school “Talmud Torah Agadol”, which was founded in 1520[39].

Sixteenth century texts tell us that artisanal industry occupied the majority of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki. The Jewish immigrants brought with them hitherto unfamiliar techniques. The most highly developed sector was the textile industry, and the writings of contemporary rabbis provide much detailed information about the activities of the Jewish families of Thessaloniki around their looms.

Since 1515 the products of the Jewish weavers of Thessaloniki had covered virtually all the fabric requirements of the Ottoman administration, the cloth being used for the uniforms of the army. At a later date, the synagogue/community were granted the right to pay their poll taxes in kind. By 1540 the synagogues had taken production into their hands, providing gainful employment for the poorer members of the community and using the profits to maintain its philanthropic and educational institutions. A delegation (headed by Moshe Almosnino) from the community to Constantinople in 1568 obtained a new firman confirming their acquired privileges: these had originally been granted by sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, but the relevant documents had been destroyed in the fire of 1545. The Israelite Community of Thessaloniki was thus recognised as “Musselemlik”, that is, an autonomous administrative entity directly under the Sublime Porte.

It was also entitled to obtain raw materials at below market prices[40]. In these conditions, then, and in these economic and political circumstances, the Sephardim moved on to broader horizons, gradually absorbing the Romaniotes who had shouldred the burden of helping their newly-arrived co-religionists adapt, initially to the Byzantine and later to the Ottoman environment. Typical of this new situation were the cases of Dóna Gracia Méndez (or Esther Kyra) and her nephew Don Josef Nasi, who occupied senior positions at the Ottoman Court. The Jews of Thessaloniki were now in a position where they could even impose an embargo on the port of Ancona, when in 1535 the Pope ordered the execution of thirty Jews[41].

The 1568 edict theoretically protected the Jews of Thessaloniki against the whims of the local authorities, but in practise it was frequently ignored by the local governors and even by the government in Constantinople. Dozens of firmans attest to excesses by local authorities in the collection of the poll tax from the Greeks and Jews of Thessaloniki. And the archives of the Venetian embassy in the city describe in sombre colours the ill-treatment of the non-Muslims by the Janissaries stationed in Thessaloniki[42]. Nor did the Sultan himself hesitate to order, in 1636, the execution of Rabbi Judah Kovo, because he judged inadequate in both quantity and quality the cloth submitted in payment of the taxes levied on the Jews of Thessaloniki. There were also abundant instances of special taxes (avarish) to pay for the wars the Sultan was waging. Particularly eloquent is a firman issued in 1646, regarding the expedition against Crete, ordering the judges of the rabbinical courts in the sanjak (prefecture) of Thessaloniki to impose a special tax “like last year of five piastres per household. Likewise each household shall pay an additional tax of ten aspra for travelling expenses and collection dues to the account of the boubasir, as he is called, Mehmet aga”. There are also injunctions against arbitrary taxation: “You are reminded once again that it is strictly forbidden to gather anything more than the sums specified above”[43].

Despite all this, the Israelite synagogue/community of the Ottoman period was still able to develop within the framework of the Ottoman social and political organisation, with certain distinctive characteristics setting it apart from the Jewish communities in Europe. We have seen that the community secured the privilege of pre-determined tax obligations, while at the same time its direct access to Constantinople afforded it a certain protection against the arbitrary whims and personal policies of the local authorities. The oppression exercised by the local authorities, especially with regard to tax-collecting, also worked in favour of the community, which could appeal to a more favourable regime, invoking the interests of the beneficiary of the taxes, that is, the central Imperial authorities.

The tax-farming system applied by the Ottomans to revenue assessment and collection proved decisive in the further development of the synagogue/communities. By this system, the authorities fixed the total amount to be collected from the inhabitants of each specific district, but instead of going to the trouble (and expense) of collecting it directly, they contracted with the communities to deliver the sum in cash or in kind. And the communities, in their turn, used the system to add on an extra sum for their own needs.

According to the Ottoman law, the synagogue/communities were collectively responsible for the collection of the prescribed taxes. This principle of collective responsibility, however, fostered the cohesion and the solidarity of the community, with its wealthier members shouldering the tax burden of the poor, the widows and the orphans, and in many cases the rabbis as well. The rule of collective responsibility also strengthened the hand of the administrative organs of the community, which acquired the right to punish or to confiscate the property of those unwilling to pay.

The position of the Jewish communities in the Ottoman fiscal system, then, determined the sources and the boundaries of their authority. Once the communities acquired responsibilities of this nature and were judged indispensable to the smooth functioning of the state machinery, they were subsequently able to win certain rights, such as the organisation of their education system and their philanthropic institutions, the exercise (to a considerable degree) of legislative power with the distribution of justice by the rabbis. Another factor in the granting of these privileges was the particular economic advantage the Ottoman Empire drew from certain sectors of the productive activities of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, such as the textile industry.

Thus, like the communities of the enslaved Greek people, the small Israelite communities of Thessaloniki, which were born of the tendency of the Hebrew refugees to congregate in a specific place, were able, within the framework of the Ottoman administrative system, to survive and protect their members from assimilation. And it is well known that where their community organisation remained rudimentary and essentially non-existent, the Jewish communities did not in fact survive.

We have seen that the myriad matters requiring common handling led the synagogue/communities to form, from the early years of the 16th century, a federal association. By this time the heterogeneity and the local differences begun to disappear. The convergence of the separate synagogue/communities was further facilitated by the gradual interruption of the flow of immigrants towards Thessaloniki, the integrating dominance of the Spanish tongue, and the inevitable dislocations resulting from the earthquakes, fires and epidemics that so frequently afflicted the city.

The principal governing body of the association was a triumvirate of rabbis, which met for the first time in 1618. The initial members of this body were Chaim Sabbetai, Asher Cohen Benarduth, and Abraham Mountal. These triumvirates were reconstituted with the death of the last member of each one. One of the three rabbis, usually the eldest, presided over their meetings: he was known as “Rav Gadol” (Great Rabbi, Chief Rabbi). Initially this title carried no special weight; the presiding rabbi had no more powers or responsibilities than his colleagues: he was merely primus inter pares. A second triumvirate was constituted in 1657-1670, with Chaim Abraham Perahia, Baruch Angel and Moshe Sabbetai.

These triumvirates, like the lay councils which assisted the, did not seek to restrict the autonomy of the synagogue/communities. Their mission was rather one of co-ordination. What hastened the course of developments in the 17th century were events of a different nature: earthquakes, fires, the tyranny of the Ottoman authorities, economic decline. Thessaloniki’s trade was shaken by the discovery of new sea routes, the dwindling of Venetian commerce and the embroilment of the Ottoman Empire in a series of losing wars. Cultural decline followed in the wake of economic regression, as this was a period when scriptural studies waned while mysticism and the occult thrived, with the study of the “Kabbala” and its core text, the “Zohar”.

It was in this climate that Sabbetai Sevi made his appearance in Thessaloniki, in 1655. Coming from Smyrna, he announced in a discourse in the Shialom Synagogue that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the King of Israel and the saviour of the Hebrew people. His speeches had such an impact that the Ottoman authorities were afraid, with the result that in 1666 he was arrested and sentenced to death. In order to save his life, he converted to Islam. The Jews of Thessaloniki were already divided, into those who believed him and those who viewed him as unbalanced and a fake. The former group, about 300 families, followed him in his apostasy, thus creating the peculiar Hebrew-Muslim sect described by the name “Dönme” (apostate).

This group defection created terrible problems for the community. Hundreds of families, as well as guilds, were divided. Nor was this a crisis which could be surmounted either individually, by the several synagogue/communities, or collectively, by the federation, despite the ability and the authority of its leaders. The economic crisis further weakened the synagogue/communities, making it difficult for them to maintain their separate philanthropic and educational institutions. These communities were thus gradually induced to cede more and more of their rights to the central federal authority which, now having both greater obligations and wider powers, was obliged to operate on a systematic basis.

Finally, in about 1680, the small independent communities amalgamated into a single organisation which was governed by the rabbinical triumvirate and a seven-member lay council. The first triumvirate of this single Community was composed of the sole surviving member of the previous triumvirate, Moshe Sabbetai, with Abraham de Boton and Elijah Kovo. The rabbinical courts were abolished in the individual synagogues, and three new Community courts were set up, with jurisdiction over family, inheritance and land matters. Each of these courts was composed of three rabbis, appointed by the Chief Rabbi: they were known as “Dayanim” (rabbinical judges). The philanthropic institutions were also merged, and the parish schools were brought under the control of the central community authorities.

The unified community still retained its right to apportion the taxes destined for the Ottoman authorities, and to impose community taxes, both direct, like the “Pechia”, which was payable by all, according tot heir means or indirect like the “Gabella”, a special tax on certain products, such as meat, cheese and wine. Beginning in 1744, the community also imposed tax on imports and exports.

It is evident that, even in these difficult times, the Jews of Thessaloniki preserved their community structure in model fashion, despite the decline in scholarship and the movement of ideas that was the inevitable concomitant of schism, the economic crisis and the oppression of the Janissaries.

For the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, however, this was the dark period of the Middle Ages: the Renaissance was to follow, in the middle of the 19th century, with the turning to western partners which accompanied renewed economic prosperity, through the awakening of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the new wave of colonialism, this time directed towards the Levant. Within the Jewish community these new messages took the form of the “Ashkala” movement, that is, the “stepping beyond” the spiritual limits of scriptural and post-scriptural tradition, and the study and cultivation of contemporary extra-scriptural thought and art. Particularly in the East, including the city of Thessaloniki, new socio-political transformations occurred, while the Ottoman despotism endeavoured to change its image.

The Janissaries were abolished in 1826, while with the edicts of Hatt-i Humayun and Gülhane (1836 and 1854 respectively) certain political rights were granted – for the first time – to the non-Muslim people of the Empire. The large-scale penetration of western industrial products also helped to turn Thessaloniki into a trading-post, and was to contribute to the city’s expansion and modernisation. By 1866, sections of the Byzantine walls were being torn down. The fires of 1890, 1896 and 1898 provided an opportunity to redesign the city. The burn-out areas were laid out anew, narrow lines widened, and running water, electricity and tram lines laid down, as well the railway tracks for the line which had linked Thessaloniki with Europe in 1888 and Constantinople 1896. New port works were inaugurated, modern banks opened, and, in 1854, the first modern industrial plant was founded, by a Jewish-Italian family: this was the Allatini flour mill, which is still in operation today[44]. The Jews also owned 38 of the 54 largest trading houses in the city, and furnished the overwhelming majority of its labour force[45].

While Thessaloniki maintained its multi-ethnic character, the demographic and economic domination of its Hebrew community constituted one of its most remarkable features. A few figures from this period present a fuller picture of the structure of the Jewish community at this time. At the end of the 19th century, then, the Jewry in Thessaloniki numbered more than 70,000 souls, or approximately half the total population. Among these were: 4,000 merchants, 4,000 small tradesmen, 2,000 porters, 600 boatmen, 250 street vendors, 250 butchers, 220 craftsmen/artisans, 150 fishermen, 500 coachmen and carters, 100 household servants, 60 coal merchants, 2,000 waiters, 50 wood-cutters, 500 practitioners of various manual crafts, 8,000 clerks, 8,000 labourers, 300 teachers, 40 pharmacists, 30 lawyers, 45 doctors and dentists, 10 journalists and 3 engineers[46]. Jewish industrialists also owned 12 soap factories, 30 textile plants, 9 flour mills, 1 tile-works and 1 brewery. Social welfare was expanded, and was offered in modern philanthropic institutions such as the Matanoth Laevionim, which operated student refectories, the Torah Umlahah, which provided financial support for poor students and helped them establish themselves in their professions, the Allatini and Aboad orphanages, the Lieto Noah psychiatric asylum, the Hirsch (now the Hippocrateion) Hospital, the Bikur Cholim medical centre and, later, the Saul Modiano Home for the Elderly.

The educational system was restructured, with the modernising of the dozens of parish schools and the traditional Talmudic school, and with the foundation in 1873 of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school. Jewish children were also the main costumers of the numerous foreign schools. In 1891 the community welcomed thousands of refugees from the pogroms in Czarist Russia; they were accommodated, along with the victims of the 1890 fire (and later the 1917 fire) in the newly built communities of Hirsch, Kalamaria, the “151”, Regie Vardar, etc. The two first-named were in fact the first planned building projects in Thessaloniki.

“El Lunar”, the first newspaper in circulation in Thessaloniki, in 1865, was also Jewish-owned[47]. It was followed in 1867 by “La Epoca”, and later by the independent “La Imparcial”, “Le Progrès”, “Journal de Salonique”, “La Liberté”, “Opinion”, “L’ Independent”, the Zionist “La Nation”, “El Avenir”, “Renacencia Judia”, “La Esperanza”, “Pro Israel”, the socialist “La Solidaridad Ouvradera” and “Avanti”, etc. These journals published all the opposing ideological currents which appeared and were shaped and reshaped within the Hebrew community in the last years of the 19th century, transforming its age-old traditional structure.

The “Club des Intimes” and the Union of Alumni of the Alliance schools became the centres of the modernists who professed the dogma of assimilation. This tendency, however, being largely French-inspired, suffered a severe setback with the Dreyfus affair and the revival of anti-semitism in France. This celebrated affair contained the seeds of a new ideological current: Zionism[48]. Turkish-held Thessaloniki, of course, was in a delicate position, since Palestine was also an Ottoman possession, which meant that any overt activity within the Zionist movement was dangerous.

The Zionists also had their clubs, which served as fronts for their activities; these included the “Kadima”, founded in 1899, and the “Maccabee”, founded in 1908, right after the Young Turk Revolution[49]. They also resigned en masse in 1911 from that bastion of assimilation, the “Club des Intimes”, pretexting the formation of a new club, the “Nouveau Club”.

After 1912 the Zionists began campaigning openly and, in 1919, with the publication of the Balfour Declaration, they convened in Thessaloniki a Panhellenic Zionist Congress, which resulted in the formation of the Panhellenic Zionist Organisation, based in Thessaloniki[50].

The Young Turk Revolution also led to the formation, in 1909, through the ranks of Thessaloniki’s large Jewish working class, of a socialist labour federation, better known by its Ladino appellation of “Federación”, which functioned autonomously until 1918 when, together with other left-wing organisations in Greece, it became the co-founder of the “Socialist Labour Party of Greece”, which later changed its name to the “Communist Party of Greece”.

The founder and leader of the “Federación” was Abraham Benarroya[51].

On October 26, 1912, Thessaloniki once again became Greek. According to official figures, its population at that time totalled 61,439 Jews, 45,867 Muslims, 39,956 Greeks and 10,660 of other nationalities.

Initially, the Jews envisaged the new reality with mixed feelings. But the ruling body of the community, which was granted an audience with King George I, won his promise of respect for their privileges and for full equality of Jewish citizens in the eyes of the law. These promises were reconfirmed everyday in practice, which is why Bulgarian efforts to attract Jewish support, in the absence of any substantial ethnic Bulgarian community in the city, remained fruitless[52]. By contrast, both local and international Jewry regarded the Hellenic government with steadily increasing confidence and appreciation, and openly supported its revendications in the distribution of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories after the Balkan Wars[53].

In interviews with local Jewish newspapers the Governor of Thessaloniki, Konstantinos Raktivan, stressed the principle of equality before the law which governed the Hellenic administration and the spirit of religious tolerance which characterised the Greek people, citing as an example the situation of the Jews in earlier centuries who, despite their small numbers, occupied important public positions[54]. And the city’s Jewish press, expressing general public opinion, sang the praises of the Greek government and its Premier Eleftherios Venizelos, who accorded the Jews privileges found in no other Balkan state[55].

Thus began for the Jews the new phase of integration into the Greek state. The first decade after the Liberation of Thessaloniki, which was marked by such major national events as the constitutional crisis, the great fire of 1917 and the catastrophic Asia Minor expedition, closed with mass wave of immigration, as a result of which the Jews were no longer the largest community in the city.

But it was the Great Fire of 1917 which dealt the Hebrew community a blow from which it never recovered, for it left 53,737 Jews homeless and destroyed the administrative offices of the community and of the Chief Rabbinate, thirty synagogues, the installations of the philanthropic institutions, the buildings of the Alliance School and another ten schools[56].

The second post-Liberation decade was initially associated with the measures for the redesign and reconstruction of the city, which manifested the wholly desirable aspiration of the Greek authorities to give Thessaloniki a new face. Although these measures were rapidly appreciated and applauded by the official community, by the city’s Jewish intelligentsia, and by Jewish organisations abroad, they did produce unfortunate friction, given that the bulk of the property destroyed had belonged to the Jewish landlords[57]. The friction was exacerbated by the issue of the expropriation of the extensive Jewish cemetery on behalf of the Aristotle University[58], the institution of the statutory Sunday holiday, and the anti-constitutional measure of separate electoral associations[59]. On the basis of these issues, segment of the local Christian press began to conduct a systematic anti-Semitic campaign. The distressing of this poisoning of public opinion was the arson or the Hebrew Campbell neighbourhood by the Fascist EEE Organisation in June of 1931[60].

By the beginning of the third post-Liberation decade, the city’s Jewish population numbered 50,000, constituting about one fifth of the total. This was the period when the conciliatory endeavours of the Hellenic State to integrate its Jewish population reached the peak of their intensity and efficacy. The foreign primary schools were abolished, but many fine new public schools were built in their place; the Aristotle University was established and, in recognition of the city’s Jewish community, a chair of Hebrew studies was founded. The anti-semitic ravings of a segment of the local press dwindled, and eventually stopped. This too played a decisive part in the spiritual integration of the Jewish population of the city, which found material expression in the community’s enthusiastically patriotic attitude during the active war years of 1940-41, both on the Front and behind the lines: 12,898 Jewish Greeks, most of them from Thessaloniki, served in the Greek armed forces, 343 of them as officers; their casualties amounted to 513 dead and 3,743 wounded[61].

Greece’s submission to the Axis forces marked the beginning of the end. The Germans entered Thessaloniki on April 9, 1941. Within a few days, Jews had been barred from entering coffee shops, tea rooms and the like, the Hirsch Hospital and many Jewish properties had been confiscated, the members of the Community Council jailed, the Jews ordered to surrender their radios, and the offices of the community as well as the excellent Jewish libraries sacked[62].

On July 11, 1942, all Jewish men between the ages 18 and 45 were ordered to gather in Square Eleftherias, whence, after indescribable torment, they were registered and taken off to labour camps. The community paid the Nazis a ransom of 2.5 billion drachmas for their freedom[63]. At the end of that same year, the Nazis occupied the flourishing Jewish enterprises[64] and destroyed the Jewish Cemetery[65].

On June 6, 1943, an SS detachment under Dieter Wishlizeny and Alois Brüner arrived in Thessaloniki to set in motion the final extermination of the Jews, who in meantime had been confined to ghettos and obliged to wear the yellow Star of David; they were also prohibited from using telephones and public transportation. Concealing their true intentions, and using Chief Rabbi Koretz (whom they appointed President) as a mouthpiece, the Nazis maintained that their purpose was to reorganise the community in an autonomous area of the city, with its own Mayor and Chamber. They also organised a Jewish police force, and obliged the Jews to draw up detailed statements of their personal fortunes[66].

On March 13, 1943, an order went out forbidding the Jews to leave their ghettos, while in the Hirsch quarter the stage was being set for the final act of the tragedy. That was the pen to which the human herd was led, like animals to the slaughter. On March 15, the first trainload set off for the death camp of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Successive shipments, one after the other, carried of virtually the entire Jewish population of the city within the space of a few weeks, packed into cattle cars and dispatched to the slaughterhouse[67]. Only a handful, with the assistance of Christian friends, were able to escape or to join the Resistance.

Representations were made to the Occupation forces by Metropolitan Gennadius of Thessaloniki, Professor P. Vyzoukidis, and lawyers Dimitrios Spiliakos, Petros Levi and Dimitrios Dingas[68]. Even more forceful was the declared support for the sorely tested Jews of Thessaloniki expressed in Athens in the monumental document of March 23, 1943, addressed to the President of the Occupation Government, Konstantinos Logothetopoulos, and the 3rd Reich’s Administrator for Greece, Altenburg, and which was signed by Archbishop Damaskinos and 29 Presidents of institutions, from the Academy and the Universities to the Technical and Professional Chambers[69].

This document, extremely severe in tone and tenor, refers to the indestructible truth of the bonds that entirely identify Christian Orthodox and Jewish Greeks under the common single concept of “Hellene”. And it is undeniable that in no other occupied European state was such a bold step undertake. The complete text of the document is given below:

To: Mr Konstantinos Logothetopoulos

Prime Minister


Given in Athens, on March 23 1943

Mr Prime Minister,

The Greek nation has learned, with justifiable astonishment and distress, that the German Occupation Authorities commenced to implement in Thessaloniki the measure of the gradual deportation of the Greek Israelite population beyond the borders of the country and that the first group of displaced persons are already on their way to Poland. The distress of the Greek people is all the greater in that:

1) According to the spirit of the terms of the cease-fire, all Greek citizens expected to receive the same treatment at the hands of the Occupation Authorities, irrespective of race and religion.

2) The Greek Israelites have not only been invaluable contributors the nation’s economic progress but have as a group always demonstrated loyalty and entire comprehension of their duties, as Hellenes. Thus, they shared the common sacrifice on behalf of the Greek state and found themselves in the front line of the battles which the Greek Nation waged in defence of its revocable historic rights.

3) The fidelity of the Hebrew Community in Greece precludes in advance any accusation of its involvement in activities and actions susceptible of threatening, even from afar, the security of the Military Authorities of the Occupation.

4) In the face of national consciousness, the sons of the common mother country of Greece are united without distinction and equal members of the National Body, irrespective of any difference of religion or faith.

5) Our Holy Faith recognises no distinction, superiority or inferiority, based on race or religion, holding as doctrine that “There is neither Jew now Greek” (Galatians 3:28), condemning therefore any tendency to create any discrimination or racial or religious distinction.

6) Our Community of destiny, through days of glory and periods of national misfortune, hammered on the anvil of courageous Hellenism indissoluble bonds linking all Greek citizens, without distinction, whatever race they may belong to.

We are not of course unaware of the profound opposition between New Germany and the Israelite community, nor is it our intention to become the defenders or simply the judges of international Jewry and of any of its actions in the sphere of the major political and economic problems of the world. The only thing that interests and is of vital concern to us today is the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens of the Hebrew faith, whose nobility of sentiments, fraternal disposition, progressive ideas, economic activity and – most important of all – irreproachable patriotism, this last having been irrefutably demonstrated by the large number of victims the Greek Israelites brought forward the unlamenting and without hesitation to the altar of duty to the imperilled common fatherland, we have known through our long life together, a life shared in slavery and in freedom.

Mr Prime Minister,

We are persuaded that the government shares the thoughts and the feelings of the rest of the Greek nation, on this matter. We further believe that will have already made the necessary representations to the Occupation Authorities with regard to the cessation of the distressing and purposeless measure of the deportation of the Greek Israelite population.

We hope indeed that you will have represented to those in power that this harsh treatment of the Greek Israelite population, in contrast to that of Israelites of other nationalities resident in Greece, renders all the more unjustifiable and consequently morally unacceptable the application of this measure. And if reasons of security should be advanced in justification of this measure, we consider that other solutions might have been found and preventive measures implemented, such a confinement of the active male population alone (excepting children and the elderly) in some specific place within the borders of the Greek State and under the supervision of the Occupation Authorities in such fashion that the security of the latter be safeguarded even against hypothetical danger, and the class of Greek Israelites escape the dreadful consequences of the deportation with which they are now threatened. It is unnecessary to add that were such a measure to be implemented, the rest of the Greek people would be disposed, if requested, unhesitatingly to add their entire assurance, on behalf of their ill-used brothers.

We hope that the Occupation Authorities will before it is too late realise the futility of the persecution of the Greek Israelites, who are among the most peaceful and productive members of the population.

If however they should adhere obstinately to their policy of deporting these people, then we feel that the Government, as the agent of residual authority in this country, will have to assume a clear position against these actions, leaving to the foreigner the entire responsibility for the perpetration of this manifest injustice. Because we think that no one is entitled to forget that all the acts committed in this difficult period, even those lying outside our will and our power, will one day be examined by the Nation by meet and right historical reckoning. At the hour of judgement, the moral responsibilities will weigh heavily on the conscience of the Nation, and even more so the acts of those in power, if they shall have failed to express through a courageous and honourable gesture their entirely reasonable displeasure and the unanimous objection of the Nation to actions as mortally offensive to national unity and honour as the deportation of the Greek Israelites now commenced.

Yours faithfully,


Archbishop of Athens and all Greece

The President of the Academy of Athens, S. Dontas, the Rector of the University of Athens, Er. Skassis, the Rector of the National Polytechnic, I. Theofanopoulos, the Rector of School of Economics and Political Sciences, A. Nezos, the President of the Medical Association of Attica, M. Karzis, the President of the Bar Association of Attica, P. Anastasopoulos, the President of the Association of Notaries to the Court of Appeal of Athens and the Aegean, K. Antonopoulos, the President of the Union of Editors of the Athens Daily Press, G. Karantzas, the President of the Society of Greek Authors, Th. Synadinos, the President of the Society of Greek Writers, M. Argyropoulos, the President of the Chamber of Commerce of Piraeus, D. Petroulakos, the President of the Technical Chamber of Greece, A. Karras, the President of the Proffesional Chamber of Athens, S. Halkiadakis, the President of the Union of Greek Chemists, K. Nevros, the President of the Pharmacists’ Association of Athens, A. Tsisonis, the President of the Dental Association, I. Kareklis, the President of the Chamber of Manufacturers of Athens, K. Papadoyannis, the President of the Pharmacists’ Association of Piraeus, M. Kalatzakos, the President of the Greek Actors’ Association, Th. Moridis, the President of the Panhellenic Pharmacists Association, A. Karamertzanis, the President of the Medical Association of Piraeus, D. Mantouvalos, The President of the Athens Chamber of Commerce, D. Vasilopoulos, the President of the Athens Chamber of Trade and Industry, A. Poulopuolos, the vice-president of the Union of Greek Theatre and Music Critics, N. Rodas, the President of the Medical Association of Kallithea, M. Rimantonis, the Secretary General of the Panhellenic Dental Association, H. Apostolou, the President of the Association of Greek Industrialists, I. Terzakis, the Director of the Emergency Shelters, Th. Sperantzas, the Director General of the Social Insurance Foundation, H. Agagopoulos.

Of the approximately 50,000 Thessalonian Jews who went to the concentration camps, only 1,950—less than 4%—returned. The initial post-war years were particularly difficult, for the problems facing the survivors, especially financial and health problems were tremendous. Many emigrated to the USA or Israel. The remainders strove to build a new life on the mountainous ruins of the Holocaust. Today, nearly half a century later, the Jewish population of Thessaloniki, numbers less than 1,200 souls.

The community maintains two synagogues, a community centre, where art and literary events are held, a primary school, a home for the elderly, organises summer camps for children and plays a lively part in the economic, social and cultural life of the city. In 1983 the community built, at its own expense, a “House of Greece” at the University of Jerusalem, for which it was commended by the Athens Academy. The community has also won commendation from the City of Thessaloniki for its long and multifaceted contribution to the city. The City also, in 1986, dedicated a city square, and in June 1997, a special monument, both to the memory of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Thus the Jewish population of Thessaloniki, despite the tragic testing time of the Holocaust, has managed to survive and to offer, insofar as its reduced numbers permit, a tangible example of vitality and spiritual force.


[1] Isaiah, 66, 19

[2] Joel, 4, 6.

[3] Maccabees I, 12, 2, and Flavius Josephus, Ιουδαϊκή αρχαιολογία (Antiquities), XXII, 225.

[4] Maccabees ΙΙ, 5, 9.

[5] Maccabees I, 15, 22, 23.

[6] Flavius Josephus, op.cit., XXIV, 14, 149-155.

[7] Philo, “Πρεσβεία προς Γάιον” (On the Embassy to Gaius), op.cit., 281, 282.

[8] See Dinos Christianopoulos, Η αρχαία Θέρμη και η ίδρυση της Θεσσαλονίκης, 1000-315 π.Χ. (Ancient Thermi and the Founding of Thessaloniki, 1000-315 BC), Thessaloniki 1991.

[9] J. Nehama, Histoire des Israélites de Salonique, vol. 1, Paris-Thessaloniki 1935, pp. 40-51.

[10] N. Moschopoulos, “Η Ελλάς κατά τον Εβλιά Τσελεμπή” (Greece according to Evliya Celebi), Annual of the Society for Byzantine Studies, 16, (1940), pp. 321-324.

[11] Acts of the Apostles, 17, 1.

[12] J. Nehama, op.cit., vol. 2, pp. 15, 55, 56 and vol. 5, 1959, pp. 30-31. The name of the synagogue comes from the Book of Proverbs: 3, 18 “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her”.

[13] B. Dimitriadis, Τοπογραφία της Θεσσαλονίκης κατά την περίοδο της Τουρκοκρατίας (Topography of Thessaloniki during the period of the Ottoman Occupation), Thessaloniki 1983, p. 163.

[14] See also J. Starr, The Jews in the Byzantine Empire, London 1971, and Steven Bowman, Jews of Byzantium, 1204-1453, Alabama 1985.

[15] J. Nehama, op.cit., vol. 1, pp. 22, 23, 49.

[16] Baruch Simbe, Οι Σαμαρείτες. Μια συναγωγή τους στη Θεσσαλονίκη (The Samaritans and their Synagogue in Thessaloniki), Thessaloniki 1971.

[17] G. Theocharidou, Τοπογραφία και πολιτική ιστορία της Θεσσαλονίκης κατά τον ΙΔ΄ αιώνα (Topography and political history of Thessaloniki in the 14th century), Thessaloniki 1955, p. 14; cf. G. Bakalakis, “Ιερό Διονύσου και φαλλικά δρώμενα στη Θεσσαλονίκη” (The sanctuary of Dionysus and phallic rites in Thessaloniki), Αρχαία Μακεδονία (Ancient Macedonia), Third International Symposium, Institute for Balkan Studies, Thessaloniki 1983, pp. 31-43.

[18] Revue Archeologique, 1894, p. 209.

[19] O. Tafrali, Topographie de Thessalonique, Paris 1913, p. 184.

[20] Πράξεις Αντωνίου (Acts of Antonius), K. 64

[21] K. Simopoulos, Ξένοι ταξιδιώτες στην Ελλάδα (Foreign travellers in Greece), Athens 1981, vol. 1, p. 217 ff.

[22] Chapter 113.

[23] XXXII opuscula, pp. 339, 340.

[24] J. Nehama, op.cit., vol. 1, pp. 107-110, and I. Emmanuel, Histoire des Israelites de Salonique, Lausanne 1936, p. 46. Nehama suggests (vol. 3) that the “Ashkenaz” synagogue in Thessaloniki was probably built between 1470 and 1475, with the new influx of Ashkenazim. The initial wave of Ashkenazi immigration occurred in 1378, immediately the city’s capture by the Turks.

[25] J. Nehama, op.cit., vol. 2, pp. 116-117.

[26] J. Nehama, op.cit., vol. 1, pp. 119.

[27] B. Dimitriades, op.cit., p. 153.

[28] I. Emmanuel, op.cit., p. 140.

[29] K. D. Mertzios, Μνημεία μακεδονικής ιστορίας (Monuments of Macedonian History), Thessaloniki 1947, p. 59.

[30] Ioannis Anagnostis, Διήγησις περί της τελευταίας αλώσεως της Θεσσαλονίκης (Narrative of the final Fall of Thessaloniki), 4, 25.

[31] B. Dimitriades, op.cit., pp. 41 and 160.

[32] J. Nehama, op.cit., vol. 1, pp. 143.

[33] S. Israel, The edict of bunishing the Jews from Spain, Annual-Sofia 1989, pp. 65-88.

[34] Ap. Vakalopoulos, Ιστορία της Θεσσαλονίκης (History of Thessaloniki), Thessaloniki 1983, p. 217.

[35] P. Risal, La ville convoitée, Paris 1913, p. 191.

[36] B. Dimitriades, op.cit., p. 460.

[37] B. Dimitriades, op.cit., p. 156 ff.

[38] See also Albertos Nar, Οι συναγωγές της Θεσσαλονίκης. Τα τραγούδια μας (The synagogues of Thessaloniki – Our Songs), Thessaloniki 1985.

[39] A. Nar, op.cit., pp. 50-54.

[40] Kostis Moskof, Η Θεσσαλονίκη. Τομή της μεταπρατικής πόλης (The Structure of the Commercial City), Athens 1978, pp. 73-78, and I. Emmanuel, Historie de l’industrie des tissus des Israelités de Salonique, Lausanne 1935.

[41] I. Emmanuel, Historie des Israelités de Salonique, pp. 164-166.

[42] K. D. Mertzios, op.cit., pp. 432-455.

[43] I. Vasravellis, Ιστορικά αρχεία Μακεδονίας (Historical Archives of Macedonia), vol. 1, pp. 31-37.

[44] B. Kolonas - Olga Traganou - Deliyannis, Οι αρχές της βιομηχανίας στη Θεσσαλονίκη, 1870-1912 (The beginnings of industrial development in Thessaloniki, 1870-1912), Thessaloniki 1987, and B. Kolonas - P. Papamatthaiakis, Ο αρχιτέκτονας Βιταλιάνο Ποζέλι – Το έργο του στη Θεσσαλονίκη (The architect Vitaliano Poselli – His work in Thessaloniki), Thessaloniki 1980.

[45] K. Moscov, op.cit., p. 17.

[46] I. Emmanuel, “Los Jidios de Salonique”, Zikhron Saloniki, Tel-Aviv 1972, p. 26, and P. Dumont, “The Social Structure of the Jewish Sommunity of Salonika at the End of the 19th Century”, Revue Historique 1980.

[47] Reuben Mordochai Solomon, “Ο εβραϊκός τύπος στη Θεσσαλονίκη και στης άλλες πόλεις στην Ελλάδα” (The Hebrew Press in Thessaloniki and in Greece in general), Chronica, 10 (1978), pp. 3-19.

[48] Asher Moisis, “Το Σιωνιστικό κίνημα στη Θεσσαλονίκη και στις άλλες πόλεις της Ελλάδας”(The Zionist Movement in Thessaloniki and other Greek cities), (in Hebrew), Zikhroν Saloniki, Tel-Aviv 1972, pp. 366-393, and resumé in Ladino, pp. 44-48.

[49] Abraham Rekanati, “Η Μακαμπή – Η ηρωική εποχή του Σιωνισμού στη Θεσσαλονίκη” (The Maccabee – The heroic age of Zionism in Thessaloniki) (in Hebrew), Zikhron Saloniki, Tel Aviv 1972, pp. 279-304, and resume in Ladino, pp. 38-40.

[50] Asher Moisis, op.cit., and Rena Molho, “Η εβραϊκή κοινότητα της Θεσσαλονίκης και η ενσωμάτωση της στο ελληνικό κράτος 1912-1919” (The Hebrew community in Thessaloniki and its incorporation into the Hellenic State 1912-1919), Thessaloniki after 1912, Thessaloniki 1986, pp. 216-302.

[51] See Abraham Benarroya, “Η αρχή της σοσιαλιστικής κίνησης”(The beginning of the socialist movement) (in Hebrew), Zikhron Saloniki, pp. 309-320 and resume in Ladino, pp. 41-42; Kostis Moskov, op.cit.; Antonis Liakos, Η σοσιαλιστική εργατική ομοσπονδία Θεσσαλονίκης (Φεντερασιόν) και η σοσιαλιστική νεολαία – Τα καταστατικά τους (The socialist labour federation of Thessaloniki (Federación) and the socialist youth movement – Their Charters), Thessaloniki 1985; Abraham Benarroya, Η πρώτη σταδιοδρομία του ελληνικού προλεταριάτου (The first steps of the Greek proletariat), Athens 1978.

[52] See Guerron Astruk, Salonique et son avenir, Sofia 1913.

[53] See J. Saias, La Grèce et les Israelites de Salonique, Paris 1920.

[54] K. Raktivan, Έγγραφα και σημειώσεις εκ της πρώτης ελληνικής διοικήσεως της Μακεδονίας (Notes and documents from the first Greek administration of Macedonia), Thessaloniki 1951.

[55] J. Saias, op.cit., and R. Molho, op.cit. and Idem, “Venizelos and the Jewish Community in Thessaloniki 1912-1919”, Journal of Hellenic Diaspora, 1986, p. 114.

[56] See Al. Karamidou-Yerolymbou, Επανασχεδιασμός και ανοικοδόμηση της Θεσσαλονίκης μετά την πυρκαγιά του 1917 (Redesign and reconstruction of Thessaloniki after the Great Fire of 1917), Thessaloniki 1985; Har. Papastathis, “Ένα υπόμνημα για την πυρκαγιά της Θεσσαλονίκης στα 1917 και την περίθαλψη των θυμάτων” (Memorandum on the Great Fire of 1917 in Thessaloniki and the care of the victims), Makedonika, 18 (1978), J. Nehama, op.cit., vol. 7, Thessaloniki 1978, pp. 764-770, I. Abastado, L’ Orient qui meurt – Salonique ce qu’elle est, Salonique 1918, pp. 308-317, A. Nar, op.cit., pp. 76-80.

[57] See J. Saias, Salonique en reconstruction, Athens 1920, and Karadimou-Yerolymbou, op.cit..

[58] M. Molho – I. Nehama, In Memoriam, Greek tr. G. Zografakis, Thessaloniki 1974, pp. 79-80 and 404-417.

[59] Abraham S. Rekanati, “Οι Εβραίοι στην πολιτική και διπλωματική ζωή της Ελλάδος” (Jews in Greek political and diplomatic life) (in Hebrew), Zikhron Saloniki, Tel-Aviv 1972, pp. 328-330, and G. Dafnis, Η Ελλάς μεταξύ δυο πολέμων (Greece between the Wars, 1923-1940), vol. 2, 2nd edition, Athens 1974, pp. 227-230.

[60] Asher Moisis, “Η Μακαμπή και τα γεγονότα του Κάμπελ” (The Maccabee Club and the Campbell affair) (in Hebrew), Zikhron Saloniki, Tel Aviv 1972, pp. 361-365, and Chaim Toledano, “28-29 Ιουνίου 1931” (28-29 June 1931) (in Hebrew), Zikhron Saloniki, Tel Aviv 1972, pp. 357-360.

[61] Asher Moisis, “Οι Εβραίοι στον ελληνικό στρατό” (The Jews in the Greek Army) (in Hebrew), Zikhron Saloniki, Tel Aviv 1972, pp. 331-333.

[62] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 50-53, 57-58 and 155-160.

[63] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 62-73.

[64] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 77-79.

[65] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 79-80.

[66] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 83-106.

[67] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 107-128.

[68] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 138-150.

[69] M. Molho - I. Nehama, op.cit., pp. 145-148.

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