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Saloniki: ‘The Mother of Israel’

Hamam Yehudi. Story and photos by Buzzy Gordon

Greece's second largest city and environs have a lot to offer the tourist -- especially the Jewish visitor 

There are not many of Israel's neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean of whom it can be said that the Jewish people have fond memories throughout history: Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Turks—all ruled over the Holy Land with varying degrees of oppression. There was, however, one glaring exception: the Macedonians, under Alexander the Great, or Alexander Mokdon (Alexander the Macedonian), as he is fondly recalled in Jewish sources. It turned out to be a harbinger of things to come: centuries later, Macedonia's capital city—Thessaloniki—grew to become a center of Sephardic culture, and a shining beacon of the Jewish Diaspora.

Actually, the histories of Macedonia and the Jewish people have been intertwined ever since Alexander spared Jerusalem when his forces occupied the Holy Land. It was against the armies of his successors that the Maccabees revolted and managed to establish the Hasmonean dynasty, the last independent Jewish kingdom—and indeed, the last time Jews were to be sovereigns in their own land until the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. 

A gravestone (museum exhibit)

In the chaotic times that presaged the rise of the Hasmoneans, Jews began to emigrate from turbulent Judea and move to centers of Hellenistic civilization, most notably Alexandria in Egypt, and Antioch in southern Turkey. In fact, at the time the Hasmoneans ruled in Jerusalem, it was Alexandria that was home to the largest urban Jewish community in the world.

By the time the Romans took control of Judea, enthroning Herod, Jews had established themselves in many places in the eastern Mediterranean basin, including Thessaloniki, which sits strategically at the gateway to the Balkans from Asia Minor. Accordingly, the Jewish population in Greece is the oldest in mainland Europe.

While we may not know exactly when the first Jews settled in Thessaloniki, it is thought to be as early as the third century B.C.E. What we do know, is that there was a synagogue there by the year 52 C.E., when Paul the Apostle came to preach there, on his mission to convert the Jews to Christianity. The record of his journey is set down in the New Testament book of Thessalonians. 

The Holocaust memorial sculpture in Saloniki
The interior of Yad Lazikaron Synagogue

Additional testimony to the existence of this synagogue is on a plaque in the current synagogue in downtown Thessaloniki, Yad Lazikaron. The modern synagogue is adorned with six floor-to-ceiling memorial tablets preserving the names and dates of 36 historic houses of worship that existed in the city prior to World War II, the first of which is Etz HaHayim, predating the Common Era.

Thessaloniki's prime location on the Thermaic Gulf, and its important harbor at the entrance to the Balkan Peninsula, made it an attractive destination for Jewish merchants to establish themselves as trading partners with compatriots throughout the Diaspora. Accordingly, the city was poised to absorb the massive influx of Sephardic brethren that arrived following the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the welcome that was accorded them by the Ottoman Empire. Conditions were so favorable that, together with the Greek-speaking Romaniote community, the Jewish population grew until—remarkably—the majority of the city's inhabitants were Jewish.

It would be no exaggeration to say, therefore, that the Golden Age of Sephardic Jewry shifted from Spain to Thessaloniki—or Saloniki, as it was called by the Jews. At its height, which was to span several hundred years, the Jewish community supported 36 synagogues and 33 newspapers, reflecting the cities and regions of origin of the immigrant Jews. Accordingly, Saloniki became a major center of Sephardic Jewish culture, and home to a branch of the renowned Soncino publishing house. 

Ladadika. Saloniki's Jews were so critical to running the city's seaport that it closed on Shabbat

Saloniki's prominence as the largest Sephardic community in Europe earned it the nickname la madre de Israel—"Israel's mother"—as well as the additional honorific "Jerusalem of the Balkans."

The glorious story of this significant community is now told in a beautiful museum in the center of modern Thessaloniki, which displays photos, religious artifacts, tombstones, newspaper clippings, even replicas of traditional foods. Tragically, the museum also covers the saddest chapter of the community's history—the Holocaust, which was especially devastating for Saloniki; of the city's 50,000 Jewish inhabitants before the war, 95% (45,000) perished in Auschwitz. The victim's names are memorialized here in black marble; there is also a freestanding Holocaust memorial in one of Thessaloniki's main squares.

Today, there are three active synagogues in the city, all perpetuating the Sephardic legacy. As in Istanbul, the Ladino language is being kept alive in Saloniki to this day.

Apart from the museum and synagogues, there is an impressive municipal landmark recalling Jewish influence: the Yahudi Hamam is a massive red brick building that occupies practically an entire city block. The former public bathhouse is not open to the public.

It goes without saying, of course, that Thessaloniki has a lot more to offer tourists than its Jewish connection. Indeed, surprisingly—considering the popularity of Athens and many of the more famous islands—Thessaloniki and Central Macedonia receive more foreign visitors annually than any other region or tourist destination in Greece.

One simple explanation is its accessibility: it is the easiest area in Greece to reach by car from the rest of Europe, given its convenient land border with Turkey to the east and Bulgaria and Macedonia (the country) to the north. And the attractions are numerous: a city known for its cuisine and nightlife, and a countryside with beaches, wineries, archeological sites, and one of the most famous geographical landmarks in history: snow-capped Mount Olympus. In 2013, National Geographic Magazine listed Thessaloniki as one of its top tourism destinations worldwide.

While Thessaloniki traces its roots back to ancient Greece, earthquakes and fires have taken their toll over the centuries; little is left of the millennia-old city wall. But, there a few magnificent churches with stunning chandeliers, mosaics and icons, and an enlightening, award-winning Byzantine museum. There are several areas of the city made for walks: the picturesque upper city, affording panoramic views; the boardwalk along the bay, with majestic Mt. Olympus in the distance; and the quarter known as Ladadika, with its cobblestone streets and many tavernas featuring live bouzouki music late into the night.

There are also a few excursions outside the city worth taking: the world-class Gerovassilou Winery boasts not only celebrated vintages, but also a most unusual and comprehensive corkscrew museum, which tells the story of this implement through the ages; the quaint village of Pantaleimon, on the scenic slopes of Mount Olympus; and Vergina, the site of the royal tomb of King Philip II (father of Alexander the Great), which has been excavated and turned into a UNESCO World Heritage monument that offers a fascinating glimpse into an ancient world. 

Saloniki's annual solidarity march: a living memorial

The Ides of March: The famous Shakespearean date was an ominous one for the Jews of Thessaloniki, as Nazi deportations began on March 15, 1943. With less than 2% of the city's pre-war Jewish population remaining, contemporary commemorations of that event would hardly make the news if they were held only by the Jewish community. But thanks to an initiative instituted by Mayor Yannis Boutaris, for the last five years residents of Thessaloniki have been turning out in their thousands at the city's railway station to remember the first of the mid-March convoys. In addition, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin traveled to the city in January 2018 for the cornerstone ceremony of Thessaloniki's Holocaust Museum, due to open in 2020. As reported by wire service, by building the museum and holding memorial events, Greeks are finally revisiting this dark time of their history. 


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Tuesday, 05 March 2024

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