A new narrative of Salonica’s forgotten past

Ladino, the language spoken by the Spanish Jews of Salonica, was heard again in a public speech after many years; perhaps for the first time after WW2…. Devin Naar, assistant professor of Washington University, returned to Salonica, the city of his great grandfather for a lecture regarding the birth of Greek Jewry; a part of this lecture was given in the sephardic idiom. Epiloges Magazine spoke with him over the salonican memories his grandparents transmitted to him but also over the history of the jewish community of the city, the effort to build a greek-jewish identity during the Interwar years, the relationship with the christian community, the Holocaust but also about the issue of the destruction of the Jewish Cemetery.


Indeed during our stroll he located one of the many tombstones which remain scattered through the city and he dated belonging to the 18th century….

-Could you tell us a little bit about you? Your grandparents immigrated from Salonica to the States. What stories did they tell you about their home town? How did their memories affect you as a child and later, as an academic? 

My great grandfather, Rabbi Benjamin Naar, left Salonica in 1924 with his mother, wife, and nine of his ten children, including my grandfather, and came to the United States. My grandfather’s oldest brother stayed in Salonica and unfortunately perished in Auschwitz with his wife and two children. Growing up, Salonica existed in my imagination as a magical city on the sea whose languages and foods formed a part of my childhood. My grandfather shared fond memories riding his bicycle along the paraleia with his brothers. The family was poor- they lived in Vardari—but they had a strong sense of dignity and culture. Other stories were told of my great grandfather, the rabbi, who was good friends with a Greek priest, well respected in the community, and known for his skills as a scribe. Almost nothing was said about my great uncle who remained in Salonica and perished during the war. For me, as an American, it was in an attempt to better understand the complex world from which my grandfather and his family came, and in an attempt to figure out what happened to my great uncle during the war, that I began to explore the history of Salonica. How could it be that my grandfather was born in Greece, but spoke “Spanish” as his first language (but written in Hebrew letters), had attended a French school, and whom I called nono—a word for grandfather also used in Italian? Moreover, how come Salonican Jews were not part of the broader Greek, Jewish and Holocaust narratives in the United States? These questions planted the seeds for the more than thirteen years I have dedicated to researching the history of Salonica and its Jewish residents as a way not only to understand my family’s past, but also as an entry point into the key political and cultural dynamics that transformed Europe and the Middle East in modern times.


-There where big jewish communities in many european cities. Compared to the huge communities in e.g Poland or Russia, whats makes Salonica’s case so special? Why was the city called as Jerusalem of Balkan’s? Can you describe in a few words the “picture” of Thessaloniki before the Holocaust?

Normally Salonica is considered special because it was once home to one of largest Jewish populations in the world. At the start of the twentieth century, approximately half of the 170 thousand of the city’s residents were Jews. Jews participated in every aspect and professional strata of the city for centuries. The port closed on Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. These dynamics led to a fascinating proposal during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) to transform Salonica into an independent Jewish city. All of these characteristics were layered on top of the city’s long tradition as a major center of rabbinical scholarship as many of the great sages expelled from Spain in 1492 had settled in Salonica. But what also made the Jewish Community of Salonica stand out in modern times was its status as a legal entity recognized by Greek state law in 1920. This status granted the Jewish Community of Salonica a degree of self-government preserved from Ottoman times. Many Jewish political parties—assimilationists, socialists, secular Zionists, religious Zionists, local Jewish nationalists—participated in the Jewish Community’s General Assembly, which acted as a kind of miniature local Jewish parliament. A remarkable number of Jewish newspapers—mostly in Judeo-Spanish, but also in French and Greek—were published at any given time during the interwar years and gave voice to a diversity of political and cultural perspectives within the Jewish population. The status of the Jewish Community of Salonica gave it greater legitimacy than those in other parts of Europe and enabled it to operate an expansive set of social and philanthropic institutions: sixty synagogues and ten Jewish schools, as well as a hospital, medical dispensary, soup kitchen, orphanages, old age home, insane asylum, maternity ward, and a network of Jewish neighborhoods. All of these elements combined to produce images of Salonica as a kind of Jewish city, “Sephardic republic,” “mother of Israel,” and “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Local Jewish intellectuals promoted these images of the city, especially during the interwar years, as they sought to ensure a place not only for the Jewish past, but also the Jewish present and Jewish future in the city.


-The first two decades of the twentieth century Salonica had been transformed. The city was incorporated in the greek state and hosted thousands of Asia Minor refugees. How did all those severe changes affected the relations between the jewish and the christian community?

The arrival of the refugees from Asia Minor resulted in one of the greatest conflicts with the established Jewish population. This was clear right away, when, in 1924, a new law came into effect that made it illegal to work on Sundays and thereby overturned the custom of resting on Saturday. At the root of the conflict were tensions over the very meaning of what it meant to be “Greek.” Remember, the refugees from Asia Minor were expelled officially from Turkey not because they were “Greeks,” but because they were Christians. They arrived to a new country and a new city that they were told was their own, but where Judeo-Spanish-speaking Jews predominated. Tensions were aggravated as it became possible to think of Greek identity in secular or civic terms. If speaking Greek and defending Greece in the military rather than attending Greek Orthodox church or being born into a Greek Orthodox family were the main criteria for national belonging, then Jews could be, or they could become, just as “Greek” as Christians. This more inclusive definition of Greek national identity appeared as a threat.


-You often claim that during the interwar years a new hellenic judaism was emerging in Salonika and salonican jews were assuming a greek-jewish identity. were their efforts met with acceptance by the greek state and their compatriots? have they been recognized  as greek citizens, as the rest of the (christian) population?

The archives of the Jewish Community of Salonica from before WWII reveal that Jewish leaders sought to redefine themselves in the context of the new realities of the Greek state—by teaching their children Greek language and history and by serving in the military, while still endowing youth with a sense of Jewish identity. Jewish and Christian elite sought to provide an intellectual framework to understand these transformations, which they called “Hellenic Judaism.” They argued that Judaism and Hellenism were the two pillars of Western civilization that intertwined in Salonica. They emphasized Jewish presence in the Salonica since the times of Apostle Paul and the historical precedents for Christian-Jewish symbiosis in the city as a model for the present and future relations between the populations. While some Jewish intellectuals wanted to see Jews merge with their Christian neighbors, others wanted to see Jews and Christians preserved as distinct communities, but with each community having an equally legitimate claim to participation in the national community of Hellenic citizens. To paraphrase one of the Jewish representatives of Greek Parliament, Mentes Bessantchi, Jews and Christians are all children of Mother Greece. This inclusive conception of Greek national identity that sought to build bridges between Jews and Christians was an experiment that was still in formation when WWII began, so we cannot know how it would have developed. But there were limits to this experiment. Certain structural obstacles made it impossible for Jews and Christians to be treated the same by the state. Most significantly, the Greek state did not introduce civil marriage which meant that intermarriage between Jews and Christians was illegal (until 1982, unless one converted to the other’s religion or married abroad). Part of the self-governing status of the Jewish Community further entailed that Jews remained subject to the rulings of rabbinical courts in questions of family law. In this regard, the partly separate legal status of the Jews of Salonica was similar to the status of the Muslims of Thrace, both of whom were officially recognized religious minorities and theoretically protected by the League of Nations prior to WWII. Regardless of the extent to which everyday Christians accepted their Jewish neighbors as “Greek,” the state itself perpetuated legal structures that preserved certain boundaries between the two populations.


Do  you think the distance between the two communities played a role in the fact that there was no reaction when the nazis started to move jews from salonica to the work camps?

It is really important to distinguish between “communities” and individuals. While the Jewish Community’s official leadership tried to cultivate good relationships with the governments of Greece, opportunities for relationships to develop between everyday Jews and everyday Christians were limited. Many friendships developed among Jews and Christians and many business partnership did, too. But so did business competitions, especially at the port, and this provided an ongoing set of anxieties on the part of both populations. The fact that Jews and Christians could not easily marry each other meant that social distance was going to persist between the two populations. While in most parts of occupied Europe, when the Nazis introduced the Nuremberg Laws, which made it illegal for Jews to marry Christians, it was a major controversy, but the introduction of these laws in Salonica did not cause great alarm because intermarriage was already illegal (on religious not racial grounds). The distance between Jews and Christians—by virtue of their different histories, a legacy of economic competition, their different legal statuses, and their different social worlds—meant that when the Germans began to isolate and deport the Jews, their Christian neighbors did not necessarily react with sympathy. There was hatred at play, as well as opportunism and indifference. There was also fear of reprisals. But it seems that the Christian masses did not see the Jews as an integral part of the national community. This means that the nascent experiment with “Hellenic Judaism” failed to exert enough power to inspire Christians in Salonica to intervene on behalf of their Jewish Greek neighbors during the direst times.


-Is it true or is it a myth that christians saved a large number their jewish fellow citizens? i once read the quote of an old jew holocaust survivor, saying that if so many jews were actually saved as the christians claimed to have had saved, then the jewish community would have been larger after the second world war than before.  

The story of Salonica is different from elsewhere in Greece. In Zakynthos, yes, all of the Jews were saved. In Athens, yes, many Jews were saved (but others were deported). In Salonica, as one of the protagonists in the recent and dramatic film Kisses to the Children tells us, only 70 of the 50,000 Jews survived hiding in the city. This is an extremely low percentage. An explanation is often given that the problem was that Jews in Salonica did not speak Greek so they couldn’t hide. Only if they were assimilated, only if they had learned Greek, would they have fared better. This explanation seems appealing, but it does not make a lot of sense. How do we explain what happened in Ioannina, where all of the Jews spoke Greek—for generations—yet where the Jewish population decreased by a devastating 91 percent? In Athens, moreover, much of the Jewish population was not comprised of native Greek speakers, but largely of native Judeo-Spanish speakers who came from Salonica and Smyrna. So we need to look at other factors to determine more precisely and conclusively how and why individual Jews and Jewish populations, more broadly, fared differently in different locales and benefitted from different degrees of assistance—or suffered from varying degrees of indifference—on the part of their Christian neighbors.


-How do you explain the aggressive wipeout of jewish cultural remains by the Greeks after the physical wipeout by the Nazis? (i.e. the distraction of the jewish cemetery during but also after the war?)

It is important to note that the proposal to remove the Jewish cemetery of Salonica emerged before the Nazi occupation. The plan for the new city, after the fire of 1917, envisioned the removal of the Jewish cemetery. After the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey that resulted in the departure of the Muslims from Salonica, the Muslim cemeteries were demolished. Today the International Fair Ground of Salonica sits on top of what had the Muslim cemetery. A look through the newspapers of Salonica during the late 1920s and 1930s reveals repeated attempts to remove the Jewish cemetery. The state passed a law in 1937 that expropriated a portion of the Jewish cemetery to expand the University campus. This was prior to WWII. In response to proposals to remove the Jewish cemetery during the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish intellectuals argued that the Jewish burial ground should be preserved as a monument of Hellenic patrimony. They argued that the tombstones “spoke,” that they told the history not only of the Jewish population but also of the city and of the region of Macedonia as whole, and ought to be preserved as archaeological monuments. These arguments contributed to delay the destruction of the Jewish cemetery. But the opportunity to complete the plans to remove the Jewish cemetery presented itself during the German occupation. The fact that local authorities initiated the destruction of the cemetery demonstrates that even if the Jewish tombstones “spoke,” it is not clear who was willing to listen. In fact, the Ministry of Antiquities of Northern Greece monitored the demolition of the Jewish cemetery to ensure that ancient tombstones with Greek language inscriptions were preserved. The other tombstones—in Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish—were used as building material. Jewish cultural artifacts that included the Greek language could be construed as “Greek” and thus saved. But otherwise, Jewish sites and cultural remains—from the cemetery to the synagogues–were ultimately not conceptualized as part of the Greek national heritage and thus could be disposed of.


-Nowadays many inhabitants ignore even the existence of the jewish community, nevertheless their longstanding history. There’s also lack of any academic research on the field. How do you explain it? 

The situation today is partly a legacy of the pre-war period. The reconceptualization of the Jewish past and Jewish present as part of Macedonian and Greek culture and history that began during the interwar years has not yet been fully successful. The end of a large Jewish population living in the city and the disappearance of Jewish cultural artifacts as a result of World War II further enabled new generations to grow up in Salonica with no awareness of the Jewish imprint on the city. For a long time, local authorities and the state did not promote the inclusion of Jewish history in the school curriculum or as part of the public memory. This intensified the amnesia. The situation has been changing in recent years as the municipality, the Jewish Community, the local universities, the American and German consulates, and other actors in civil society, are promoting a greater awareness of the Jewish past, aided by new scholarship abroad. Hopefully this will inspire more students at the local universities to study Jewish history, to reclaim Jewish history as part of the history of the city and thus as part of their own history.


-What does a modern Greek Salonican stand to gain by learning more about this part of the city’s recent history, that covers a period of 5 centuries? The Jewish past of Salonica is not only a “part” of the city’s history—it is an inextricable facet and a cornerstone of the city’s history. You can choose to present narrow Greek, Turkish, or Jewish pictures of Salonica, but if you want to present a Salonican picture of Salonica, Jews must be included and they must be among your story’s protagonists because of their demographics and because of their economic and cultural roles in the city for generations. The study of Jews of Salonica therefore enables residents of Salonica today to comprehend the richness of their city’s past, to recognize its multicultural heritage, and to come to terms with the violent removal of the non-Christian populations during the twentieth century. Without romanticizing bygone eras, a glimpse into the past and a deeper understanding of the complexities of the city can also provide residents of Salonica today with some clues about what the future could look like. It is also a civic duty.


-A monument in remembrance of the Old Jewish Cemetery has been erected recently claiming the Nazis and their collaborators were responsible. Some members of the Jewish Community feel this is just a modern version of old lies by not placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the local populace. what do you think?

The creation of the cemetery monument at the university is a watershed moment for public memory in Salonica. Never before has the fact that the campus sits on top of the Jewish cemetery been publically acknowledged and commemorated in this way. But the decision to emphasize that the destruction of the Jewish cemetery stemmed from the initiative of the Nazis and their collaborators is not an entirely fair characterization of the historical events. The removal of the Jewish cemetery began prior to the arrival of the Nazis. Yet to acknowledge, in any way, that “collaborators”—which should be understood as the major institutions in the city, the university, the municipality, the metropolitis—contributed to the pillaging and removal of the Jewish cemetery, is an important step. The erection of the monument is part of a public process of coming to terms with this dark chapter of the city’s history; it does not signify the completion of this process.

-How do you feel that a city that lost almost 50.000 of its people at the nazi camps elected to the city council a member that praises Auswich?

This is obviously disturbing. Having a city council member who praises Auschwitz is unfortunately not a phenomenon specific to Salonica or Greece but we see it in other parts of Europe, especially in the context of the financial crisis of recent years. At the same time, the decision of mayor Boutaris to wear the star of David at his swearing-in ceremony in protest was an important symbolic gesture. Equally significant is the fact that the city leadership has also included in recent years, for the first time since the 1930s, a Jewish member. The economic crisis paradoxically has provided opportunities both for antisemitism as well as an openness regarding Jews to enter public debate in unprecedented ways.



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