Today if you were to stroll past the elegant neoclassical buildings on Tsimiski or sit and people watch at the scenic Aristotelous Square, you would feel and see all the right things that make up a Greek city. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, has everything it needs to prove its Greekness: the numerous Greek Orthodox churches, coffeehouses filled with old men playing backgammon while solving the world’s problems, endless restaurants serving souvlakis and mezes, double-parked (and sometimes triple-parked) streets, historic architecture from the Roman and Byzantine periods, and most of all- a homogenous Greek population. Thessaloniki may be the most quintessential Greek city, but this wasn’t always the case.
“David Ben-Gurion came to visit Thessaloniki in 1911 to study the structure of a small state. He then realized after his visit that it was possible to have a Jewish State,” explained Larry Sefiha. At the time, Thessaloniki’s total population was 150,000. The city’s Jews numbered at 70,000, creating the largest ethnic element of Thessaloniki outnumbering Greeks, Turks, and Bulgarians. Up until the early 1900s, the city was nicknamed Evraioupolis, which means City of Hebrews in Greek.
Catastrophic events in the 20th Century deeply affected its demographics and culture with the majority of the city’s Jews being exterminated during the Holocaust. Only about 2,000 of the city’s 54,000 Jews survived the Holocaust and returned to Thessaloniki, but many ended up emigrating either to Palestine or to the United States. Through it all, there still exists today a small community of Jews in the city that number about 1,000. They have endured time and a volatile history.
In November 2016, I sat down with three prominent members of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki: Larry Sefiha (president of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki), Erika Perahia (Director of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki), and Jack Benmayor (one of the few remaining speakers of Ladino in the city). My goal was to meet and learn as much as I could about the remnants of the historical Jewish community of Thessaloniki.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Alhambra Decree, ordered by the Spanish monarchy at the end of the 13th Century, forced thousands of Jews to be expelled from the Iberian Peninsula with many settling in Thessaloniki. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled over much of the Balkans at the time, welcomed the community with open arms and saw their economic value for the empire. From Spain, they brought their language, culture, and faith. They would be known throughout history as Sephardic Jews, connoting their origins from the Iberian Peninsula.
For over five centuries, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki has preserved their language: Ladino. Also known as Judeo-Spanish, Ladino is a Romance language tracing its roots to the dialect of Spanish that was primarily spoken in Spain in the 13th Century and was brought over by the expelled Jews that settled in the Ottoman Empire. With some minor influences from Greek, Turkish, French, and Italian, Ladino has managed to survive and is spoken by no more than a dozen or so Jews in Thessaloniki today. It was, for centuries, the dominant language in the city of Thessaloniki, being present throughout commerce and daily life.
The last generation to speak Ladino at home was the generation that lived through the Holocaust. Because of the fear of being targeted, survivors of the Holocaust and subsequent generations stopped speaking Ladino at home and encouraged their children to solely speak Greek.
“I think our parents didn’t want us to learn Judeo-Spanish on purpose…for safety,” explained Erika Perahia, Director of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki.
Jack Benmayor is one of the few remaining speakers of Ladino in Thessaloniki. He sat down with me and allowed me to record a video of him speaking in Ladino. I was able to partner with Wikitongues to help document the current status of the Ladino language in Thessaloniki. You can view the video, posted by Wikitongues, below.
THE CURRENT SITUATION OF THE COMMUNITY
World War II and the Holocaust completely devastated the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. Before World War II, there were over 32 Jewish congregations in Thessaloniki. Today, there are only three congregations remaining: one for everyday use and two for formal events and occasions. By the 1960s, the first Kindergarten school since World War II was opened and today, only one Greek-Jewish school remains today.
“After World War II, it was like erasing the history of the city,” explained Perahia. “The (Jewish) community passed through a very difficult period after the war to keep their identity. All through the ages, it was a Jewish city…up until 70 years ago. Even the Greeks called it Evraioupolis.”
The Greek government has become more supportive of the community in the last 20-30 years due to EU membership and the presence of European principles. The mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, has been very receptive and supportive to the community. Even in a nation that leans towards more antisemitic views, the Jewish community still feels safe in their current situation.
“Antisemitism is present, but it is based on a lack of knowledge or education and what is taught by the church. It is not a violent antisemitism, it is more of a verbal antisemitism,” said Perahia.
The economic crisis in Greece has affected the community as well. According to Perahia, in the last 7-10 years, a new wave of Thessaloniki’s Jews have been leaving for Israel due to the crisis. Despite economic hardship in Greece, the community still strives to take care of its own. The community still funds and runs elderly and welfare programs to this day. A summer camp for youth is also administered by the community for all Jewish children of Greece. About 300 children attend the camp every summer for one month.
Traditions within the community have also helped preserve their identity, faith, and culture. The community bands together twice a year to celebrate the two high holidays of the faith: Passover (known as Pesa in Ladino) and Rosh Hoshanah. Those that are more devout congregate every Friday night and Saturday for Shabbat. As for cuisine, the community has retained a few dishes that originate from Spain and that have lasted several centuries. The most famous being Bourekitas, a small cheese pie with eggplant that is eaten on special occasions and holidays.
Many efforts have been made to establish the presence of Jews in Thessaloniki. Approximately 65 years after World War II, a monument was erected in honor of the 54,000 lives lost during the Holocaust. This was made possible with help from the Greek American community. Currently, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki offers a program of Jewish studies in order to build awareness and education on this significant community.
WHAT IS TO COME
Both Perahia and Sefiha were excited to share the plans for the construction and opening of special museum in the city: The Holocaust Museum & Educational Center for Human Rights. Through a collaboration with the Jewish community of Thessaloniki and the municipality, the museum is slated to begin construction in late 2017. The project will cost approximately 22 million euros and will be co-financed by the German government and the Niarchos Foundation.
It will be symbolically located to the west of the city center on the promenade, opposite of the famous White Tower. The museum is planned to be 30 meters high and will have a significant presence in the city’s skyline. The hope of Perahia, Sefiha, and advocates of the community is that locals and visitors will become educated about the history of Thessaloniki and the vital role of the city’s Jews. The museum’s construction is a positive step in that direction.
PEOPLE ARE UNAWARE
Growing up, my family would travel to Thessaloniki to visit family. For years I would remain fixated and proud of the Greek history of the city and surrounding region. Like many Greeks, my family was oblivious to the city’s Jewish past. Sure, we knew that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, but after that, we were not taught or made aware of the role that Jews played in the city’s history and tapestry. How could this beautiful Greek city, where most of my Greek family lives, contain such history that was never taught or explained to me or to many fellow Greeks?
The Jews of Thessaloniki saw most of their dominance and success in the city during Ottoman rule. The city’s businesses would be closed from Friday to Sunday in order respect the holy days of the 3 dominant religions of its population: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Numerous newspapers were published in Ladino and French to accommodate the Jewish population. Another little known fact is that the port of Thessaloniki was, for decades, run by the city’s Jews. During the early years of Jewish settlement in Palestine in the 1930s, the Jews that administered Thessaloniki’s port left in order to establish the port of Haifa.
Today, the city contains almost no physical evidence of its Jewish past. “The old Jewish neighborhood was in the historical center of the current city. Jews moved out of the center after the Great Fire in 1917. The memory of the Jews in the city center was lost,” said Sefiha. When the Holocaust took place, Jewish institutions, businesses, and homes were looted and/or confiscated to house incoming Greek refugees from Asia Minor. Jewish homes were given to Greeks due to a lack of housing in the city.
“It was a hard reality for Jews to return after World War II only to find their homes occupied and silent neighborhoods who didn’t stop anything or even collaborated with the Nazis,” said Sefiha.
Furthermore, the main Jewish cemetery was located where the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki currently stands. This was one of the biggest Jewish cemeteries in existence. It seems that the Greek government and local administration strategically constructed on top of this sacred piece of land.
In the 20th Century, a couple shifts took place to make Thessaloniki a more Greek city. These shifts were caused by events that attributed to the Greekness of the city, or at least gave the Greek state opportunities to have a stronger foothold in a city that was historically diverse: the arrival of 150,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor and the extermination of the city’s Jews during the Holocaust. Once these events took place, Thessaloniki lost its diverse and unique character, and Greeks became the dominant ethnic group in the city.
FINAL WORDS FROM ERIKA & LARRY
Towards the end of my meeting with Erika Perahia and Larry Sefiha, I asked them to sincerely share some final words with me. What would they want the world to know about their community?
“We are still here,” said Perahia.
Both of Perahia’s parents were survivors of the Holocaust. With a demeanor that was both elegant and self-aware, she was very curious as to why I, as a Greek, would want to learn about the community’s history and current situation. I then turned to Sefiha and asked the same question. He replied with,
“The past is the past. It’s ugly, but we have to move on and shout and fight…not just about the Holocaust, but about today…about the future. We have to teach people. We still have to teach people Jewish history in Thessaloniki. The Holocaust Museum will help us drive the past to the future. We feel 100% Greek, but we are Jews. As a Jew you have to prove everyday that you are a good Greek.”
This article first appeared on Istoria.