Last night, we returned from a two week trip to Greece. We visited Athens, Crete, and Thessaloniki.
Athens and Crete are familiar American tourist destinations. Thessaloniki is not, and for good reason. It’s interesting, but not interesting enough to cause many American tourists to visit it. We went because it’s where my wife’s father was born.
At that time, in the early years of the last century, Salonika (as the city was called) was one of the most fascinating cities in the world. My wife and I arrived 100 years too late.
Thessaloniki, Greece’s second most populous city, is located in Northern Greece, in the region of Macedonia. It’s named after the daughter of Phillip of Macedonia, the half sister of Alexander the Great. The name celebrates one of Phillip’s great military victory — his conquest of Thessaly, a powerful region to the south.
Given its strategic location as a kind of southern gateway to the Balkans and Asia Minor, Thessaloniki was an important outpost of the Roman Empire. During the Byzantine Empire, the city was, at times, second in importance only to Constantinople.
When the Ottomans attacked Thessaloniki, the city refused repeated demands to surrender even after the cause was clearly lost. Its leaders invoked the protection of the city’s patron saint, Demetrios, a Roman soldier and Christian martyr who was said to have “protected” Thessaloniki from the Slavs centuries earlier.
Because of the city’s fierce and stubborn resistance, the Ottomans basically massacred the male population and sold the women and children into slavery. Thessaloniki was depopulated, and the Ottomans were unable to replace the Orthodox Christians with a Muslim population commensurate with the city’s strategic and potential commercial importance.
The solution to this problem appeared when, approximately 50 years later, Spain expelled its Jewish population. The Ottomans invited the Jews to “Salonika” and Jews came in large numbers.
Soon, they outnumbered the Muslim residents. Orthodox Christians who migrated to the city from the countryside ran a distant third in the population sweepstakes.
For the next 400 years, to oversimplify, Turks administered the city while Jews dominated its economic life. Jews probably made up around 50 percent of the population. Of the remainder, Muslims outnumbered Orthodox Christians by something like a 2:1 ratio. This in a city whose population probably ranged from 150,000 to maybe 200,000.
The three religious groups lived in separate parts of the city. There wasn’t much intermingling. However, relations between the three were largely harmonious. The Orthodox Christians probably bridled, but did so quietly. The Ottoman authority’s main difficulties were with Janissaries and Albanians.
Salonika thus became a city unique in Europe — a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious city with a hugely exotic flavor. And it was a city that worked. Naturally, Salonika had its ups and downs, and the Ottoman Empire itself became “sick” in the 19th century. But mainly the city prospered. And it dwarfed Athens in size, prosperity, and significance.
This situation changed dramatically in the early years of the 20th century. In 1912, the Greek state conquered the city. A multi-cultural city with a minority Greek Orthodox population was not consistent with Greek nationalist aspirations. The government tolerated the situation but yearned to see it altered.
In 1917, a fire destroyed something like one-third of the city. It hit worst in the the Jewish quarter — the center of the city. Approximately 50,000 Jews became homeless. Nearly all of the city’s 50 or so synagogues burned down.
The government helped the Jews find housing, but not in the city center. Instead, the Jewish population was dispersed.
Some say the fire was started intentionally for the purpose of burning down the Jewish section of the city. However, as I read the evidence, it does not support this conspiracy theory.
Because of the fire, my wife’s father was never sure how old he was. His birth certificate and the city’s records of birth were destroyed. This may also be why Ataturk’s birth date is in doubt. The father of modern Turkey was born in a middle class neighborhood in Salonika in 1881, but the month is uncertain.
In the early 1920s, the Greek state invaded the nascent Turkish one. After making initial progress, the Greeks were routed. As part of the settlement that ended the conflict, the parties agreed to a population swap. Something like half a million Muslims left Greece for Turkey. More than a million Orthodox Christians in Asia Minor moved to Greece.
Thessaloniki was now inhabited by Greeks, Orthodox Christians on their way to feeling Greek, and Jews. Jews no longer outnumbered Christians and many immigrants, a population that had suffered grievously, resented, the Jews, but the Jewish community fared pretty well during the next 15 years. Jews no longer lived in large numbers in the center of the city, but they ran a great many businesses there. Synagogues were rebuilt to the point that they numbered around 30.
Zionism was influential in Thessaloniki, but the mainstream Jewish organizations rejected it in favor of assimilation. In a sense, Jews had long since assimilated, but not necessarily with Greeks.
The Germans brought Jewish life in Thessaloniki to an abrupt end. 96 percent of the Jewish population was killed off by the Nazis during World War II. Only one synagogue survived — the one the Red Cross used.
Today, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki numbers about 1,000. The city has two synagogues. One of them, organized after World War II, hosts regular services. The second, the one the Germans did not destroy, holds weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and services on special Jewish holidays.
Thessaloniki is a university town. Aristotle University sits where the Jewish cemetery once did, before the Germans destroyed it. The city is known for its cafes, bistros, and restaurants. Its seaside setting is also a big plus.
There is much of historical interest for tourists to enjoy, but not many remnants of the Ottoman and Jewish past. Go there for the Byzantine-era churches, the Roman ruins, and the general setting.
My wife’s father left Thessaloniki for France in the 1920s. He avoided the Holocaust, spending World War II in Casablanca (of all places). One of his cousins was sent from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz. He survived but his pregnant wife did not.
Many decades later, he finally returned to Thessalonki for a visit (as far as I know, my wife’s father never did after the War). He found almost nothing to hold onto. Sitting on the balcony of his hotel looking down on the nearly unrecognizable city, he smoked cigarette after cigarette and tried to hold back tears.