For a majority of the Ottoman period Sephardic Jews constituted Salonika’s largest demographic. They arrived in the city in the later 15th century after their expulsion from Spain and quickly became a major economic and cultural force in the city. In fact, in many ways, they defined it. Their synagogues—dozens of them—were strewn about the Jewish neighborhood and each was typically named after a place of origin (e.g., Aragon, Castille). The Jewish population was large enough to retain its own language, Ladino, a hybrid tongue rooted in Spanish with Hebrew and Aramaic structures and borrowings. This community prospered within the Ottoman system and was involved in most economic sectors in the city, and it experienced a particular resurgence in the late 19th century and early 20th century, before the outbreak of the Balkan Wars and World War One. Salonika’s Jewish population gradually dwindled between the wars, so that only ca. 60,000 remained at the outbreak of WWII. Sadly, nearly the entire community was killed during the Holocaust. Only a couple thousand trickled back to the city after the war, and they found isolation and social dislocation when they did. Today about 1,000 Jews remain in the city, with two synagogues.
As a result of 20th century events, Thessaloniki’s Jewish past is quite difficult to see in the modern city (at least compared to other historical periods). The great fire of 1917 destroyed a majority of the Jewish neighborhood.
The area was subsequently redesigned by a French architect, while the Jews who had lived there moved to the suburbs. The large Jewish cemetery—which contained hundreds of thousands of graves—was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII, and its gravestones were pillaged and used as building materials at the time. Today the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki sits atop the former site. Still, some architecture does survive (e.g., the Stein Mansion), while several of the city’s museums offer the visitor information on this important community. The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki is the ideal place to start for a complete overview of the city’s Jewish community, from its origins to its destruction during WWII. The room that details the Nazi occupation and the fate of the community in Germany’s death camps is particularly moving. The room contains personal items and also a book dedicated to the children killed in the Holocaust, most of whom were gassed immediately upon their arrival at Birkenau. At present, too, the Archaeological Museum has an exhibit devoted to Thessaloniki’s Jewish population (through next summer), which presents information on Jewish neighborhoods, professions, houses, synagogues, clothing, food and more. There aren’t too many objects on display, but it’s quite informative. Finally, the White Tower, which is today a museum devoted to the history of the city, incorporates the history of the Sephardic Jewish community.
For more information, see Mazower, Salonica: City of Ghosts and his book Inside Hitler’s Greece, which details the implementation of the “final solution” here.
Ladino is experiencing something of a revival among musicians, one of whom I had a chance to see perform a couple of weeks ago, Yasmin Levy. Her music combines traditional Ladino songs with Flamenco and a variety of Middle Eastern elements. Below is her version of one of the most traditional Ladino songs, Adio Kerida.