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January 30, 2015 5:09 pm

Remembering the Jews of Salonica

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Email a copy of "Remembering the Jews of Salonica" to a friend
Auschwitz Entrance. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

Auschwitz Entrance. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

While I was wondering about Jews living in Europe under difficult conditions, I was reminded of the Jews of Salonica. Once, it was one of the most bustling and creative of Jewish communities. Now it is gone. Most of them were carted off to Auschwitz.

Several years ago I reviewed Mark Mazower’s excellent Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, which covers the rise and fall of a major Jewish community from 1430 to 1950, and records its changing fortunes under different conquerors and occupiers. They were rarely completely safe. Neither Greek nor Turk (and certainly not Nazi) come away with much honor. Of all of them, the Turks were the ones who treated the Jewish population the least inhumanely.

Most Ashkenazi Jews are sadly unaware of the richness of Salonica’s long Jewish history and the important part played by the Ottoman Empire in welcoming Jews fleeing from Spain after the expulsion of 1492. Whereas Yiddish is now thriving as the lingua franca of ultra-Orthodox Judaism around the world, the number speaking Ladino, the Sephardi equivalent, is sadly small and diminishing. However, more and more books are now bringing its rich heritage to light.

Salonica was not just a city of Sephardi Jews. There were Ashkenazi communities too, attracted by trade and the tolerant conditions that were far more attractive than most Eastern European communities. The Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century was still threatening central Europe, and both Russia and the Western European powers were meddling in Ottoman affairs. It was only by the end of the century that the Ottoman Empire was described as the “Sick Man of Europe.” Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall. Society was fracturing. Extremists were spreading their malignant aggressions. Western and Central Europe were in the ascendancy as the Industrial Revolution swung the balance of power away from religious control, and the slow decline of Islamic power in the Middle East began.

I have just read a moving short memoir written in Ladino and translated into English: A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi, published through the generosity of Joe Dwek.

Sa’adi a-Levi’s memoir covers this period of transition in the early nineteenth century. It starts with a community controlled by its rich men and its rabbis exercising power through the Millet system, in which each religion in the empire ran its own affairs with absolute authority, subject only to the administrative oversight of the Ottoman government and its agents. Within a society that was dominated by religious authority, and before the enlightenment began to weaken the grip of the pious, rabbis, imams, and priests could make use of the death penalty, corporal punishment in the form of the bastinado (lashing the bare soles of a victims feet with canes), and the ban or excommunication that effectively excluded someone from the benefits, support, and protection of the community. At a time when there was no governmental social security, health care, or unemployment benefits, communities played an essential role in peoples lives. Exclusion meant destitution, and the only option was to convert to another religion. The authorities exercised enormous power buttressed by a culture of gossip, malicious slander, and, above all, incredible superstition. The ordinary Jew, Christian, or Muslim was at the mercy of his or her religious authorities.

Sa’adi inherited a modest printing business and had to eke out a living for himself and his orphaned siblings by becoming a successful musician and singer, able to perform both Jewish and Turkish music at weddings and community celebrations. But he was constantly being threated by his own religious authorities who disapproved of his non-Jewish music and by competitors who used underhanded methods to destroy his livelihood and attack his family. Sa’adi himself was outspoken in his criticism of the methods used by rabbis to control the community, of the unfair financial impositions that made kosher food very expensive, and of the way the rabbis fought amongst themselves and supported their favorites to make life difficult for those who opposed their abuses. Things haven’t changed!

Sa’adi describes how, in his own case, his only protection was to find some important member of the community, one of the rich men, the Gevirim, to support him. He struggled in his early years. But as Western powers began to exercise an influence on Salonican Jews, this led to the opening up of the community. The arrival of the French Alliance Israélite Universelle spread secular education and ideas. This divided the community between those who wanted to preserve the old ways and those who welcomed progress. The absolute authority of the rabbinate began to wane.

This situation applied just as much to the Ashkenazi communities of Europe. They too had been controlled by this usually unholy alliance of the wealthy and the rabbinate, where control and conformity were the tools of social cohesion. Superstition, the fear of curses, and exclusion were used freely to coerce and subdue. All this is still effective nowadays in certain circles.

We are inclined to forget how significant the Enlightenment was in challenging this religious monopoly. The freedoms we have are overwhelmingly due to the separation of State and Religion and the limitations imposed on religious authority that developed during the nineteenth century. But every movement produces a reaction. As religious authority lost its grip, materialism, La Belle Epoque, lack of any restraint, and the abuses of freedom began to gnaw away at the security that closed communities offered.

In the West these polarizing forces usually coexist and accommodate. Much of the Muslim world continues to regress. The very forces that led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire drove its fragments back to the dark ages. This is where much of the Middle East finds itself today, with its executions, amputations, rape, and slavery that so many refuse to recognize or condemn. It is ironic that in the Middle East now only Israel is able to accommodate both secular values and extreme religious ones.

Sa’adi reminds us of what we have escaped. But his memoir stands as a warning of what we might return to if we allow religion too much control. Personal choices and freedoms are essential. Equally, the right to live an extreme religious life must also be preserved. But if we do not limit extremism to its own backyards, we too will be dragged back to the primitive, cruel, and fanatical medievalism that he survived.

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  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    Thank you for the recommendation of the Mazower book. There was a Greek community of Jews whose roots lie much further back in history than the Sephardic or Ashkenazic communities who immigrated there. They inhabited communities in the west of Greece (have to check my facts) and just opened their tiny surviving synagogue on the Lower East Side whose members have largely left Manhattan for a Sabbath service this past Shabbos. I recall my sadness however in seeing the memorials in one of the death camps to the Jews of Salonika–and the horror that such an old, surviving root of the Jewish exile had been destroyed.
    The Ladino speaking community reached into Bulgaria, Romania, and a large swath of southern eastern Europe. Among its literary figures one can mention the Nobel Prize Winner, Elias Canetti whose social portrait of this Sephardic community was very cruel.
    I recall the late critic and Dean of Latin American Studies at Yale, Emir Monegal, talking about his shock at watching a film of members of this community being seized by the Nazis and packed into transport to the concentration camp, crying out in Ladino, feeling his common identity.

    As for the peccadillo about “accommodation,” by one of your readers anyone who has taught as I have on an Israeli campus knows how far despite the awful tensions the educational institutions have reached to try to include all of the different religious and ethnic divisions of the State of Israel. Everyone with a good heart can hope for even better accommodation in the future, and even a greater degree of fairness where unfairness is perceived, but to cast aspersions on what is frankly remarkable is not to encourage progress but to discourage it.


  • Rebecca Camhi-Nachmia

    This is very interesting, I just learned things that none of my Sephardic grandparents, from Salonica, ever talked about.

  • It is all about to survive trough the book or trough the gun culture backgrounds, the hunter man plays with the book as a tool to manipulate the book man into believing something which does not existed, which does force the book man do what he does, it goes up and down in time-space, the hunter man is never full as wolf looking horizontally, the book man does see vertically waiting for miracles. It about time for the book man to became a hunter not as wolf but as a Lion.

  • Julian Clovelley

    My connection with Salonika is a little different. Almost a century ago, as the Great War concluded, my Grandfather died there, where he had been anticipating the long awaited return to his family and the chance to hold his wife in his arms and lift up and kiss the children he hardly knew, and were doomed to barely remember him

    You touch on a fascinating history that should be preserved, but there are a couple of points that perhaps could be added in relation to the Ottoman Empire – It was always brutal, over the centuries almost fifty of the ruling family’s members were assassinated as potential threats to the succession, such assassination being generally authorised by the head of the family, and including his own children or siblings. Harsh treatment continued into the twentieth century with the Genocide of the Armenians. Modern Turkey begins with Kemal Ataturk, himself born in Salonika.

    There is another point that perhaps should be remembered, which being that the relationship between Sultan and the population was largely one in which the ordinary person was a subject rather than a citizen. It seems likely the Jews of Salonika had similar status.

    This is the same relationship enjoyed by the occupants of the area of Palestine, including at that time what we now call “Israel”. The lack of a full citizenship structure in the Ottoman Empire does not mean that the areas of the Empire were “Terra Nullius”. Many of the occupants of other areas – Jews, Muslims, Christians or Druze, or whatever other faith, had the same status. Jews in Palestine had a similar but not a greater claim to the Ottoman territory in which they lived to those others living there, from village and town dwellers to goatherds, and wandering groups.

    I note the following sentence in the article “It is ironic that in the Middle East now only Israel is able to accommodate both secular values and extreme religious ones.” – I find that a bit of a puzzler and wonder what is meant here by the word “accommodate”. The basic Oxford definition is “Fit in with the wishes or needs of:”

    This is hardly the case of many muslims within Israel, or those in territories Occupied or Blockaded by Israel. It is hardly applicable to a State whose present Conservative Government seeks to make a permanent monocultural Jewish State as against a multicultural state – such a definition of Israel hardly accommodates the real existence , needs and wishes of those who are either non Judaic in religious terms or are even secular. It is surely the enforcing of a Zionist wish and not a general desire to “accommodate” each individual. Sometimes it seems that the term “antisemitism” ought to be counterbalanced by similar use of the term “goyphobia” – The existence of both can be explained but the world would be far better off without both.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Oh dear here we go again. I was with you until your last paragraph which is once again redolent with misinformation and prejudice.

      Israel has every right to be a Jewish State as Christians and Muslims have their states with religious affiliations. Different religions run their own affairs, record marriages, and vote if they choose to within the State. In Israel every religion has its rights and is protected by law in exactly the same way that different religions function in Britain even though it is officially a Christian State with the Queen the Head of the Church of England. If Sunday is the Day of Rest in England why shouldn’t Saturday be the Day of Rest in Israel? New Churches and Mosques are built in Israeli every year unlike in Saudi Arabia for example. I assume you reserve equal condemnation for them.

      I have tried to argue that Zionism is just one movement within Judaism, like Chassidism or Secular Judaism. I venture to suggest that most citizens of the State would not call themselves Zionists either because as Charedi Jews they do not identify with Secular Zionism or because as post-modernist post Zionist Israelis they do not identify either because it is too constricting. I personally prefer not to use the term and I suspect that is also why Netanyahu is so eager to emphasize the Jewish nature of the State of Israel in contrast to the Zionist. If we could simply talk about Jews of varying degrees of commitment and faith your constant attempt to re-define your moving target would loom less significant in your mind.

  • Eric R.

    The Jews of Salonica were enthusiastically rounded up by Greeks and sent to the death camps.

    Then Greece proceeded to be the last non-Communist European country to recgonize Israel, was the most virulently anti-Israel country in Europe, and only from 2008 on, with the Islamist menace next door, did the Greeks start to wake up and realize that Israel and Jews could be usefull as allies.

    Now, they go and elect and bunch of frothing Communist scum to power, whose hatred of Jews is every bit as murderous as the Nazis they pretend to hate. To top it all off, they name a frothing anti-Semite as Defense Minister.

    And anti-Semitism aside, they decide to do the incredibly stupid idea of electing Communists — Ultrasocialists, if you will — after Socialism is what did Greece in to begin with.

    So, not only are the Greeks drowning in anti-Semitic bigotry, they are drowning in stupidity as well.

    They deserve all the misery they are going to get with this stupid, bigoted, Nazi government.

    • Julian Clovelley

      IO find that a somewhat racist comment, Eri,c and showing a severe misunderstanding of Greek history and of present social dynamics.

      Greece is largely in its present mess because of its susceptibility to overseas sponsored military coups. Greeks suffered under a series of American foreign policy inspired and initiated authoritarian regimes, especially during the period 1967 to 1974. Greece has never really had the opportunity to recover. The Greek people have had their wish for representative democracy stamped on again and again. This latest round has been caused by the fact that life for a large percentage of the Greek population has become intolerable – very sad in such a gloriously beautiful country with such personally hospitable people. In the Great War my grandfather fought and died amongst them. He lies buried there, the granddad I never saw, who never held me and kissed me.

      You seem intent on smashing their hopes of a better future. Meanwhile the frustration of the Greek people and their determination to see major change brought about through Democratic means is spreading. A large percentage of the population in Europe has had a gutful of the present unfair division of wealth and the gulf between rich and poor. The cause of this chasm is very easy to explain. In Spain there are already stirrings based on similar awakening. I would not be surprised to see a similar process even in the UK quite soon.

      If two middle class parents in 1945 had three children and each of these had three children a generation later(1970) and then their children had their own three children each, making 27 children (1995) then the next generation (2020) might consist of 81 children. Of the members of the family since 1945 it is likely that most will be still alive, all having “middle class expectations”. The two middle class persons supported by society in 1945 have become around forty to eighty by 2015. Society is being demanded to support a middle class layer of at least twenty times the original 1945 number, even allowing for middle class intermarriage. It simply cannot be done. Each generation it becomes more impossible. Even the tactic of garnering and securing certain professions for selective middle class entry – notably medicine and law – has collapsed. The state cannot afford to remunerate them – hence the Conservative attempt to privatise medicine and make the patients personally pay exorbitant fees. Oh we know what has been going on guys — we all know – the tricks have been spotted.

      The Right Wing response to this population caused social disaster has been to shift towards a fascism that borders on feudalism. This includes a move towards shedding large sections of the Middle Class through downward mobility, whilst imposing “Austerity” on the working population. The wealth of the middle class has been protected and bolstered for many years now by taking loans that the whole population is somehow expected to pay, having never achieved any benefit from them. They were class loans and not general population loans – small wonder the majority of people – many already destitute – feel no obligation to repay what the middle and upper class squandered on itself. Much of the loaned money is sitting happily in Swiss bank accounts – we all know that..

      These are the dynamics one needs to understand when looking, not only at the situation in Greece, but also worldwide. The only politician I ever saw get a real handle on the problem was the German Chancellor and former Mayor of West Berlin Willy Brandt, who stabilised German prosperity post war by ensuring high wages for German working people and adequate housing availably using both State finances and housing associations operated by private enterprise. The bottom line is that socially and politically Germany was denazified through occupation – but the occupiers forgot to de-nazify their own societies – leaving the old rotten prewar structures that caused the whole bloody mess in the first place where they were, undermining post war democracy.

      That is where we are now – not just in Greece. A short lived Right Wing swing even in my own country of Australia is now falling apart at the seams as yet another State elects the opposition party to the present Federal Government. The Right Wing Federal Government is in big trouble, and the least change likely to happen is major leadership change. Everywhere people have had enough. What is important is for minority communities to move in an assimilated fashion with their host societies. The threat of antisemitism can come from two sources – from the extreme Conservative Right looking for a scapegoat, after a short period of seeking Jewish patronage – or from a general population, furious with the Right and identifying the Jewish Community as part of it. In this identification process Zionism is considerably less than helpful. My advice on that is simple – recognise that those Rabbis and leaders that saw it as a dangerous delusion a century ago actually got the whole ghastly, then future, scenario right…