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July 30, 2020 2:38 pm

Greek City of Thessaloniki’s Centuries-Old Sephardi Jewish Community Opening New Heritage Center

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avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

An exterior view of the Monastir Synagogue, in Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo: NYC2TLV via Wikimedia Commons.

A historic Jewish community whose history stretches from the Spanish expulsion in 1492 to the horrors of the Holocaust is opening a new heritage center to ensure its history is not forgotten.

The Guardian reported on Thursday that the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, Greece, is collaborating with Spain’s Instituto Cervantes to build the center, which will teach about the culture of the Sephardi exiles and their language, Ladino.

Jews have been present in Thessaloniki since ancient times, but today’s community is descended mainly from Jews who came to the city after they were forced out of Spain along with thousands of other Sephardi Jews. The community mostly thrived throughout the Middle Ages and early modern era, but during the Nazi occupation of Greece, over 90% of the community was either murdered or deported. Many of those who survived immigrated to Israel, and the community now numbers a little over a thousand people.

David Saltiel, the leader of the Jewish community, was quoted as saying, “The community here was built by Jews from Spain ‐‐ places such as Toledo, Granada, and Seville. It was a community that spoke, ate, and sang Spanish.”

“After the Holocaust, only 1,500 Jews were left,” he explained, “but we’ve always kept that idea of our Spanish past in our hearts and we want to keep our traditions alive.”

“The Greeks can learn about our story because it’s part of Greek history too,” he added. “We’ve been here for 530 years, and that’s a long old time. We lost 97% of the community in the Holocaust, but we’re still here and we’re going to carry on and show everyone that this Spanish-Jewish community is alive, is still speaking Spanish, and is going to keep carrying on.”

Cristina Conde de Beroldingen, director of the Instituto Cervantes, said that after the slaughter of the community in the Holocaust, Thessaloniki “lost a piece of its own memory.”

“But as the president of the community put it, Spanish is coming back to Thessaloniki after 500 years,” she said. “We want to recover this legacy for Thessaloniki.”

She added that Ladino would be a major focus of the new center, saying, “I don’t think there’s another community that was expelled from a country but which has managed to keep its identity and its language for so many years.”

That language, moreover, has preserved many aspects of Spanish as it was spoken and written during the Middle Ages, Beroldingen noted.

“Judeo-Spanish is also the language of Don Quixote, of how Spanish was written back then,” she said. “It’s the Spanish of the time, but enriched by words from the countries through which the exiled Jews passed.”

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