Greek Tragedy

Two New Books Offer a Window Into the History of Salonica’s Jewish Community

By Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Published August 25, 2006, issue of August 25, 2006.
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The Jewish Community of Salonika: History, Memory, Identity By Bea Lewkowicz Vallentine Mitchell, 266 pages, $35.

Traditions & Customs of the Sephardic Jews of Salonica By Michael Molho Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, 432 pages, $29.95.


The German occupation of Greece, begun in April 1941, was accompanied by organized plunder, rampant inflation and a famine in Athens in the winter of 1941 to 1942 that claimed at least 300,000 lives — all before the deportations of Greek Jews to the Nazi death camps had even begun.

In Salonica, known to its Jewish inhabitants as “Mother of Israel,” the early years of German occupation were marked by the expropriation of communal properties, the ransacking of communal treasures and, in July 1942, the public humiliation of the city’s Jewish male population — numbering roughly 10,000 — in Eleftheria (Freedom) Square. By December 1942, the German authorities were planning the deportation of 50,000 Jews from Salonica and the demolition of the city’s 500-year-old Jewish cemetery. At the same time, and “in spite of the rigorous cold,” a man named Michael Molho “passed these days in the cemetery, meticulously copying and preserving historic inscriptions, before the gravestones were destroyed and scattered through the city.”

Born in Salonica in 1890, Rabbi Molho was descended from a line of distinguished rabbis and was himself trained at Salonica’s Bet Yosef rabbinical seminary. After the death of his father, Molho was obliged to interrupt his rabbinical career; in the 1920s, he opened what would become one of the most important textile factories in Greece. At the same time, he became secretary general of the main Zionist organization in Greece, edited a popular Ladino daily, and independently began conducting research and producing scholarship on the history of Jewish Salonica. Among his early forays into this topic was his study of the extraordinary Jewish cemetery in Salonica, which once held hundreds of thousands of graves. The library he gathered, looted by the German occupying forces in April 1941, contained more than 500 rare volumes.

Molho himself managed to escape German-occupied Greece for the Italian-occupied eastern coast, his unpublished manuscripts and documentation in tow. There, and in the mountain town of Kieramidi, he waited out the war with the help of the Greek resistance. In late 1945, Molho was installed as chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Salonica. Five years later, he dolefully left his hometown, where the Jewish community was but a shadow of its former self, to assume a rabbinical position in Buenos Aires.

Molho’s dedication to recording the history of Salonican Jewry is astonishing not only because of his prescience and doggedness but also in light of the Sephardic cultural climate of this period. In interwar Eastern Europe, Jewish intellectuals embarked on a concerted effort to study, document and preserve elements of Jewish life, the Yiddish language among them; arguably the greatest achievement of this circle was the creation of the Yiddish Scientific Institute, in Vilna, in 1925. In the Sephardic heartland of Southeastern Europe, no parallel intellectual or academic movement existed. Molho was not without peer: One of the most important historical sources on the history of Salonican Jewry, Joseph Nehama’s magisterial, seven-volume “Histoire des Israélites de Salonique” (World Sephardi Federation, 1959) was also begun in the interwar period. Still, Nehama and Molho labored largely alone, without the support of a formal institution, without formal training, without colleagues or financial assistance, and amid a climate in which the defense of Ladino and other markers of Sephardic difference was subdued if not nonexistent.

The fruits of Molho’s labors, published originally in articles and in the Spanish-language “Usos y Costumbres de los Sefardies de Salónica” (Instituto Arias Montano, 1950) — a work originally drafted in French — have been gathered and published for the first time as “Traditions & Customs of the Sephardic Jews of Salonica.” This is an invaluable volume for scholars and lay readers alike: a precious, marvelously translated ethnography with superb introductions by Robert Bedford. Molho offers the finest grained details of everyday life in Jewish Salonica otherwise lost to most contemporary readers: the games played by its children; the cures used to treat baldness and skin conditions; the measures employed to promote weaning; the rituals enacted to mark birth, circumcision, marriage and death. Viewed alongside a number of other recent works on Jewish life in Salonica, the translation and republication of Molho’s volume reflect an exciting surge of scholarly interest in the history and culture of this unique Jewish community.

While it was Ottoman and before it was Greek, Salonica was a Jewish city, among very few centers in Europe in which Jews constituted the majority population. Since the 16th century, Jews dominated nearly every niche of Salonica’s robust commercial life, transforming the city into a center of Jewish learning and shaping the cultural fabric of the place as a whole. By the outset of the 20th century, Salonica, still under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, remained more Jewish than it was Greek or Turkish, with Jews numbering 80,000 of 150,000 city dwellers. Passing through the city’s streets, one was more likely to hear Ladino — or Judeo-Spanish, which for some five centuries was the mother tongue of the vast majority of Southeastern European Jews — than any other language.

A diverse Jewish presence in the city preceded the arrival of refugees fleeing Spain and Portugal in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. A native Jewish community (the Romaniots) had lived there since early Roman rule, when Salonica was the pre-eminent metropolis between the Adriatic and Black Sea. Under Byzantine rule, the city absorbed Jews from Hungary and Provence, with each individual creating his or her own community and maintaining an individual language, liturgy and culture. Thousands of Sicilian and Venetian Jews settled in the city when it was sold to Venice in the early 15th century, just before it came — for the second and final time — under the rule of the expanding and increasingly powerful Ottoman Empire.

It was under Ottoman rule that the ethnic composition of Salonican Jewry came to assume the form it would take for the next five centuries, since roughly 20,000 Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent flooded the port city between 1493 and 1536. In great part because of the commercial dexterity of this population, and because of an Ottoman political and legal system that encouraged Jews’ autonomy and advancement, Salonica was poised to re-emerge as an entrepôt between Europe and the Middle East and as the Jewish cultural center of the Balkans. Not coincidentally, Salonica was also a cosmopolitan city extraordinaire; its residents were Muslim, Jewish and Christian; multi-lingual, multisectarian and multicultural — all at a time when these identities and phenomena were not only tolerated but also sanctioned by the state. So many of the forces that would shape the Sephardic world in the ensuing centuries touched Salonica first. There was, in 1655, the arrival of the false messiah Sabbetai Zevi, whose teachings, condemnation by the rabbinic authorities, and eventual apostasy sparked a Jewish spiritual crisis across Europe and the Middle East. There was the astronomic rise and eventual implosion of the Ottoman textile industry, which fueled the Jewish economy in the empire as a whole and that of Salonica in particular. (The unraveling of this industry would, in time, signal the erosion of both the empire’s vitality and the mutually beneficial relationship between Ottoman Jewry and the state.) There was, in 1873, the creation of the first Alliance Israélite Universelle school in the city. Founded by French Jewish philanthropists, the AIU created educational institutions throughout the Sephardic cultural world, training generations of Jewish children in the educational, political and linguistic image of the Franco-Jewish bourgeoisie and thereby signaling and ushering in the widespread Westernization of the Jewish Levant. In a wonderful twist of historical irony, there was the childhood of Mustafa Kemal, boy of cosmopolitan Salonica and future “father” of modern Turkey, who, as much as anyone else in the region, would come to symbolize the power of nationalism in the 20th century.

Salonica was more than a metaphor: It was an idiosyncratic city with a Jewish culture influenced by the demographic, commercial and intellectual prominence of its Jewish community. In Molho’s rendering, Salonica was so densely Jewish that when a Jewish couple wed, the calls of the combidador (whose job it was to invite guests to the event) would lead “all the mothers of the neighborhood… [to] put their heads out of doors and windows, exchanging with each other details of the personalities of the bride and groom and their families. Discussions and commentaries stretched out in such a way that often, the matron would go back into her kitchen to find out that she had burnt the dinner.” In the early years of the 20th century, Jewish Salonica was marked by all the diversity, discord and dynamism one would hope to find in a thriving community.

The erasure of Jewish Salonica, too, is a metaphor for European and Sephardic Jewry writ large, though in some ways this erasure was even more complete in Salonica than elsewhere in Europe. Just five years after the creation of the state of New Greece, in 1912, a horrific fire centered in the Jewish neighborhood devastated Salonica. The conflagration left 54,000 Jews homeless, destroying almost every Jewish school, synagogue, house of prayer, cultural center, literary circle, library and learning center in the city. Amid a climate of nationalism, the urban planning that followed pushed Jews to outlying areas of the city. Five years later, a compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey brought nearly 1 million ethnic Greeks to Greece, with many settling in Salonica. The city tripled in size, and Jews were reduced from majority to minority population. Even before the genocide of Greek Jewry, then, the history and physical traces of Salonican Jewry were being erased.

As was true in most of Europe, it was the Holocaust that served as the death knell for Salonican Jewry. Despite the efforts of the Greek (and Greek Jewish) resistance, the metropolis could claim a higher percentage of Jewish victims than any other single European locale (98%). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, though a Jewish community remained in the city, Salonica ceased to be a cultural or demographic center of the Jewish world.

Bea Lewkowicz’s “The Jewish Community of Salonika” is in some sense inspired by the lacuna that Jewish Salonica became. Utilizing an anthropological approach, Lewkowicz ponders how the history of Salonican Jewry has been remembered and represented in individual narratives and in the realm of communal memory — both by Jews in present-day Salonica and in what Lewkowicz calls the “memory-scape” of contemporary Greece. These are ambitious goals, but the resulting work does not entirely succeed in distinguishing itself from the complex theoretical literature on which it relies. This is in part because of Lewkowicz’s impulse not to press her subjects or critically analyze their stories, particularly when it comes to uncomfortable narratives of the Holocaust. In response to these, Lewkowicz “decided that silence was the most appropriate response.” The alternative would no doubt be more trying for the researcher but more rewarding for the reader; alas, the fact that Lewkowicz “did not probe or set out to challenge the interviewees’ narratives” results in a somewhat flaccid study.

Molho’s study is also restrained when it comes to critical analysis, but, given the time and place in which his study was begun and Molho’s own fragmented professional background, this is rather more forgivable. One strain of interpretation in “Traditions & Customs” is Molho’s discomfort with the secularization and cultural dilution of early-20th-century Salonican Jewry. In describing a typical circumcision ceremony, for example, Molho dwells on the festive mood of the event — detailing the ubiquitous presence of Bonna la Tanyedora, a musician “popular with the women” and well known within the Salonican Jewish community — ending his account with this bittersweet lament: “Sadly, the tradition is now lost. Our era is a sad one! One can no longer see the unrestrained humor and joy that pervaded these occasions, at the namings from our parents’ generation.” Molho’s unease with the breakdown of Salonican tradition — brought on, in his account, both by the erosion of Sabbath rituals and by the proliferation of cafés, cinemas and other places of leisure in the city — neglects the many new forms of cultural vivacity that dynamized Salonican Jewry in the early years of the century: the Zionist and socialist circles, the Ladino and French newspapers and novellas geared for Jewish readers, the growing educational and professional opportunities for young Jewish women, and so on.

And yet, perhaps what is most striking about Molho’s study is the rarity of these bouts of nostalgia and the richness of his attention to the quotidian details of life. The result can border on poetry, as does Molho’s description of the passage of the rubi (schoolmaster or melammed) through town:

“Sometimes, one of his customers would offer him by way of breakfast, a taral, a kind of biscuit, that he would moisten in water or raki. This short halt and restorative light snack, although frugal, permitted the elderly teacher to continue his journey with more vigor. One could see the poor man crossing through the streets of the neighborhood at a light pace, with the flaps of his antari [vest] blowing in the wind, exposing by the speed of his pace part of his white trousers. Behind him, the extreme edge of his giube or caftan danced and snapped at his heels, raising clouds of dust.”

Contemporary scholars of Jewish Salonica are also chasing after clouds of dust: not only because the community they study fell prey to genocide but also because even before the Second World War, the Jews of Salonica were in the throes of such dramatic change. Fortunately, the recent burst of excellent scholarship onto this community allows us to appreciate Jewish Salonica as a nuanced and elastic entity. Within this pool, Molho’s account stands alone. Rather like scholar Lucy Dawidowicz’s breathless description of interwar Vilna, delivered by a brilliant American student abroad, “Traditions & Customs” is more than scholarship (or, perhaps, is scholarship at its best): It is accolade and eulogy in one; alive, nuanced and infectious.

“Traditions & Customs” is not yet available in wide release. To purchase a copy, send an e-mail request to orders@sephardicstudies.org.






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