Saturday, November 23, 2013


Last week, the Thessaloniki Association “White Tower,” in the course of various annual events celebrating the liberation of Thessaloniki and the sisterhood between that city and that of Melbourne, organised a lecture on the topic of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, which yours truly was asked to deliver.

The choice of topic created somewhat of a stir within sections of the community. “That’s a very brave choice of topic,” one pundit opined. “You will be criticised for this,” another cautioned. It is easy to see why such caveats were placed on what is ostensibly, an innocuous topic. Thessaloniki is, after all, the capital of Macedonia, a region considered central to various competing ethnic identities. Accordingly, for some, any suggestion that any ethnic group other than the Greeks may have played an intrinsic role in the history of that city, seems to compromise their conception of Macedonia as a purely Hellenic construct. Furthermore, according to a few misguided individuals, Jewish culture is inimically opposed to Greek culture, having had a corrosive influence upon it, and thus one should not draw attention to it and quite the opposite, actively oppose it.

That the Jewish and Greek cultures are inextricably linked in an aeons long dialogue and dialectic cannot be denied. From the time the Philistines, who were a Cretan, early Greek speaking people, set foot in the land of Canaan, both cultures have come into conflict with each other, influenced and informed each other. In Hellenistic times, Jewish rabbis were concerned with the level of Hellenisation of their youth and the penetration of Greek philosophic ideas into their religion. In Alexandria, a truly multicultural city, the extremely large and prominent Jewish community largely adopted the Greek language, making the translation of the Old Testament into Greek necessary, culminating in the Septuagint, which has exercised a profound influence over the development of Greek literature as well as Greek Christianity. In the same period, Hellenised Jewish philosophers such as Philo are making immense contributions to philosophy.

In many ways, Alexandria, a truly multicultural Hellenistic, as opposed to a Hellenic city, was the prototype for Thessaloniki and it comes as no surprise to learn that Jews from Alexandria were probably the first to settle in Thessaloniki. Their continued presence is well-attested in Roman times by their compatriot St Paul of Tarsus, who visited their synagogues and preached a new religion to them.

It is widely held that it the prominent place afforded to the Jews of Thessaloniki was primarily owed to their expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the Reconquista, and their resettlement by a friendly and tolerant Ottoman government. According to this narrative, Greeks and Christianity were unfriendly towards the Jews, who only flourished under the rule of the new conquerors. So ingrained is this belief within the psyche of Thessalonian Greeks that they were pleasantly shocked to learn that there were few instances of the persecution of Jews within Byzantium and that unlike the rest of Europe, where continuous and organised acts of harassment and persecution took place, Jews in Thessaloniki were left alone. In 1176, the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela wrote an account of the city in which we spoke of a Jewish community of 500, serviced by three rabbis. In the following years, the Jewish community of the city was constantly being replenished by other European Jews fleeing the depredations of their European persecutors. In 1376, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing progroms in Hungary and Germany would find their way into the city and in 1394, Jews fleeing Provence would also settle in the city, along with Jews from Italy in the period between 1423 to 1430. The composition and constitution of Thessaloniki’s Jewry was thus as complex and tribal as our own Greek community here in Melbourne, each with its own synagogues and welfare centres, based on the place of their original embarkation.

Being already known as a safe haven for at least one hundred years, the 20,000 expelled Jews of Spain chose Thessaloniki as their destination in 1492. They brought with them an immense array of skills and their own language, a Spanish-Hebrew hybrid known as Ladino, written in the Hebrew alphabet, which would remain as one of the main languages spoken in Thessaloniki right up until the end of the Second World War.

The Thessalonians who attended the lecture did not seem to be perturbed by the fact that the Jews of Thessaloniki made the city so much their own that in 1537, visiting Jewish poet from Ferrara Samuel Uscue named the city: “The Mother of Israel.” Nor were they particular disturbed to learn that between them the Jewish synagogues of their city managed to obtain a contract with the Ottoman government to exclusively supply the army with cloth, thus ensuring the financial security of the community.  On the contrary, they exclaimed in appreciation. One psychiatrist, recently arrived from Thessaloniki, was surprised and delighted to learn of the existence of a Jewish run psychiatric asylum known as Lieto Noah, decades before the existence of a similar government institution anywhere within the bounds of what became the modern Greek state. Further, the revelation that at the turn of the nineteenth century, the 70,000 strong Jewish community of Thessaloniki was the largest ethno-religious group, at about 50% of the population did not seem in anyway to compromise their understanding of their own city.

There appeared to be no need to cast the Jews in the light of a loyal minority working in the interests of the Greek state. The audience was able to learn that the Young-Turk movement, which was founded in Thessaloniki, also included some Islamised Jews within its ranks and among its ideologues but this did not unduly disturb them. In learning that the Jewish socialist party in Thessalinki “Federacion” was a vital early constituent of the Communist Party of Greece, they did not even bat an eyelid. In true Thessalonian cosmopolitan fashion, they accepted this nugget of history as part of their own, and placed it within context accordingly.

It was when describing the trials and travails of the Jewish population at the hands of the Nazis that I was almost moved to tears. The members of the audience let out audible groans, shifted their legs uncomfortably, clucked their tongues and shook their heads as they heard how the Jews were duped into providing a full census of themselves and their property holdings, only to have this serve as the means to dispossess them of everything they owned and finally, lead them to their tragic end. They were also fascinated to learn that in 1955, in the aftermath of the pogrom against the Greeks of Constantinople, a few Jews who were affected by that brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, sought refuge in Thessaloniki. Fascination turned to wonderment when they learned that local writer Tom Petsinis has written and produced an acclaimed play, entitled “Salonika Bound,” dealing with the legacy of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in Melbourne.

At this point the audience did two remarkable things. In the first instance, they began to share their own memories of the Jews in Thessaloniki. Some related how their parents were entrusted with valuables by Jews and kept them for years, vainly excepting their friends’ return. Others spoke of playing or hiding in the cavities of destroyed Jewish tombs and others yet, of their parents attempts to save or hide Jews from the genocidal mania of the Nazis. Remarkably, a few spoke of chance meetings here in multicultural Melbourne with Jews originally from Thessaloniki, taking great pains to emphasise the love and sense of loss they expressed towards that city. This was a generation that had only a passing and limited acquaintance or contact with the Jews of Thessaloniki and yet their destruction left a void and a longing in the souls of Thessalonians that endures even to the present.

Subsequently, it was spontaneously resolved that a commemorative event of the nature of the lecture, would be useless without the presence of those it was commemorating. As such, the Thessalonians excitedly discussed the prospect of formally instituting an annual commemorative event to honour the Jews of Thessaloniki, to which members of the Melbourne Jewish community would be invited. In short, supported by the indefatigable State Member for Northern Metropolitan,  Jenny Mikakos, they are now attempting to reconstitute their own ideal of a multicultural, tolerant Thessaloniki in the heart of multicultural, tolerant Melbourne. This is the Greek spirit at its finest.

If anything is to be learned from such an occasion, surely it is this: Though the first generation Greek migrant may be opinionated, bigoted and given to conspiracy theories, such opinion are worn lightly upon their sleeve, for the self-same Greek is also generous, hospitable, and having endured more trials and travails that they would care to mention, unless of course they are lecturing their young, compassionate, sympathetic to the plight of others and able to embrace all. It is that love of life and of humanity that exists in the Thessalonians of Melbourne in spades. Until next week, then, le chaim!


First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 November 2013