The chapter introduces competing visions for the future of Salonica during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), including bold proposals to transform it into an internationalized city or an independent Jewish city-state. These episodes illustrate the centrality of Salonica and its Jews in Ottoman and Greek history and how new sources—local archives and newspapers—change our understanding of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and consolidation of Greece. Not preordained, the passage from Ottoman to Greek rule transpired gradually. Aspects of the Ottoman framework—including tensions between the allegiances of Jews to their community and to the state—echoed into modern Greece. The story was complicated: could Judaism and Hellenism—two historically antagonistic ideals—be reconciled in modern times?
The first chapter explores the creation and development of the institution of the Jewish Community of Salonica. Due to the autonomous status of the Jewish Community, Jews relied upon it and its philanthropic organizations—as if a municipality or a state, as one commentator observed— to endure the transition from Ottoman to Greek jurisdiction, war, fire, and economic crisis. In conflict and in partnership with the state, the Jewish Community, through the Beit Din (rabbinical court), defined its members, implemented Jewish marriage law (which some escaped through conversion), managed Jewish popular neighborhoods for the impoverished masses, and inducted Jewish men into military service. Allegiance to the Jewish Community and to the state sometimes complemented each other, whereas other times they stood in opposition.
The ongoing debates over the role and nature of the spiritual and political leader of the Jewish Community, the chief rabbi, forms the heart of the second chapter. Deliberations among competing Jewish political factions over the nature of the position of the chief rabbi reflected their differing values and contested visions for the future of Salonica and its Jewish residents from the late Ottoman until World War II. While Jewish political groups largely agreed that the chief rabbi ought to represent the city's Jews to their neighbors, the state, international organizations, and Jewish communities around the world, they often disagreed over who the chief rabbi ought to be and what kind of image he should project to the world about the status of the Jews of Salonica.
Jewish leaders believed that the future of Jewish life in Salonica would be forged at school, a site that acquired a sacred aura for its crucial role in educating Jewish youth. This chapter argues that schools became sites in which to transform the children of the last generation of Ottoman Jews into the first generation of Hellenic Jews, conscientious as Jews and as citizens of their country. Focusing on the contested role of language and its relationship to questions of identity and belonging, the chapter emphasizes the ways in which the Jewish Community and the state partnered to develop new Jewish educational opportunities, such as a rabbinical training program, Greek state schools for Jewish students, Greek language textbooks about Judaism, and Hebrew-language textbooks about Greece. On the eve of World War II, when most European countries pushed Jews out of state schools, in Greece, integration was reaching new heights.
The fourth chapter charts how Salonican Jews' interest in their own history migrated from the margins of public awareness during the late Ottoman era to the very center of public attention during the interwar years. During this period, Jewish intellectuals created narratives of their own community's past in newspapers and other publications as a vehicle to unite in the context of fragmentation and crisis, to imbed themselves in the Ottoman context and, by rewriting their story, to advocate for a place within the Greek context. From presenting Jewish history in Salonica as an Ottoman-Jewish romance, they increasingly emphasized the historic synergies between Judaism and Hellenism. In the process, local Jewish historians varyingly envisioned their city as Jewish ("Jerusalem of the Balkans"), Sephardic ("Citadel of Sephardism"), or Greek ("Macedonian Metropolis"), and agreed that greater knowledge of their past would help them secure their future.
This chapter interrogates the place of the Jewish cemetery of Salonica—once the largest in Europe—within the spatial, political and cultural landscapes of the city from the late Ottoman era until World War II. It focuses on the tactics that Jews deployed to safeguard their burial ground in the context of nineteenth century Ottoman urban reforms, and in the face of expropriation measures of the Greek state and the local university. Could a Jewish necropolis remain in the center of a Greek metropolis? Jewish leaders argued that the tombstones "spoke," that the inscriptions narrated the integral role played by Jews—as Salonicans—in their city and in Greece. The attempt to preserve the space of the Jewish dead constituted an effort to secure the place of the Jewish living—and reveals the ultimate fragility of the effort and the power of exclusionary nationalism.
The Holocaust decimated the Jewish population of Salonica, which was reduced by more than ninety percent. In the wake of the war, Jewish survivors in Salonica and those abroad emphasized images of their city as a historically unmatched, mythic Jewish space. Part of the process of mourning and infused by nostalgia, these images echoed the depictions of the city from before the war that Jews developed as a way to integrate themselves into their urban environment and secure their position across the divide between the Ottoman Empire and the Greek state. Just as Jews embraced the state ideology of Ottomanism, so too did Jewish elite later engage with Hellenism and sought to reconcile their status as Salonicans, as Jews, and as citizens. Although few Jews remain in Salonica today, the city continues to come to terms with its past amidst financial crisis, and to embrace its bygone Jewish history.