Jewish Salonica
Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece
Devin E. Naar



El ijo de mi ijo,
dos vezes mi ijo.

The child of my child
is doubly my child.

—Judeo-Spanish proverb

Salonica is a city that I have heard about since I was a child. I tasted its foods and smelled its aromas; the sounds of at least one of its many languages bounced off my curious yet mostly uncomprehending ears. It was the city where my paternal grandfather, whom I called Nono, was born in 1917, the same year that, as he later sang to me from a stanza of a popular folk song, se kemo Salonik (“Salonica burned”). A turn-of-the-century picture of his father, my great grandfather, perplexed me: a bearded rabbi wearing an Ottoman fez. How could it be, I wondered, that my befezzed great grandfather, Haham Benjamin H. Naar, had been born in a place called “Turkey” (i.e., the Ottoman Empire), whereas his son was born in Greece, without the family having moved? Why did relatives from Greece and Turkey speak neither Greek nor Turkish among themselves but rather a language they called “Spanish,” which they also chanted as part of the predominantly Hebrew prayers at their synagogue in New Jersey? In retrospect, my dual sense of intimacy with and estrangement from the distinctive world from which my family came, and the desire to bridge the gap, planted the germ of my evolution as a historian and my interest in the subject of this book.

As I sought to learn more about this world as a college student, I began asking questions of Nono and his generation, and they graciously shared their memories with me. My great uncle Leon B. Naar also brought my attention to a family treasure: the remnants of my great grandfather’s library, including nineteenth-century editions of classics of Ladino literature, like Meam Loez and Pele Yoes, in addition to a stack of handwritten correspondence composed in a language identified for me as “Spanish,” yet which looked unlike anything I had ever seen before. This correspondence introduced me to the distinctive Sephardic Hebrew cursive, soletreo, which I painstakingly taught myself to read. My college-level Spanish and basic knowledge of Hebrew, combined with the few words of “our Spanish” I had learned as a child, enabled me to begin to comprehend the documents. But I wanted to understand more. Soon I found myself asking Nono to speak with me on the phone every week in his mother tongue, and he eagerly obliged.

The family correspondence detailed with great emotion the devastating fate of another one of my grandfather’s brothers, Salomon (1903–1943), his wife, Esther (née Pinhas, 1902–1943), and their two children, Rachel (1925–1943) and Benjamin (1930–1943), who remained in Salonica and ultimately perished in Auschwitz. A deep curiosity about Salomon’s world, not only the devastating circumstances surrounding his and his family’s death but also the dynamics that shaped their lives, led me, via a circuitous route, to the specific topic of this book. I became intrigued by what Jewish life might have looked like in Salonica—once a “city full of Jews,” I was told—in the wake of the transition from Ottoman to Greek sovereignty, the same Salonica that my grandfather had left in 1924 but where Uncle Salomon and his family remained.

In search of Uncle Salomon, I entered the lost world of Jewish Salonica. My investigations into the history of Salonica’s Jews over the past fourteen years brought me across the globe in pursuit of the dispersed and largely forgotten Jewish community’s archives—Salonica, Athens, Jerusalem, Moscow, New York, and Washington, DC. I always kept an eye out for references to Salomon and his family. As I uncovered scattered references to these long-lost cousins in Greece, I began to reconstruct their world and was struck by the multiple strains of affiliation—religious, political, cultural, socioeconomic—that intertwined in their experience and seemed to offer a counterexample to the prevalent scholarly representation of Jews in interwar Salonica as embattled, excluded, and obstinate in the face of pressures from the state to Hellenize.

Rather than being removed from the center of the city and suffer economic hardship, as the general picture of life for Salonica’s Jews during the interwar years would suggest, Salomon and his family ascended the socioeconomic ladder, moving from the family’s humble residence at the time of the fire of 1917 in the impoverished Jewish quarter, Vardar, to a flat on an upscale pedestrian street adjacent to the Aghia Sophia church in the heart of the city. As an accountant for the local branch of a New York-based company, Salomon benefitted from upward social mobility. But professional success did not prevent Salomon from trying to arrange for his family’s immigration to the United States throughout the 1930s—a fruitless effort due to strict American immigration quotas. Remaining in Salonica, Salomon nonetheless engaged in Jewish communal and Greek cultural domains.

Fragmentary records of the Jewish community reveal that Salomon actively participated in Jewish religious, political, and institutional life in Salonica. From 1923 to 1932, he numbered among the city’s mezamerim, officials who assisted in the performance of the prayer services in the synagogues—a position he inherited from his father, the rabbi, at the Mayor Sheni congregation. As recorded in accounting ledgers from 1929, Salomon also made a financial transaction with the Salonica-Palestine Company, a Zionist enterprise that promoted the development of Jewish business in Palestine, especially through the acquisition of real estate in Tel Aviv. Later, during the German occupation, Salomon was appointed to the committee of the Matanoth Laevionim, the Jewish soup kitchen, as noted by the historian Joseph Nehama in a volume dedicated to the Jews of Greece, In Memoriam (1948). The family letters reveal that Salomon was charged with distributing milk and yogurt to the sick and elderly as they boarded the trains to Auschwitz in 1943, before he and his family met the same fate.

When I uncovered the fragmentary records of the Matanoth Laevionim, I was amazed to discover a letter from 1942 inviting Salomon to serve as a member of the organizing committee. And then I found Salomon’s response, in which he gladly accepted the appointment. Notably, both documents were penned in fluent, flowing Greek. This seemed to indicate that Salomon and the committee members of the Matanoth Laevionim had not only successfully learned Greek but preferred that language, even for intra-Jewish matters, over the presumably more familiar Judeo-Spanish or even French.

Although born in the Ottoman Empire, to what extent had Salomon embraced his new status as a Greek citizen while maintaining connections to the Jewish community? The educational decisions that he and Esther made for their children throw some light on the question. They did not send Shelly and Benny to the Jewish communal schools or to a foreign school but rather to a Greek private school, Valagianni. Operating according to the Montessori model, Valagianni included classes in Greek language, literature, and history, with emphases on the humanities, sciences, music, and art. French and English were compulsory foreign languages, whereas German and Hebrew—yes, Hebrew—were electives. Mostly bourgeois families, merchants, white-collar employees, lawyers, and doctors sent their children there. As many as a third of the students were Jewish at any given point during the interwar years.

I was amazed to discover among the records of the Valagianni school, preserved in private hands, that Salomon’s daughter not only numbered among the best students in her class but was also involved in the school’s patriotic festivities. The program for the annual celebration of Greek independence in March 1938 included Rachel’s name at the top of a list of students called upon to present the Greek flag in conjunction with the performance of a patriotic play Hail, Hail Liberty! The title alludes to a famous verse in the Greek national anthem composed by the celebrated nineteenth-century revolutionary poet, Dionysios Solomos. Rachel participated in the patriotic celebration without, it seems, compromising her status as a Jew and despite her father’s apparent affiliation with Zionism.

It appeared that Salomon and his children could successfully blend their Jewish, Hellenic, and Zionist affiliations. How common was it for Jews in interwar Salonica to combine these allegiances? What did it say about the possibilities of Jewish participation in the life of Greece in the decades prior to World War II? While the story of my grandfather planted in me an interest in the history of Salonica’s Jews, it was wrestling with the multiple threads of identity that wove themselves together in the story of his brother, Salomon, and his family, that inspired me to explore the specific themes of this book.

How, in short, did the transition from Ottoman to Greek sovereignty impact Jewish society, and how did Jews varyingly embrace, resist, and negotiate the process both as individuals and as a collective? What did it mean for them to be Salonican, Jewish, Ottoman, and subsequently Greek? What does the Jewish story tell us about the dynamics of the Ottoman and Greek worlds and the ruptures and continuities between them? Were the struggles faced by Salonica’s Jews particular to the city or part of broader phenomena impacting Jewish communities or other populations in Europe and the Middle East? What are the aftereffects and enduring legacies of these transformations today?