This lively Greek city is known as “the city of ghosts” for its forgotten Jewish history
Beloved destinations often have overlooked histories. Mic dives into how the past shapes what travelers see today.
Take a walk down Thessaloniki’s promenade at sunset, and you’ll see 20-somethings posted up at a variety of bars and tavernas that look out onto the crisp, blue Aegean Sea. To an outside observer, the experience — and the backdrop of the city itself — is overtly Greek. Views of young college students conversing over a frappe (the Greek version of an iced Americano) are illuminated by the promenade’s clean white marble. A blue and white Greek flag flies proudly atop the city’s landmark, the White Tower of Thessaloniki. The Ottoman fortification, which locals claim is a Byzantine monument, connects the city’s Byzantine and Christian past with its Hellenic present.
But there’s much more to the Greek city than its breezy outdoor scene. One just needs to know where to look — or better, dig.
Despite the city’s thriving arts and culture scene, many scholars consider Thessaloniki to be a “city of ghosts.” Salonica, as the city is also known, is considered “the Jerusalem of the Balkans” with a bustling port and booming trade, as well as a major intellectual center. Jews — many of whom fled to the Ottoman Empire from late Medieval Iberia following the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century — were the city’s largest ethnic group until 1922. At its height, Salonica had the largest population of Jews in any Greek city, whereas today, as a direct post-war consequence, the majority — about 3,000 — live in Athens.
Many Jewish families were merchants who contributed to the city’s economic well-being, but most formed the backbone of the city’s economy; the main port used to be closed on Saturdays to honor the Jewish Sabbath. But in 1943 in German-occupied Greece, 95% of the city’s 56,000 Jews were deported and ultimately murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not many returned home, and even fewer managed to live with the ghosts of the past lurking around. Today, Thessaloniki’s Jewish population counts less than a thousand.
The immediate post-Holocaust moment and the present day are not dissimilar. While Salonica’s Jews are virtually invisible today, clues of this once robust Jewish presence, though subtle, are scattered throughout the city and quite literally make up its very foundation.
A longstanding food tradition
Take Salonica’s major covered food market. Modiano Market takes up multiple blocks and sells all the classic Greek fare one could imagine, from koulouri Thessalonikis — a sesame-covered bread ring native to the city — to fresh fish from the Aegean Sea, olives, cheeses, spanikopita, meat and an infinite variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
What appears to be an inherently Greek sensory experience and a main destination for the city’s residents actually has Jewish roots. The market was designed and built in the 1920s by Eli Modiano, a member of a prominent Italian-Jewish local family of merchants and bankers. There are few Jews left in the city of Salonica, but the Modiano legacy persists in the market’s very existence. While some elderly shopkeepers are aware of the market’s connection to this influential Jewish family, the name holds little significance for young patrons.
This eerie and notable absence is felt in other parts of the city as well. Beautiful turn-of-the-century mansions and villas built close to the waterway were known as the Towers of Thessaloniki and praised for their vast gardens and unique architecture. Today, most of these buildings belong to the municipality, but these homes once belonged to Salonica’s multiethnic elite of Christians, Muslims and, first and foremost, Jews.
Villa Allatini, a beautiful three-story villa on Salonica’s main waterway, belongs to the local city government and has been home to Thessaloniki’s prefectural authority since the late 1970s. Villa Allatini sits on an overgrown lawn, but its monumental architecture places it in the late 1800s. The lavish home belonged to one of the most influential Jewish merchants in the city: Moise Allatini was an industrialist who contributed greatly to the city’s economy through trade.
Villa Fernandez, also known as Casa Bianca, is considered to be a treasure of Thessaloniki. The ornate mansion houses the municipality’s art gallery and was the one of the city’s first homes built in the eclectic style in the early 20th century, but few know of the structure’s Jewish links. Dino Fernandez has Italian-Jewish roots and amassed a tremendous amount of wealth through trade.
The homes are visually stunning, making the mundane municipal activities that take place within them almost seem incongruous. To those who know the history of the Allatini and Fernandez families and the Jewish community’s impact on Salonica’s trade — and the subsequent demise of the Jewish population in the wake of the Holocaust — these mansions are yet another reminder of a looming absence of a once robust ethnoreligious group. But they are evidence of a once vibrant and utilitarian Jewish community nonetheless.
Some clues of this Jewish presence, however, are more grave than others. For Paris Papamichos Chronakis, a lecturer in modern Greek history at University of Illinois at Chicago who originally hails from Salonica, clues paint a larger picture of a former Jewish presence in the city. After decades of passing through Salonica’s Navarinou Square and the reconstructed Roman palace of Gallerius (the city’s main open archaeological space), he noticed several marble insets in the surrounding mantels and benches. With help from a Jewish friend, Chronakis realized that these fragmented stones had Hebrew writing on them. This new knowledge rocked his pre-existing conceptions of the city he called home.
These pieces of stone are tombstone fragments from the city’s Jewish cemetery, which was over 350,000 square meters in size and housed hundreds of thousands of Jewish graves from the 15th to mid-20th centuries. In 1942, right before the deportations, the Jewish community passed the cemetery grounds to the municipality (in collaboration with the Nazis), which then leveled the cemetery to free up space and use the stones as construction materials. Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University — the very university that attracts so many young Greek college students to the city — was built atop the cemetery grounds. Fragments of Jewish tombstones, engraved with Hebrew letters, can be found on the sides of buildings, in sidewalks and even in antique shops.
Educating the future
In the past decade, the city’s leadership has demonstrated its commitment to acknowledge and remember Salonica’s Jewish past and the Jewish population’s untimely fate. There are Holocaust memorials by the city’s waterfront and on the Aristotle campus. According to reports, however, students seem to know very little about the campus memorial, or the fact that their alma mater sits on a plot of land that once was home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish graves.
Historian Rena Molho describes this trend as “a murder of people, consciousness, and memory: memoricide.” Remembering and acknowledging a multi-ethnic and Jewish presence in a city like Thessaloniki, in this case, must be an active process for anyone who passes through.