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Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Jerusalem of the Balkans; The Heart of Sephardic Jewry

Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern GreeceJewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece by Devin Naar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Salonica, once hailed as a Jewel,of the Balkans was once home to a very vibrant Sephardic Jewish community. The city was called " the Jerusalem of the Balkans" and the heart of Sephardic Jewry. The city was so completely Jewish that not only were a good many were Jews in Salonica but the city businesses were closed on STurday. Many Jewish leaders, especially the liberal ones proposed that Salonica be homeland for the Jewish people instead of Palestine. Of course this was not to be.

Ultimately the community of 50,000 Jews perished in the holocaust when the Nazis took over . Despite the fact that Jews were such an integral part of Salonica, many Orthodox Christians helped the Nazis round up Jews and deport them to Aushwitz. Only 2000 Jews remained and when they returned they found their cemetery bet achain was taken over. Their synagogues were destroyed with decorative motifs stolen to aggrandize other churches and private homes. Parts of a Torah scroll were used to make soles of someone's shoe. Tombstones were used by Mason's for various construction purposes. Total,desecration. Even a church leader exhorted his corelifionist to help the Greek Jews. The plea fell on deaf ears. The survivors have move forward while maintaining the memory of Salonica.

The genesis of this community occurred after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. The sultan allowed them into Ottoman lands. Under the Ottomans the Jews were called th most loyal millet. They had almost complete autonomy and there was no pressure to speak the Turkish language. The Jewish community appointed their Hachamm Bashi to deal,with the central government . The rabbis ran their community like a fiefdom. They had control over their own education.

After World War I Salonica was part of Greece. Life for the Jews of Salonica took a turn not necessarily for the better but not a state of decline like some would like to think. With treaty of Lusane there was massive population shift between Turkey and Greece. All th Muslims in Greece went to Turkey and all the Orthodox Christians of Turkey were moved to Greece. Most of these Christians were not so Greek. They spoke and were Slavic. Greece for their survival and Natioanl interest had to create a Greek society.

For the Jews this meant less autonomy and lots of changes. The first was their autonomy. Where as back in the day they completely ran their affairs like a state within a state, now they had to cooperate with the central govt. this presented a challenge for the Jewish community both within and with their neighbors. With were challenges of selecting a rabbi. Who should it be? Should the rabbi be modern? More Sephardic more ashkenazi? There were changes in the education. The courses for secular studies had to be in Greek, students had to learn Greek history. Education was meant to Greekify everyone. The Jews also had to deal with rising antisemitism and land expropriation.

This book gives a very thorough history of the Salonica Jewish community from the ending of Ottoman rule all the way through a the interwar years culminating with annihilation in World War II. Let the memory of Salonica live on.

I do not like to delve into politics but this history just goes to show that no matter how good the Jews may have it in a certain location in the end they always suffer a massacre or major pogrom. It underscores the need for Jewish homeland somewhere on this planet. I will not speculate on there "where should it be?"

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One blond hair blue eyed Calfornian who totally digs the Middle East.