Home of the largest pre-war Jewish Community in Greece, Thessaloniki was once called “The Metropolis of Israel, the City of Justice, the Mother of Israel, same as Jerusalem itself”, according to the words of the poet Samuel Usques. Settling there for the first time around 140 BCE, the city’s Jews saw their numbers swell when Spanish refugees arrived, attracted by the relatively tolerant Ottoman regime. During the first half of the 20th century many emigrated to Israel and the USA, bringing the city’s Jewish population down to less than 50,000 on the eve of WW II, from its peak of about 80,000 in 1900.
The German Occupation introduced the concept of the ghetto to the city’s residents, by creating the first one in more than 2000 years of history. The usual range of anti-Semitic measures was followed by many more attempts to crush the community’s spirit and wipe out its presence in the city’s history, among them the destruction of the city’s Jewish cemetery, of inestimable historic value. Its tombstones were used as paving stones and to line an army swimming pool. In 1943, all of the Jews of Thessaloniki were deported to extermination camps, where 95% perished. Only 1,950 returned, to find only two of the city’s 19 synagogues still standing, their properties looted and themselves a minority in a city where they once had been the largest community.
Today, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki is the second largest in Greece, with two functioning synagogues, its own nursery and primary school, a local museum and a number of active organizations.