The history of the Jews of Saloniki reaches back almost two thousand years ago.

The time when the Jews first settled in Saloniki is a question that has not yet been historically resolved. Some researchers claim that there were Jews in Saloniki at the time of its founding (315 BC).

Others support that the Jews initially settled in Saloniki in 140 BC coming from Alexandria. Flavius Joseph talks about Jews in Macedonia and further reference to them is made in a letter from Herod to Calligula dated 10 AD.

Another important reference to the presence of an organized Jewish Community in Saloniki is to be found in the Acts of the Apostles. The relevant passage informs us that Paul visited the city in 50 AD and taught at the Synagogue on three consecutive Saturdays.


It is believed that Jews from Alexandria, who arrived in 140 BCE, were among the first Jews to settle in Saloniki. During the Hellenistic period a Jewish community was formed. They concentrated in an area near the port of the city. The center of their social and religious lives was their synagogue, Etz haHayim. Legend has it that the Apostle Paul preached for three consecutive Sabbaths in this same synagogue before he was forced to leave town.

The Romans granted autonomy to the Jewish community whose members lived in various parts of the town and were not concentrated anymore around the port. They are traders, craftsmen but also farmers and silk growers.

The Jews of Saloniki during the Roman and later the Byzantine periods had Greek names and spoke Greek. This ancient community came to be known as the “Romaniotes”.

After the splitting up of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, Saloniki became the second most important city – after Constantinople – in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine emperors, in their efforts to “Christianise” their subjects, were hostile to the Jewish communities in their territory. Great Constantine and Theodosius 2nd enforced anti-Jewish laws. Justinian 1st prohibited public fulfilment of the mitzvot (religious commandments). He prohibited the recitation of the Shema and in his famous Codex Justinianis, Jews are branded as second class citizens. He even decreed that Pessah must be celebrated after the Greek Orthodox Easter. Basil 1st the Macedonian, and Leo 3rd the Philosopher, forced the Jews to convert or leave the country. One of the very few emperors who acted favorably toward the Jews was Alexius I Comnenus, who during the First Crusade alleviated their taxes.


In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Spain, signed the edict of expulsion ordering all Jews to leave their kingdom. The Italian Jewish writer, Yoseph haKohen, writes in mid-16th century.

“All the armies of the Lord left, the refugees of Jerusalem who lived in Spain, this cursed land, in the fifth month of the year 5252, that is 1492. From there, they dispersed to the four corners of the earth. They left from the port of Cartagena in 16 big ships full of a multitude of men, on a Friday, the 16th of the month Av. And leaving the cities of the King, what did they do? They went where the winds guided them: to the lands of Africa, Asia, Greece and Turkey. And they live there until today.”

After the expulsion from Spain and Portugal, great numbers of Jews streamed into the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Bayazid issued an order to the governors of the provinces not to refuse entry to the Jews or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially. He even made the now famous remark that the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) were considered wise, but wrongly so, since they impoverished Spain (by the expulsion of the Jews) and enriched Turkey.

During the 15th and 16th centuries many Jews expelled from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sicily, and France, and refugees from North Africa, settled in Saloniki. The largest numbers came in 1492/93 and 1536. Once in Saloniki, they founded separate synagogues (congregations) kahal kadosh. These synagogues were named after their native countries or towns: Castilia, Catalan, Aragon, Majorca, Lisbon, Sicilia, Calabria, Puglia, Provincia etc.

Saloniki also received Marranos who were expelled from Portugal. The Marranos were Jews from Spain and Portugal who preferred to convert instead of leaving their countries. They continued however to practice Judaism in secret.

It is estimated that by 1553 there were 20,000 Jews in Saloniki. The location of the city and the fact of being a port – constituting a key point on the international trade route between the East and the West – helped attract settlers. Merchandise from the East came to Saloniki and from there it was transferred to the West and vice versa. The Jewish immigrants maintained their relations with their coreligionists and colleagues in their countries of origin – France, Flanders, Egypt, and especially with the Italian ports, above all Venice.

At that time, there were three main concentrations of Jews in Saloniki: a quarter next to the city wall at the port, that is, very close to the main artery of trade; the Francomahalla, which means, the quarter of the “Francos” (foreigners from Europe), which presumably consisted of the elite of the Jewish inhabitants; and the quarter near the hippodrome, which was primarily Greek. Thus, the Jews did not live near the Turks, the rulers of the town who lived in the upper parts of the town. To stress their dominant status, the Turks even issued a decree that the houses belonging to the Jews had to be at least 2 meters lower than the Turkish ones.

The Jews of Saloniki engaged in the crafts, and the city became famous for its Jewish weavers and silk and wool dyers. Nearby there were gold and silver mines and many of the miners were Jews. There were also Jewish farmers and fishermen, professions that were not be found among the Jews in the rest of Europe mainly because they were not allowed to by the local authorities.


In the beginning of the 17th century the city suffered from plagues and fires (1604, 1609, 1610, 1618, 1620), causing emigration; nevertheless, by the middle of the century there were about 30,000 Jews, or half of the total population of the city. Trade continued to flourish in spite of the drop in Venetian trade, which resulted from the loss of Crete to the Turks in 1669. The Jews continued to export grain, cotton, wool, silk, and textiles. Many Jewish women worked in growing tobacco and in its industry. At the same time fewer and fewer Jews worked in the crafts. Toward the end of the century a decline in commercial activities took place as a result of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which had entered a state of continuous war with various countries and peoples.

In spite of all these troubles Saloniki remained a center of religious studies and halakhah. The famous halakhic authority R. Hayyim Shabetai (d. 1647), author of the Torat haHayyim, lived in the city during the first half of the 17th century; other important religious authorities included Aaron Cohen Perahyah, the author of Parah Matteh Aharon, and David Conforte, author of Kore ha-Dorot. Saloniki became also an international center of Jewish Printing. As early as 1512, Don Judah Gedalia printed in Saloniki a Tanach, with perushim (explanations) of Rashi and Onkelos. The Soncino family moved to Saloniki in 1525 and printed here their famous complete Soncino Talmud. In later years, the community itself organized its own associations to publish sidurim (prayer books). One of those associations, established in mid-19th century, the Etz-haHayim society, exists until today continuing to publish books of Jewish interest.

The most influential event for the Jewish community in the 17th century was the appearance of the pseudo-messiah Shabetai Zevi. Expelled from Izmir, he arrived in Saloniki in 1657. In the beginning, he was very well treated, and he preached in the Shalom synagogue; but when he declared that he was the true messiah, he was expelled after a decision made by the most important rabbis of the town. Later, he converted to Islam, and 13 years after his death, in 1683, a group of believers – some 300 Jewish families – also converted to Islam. This sect was called the Doenmeh (in Turkish “apostates”) and their religious center was in Saloniki, from which they spread to Constantinople and other places. Shabetai Zevi’s passage from Saloniki and the conversion that ensued caused turmoil among the Jews in Saloniki.

In 1680 the 30 congregations merged into one, with a supreme council composed of three rabbis and seven dignitaries. The three rabbis were elected for life and could not be replaced unless all three died. The first triumvirate was composed of Moses b. Hayyim Shabbetai, Abraham di Boton, and Elijah Kovo. Another important step was the reorganization of all the rabbinical courts into three bodies along the following lines: matrimonial; rents, possessions (hazakot); and ritual matters (issur ve-heter). Each bet din was composed of three rabbis who were elected by the triumvirate; they were known for their impartiality and many Muslims and Greeks preferred to try the cases they had with Jews in these courts instead of the Turkish ones.


In the 18th century, as the Ottoman Empire declined, the community’s economic situation worsened, and French merchants began to gain control of various business sectors. In 1720-30 Portuguese Marranos, called “Francos,” emigrated to Saloniki. Most of them were well educated and among them were merchants and bankers. They did not pay taxes to the sultan since they were considered as interpreters of the consuls. In the beginning they also refused to pay the relevant taxes to the Jewish community, but after a decision by its central committee, they acceded to the community’s demands. The Jewish population at that time was between 25,000 and 30,000. Nevertheless, both religious and secular studies declined, and only study of the Kabbalah still flourished.


Toward the second half of the 19th century the Turkish governors of the city initiated a further expansion of the town. A new port was built in 1889, which helped to develop trade. European culture and technology also began to flow into Saloniki. Signs of this “westernization” became apparent among the Jewish inhabitants also. In 1873 the Alliance Israelite Universelle established a school, and additional schools along Western standards were also built.

Physicians who had studied in Europe helped to eliminate epidemics. Westernization helped in the development of trade, and in 1886 the Bank of Saloniki was founded. As a result of this westernization liberalism became paramount among the Jews of Saloniki. Nevertheless, this did not undermine the traditional ways of the community and many new yeshivot were established. The Hevrat Kadimah – for the spreading of the Hebrew language – was founded in 1899, and the well-known teacher Isaac Epstein was brought to Saloniki to teach Hebrew. The Jewish Press made its appearance as early as 1864 with El Lunar and later in 1875 with la Epoca that was quickly followed by El Avenir. These newspapers were written in Judeo-Spanish. Many more newspapers, literary magazines and bulletins of various religious or Zionist organizations, written in Judeo-Spanish, French, Hebrew and Greek continued to appear until the beginning of World War II.

In 1887 Rabbi Jacob Kovo replaced the rabbinical triumvirate and was appointed to the post of hakham bashi (chief rabbi). In 1900 there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Saloniki (out of a total population of 173,000).


In 1908, when the Young Turks rose against Sultan Abdul Hamid II, many Jews were in their numbers. One of the first actions of the Young Turks when they came to power was the recruiting of all non-Muslims into the Turkish army. As a result many young Jews left Saloniki and emigrated to the U.S. in order to avoid serving in the Turkish army. Since the Jews believed that the new government was more liberal and tolerant than the former one, they openly organized socialist and syndicalist movements. At the same time the first Zionist organizations, Agudat Bnei Zion and Maccabee, appeared in Saloniki. By the eve of World War II there were more than 20 Zionist organizations.

The Young Turk revolution marked a new “golden” era for the Jews of Saloniki. Jews could be found in every profession: traders, tobacco workers, lawyers, physicians, teachers, but also port workers. On Sabbaths the city and the port came to a standstill since the Jews did not work. In 1933, 300 seamen, stevedores, and porters and their families emigrated to Palestine and settled in Haifa. Over the years other families from Saloniki joined them. In 1936 some of them moved to Tel Aviv and laid the foundations of the port there.

When the Greek army entered the town in 1912, King George of Greece declared that Jews and all other minorities were to have the same rights as the Greek population. After the Balkan Wars (1912-13), Saloniki could no longer be used as the port for the Balkan states. Nevertheless, trade continued to flourish since during World War I Saloniki became a center for the soldiers of the Allied forces.

In 1917 a great fire destroyed most of the town, leaving some 50,000 Jews homeless. The Greek government, which followed a policy of hellenizing the town, was ready to compensate the Jews whose houses were destroyed, but it refused to let the Jews return to certain parts of the town, causing many of them to leave the country and emigrate to the U.S., England, France, Italy, and Alexandria. In 1922 a law (no. 236) was enacted which forced all the inhabitants of Saloniki to refrain from working on Sundays, thus causing another wave of emigration. Some went to Palestine, while most emigrated to Paris where they founded an important community.

In 1931, the Campbell riots, which accompanied the elections and were anti-Semitic in tone, took place. Armed hooligans burned to the ground an entire Jewish neighborhood consequently most of the Jews who lived in the Campbell neighborhood left after the riots for Palestine. In 1935 there were nearly 60,000 Jews in Saloniki, and in spite of the drop in Jewish population from the turn of the century and all the riots and fires, the Jews continued to maintain their status in the economic activity of the city. They integrated, more or less successfully, in the Greek Society maintaining their own traditions and language. The male population served in the Greek army and participated in the Greek victory over the Italians in Albania, which marked the beginning of the 2nd World War in this area.


The first German armed columns though, entered Saloniki on April 9, 1941. Two days later, the Messagero, the sole surviving Judeo-Spanish daily paper, was suppressed, and a number of houses and public buildings requisitioned for military needs, including the Jewish hospital founded by Baron de Hirsch and bearing his name. The Germans nominated a new president of the community to transmit their orders.

In the summer of 1942, orders were issued for all adult male Jews between the ages of 18 to 45 to present themselves at Liberty Square to be enrolled for forced labor. At the appointed day, 6,000-7,000 of them were packed together under the broiling sun, until the afternoon, surrounded by companies of soldiers armed with machine guns. Many were sent off immediately to malaria stricken areas with very little food. Within ten weeks, 12% of those taken had died.

After prolonged negotiations with the Jewish Community of Saloniki, the Germans ultimately agreed to exempt the Jews from forced labor in return for a ransom of two and a half billion drachmae, an exorbitant amount of money for that period, which the community raised with great difficulty. In December 1942, the ancient cemetery, containing nearly 500,000 graves and dating back certainly to the 15th century, was expropriated and thus became a quarry for the entire city. Tombstones of inestimable historic value were removed regardless of age and could still be seen all over the city as paving stones until some time ago.

At this stage, the Germans replaced the president of the community with Rabbi Dr. Zvi Koretz. The community hoped that since he spoke German, he would be effective in his dealings with the German authorities. He became convinced that by unquestioning compliance, the Nazis might be mollified. He therefore urged the community to comply with the German instructions.

On February 6, 1943 a commission headed by Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner arrived in Saloniki to put the racial laws into operation. Two days later an order was issued forcing all Jews to wear the yellow Magen David; their shops and offices had to be similarly marked. A number of areas were marked off in those districts that were largely inhabited by Jews. It was the first time in almost 2.000 years that the Jews of Saloniki were forced to live in ghettos. The concept of ghetto was not known to the Jews of Saloniki until that day. Any Jew who changed his residence without permission was treated as a deserter and shot outright. No Jew was allowed on streets after nightfall; no Jew was allowed to use the telephone; no Jew could ride on the tramway.

Half a century before, Baron de Hirsch had paid for the construction near the railway station of a number of little houses, to give shelter to Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms. On the morning of March 14, the inhabitants of the Hirsch quarter were instructed to assemble in the local synagogue, where they were informed by Rabbi Koretz that they were to be deported to Poland. He informed them that they would find a new home there, among their own people. The next morning, the inhabitants of the quarter were assembled and marched to the station, where they were driven into the waiting cars, which were soon overloaded to twice their capacity, closed, then sealed, and off to Poland.

The Hirsch quarter was now clear and ready to receive a new convoy. During the next few months, new convoys arrived from various Jewish neighborhoods of the city and they were sent off to the Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination camps. The last convoy left in the 7th of August 1943.

All told, 43,850 Jews, 95% of the Jewish population, were deported from Saloniki in these months. Very few Jews of Saloniki found refuge in the surrounding countryside where they joined the resistance, or in Athens, where a significant proportion of the Jewish population was saved by the help of the Christian population.

In October 1944, Saloniki was recaptured by the Greek and Allied forces. A handful of Jews returned to the city whose history had been intertwined so closely with their own for 2,000 years. They found their homes occupied their property looted, all but two or three out of their 19 synagogues destroyed, their five-century-old cemetery still used as a quarry.


After the war, Holocaust survivors of the Saloniki community, together with remnants of smaller communities, concentrated in Saloniki. As the Jews of the other communities spoke Greek, Judeo-Spanish, which was the language spoken by the Jews of Saloniki, all but disappeared as a spoken language in the community. Bitter memories and harsh economic conditions in post-war Greece forced many of the Jewish survivors to emigrate to Israel and the U.S.

Today, there is an organized community. Two synagogues are in use. Religious services take place every day and on High Holidays. The children of the community begin their schooling in the Jewish kindergarten and elementary school. Their secondary education follows in Greek schools, but provisions are being taken for Jewish education, handled mainly by the Mercaz Hadracha assisted by teachers from Israel. There are two youth clubs and a community center for all the ages. In Saloniki there is a Jewish Home for the Aged. The Jewish Community of Saloniki organizes a summer camp for Greek Jewish youth. The sports-minded youngsters have their Maccabi organization.

The Jewish Community of Saloniki is striving today to provide all the means to its members in order to enhance their Jewish experience. We are following the steps of our forefathers who created this Jewish town, and hopefully we can become one day a new center of Judaism, a new Ir vaEm beIsrael


A story of Saloniki | The Jews and the Holocaust
Credits: Livemedia (All rights reserved)