Salonika remembered: Jewish Thessaloniki

Discovering the echoes of Jewish past in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki


As you walk the streets of Thessaloniki today, it’s hard to imagine the time back in the 17th century when Greece’s second city was known as “The Mother of Israel” and Jews made up 68 per cent of the population. But there’s still plenty to tempt visitors, both those trying to retrace its Jewish heritage as well as those enticed by this attractive seafront spot.

Visiting on a cruise through the Aegean, aboard the Viking Sea, I’d introduced the mainly non-Jewish audience to Thessaloniki’s past as part of an onboard talk — resuming my career as a cruise ship lecturer, a return to the path I’d followed since my retirement as Director of the Anne Frank Trust, following a two-year pause during the pandemic.

And the chance to explore the city once known as Salonika was a highlight. Thessaloniki’s well-known 15th century landmark, the waterfront White Tower at the southern edge of the old city, once marked the historic boundary of the Jewish quarter and it’s an ideal starting point to explore.

The heart of Jewish Greece as far back as Roman times, the apostle Paul of Tarsus was driven from the city by the community after attempting to convert Jews to Christianity at Thessaloniki’s synagogue.

And by the 12th century, Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela noted that there were 500 Jews in Thessaloniki, who were engaged mostly in cloth dyeing, weaving and making silk garments.

Over the centuries, the city saw three distinct branches of Jewry arrive: Sephardic, Ashkenazi and Byzantine-era Jews known as Romaniotes, each bringing their own traditions and language to the region. But it was the Sephardic Jews, finding refuge in the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, who quickly became synonymous with Greek Jewry.

As many as 20,000 settled in the city, which became known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, where they established Thessaloniki’s first printing press; their influence became so strong that Ladino, their Judeo-Spanish language, was widely spoken by non-Jewish inhabitants and the city virtually closed on Saturdays.

Wandering the paved streets of the Old Town, or Ano Poli, takes you through the former Ottoman city, a labyrinth of lanes lined with cafes and flowers, a mix of bright colours and scattering of Unesco World Heritage sites, although sadly little of the Jewish Quarter remains after a fire in 1917.

By this point, Thessaloniki had turned to Greek rule as the Ottoman empire began to crumble. Many of its Jews were accused of being traitors for cooperating with the Ottomans, but others fared well and some of the monumental villas owned by Jewish merchant families can still be seen, including the neo-baroque Villa Allatini and the neoclassical Villa Mordoch off Vasilissis Olgas, as well as Casa Bianca (also called Villa Fernandez) on Themistokli Sofouli, now the municipal art gallery.

In Thessaloniki’s Jewish cemetery, around a mile from the White Tower, lies Mordechai Frizis, a Jewish army officer who had distinguished himself for bravery in the First World War and who is remembered with statues in cities across Greece.

A similar distance along the waterfront the Malakopi arcade, built for the Allatini family and once home to the Bank of Thessaloniki, which now houses a string of restaurants and bars — just a stone’s throw away from the fascinating Jewish Museum on Agiou Mina Street. Inside, the eclectic collection includes family heirlooms, letters and rare books in Hebrew, as well as remnants of demolished synagogues and tombstones.

Alongside an overview of the history of the community in Thessaloniki and exhibits on everyday life, displays such as the four different Jewish newspapers published here at one point are a testament to the city’s historic place as a flourishing centre of Jewish life.

Today’s small community meets at the synagogue on Tsimiski, a few minutes away, while the Monastir Synagogue nearby, founded in 1925, is the oldest in the city — and the only one of 74 to have survived the Nazi occupation.

For in April 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded Greece from Yugoslavia, these rich centuries of history came to an end. Immediately after the occupation, arrests began, including of the entire Thessaloniki Jewish community council, while property was confiscated from Jews on a massive scale, and their businesses expropriated.

Overall, 60,000 Jews were deported from Greece to Auschwitz, with as many as half dying on the journey to Poland. In total, 87 per cent of Greece’s Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust — the highest percentage in the whole of Europe. No more than 2,000 returned to Thessaloniki.

Today, 149 brass stolpersteine can be seen on the pavement outside the First Boys’ High School to remember its Jewish pupils deported to Auschwitz, as well as five more in the stones at the city’s port, plus a bronze ribbon in the city centre, where Nazi headquarters were located.

And a few minutes’ walk from the Jewish Museum stands the Holocaust memorial in Eleftherias — or Freedom — Square; a stark sculpture of flames and bodies twisted together with a menorah, on the site where the city’s Jewish inhabitants were told to gather by the Nazis.

A new Holocaust and Human Rights Museum and Education Centre is currently under construction on the same site too, set to be the main Holocaust Museum in Greece, and forever remembering the key part the Jewish community played in the rich culture of this vibrant city.

Getting There

Direct flights to Thessaloniki cost from around £90 return, including routes from Stansted with Ryanair and from Manchester with easyjet.

There are several Jewish Heritage walking and coach tours, including trips with local experts via

For more information on the Jewish Museum, visit

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