Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Salonika Synagogue Book
Salonika Synagogue Book Marks City's Cultural Capital Designation
Eighty years after the fire of 1917 devastated a significant part of the city, Salonika (Thessaloniki) celebrated its designation by the European Union as the Cultural Capital of Europe. Though a year of celebration for the Greek city, it has also been a time of reflection for its Jewish community. Before the Holocaust there were over 50,000 Jews in Salonika and they played a vital role in the city's life - from the town hall to the docks, Jews were everywhere, occupying every niche of urban life. Travelers frequently commented on how life in Salonika came to a standstill on the Sabbath, a quiet hush falling on the usually busy seaport. Today, slightly more than 1,000 Jews live in the city, their existence little noted at home or abroad.
In 1997, however, several events and activities mark a re-emergence of the Salonika Jewish community. Among them is the publication by Elias Messinas of The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia, which documents the history and architecture of the destroyed synagogues of the northern Greek city. Messinas, a graduate of Yale University School of Architecture and currently a Ph.D. candidate at the National Technical University in Athens, has spent over five years documenting synagogues in Greece, and he has been instrumental in initiating preservation activities for the synagogue at Veroia.
Before the Second World War there were scores of synagogues and midrashim in Salonika. After the deportation of Salonika's Jews to Auschwitz and other death sites by the occupying German army, synagogues and other Jewish sites were systematically destroyed. Only one synagogue survived the onslaught - the Monastirioton Synagogue, now Salonika's main synagogue. The book features historical and architectural information about the synagogues. In some cases this is spotty, due to sparse records, but overall, there is a great deal to interest the historian of Sephardic culture and the architectural historian. There is also previously unpublished information about community cantors, as well as unpublished photos of many community events which took place within the synagogues. The book also features a section on the history, architecture and preservation of the synagogue at Veroia, a town not far from Salonika.
Additionally, a Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in Salonika on November 23rd, 1997 and the Simon Marks Museum of Jewish History of Thessaloniki has opened, including an exhibition documenting the Holocaust and a photo exhibition entitled "Thessaloniki: Sephardic Metropolis." This exhibition is a copy of one installed at the Lohamei Ha'getaot Museum (Ghetto Fighters Museum) near Haifa.
The Jewish Community of Salonika received a grant from the Ministry of Culture as part of the financing of the 1997 Salonika Cultural Capital of Europe activities. This grant in the amount of 400,000,000 drs (approximately US $1,400,000) enabled the Jewish community to renovate a historic building it owns for the purpose of housing on its premises the new Jewish Museum of Salonika. The renovations are still in progress and well behind schedule. A director has been chosen for the new Salonika Museum - Mr. Giannis Megas - known for his postcard collection related to the Jewish life of Salonika (published by Kapon Publishing House). It is still not clear what relationship these new institutions will have with the Jewish Museum of Greece, founded in 1977 and located in Athens.