Salonika’s Jewish community was destroyed during the Holocaust. But in the Islamic world the debate about whether or not the Salonikan-born “Father of Modern Turkey” was a Jew still rages—which is fitting for a city that was home to more Kabbalists, secret Jews, and charlatans than most.
What’s In a Name?
When the Ottoman Empire’s rule over Salonika came to an end in 1913 and the city was annexed to Greece, much more was involved than changing the city’s name back to Thessaloniki. It was also the beginning of the end for the city’s ancient Jewish community, which had arrived in the region in 513 BCE, approximately two centuries before King Cassander of Macedonia founded the city.
Jews continued to live in the area throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods, and during the medieval period they became known as Romaniote Jews. The term “Romaniote” referred to residents of the Eastern Roman Empire, another term for the Byzantine Empire.
If all this sounds like Greek to you, it would have made perfect sense to these Jews, who Hellenized their names, spoke Greek and were distinct from both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. When Benjamin of Tudela traveled to the area in the 12th century, he visited several Romaniote kehillos and noted that these prosperous Greek Jews were mainly engaged in cloth dyeing, weaving, making silk garments and producing silverware.
Two centuries later, Jews began to arrive from Central Europe, Italy and Sicily. But the most significant change in the Jewish population occurred after 1492, when some 15,000 exiles from Spain and Portugal settled in the city. By this time, the city had been captured by the Turks, an event that occurred in 1430, and it was part of the Ottoman Empire. One reason the new Muslim rulers welcomed the Jews with open arms was because they wanted to turn the remaining Greek Orthodox residents into a minority. This was accomplished by the year 1519, when an astounding 54 percent of Salonika’s population was Jewish.
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