Here, two book reviews of historical accounts of Jews living in unlikely places.
Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece, by Devin E. Naar, Standford University Press, 2016
Jews first arrived in the city of Salonica, formerly known as Thessaloniki, soon after their dispersal following the Roman conquest of ancient Israel. Salonica again became a prime destination for Sephardi Jews after Spain expelled its Jews in 1492. From then until World War II, Jews comprised close to a majority of the city’s population.
A part of the former Ottoman Empire, Salonica was a strategic Aegean port and a thriving multicultural metropolis at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. It was a place where Jews attained significant cultural, commercial, political and familial links across a wide geographical range from Sarajevo to Sofia, Istanbul to Cairo.
With a self-assured Jewish community that at its height exceeded 60,000 – even up to 100,000 by some estimates – Salonica attained a legacy as “the Jerusalem of the Balkans” and was home to the largest Sephardi community in the world. The community possessed a historic sense of heritage, grandeur and belonging. By the early 20th century, Salonica had become such a dynamic Jewish centre that the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, upon visiting in 1909, declared it “the most Jewish city in the world.”
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, there was short-lived talk of making Salonica into an independent Jewish principality. However, Greece annexed the city in 1913 and a calamitous fire swept through it in 1917. These events marked the beginning of a significant exodus of Jews to New York, Tel Aviv and other destinations.
As Devin E. Naar writes in this historical account, the Germans occupied Salonica during World War II, but it was the Greeks who, at a peak of nationalistic fervour, destroyed the ancient Jewish cemetery, which had been one of the largest in the world. The massive destruction and looting of the cemetery was “a precursor to the imminent total destruction of the whole Jewish community of Salonica, the most populous centre of Judaism in the East,” Naar observes.
Naar’s personal ties
Since Naar’s family came from Salonica, he had heard about that city since childhood. His great-grandfather was a bearded rabbi who appeared in a photograph wearing an Ottoman fez. Among the family members who stayed behind and perished was an uncle who worked in a Jewish soup kitchen and distributed food to the sick and elderly until the Nazis boarded them all onto trains to Auschwitz.
In compiling this scholarly study, for which he seemingly left no stone unturned, Naar visited archives and museums in Salonica, Athens, Jerusalem, Moscow, New York and Washington D.C. His sources, which are listed in the copious notes, include the extant archives of the Jewish community in the period 1917 to 1941, mostly written in Judeo-Spanish, but also in Greek, Hebrew and French.
The Jewish cemetary
The Salonica Jewish cemetery stretched across 86 acres and held an estimated 350,000 densely-packed graves. According to Naar, it was the largest Jewish burial ground in all of Europe. (The next largest, in Warsaw, contains 150,000 graves over some 74 acres.) Naar devotes considerable space to the efforts of teacher-historian Michael Molho, who transcribed many historic stones even as 500 municipal workers were destroying the cemetery with pickaxes. Today the sprawling campus of the Aristotle University of Salonica occupies the site.
The stones easily reveal that Salonica boasted a diverse and multicultural Jewish community. While most of the tombstone inscriptions were in Hebrew, Judeo-Spanish began appearing in the 1700s, along with Portuguese on the gravestones of former conversos who were buried as Jews. There was also Italian on the graves of merchant families from Livorno, as well as French, Yiddish, Ottoman Turkish and Greek.
Wearing a proud cloak as “Hellenistic” Jews, the Salonican Hebrews felt sure of their place in Greek society. But when the protective multicultural fabric unfurled due to heightened nationalistic tensions, the Jews were displaced and destroyed. Ironically, many Salonican Jews strengthened their spirits by singing Greek nationalistic songs in the death camp.
Jewish Salonica tells an important chapter of Jewish history. Too bad that, like so many other such chapters, it ends in tragedy.
Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews: A Collection of Biographical Reflections, written and edited by Maisie J. Meyer, Blacksmith Books, 2015
The story of Shanghai’s community of Ashkenazi Jews, who arrived from Poland and elsewhere in Europe in the early 20th century and in advance of the Holocaust, is already fairly well known. What is not so well known is that there had been an older established group of Sephardi Jews already in Shanghai since the mid-19th century.
The Baghdadi Jews of Shanghai had come from Iraq or indirectly via India. “Although their status within the colonial establishment brought privilege and wealth, it was the uniqueness of this large cosmopolitan city that allowed them to live their lives as they wished, without fear of pogroms or persecution,” writes Irene Eber in a foreword.
Elias Sassoon (1820-1880), who pioneered Shanghai’s Jewish settlement around 1845, recruited office managers, clerks and warehouse men from Baghdad and India for his family’s commercial enterprises. In an introductory essay, Meyer provides a thorough history of this enclave of foreign nationals in China.
“Although only a tiny minority within the large foreign community, Baghdadi Jews participated in almost every aspect of business and professional activity,” she writes. Most of the trade was in importing cotton and opium from India in exchange for silk and tea, which were exported to Britain and other European countries.
This book offers more than two dozen engaging biographies of community members and families, whose names – Hardoon, Abraham, Nissim, Kadoorie, Jacob, Reuben – should be familiar to those who have read something of Jewish commercial enterprises in the East. Some of the contributors offer selections from previously unpublished diaries and archival materials that document the larger-than-life personalities who witnessed the Sino-Japanese War, the occupation of Shanghai and the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power. The text is enhanced by a large collection of photographs.