Thessaloniki is a city that was, throughout the centuries strongly connected to judaism. Most of the jews first arrived to the city in 1492 from Spain, after the region was won over by Christians. The monarchs of the time forced them to either convert their religion or leave. Many decided to settle in the city, which was encouraged by the ottomans, since they couldn’t face such problems in an empire that is controlled by muslims (since judaism and christianity are protected in the Coran). The majority of the jews that left Spain were Sephardics and the language they spoke was Ladino. The Jews soon started controlling the trade in Thessaloniki and populated the city more. At some point they even reached 50%, naturally controlling the city to that extent that trade would shut off on Saturdays and generally making it move on their pace, thus even giving it the name Mother of Israel.
The Jews of the city played a very important part in its industrialization in the 19th century. Many were employed in their factories and enterprises since 1880 and some brands like Allatini still exists today. They also played a very important role in the socialist movement of Greece. Avraam Benaroya except for playing an important role in establishing SEKE and then as its follow-up the communist party of Greece he was also responsible for the creation of Social Worker’s Federation which was a first attempt at a union of different nationalities.
The first major problems rose for the Jews when Thessaloniki became a part of Greece in 1912. Many feared that under the new religion that the
government would follow (which was christianity) they would lose the liberties they had under the muslim regime. They followed mostly three paths, some left the city in search of one where their rights would be definitely secure, some joined the communist party, since it wanted a neutral and independent Thessaloniki, while others turned to zionism and wanted a country of their own. Also the great fire of Thessaloniki in 1917 caused great damage to the community, since much of their property that was located in the city center was burnt and they were forced to move away from the center.
In spite of all of the problems that they had to face in the beginning of the 20th century, nothing could compare to what they came across after the nazi occupation. The nazis arrived in the city in 1941 and in addition to other parts of Greece, they had the power over Thessaloniki (Greece was ruled by a triple power, nazis, italians and bulgarians during WWII). In the beginning there were promises that the Nuremberg law would not apply to them, but slowly inhumane measures, like the prohibition of entering cafes, were being applied. In 1941 the rabbi was arrested and sent to a concentration camp but returned in 1942 and continued his work as a rabbi. As the time under nazi occupation continued more and more humiliating and enraging actions were taken against them. In July 1942, all jewish men from 18 to 45 were forced to gather at Plateia Eleftheries and made, while standing at the edge of a gun, to perform exhausting exercises under the scorching sun. They were also pushed to extreme labor during which many died.
Finally on the 2nd of February, 1943, nazis began sending them to concentration camps. Thessaloniki had 54.000 Jews before the war. After it only 1.080 were alive. 98% of Thessaloniki’s jews were massacred in the death camps. Apart from the polish jews, Thessaloniki suffered the biggest loss of jewish population. 37.000 of them were gassed immediately after arriving. Others were used in experiments that still emit fear. Some were used for labor. About 20 escaped and joined the Polish resistance. Even at this gruesome environment, the jews of Thessaloniki managed to make a good impact, since they are remembered positively by writer Primo Levi in his book.
After the war ended a small portion managed to return to Greece, but what they faced was not a bed of roses. Many of their houses were sold to christians by germans, which were less that willingful to return to them. Eventually they settled down and started a new life in the city. Today only 1.3000 Jews remain in Thessaloniki.