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Remembering Jewish Salonica

The beauty and fragility of a pluralistic metropolis


I have nurtured a special interest in Thessaloniki, the northern Greek city on the edge of the Balkans, since I traveled there in 1996 to attend a conference on rebuilding democracy and civil society in the Balkan region after the breakup of Yugoslavia. While in Thessaloniki, I decided to take the opportunity to learn something about the city's rich Jewish history, particularly under the Ottomans when it was called Salonica.

I had read Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, who traced the modern history of the region, from the assassination that triggered World War I to the ethnic warfare in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. And the organization I headed, the National Endowment for Democracy, supported civil society groups working against such brutalities in the Balkans. But exploring Thessaloniki's Jewish past offered new perspectives on the region's history. I met with Rena Molho, president of the Society for the Study of Greek Jewry, who ran a bookshop on Tsimiski Street that Kaplan had called "the lone thriving remnant of Jewish Salonica." She told me about her efforts to preserve the memory of Salonica's Jewish community that was nearly destroyed in the Holocaust.

Rosanna Tasker

Memories of that visit came flooding back in February 2021 when I listened to an interview with Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, about his family's Jewish roots in Thessaloniki and how his parents survived the Holocaust. Bourla was in the news frequently then, talking about the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. But it was that interview about his family story that captured my attention and gave me a much deeper understanding of the Jewish experience in Thessaloniki. His story has important lessons today for all of us in our very troubled world.

Bourla's ancestors were among the tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews who took refuge in the Ottoman Empire after they were expelled from Spain in 1492. Along with 20,000 other Jewish refugees from Spain, they settled in Salonica, where the Jewish community soon blossomed into such a thriving center of Spanish-Jewish learning and commerce that Salonica became known as "the Mother of Israel." The community's rabbis, lawmakers, and poets were famous throughout the Diaspora, attracting students and Torah scholars from many cities. The beautiful hymn "Lekhah Dodi," still sung by Jews throughout the world to welcome the Sabbath, was written by one of the most prominent Salonican rabbis of the 16th century, Solomon Alkabez.

By 1900, about 80,000 Jews lived in Salonica, where they made up nearly half the city's population. They were not just the city's lawyers, physicians, teachers, and merchants but also its dockworkers, fishermen, firemen, and hamals (porters). They were a well-organized, diverse, and dynamic community that, more than any other group, shaped the spirit and life of the city. They maintained 33 synagogues, a rabbinical school, Zionist and intellectual clubs, their own schools that offered vocational as well as academic training, an orphanage, a psychiatric hospital, sports and scouts clubs, organizations that provided poor families with basic necessities, and many other institutions. Between 1865 and 1940 they published 50 newspapers representing all political tendencies in the city.

The importance of the Jewish community in the life of Salonica was perhaps most apparent on Saturdays when the port and virtually the entire city would shut down for the Sabbath. Robust as the Jewish presence was in Salonica, though, it was but one dimension of a bustling, multiethnic metropolis whose population also consisted of large minorities of Turks and Greeks, as well as lesser numbers of Bulgarians, Armenians, and Serbs.

The Jewish community soon blossomed into such a thriving center of Spanish-Jewish learning and commerce that Salonica became known as the “Mother of Israel.”

Salonica's diversity was destroyed in the last century by two momentous events that signaled the arrival of a new era of nationalism and ethnic hatred in the Balkan region and beyond. The 1923 Lausanne Treaty that ended the Greek-Turkish war called for the forced population exchange of Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslims that drastically altered the city's pluralistic character — and gave rise to a new name, Thessaloniki. Many Jews emigrated to Western Europe, the Americas, and Palestine, and by the time of the second momentous event, the Nazi occupation of Thessaloniki in 1941, only 50,000 Jews remained, making them a minority in the city for the first time in centuries.

The Holocaust in Thessaloniki was overseen by Adolf Eichmann, and it eliminated 97 percent of the Jewish community. The Nazis did not murder the Jews immediately. They first confiscated all the contents of the community's libraries and archives as well as other treasures and shipped them to Frankfurt for a planned "Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question." They demanded a ransom for the release of 10,000 Jewish men who had been sent to forced labor camps. The Jewish community in Thessaloniki collected money but was forced to turn over its ancient cemetery of a half-million graves to the municipality in lieu of the total sum. The Nazis accepted the money and property but later reneged on the deal, and many Jewish men died of exhaustion and disease in the camps. Meanwhile, the cemetery, a sacred monument to the uninterrupted Jewish presence in the city for more than four centuries, was promptly despoiled, its gravestones used to pave roads, repair buildings, and build a swimming pool for the German army.

The end came in March 1943 when the Nazis herded the remaining Jews into a neighborhood bordering the old railway station that had been built in the 19th century by Baron de Hirsch, the German Jewish philanthropist, to house thousands of refugees from the pogroms in the Russian Empire. What had once been a refuge for persecuted Jews thus became a transit camp from which their descendants were shipped in livestock cars to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Among the 2,000 survivors were Bourla's parents, who were teenagers at the time and hadn't yet met. Bourla's father, Mois, fled with his brother to Athens just before the Nazis transported Thessaloniki's Jews to Auschwitz. In Athens they were given forged identity papers by the city's police chief, acting upon a call by the local Greek Orthodox archbishop to help Jews and they lived there until the end of the war.

Bourla's mother, Sara, was sent to another city by her father to live with her older sister, who had moved when she married a Christian and converted. Sara was safe there because no one recognized her, but that changed when her brother-in-law was transferred back to Thessaloniki. She hid in her sister's house all day long, but one day, when she surreptitiously ventured outside, she was spotted and arrested.

Rosanna Tasker

Sara's sister and brother-in-law, Kostas Dimadas, were aware that a truck would arrive at the local prison every day around noon to take some prisoners to a location where they would be executed. Dimadas knew that the head of the Nazi occupation forces, Max Merten, had a reputation as an extortionist, and so he paid him a large ransom to spare Sara. Her sister didn't trust the Germans, and so she went every day to the prison to make sure that Sara was not among the doomed prisoners.

As she feared, one day she saw Sara being taken from the prison and put on a truck. She immediately informed her husband, who angrily called Merten and tried to shame him for not keeping his word. The next morning, just as Sara was lined up against a wall to be shot with the other prisoners, a soldier arrived on a motorcycle and handed some papers to the German in charge of the firing squad. Sara and another woman were removed from the line, and as they were being driven away, they could hear the machine gun fire. According to Bourla, it was "a sound that stayed with her the rest of her life."

Bourla's parents both returned to Thessaloniki after the war. They met through family connections, got married, and "built a life filled with love and joy," as Bourla put it when he told this story publicly for the first time on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2021.

Unlike Holocaust survivors who found it too painful to speak about the horrors they had endured, Mois and Sara would often tell their stories because they wanted their children to remember all the lives that had been lost and to understand what can happen if evil and hatred are allowed to spread unchecked. Most of all, Bourla said, they wanted their children to appreciate the value of human life. He stressed that they never spoke about their experiences with anger or a desire for vengeance. They had "stared down hatred" and wanted to "celebrate life and move forward." Bourla wanted to share their story, he said, in the hope that it might have special meaning at a time "when racism and hatred are tearing at the fabric of our great nation."

Their story continues to have special meaning today as Russia's invasion of Ukraine — along with other genocidal crimes that have been committed in recent decades in other parts of the world — has awakened memories of the Nazi scourge that we thought was no longer possible. With the virus of hatred having returned, it is incumbent upon us all to do whatever we can to ensure that the story of Bourla's family is never repeated and that their values are remembered and preserved. May we summon the courage to rise to this awesome challenge.

Carl Gershman served as president of the National Endowment for Democracy from 1983 to 2021.

This story originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.