Thessaloniki housed a major Jewish community of Sephardic origin till 1943. It 's the only known example of a city in the Jewish diaspora of this size that retained a Jewish majority for centuries.
The Jews' arrival for the most part followed the Alhambra Decree in 1492, by which the Jews of Spain were expelled from the country.
Thessaloniki's Jews were inextricably linked to its history and the influence of the community both culturally and economically was strongly felt. The community experienced a golden age in the 16th century and a progressive decline until the middle of 20th century.
After the outbreak of WWII the history of the Jews of Thessaloniki took a tragic course. The implementation of the Nazis' Final Solution in Greece resulted in the near-extermination of the entire community.
The Jews initially settled in Thessaloniki in 140 BC coming from Alexandria. Flavius Josephus talks about Jews in Macedonia and further reference to them is made in a letter from Herodes to Caligula dated 10 AD.
Another important reference to the presence of an organized Jewish Community in Thessaloniki is to be found in the Acts of the Apostles. The relevant passage informs us that Paul visited the city in 50 AD and preached at the local Synagogue.
There is evidence of a continuous presence of a Jewish Community in Thessaloniki in Roman and Byzantine times. These Jews were called "Romaniotes". They had hellenized names and spoke Greek. In the middle of the 14th century more Jews arrived in Thessaloniki from Western and Central Europe, Sicily and Italy.
However, the most significant settlement was that of 15-20.000 Spanish Jews (Sepharadim) who, being percecuted by the Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabella and the Holy Inquisition, left Spain and settled in Thessaloniki in 1492. More exile Jews from Sicily, Portugal and North Africa arrived as well. All these people settled in Thessaloniki which was almost totally deserted after its conquest by the Turks in 1430. They occupied the area from Vardari Square to Diagonios (Pavlou Mela) Street and from Egnatia Street to the waterfront promenade.
Demographically, the Jews were the dominant element of the city and turned it into a first rate commercial center. The Sepharadim distinguished themselves in the field of textiles, worked in the mines of Gallikos River, founded the first printing house in Thessaloniki in 1520 and many of them distiguished themselves as rabbis, physicians, philosophers, poets and lawteachers. Thus, the fame of Thessaloniki spread all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This is why Thessaloniki was given the honorary title of "Mother of Israel".
The prosperous period was interrupted at the beginning of the 17th century. Commerce received a blow after the discovery of new sea routes and the city itself suffered consecutive fires and epidemics. Still, the determining event was the appearance of a self-proclaimed Messiah, Sabetai Sevi (1655). His popularity alarmed the Ottoman Authorities who arrested him and condemned him to death (1666). In order to save his life Sabetai Sevi converted to Islam. Three hundred Jewish families followed his example.
This mass apostasy truly shook the community which recovered only as late as the middle of the 19th century. From 1873 on the Jews received advanced European education thanks to the Alliance Israelite Universelle Schools. It was at that time that the first newspaper ever was published in Thessaloniki. It was the Jewish paper "EL LUNAR" (1864). Industrial development was launched too, with the big steam mill of the Italian-Jews of the Allatini family (1854).
The Jews dominated the commercial scene, were active in all professions and were by far the largest labour force in the city. In 1891, the Jewish Community founded the working-class neighbourhoods of Baron Hirsch and Kalamaria and established a whole chain of brilliant and unique charity institutions. They created a welfare system that has not been equaled in any other Diaspora community (Allatini and Mair Aboave orphanages, the Baroness de Hirsch Hospital, a Mental Asylum, Saoul Modiano Old People's Home, Bikour Holim Health Organization, etc.). The community had more than 30 Synagogues, numerous chapels and parish schools and the great traditional "Talmoud Torah Agadol" School. After the revolution of 1908 the socialist organization "Federation" was founded and the first Zionist groups made their appearance (Bene Sion, Kadima Macabbe, Misrahi, etc.).
On October 26, 1912 Thessaloniki becomes Greek again. The leaders of the Community meet King George I and the Prime Minister El. Venizelos who promise to respect the rights of the community and guarantee equal rights.
According to the Greek Authorities Census the Jews of Thessaloniki were 61,439 as compared to 45,867 Muslims, 39,936 Greeks and 10,600 people of other origin.
A few years later the City was devasted by the 1917 fire. The Community was cruelly hit. It numbered 53,000 homeless members. Almost all synagogues, schools and charity institutions were destroyed.
Many Jews emigrated in the period between the two Wars, especially after the arson of the Campbell refugee camp by extremists (1931). Most of them settled in Palestine. Still, in 1940 the Community numbered more than 50,000 people. The Jews of Thessaloniki lived peacefully along with their Christian neighbours. They fought bravely for their homeland during the 1940-41 War.
Thessaloniki's occupation by the Axis Forces (April 9, 1941) was the beginning of the end. The Nazis applied anti-Jewish measures from the very first days. They forbade the admission of Jews to cafes, cinemas etc. They took over the Hirsch Hospital and many Jewish houses, imprisoned members of the Community Council, looted the Community offices, destroyed its archives and all Jewish libraries. On July 11, 1942 all male Jews between 18 and 45 years of age were ordered to present themselves at Eleftherias Square. After incredible humiliations, their names were taken down and they were led to labour camps. The Community paid a 2,5 billion drachmas ranson to free them. At the end of the same year all Jewish enterprises were confiscated and the more than 2000 year old Jewish Cemetery was destroyed.
As of February 1943 the Jews vere obliged to wear a Yellow Star badge on their breasts and live only in certain areas (ghetto). On March 15, 1943 the first train left for the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Another eighteen convoys would follow. Their destination was the place of their extermination. A very small number managed to escape thanks to the help of Christian friends or joined the Resistance Forces. Only few Jews returned to Thessaloniki after its liberation in October 1944 and together with few refugees from the death camps they managed to start a new life from the ruins.