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The Jews of Thessaloníki

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In the early sixteenth century, after virtually all the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, nearly half of the inhabitants of Thessaloníki, over 80,000 people, were Jewish. For them “Salonik” or “Salonicco” ranked as a “Mother of Israel” and the community dominated the city’s commercial, social and cultural life for some four hundred years, mostly tolerated by the Ottoman authorities but often resented by the Greeks. The first waves of Jewish emigration to Palestine, western Europe and the United States began after World War I. Numbers had dropped to fewer than 60,000 at the onset of World War II, during which all but a tiny fraction were deported from Platía Eleftherías to the concentration camps and immediate gassing. The vast Jewish cemeteries east of the city centre, among the world’s largest, were desecrated in 1944; to add insult to injury, the area was later covered over by the new university and expanded trade-fair grounds in 1948. Thessaloníki’s only surviving pre-Holocaust synagogue is the Monastiriótou at Syngroú 35, with an imposing, if austere, facade; it’s usually open for Friday-evening and Saturday-morning worship. At the very heart of the former Jewish district sprawls the Modhiáno, the still-functioning central meat, fish and produce market, named after the wealthy Jewish Modiano family which long owned it.

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