Ladino After Auschwitz

by Rabbi Eliahu BirnbaumDirector of OTS’s Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Emissary Training Programs

The “bad guys” in the story of the Salonika community are not the Greeks, but rather the Germans. In the city that absorbed Spanish evacuees and turned into a legend, a community is dealing with survival

Salonika, Greece

A number of years ago I was privileged to light the sixth candle of Chanukah on Greek soil. On one side stands the gigantic Acropolis, which was once the symbol of the beauty and strength of ancient Greece; a structure which turned with time into a lifeless archeological tourist site. On the other side the vivacious Jewish community lit its Chanukah candles in Athens’ town square, Psychico Square, after getting permission from the municipality. When I asked the rabbis and the heads of the communities how the Greek Jews deal with bits from Chanukah prayers that mention “Malchut Yavan” (= Greek empire), they replied that the prayers’ translation into Greek was changed to “Malchut Suriya” (= Syrian empire). The evil monarchy of Greece was changed into another monarchy… Using this version, which is politically correct and still doesn’t change historical facts, the people deal with the problem of “dual loyalty” – to Greece and to Judaism. They even teach in the Jewish schools that
the “evil empire” was Syria and not Greece.

The Jewish community in Salonika is known as the “mother of all Jewish communities”. At the end of the Second Temple period there was already a Jewish community in Salonika and according to some opinions Jews were living there from the second century B.C.E. The Jews who have been living in Greece since the First Temple period have a special name, “Romaniotes”, and they have unique customs and traditions. Many Jews came to Salonika from Germany, known then as Ashkenaz, in 1376, France, Italy and Majorca (1394).

Following the Spanish expulsion in 1492, a new and big wave of Jews arrived, close to 20,000, which became the strongest force in the community. In the 16th century Marranos who had returned to their faith arrived from Spain and Portugal. During that time there were over 40 synagogues in town. Every group of immigrants founded a separate community and faithfully kept to their unique customs and to the traces of their origin. We can learn more about the long history of Salonika from the writings of Binyamin, the traveler from Toledo, who wrote in 1160: “Two days from there is the city of Slicus (Salonika) and it is a big city with about five hundred Jews…” We can also learn from Paul (the Christian) who testifies that when he resided in the city he tried to force Jews to convert: “… And they came to Salonika and there, there was a synagogue of Jews. And Paul walked in and argued with them for three weeks.” It appears that this meeting occurred in the “Etz HaChaim” synagogue, the first synagogue in Salonika.

The Ottoman Empire, which was in power in the city for hundreds of years, opened its gates and absorbed all the immigrants and evacuees, giving them freedom of religion. In Salonika of 1912 there were 80,000 Jews residing in the city, making the Jews the majority of the population. For hundreds of years the Jews had developed the trade market, industry, banking and the city’s sea port. That is  how the famous anomaly came to be – the fact that the great Salonika port closed on every Sabbath, as did the trade activities throughout the entire city. For several generations Salonika served as the home of some of the greatest Jewish scholars. It is well known that Rabbi Yosef Karo (renowned author of the code of Jewish law), who was exiled from Spain, lived in Salonika for a few years, and many generations later, two of Israel’s Chief Rabbis came from the city: Rav Yaakov Meir was the rabbi of Salonika during 1908-1920, and Rav Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uziel was the chief rabbi of the city after him. Shabtai Tzvi, the false messiah, was also part of the Jewish history of Salonika, and in 1655 he arrived from Izmir, Turkey, to Salonika, and declared himself a messiah.

The printing revolution strengthened Salonika’s position in the Jewish world: starting from 1510, more than 3,500 books were printed in the Jewish printing houses in Salonika (the famous printing house being Soncino). When newspapers started becoming popular, during the 19th and 20th centuries, Salonika published more than thirty newspapers and magazines, some printed in Ladino and some in Greek, and they were used as a stage for cultural awakening and Zionist activism. There were over fifteen Jewish schools in Salonika, as well as Jewish hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Today only traces of all that glory remain. While Zionism took Jews out of Salonika little by little, it was the Holocaust that proved truly catastrophic. Today only 5,000 Jews live in Greece. The majority live in Athens, the capital; a thousand live in Salonika; 500 in Larissa, and some scattered dozens live in Ioannina, Chalkida, Rhodes and Kerkida.

Spanish Holocaust Survivors

Today’s Jewish community in Salonika is a small one that lives with a double trauma. On the one hand, the community’s traditions still preserve the collective memory of the Spanish expulsion from over 500 hundred years ago. On the other hand, they have the living and scathing personal memory of the Holocaust, which did not pass over the city. One of the community’s unique characteristics is that it lives in certain tension between being a “Sephardic” community in its original sense, meaning a community that was expelled from Spain and Portugal, and being one of the only Sephardic communities with members who were murdered in the Holocaust, till there were hardly any remnants of it.

In April 1941 the Nazis entered the city, and that was a sign for what was about to come. In February of 1943 the Nazis publicized anti-Semitic decrees, and a ghetto was set up in the city. In March, Salonika Jews began being deported by trains to the death camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau in faraway Poland. According to the German documentations, nineteen deliveries were made from Salonika to the camps, a total of 46,061 men, women and children out of 50,000 Jews living in Salonika in 1940. The most terrible thing happened: More than 90% of the community perished in the Holocaust; a tragedy greater than that of most Ashkenazi communities. The new cemetery in the community has a monument commemorating the holocaust, with the following inscription on it:

“In eternal memory. This monument was erected by the Jews of Salonika in memory of their 50,000 brothers of this city. Ninety-six percent of their community – men, women and children – who were uprooted from their homes in 1940 by the German army and taken to the Nazi death camps and brutally killed. O Land, do not cover their blood…”

When speaking to the community members, there’s a sense that the distant Spanish history and the recent German history both left their marks on it. The identity of Salonika Jews is made up of “500 years plus 60”, as it was expressed by Mrs. Erica Farahia Zmor, the director of the Jewish Museum in the city. The Salonika Jews have roots in Salonika but not in the whole country of Greece.

The Wonders of Ladino

One of the proofs that the community preserved the Sephardic tradition throughout the years is undoubtedly the way they carefully preserved the language unique to Spanish Jews, the Ladino, or as they call it – “Judeo-Espanyol”. In an almost miraculous manner the Salonika Jews continued speaking Ladino among themselves. The language was preserved for 500 years, including its special dialects, and it reminded the Jews in the city where they came from.

There’s nothing like a language in order to reflect the culture of its speakers. Ladino was the language of the evacuees of Spain and Portugal who were scattered across the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. When the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula they took with them the language that they spoke – the Spanish which was used among Jews and non-Jews in Spain during that time. Like a “living fossil”, the Ladino preserves, to this very day, the vocabulary and grammar of 16th century Spanish.

During my visit to Salonika I met many Jews, both men and women, who still speak Ladino with much joy. When I asked them how it is that the language was preserved in an environment unnatural to it, for hundreds of years, they replied that the entire Jewish life in Salonika was conducted in Ladino and not in Greek. The Spanish Jews kept to their Spanish culture on Greek soil. Shopping, food, the market, the butcher – everything was conducted in Ladino. The Jews did not have non-Jewish friends, but rather only Ladino speaking Jews.

Today the language is slowly being forgotten. The middle generation did not succeed in passing it on to their children. The forty- and fifty-year-olds are still capable of speaking Ladino, but the youngsters do not see any value in it and did not learn to speak it in their homes. The Holocaust is responsible for this breach: Up until the Holocaust, Ladino was spoken in the homes and within the community, but after it, Ladino ceased to be used. The majority of the community was murdered, among them nearly all the elderly who carried the Spanish memory and traditions. The few that survived decided apparently to give their next generation the possibilities of integrating into Greece, which is why they minimized the imparting of Ladino, the language of the ghetto up until then.

Ladino in Block 11

The dual identity of the middle generation of Salonika Jews is strongly personified through Mrs. Silvia Molcho, who was taken from Salonika on March 19th, 1943, in a train to the Auschwitz death camp. She stayed there until the camp was liberated and in 1947 she returned to Salonika. Today Mrs. Molcho lives in the community’s old age home in Salonika, together with 35 other elderly Jewish people. She is 86 years old, and was a young woman during those terrible days. Her roots are in the Molcho family, which left Spain during the expulsion. She still owns the key to her family’s house in Spain, as for hundreds of years they’ve dreamed of returning there. Mrs. Molcho doesn’t speak Yiddish; she speaks Ladino. She spoke Ladino in Auschwitz as well, in block number 11, where she lived with her community members who arrived in Auschwitz through Spain and Portugal, with a resting stop of 500 years in Salonika. The family names on the Holocaust memorial monuments in Salonika are not the Polish names familiar to us, but rather Spanish ones that were known since before the expulsion, such as Sporta, Nachmias, Shaaltiel, Cohen, Algoa, Fredo, Shabtai and Molcho. Mrs. Molcho does not differentiate between the Spanish and the Germans. As far as she’s concerned, they are both “the enemy.” The Spanish expulsion is a historical memory for her, and the Holocaust is a personal memory. Mrs. Molcho speaks Ladino, sings songs and romances in Ladino, eats “chamindos” eggs and “burrekitas”, but bears a number on her arm, which was tattooed on by the Nazis in the death camp. Mrs. Molcho symbolizes the rare combination of a history of expulsion and annihilation joined together within the Jews of Salonika.

The president of the Jewish community, Mr. David Shaaltiel, an offspring of Spanish evacuees who came to Salonika from Portugal 500 years ago and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust, explained the unique structure of the Salonika Jewish identity. As he put it, “Spain is part of tradition; Holocaust is part of the identity. Spain is me, and the Holocaust is in us, in our lives.”

It seems that the Holocaust is alive in every corner of the Jewish community. Surprisingly, the Holocaust’s presence in the Spanish Jewish community is stronger and deeper than in the Ashkenazi communities. Perhaps it is because of the community’s personality, or maybe because of the percentage of those who were sent off to the camps and didn’t return. The sons of the survivors, second generation to the Holocaust, know to tell that the parents weren’t silent and did not store their horrific stories in their hearts, but rather made sure to tell their children. The Holocaust became the main topic of conversation in every family or communal gathering. By the request of the Jewish community, the municipality declared a national Memorial Day, January 27th, to commemorate the Holocaust of Salonika’s Jews. In addition, a monument was erected in the central square in town, “Freedom Square”, in honor of those who perished. That was the same square where Jews were tortured by Nazis on the “Black Sabbath”, July 11th, 1942.

The Salonika Community Today

The Jewish community in Salonika is no longer a “mother of all communities” but rather one that is dealing with difficulties characteristic of small communities. The community today is made up of Holocaust survivors and a few who had escaped the city during the war and later returned to it. The community is very nostalgic about its glorious past, but the younger generation sees itself as part of the Greek society. The youngsters do not speak Ladino. They don’t live in a closed-off Jewish society, and besides eating traditional Spanish foods, they don’t see themselves as the continuation of Spanish evacuees.

The community today maintains three synagogues: “Yad Lezikaron” synagogue, the great “Monastiriotes” synagogue, and a small synagogue in the Jewish old age home. The old age  home is unique for having a mikveh on its ground floor. The community has two rabbis, a kosher butcher shop and cultural activities to keep the congregation together.
Prayers are conducted every day, morning and evening, at the synagogue. For there to be a definite minyan, the community pays several people to come and pray. The synagogue is located in the market area of Salonika. Before the Holocaust most of the market and the stores belonged to Jews. The synagogue served as a shtiebel for the owners of the stores. Today, most of the market structures and the buildings in the city have returned to Jewish ownership, after the community demanded that the authorities return the Jewish property to the families or to the community. That’s how the Salonika community became one of the richest among the communities in Europe, “thanks” to the victims’ property that was returned to the community by the Greek government. A rich community – with a future at stake.

Assimilation is eating away at the few that remained from the war. The community president, Mr. Shaaltiel, offered a creative and original solution to demographically save the community: He decided that every young couple that gets married and is prepared to have children (which is not so common these days in Europe) will receive 3,000 Euro a year per child, up to three years. A simple calculation reveals that a young Jewish couple with three children will enjoy a grant of 27,000 Euro… So far not many candidates have signed up for this basket of “community insurance” offered by the community’s president, but he hasn’t yet lost hope that one day Salonika will return to be the mother of all
communities.

Today there is a new Jewish cemetery in the city. The ancient Salonika cemetery, which contained 400,000 graves, was destroyed by the Nazis, and afterwards the Greek authorities built the University of Salonika on the same site (a few tombstones from the ancient cemetery have been put in the new one, some in the museum, and some decorate roadsides and stone houses in the area).

This article, originally published in Makor Rishhon, was translated from the Hebrew by Avital Birnbaum