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Records of the Jewish Community of Salonika, Greece

Identifier: RG 207

Scope and Contents

Almost all of the materials in this collection pertain to the period between the fire of 1917 and the beginning of the German occupation of Salonika in 1941. The materials are arranged and divided into series to reflect both the chronological development and the structure and functioning of a wide cross-section of the Jewish community and its bureaucracy. The materials include metrical records of the Jewish population, most significantly three volumes from the 1917 census of the Jewish community (Series I), records of the Beit Din (Series II), financial records and correspondence of the communal council (Series III and IV), correspondence pertaining to the production and distribution of matzah (Series V), correspondence related to housing and the administration of Jewish neighborhoods (Series VI), records and correspondence of the commission of education (Series VII), records of the Salonika-Palestine company (Series VIII), records of the Banque Union (Series IX), printed materials from Salonika (Series X), and miscellaneous documents and printed materials from World War II on (Series XI).


  • 1912-1954
  • Majority of material found in 1917-1941

Biographical / Historical

The city of Salonika (Thessaloniki) was founded in 325 BCE by King Cassander of Macedon, who named it after his wife, a half-sister of Alexander the Great. The Apostle Paul preached in the Etz Ahaim Synagogue in Salonika in the first century CE, indicating that Jewish presence in the city dates back to at least that time. During that period, a small community of Romaniote Jews inhabited Salonika. The arrival of Ashkenazi Jews escaping persecution in Hungary and Germany during the fourteenth century increased the Jewish population. Several decades after Salonika became part of the newly emerging Ottoman Empire in 1430, numerous Sephardic Jews began to arrive in the city following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Former conversos who left the Iberian Peninsula throughout the sixteenth century also arrived in Salonika; Jews soon came to constitute the majority of the city’s population. Into the twentieth century, four hundred years after their arrival, the Sephardic Jews still spoke a Spanish-based language called Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish or Judezmo), which they wrote in Hebrew script.

During the sixteenth century, the Sephardim established Salonika as a center of Jewish culture and commerce in the Mediterranean basin, and as one of the most important Jewish communities in the world. Jews established the city’s first printing press in 1512. Influential Jewish figures who spent their formative years in Salonika include Yosef Karo, who compiled the Shulhan Aroukh, and Shelomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi. Both of these works profoundly affected both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic worlds. The only city to compete with Salonika as a center for development of Kabbalah was Safed. In terms of commerce, the Jewish population made significant contributions through their production of uniforms for the sultan’s personal bodyguards, called janissaries. During the seventeenth century, conditions began to deteriorate for the Jews of Salonika, in part due to Ottoman military defeats. In addition, the conversion to Islam of Shabbetai Sevi, who had proclaimed himself the messiah, destabilized Jewish communities throughout the Ottoman Empire (and beyond). In the following century, the dissolution of the janissaries by the sultan (1826), dealt a serious blow to the Jewish community’s economic productivity.

In the mid-nineteenth century, concurrent to the development of Ottoman reforms (Tanzimat), Jews in Paris established the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), which operated a modern, Western-style school system that aimed to “regenerate” Jews in communities from Fez to Baghdad. In Salonika, with the aid of local Jewish elites (called francos, many of whose families had come to Salonika from Italy), the first AIU school was founded in 1873. Over its long run, the AIU exerted a profound influence over Jewish life in Salonika. Equipped with education, skills, and knowledge of languages such as Italian and French, many of Salonika’s Jews reemerged as the dominant force in the local and regional economies. Jews from Salonika, a significant entrepot between East and West, participated in the complex Ottoman and trans-Mediterranean commercial network. Active in banking and finance, the also exported cereal, cotton, wool, and silk, and opened some of the first factories for bricks, flour, soap, and tobacco in the Balkan region. The late nineteenth century also saw the advent of the Ladino and French periodical presses in Salonika and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, which contributed to the development of a Jewish public forum for ideas. Urbanization also boosted the population of Salonika. Around the turn of the century, 80,000 of the 150,000 residents of Salonika were Jews while the remainder consisted of Greeks, Turks, Donme (descendents of Jewish converts to Islam), Bulgarians, Roma, and others.

The westernizing impulse, as well as the rise of nationalism, brought challenges for the Jewish community. The Young Turk Revolution of 1908, organized from Salonika, led to the removal of the Ottoman sultan and the proclamation of the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But it also called, for the first time, for the compulsory conscription into the Ottoman army of non-Muslims, including Jews, and ushered in a new era for Ottoman Jewry. Open support for Zionism became possible, as did the formation of a Socialist movement which was founded in Salonika in 1909 and led largely by local Jews who catered to the large Jewish working class. During this same period, the Jewish community of Salonika also established numerous charitable institutions, which joined the centuries-old Talmud Tora Agadol (the main Jewish communal school) and the Bikour Holim in administering public needs. Such institutions included the Manatoth Laevionim (soup kitchen, est. 1901), the Hirsch Hospital (named in honor of the philanthropists Baron Maurice and Clara de Hirsch, est. 1908), the Jewish Insane Asylum (est. 1908), and the Allatini Orphanage (est. 1910).

The Jews of Salonika dwelt under the administration of the Young Turks for only a few short years. The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) led to the transfer of Salonika from Ottoman to Greek control (despite alternative plans for Bulgarian annexation or internationalization of Salonika). The Jews were assured by Greek leaders that their rights would be safeguarded. Greece, the first Balkan state to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire (in 1830), had since then striven for the reformation of the Greater Greece of Five Seas and the Greece of Ancient Athens and Byzantium, for the unification of lands on which Greeks resided, and for the reclamation of Istanbul (Constantinople), then the Ottoman capital but also the historical seat of the Greek Orthodox church. The “liberation” of Salonika by Greece was seen as a step toward the fulfillment of the Greek national dream, the Megali Idea.

During the Great War, Salonika played a strategic role for the Allied Forces on the Eastern Front. A government in opposition to the Greek king in Athens formed in Salonika and invited the Allies to land in the city. As under the Young Turks, Jews were now eligible for conscription to the Greek army, which some Jews sought to evade.

In 1917, with British and French troops stationed in all corners of Salonika, a catastrophic fire swept across town, leaving 70,000 residents, 50,000 of whom were Jews, without food or shelter and destroying numerous synagogues and schools (including the Talmud Tora Agadol), libraries and communal archives, and hundreds of businesses (most of which were Jewish-owned). The Greek government’s plan for the reconstruction of Salonika — in the name of urbanization, modernization, and Hellenization — alienated many Jews by preventing them from rebuilding their homes and businesses in the city center. Emigration to Italy, France, and the Americas, which had begun after the Young Turk Revolution and when Salonika came under Greek control, continued. In the wake of the fire, the Jewish community also established a commission to arrange for the thousands of now-homeless Jews to obtain housing, and expended considerable effort in reestablishing and centralizing the communal school system, efforts that continued throughout the interwar period.

At the conclusion of World War I, the Jewish community secured certain guarantees for their communal rights as part of the Greek Minorities Treaty that emerged from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. In 1920, the Greek government passed legislation known as “Concerning Jewish Communities” that officially outlined the juridical standing of the Jewish communities of Greece (including Salonika) as corporate entities and delimited the extent of their powers, responsibilities, and autonomy. With the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), however, the status of the Jewish population of Salonika changed. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) called for a compulsory exchange of populations in order to consolidate both Greek and Turkish national identities and signaled the end of the Greek Megali Idea. Greek Orthodox Christians from Asia Minor poured into Greece, while Muslims exited en masse. More than 100,000 Greek Orthodox Christians found themselves in Salonika. This permanently altered the demographic fabric of the city: Greek Orthodox Christians replaced Jews as the preponderant majority. The arrival of Greek Orthodox refugees exacerbated the still lingering burden of the displacement of so many Salonika residents, largely Jews, as a consequence of the fire of 1917. Further, economic competition strained Greek-Jewish relations.

Subsequent political moves taken by the Liberal party of Greek Prime Minister Eleftherious Venizelos to unify Greece and impose a Hellenic identity on all Greek citizens during the interwar period — marked by political and economic instability for Greece as a whole — materialized in ways that challenged the Jewish community. In 1924, coinciding with the establishment of the Greek Republic, a compulsory Sunday closing law came into effect, forcing Jews to either violate the Sabbath or to lose a day of business. The implementation of education reforms requiring increased use of the Greek language in Jewish schools, at the expense of Hebrew, French, and Ladino, as well as the creation of a separate electoral college for the Jews, threatened their political rights. In addition, as part of a plan to rebuild the city following the fire of 1917, during the interwar years the government repeatedly sought — with the alleged objective of enforcing public hygiene — to expropriate the 400-year-old Jewish cemetery in order to make way for Aristotle University. Stirred by anti-Jewish propaganda in the Greek press, refugees from Asia Minor and members of the National Union of Greece, a fascist organization, committed arson in 1931 in the Campbell quarter, a neighborhood established for Jews who were left homeless by the 1917 fire. Many Jews subsequently emigrated to Palestine. The Salonika-Palestine Company, which had been established in 1921, had since been channeling funds from Salonika to Palestine and had arranged for the purchase of real estate, mostly in and around Tel Aviv, and for the establishment of the Florentin neighborhood. However, the extent to which Jewish migration to Palestine from Salonika was coordinated by any of the political parties in Salonika remains a point of contention among scholars.

In response to the challenges of face by the Jewish community of Salonika, various Jewish political parties emerged during the first four decades of the twentieth century. These parties advocated Zionism (various factions ranged from General Zionists to Revisionists), socialism, and, later, communism, as well as assimilationism. Each party sought to represent the interests of the Jewish community before the government and the international community. Party conflict mirrored class conflict, and also impeded the selection of a permanent chief rabbi between 1923 and 1933.

The tenure of Sevi Koretz as chief rabbi of Salonika from 1933 until the outbreak of World War II represented an attempt to achieve rapprochement between the Jewish population and the Greek government. While internal communal politics continued to divide the Jewish population of Salonika and increasing poverty induced further migration to Palestine, smaller Jewish communities throughout Greece continued to look to Salonika for leadership and support. For example, each Pesach (Passover), the Jewish community of Salonika organized and oversaw the production of massa and distributed it to many other Jewish communities. Many political organizations, including the National Union of Greece, were banned under the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas (est. 1936), thereby alleviating certain pressures that had previously burdened the Jewish community.

In April 1941, German military forces invaded Salonika and occupied the city. They arrested leaders of the Jewish community, evicted Jewish families from their apartments, confiscated property, and took over the Jewish hospital. In June 1941, members of the Nazi unit Einsatzstab Rosenberg began to loot libraries and private homes, confiscating ten thousand Jewish books, as well as rare manuscripts and cultural artifacts, and sent them to the Institut zer Erforschung der Judenfrage in Frankfurt am Main. In December 1942, the Jewish cemetery was destroyed. In February 1943 S.S. officials Dieter Wisleceny and Alois Brunner arrived in Salonika. They enacted decrees to isolate and restrict the Jews, enforced the wearing of the yellow Star of David, and ordered the Jewish population into a sealed ghetto. Between March and August of 1943, close to 50,000 Jews (almost the entire Jewish population) were deported to Auschwitz and gassed. Fewer than two thousand Jews survived. The Jewish community of the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” had been destroyed.


175 Digital Files

Language of Materials




Greek, Modern (1453-)





Custodial History

How a segment of the archives of the Jewish community in Salonika arrived at YIVO remains uncertain. Some information is available about the fate of the archives during World War II. From May to November of 1941, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) confiscated an enormous amount of archival and library materials from Jewish communities throughout Greece, especially from Salonika and Athens. The final report of the ERR specifically mentions the confiscation of the communal registers and the “especially interesting” records of the religious court (Beit Din), as well as the records of the Salonica-Palestine company and the Banque Union. Fragments of these documents now constitute YIVO’s Salonika collection.

The ERR sent the materials confiscated from Salonika and elsewhere in Greece to the NSDAP Institut zur Erforschung dur Judenfrage (IEJ) in Frankfurt am Main, headed by Alfred Rosenberg. Johannes Pol, a senior staff member who directed the daily work of the Institute, indicated that of the 500,000 books in the IEJ’s collection, 10,000 originated in Greece. The part of the archives of the Jewish community of Salonika that made its way to Frankfurt appears to have been collected, along with other archives and libraries of Jewish communities throughout Europe (including YIVO’s prewar collection from Vilna), by the United States military at the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD) in Germany at the conclusion of the war. It appears that YIVO in New York received its section of the Salonika archives from the OAD in the years immediately following the conclusion of World War II. Other segments of the archives of the Jewish Community of Salonika found their way, also after the war, to Salonika, Athens, Jerusalem, Moscow, and Amsterdam.

An article published in YIVO News 16 (Sept. 1946) indicates that YIVO received “a collection of documents and other source material on Jewish life in Greece” from the Association of Jewish Communities in Greece. The provided description suggests that these materials pertain largely to the post-war period and most likely constitute Series XI.

Related Materials

Other segments of the original archives of the Jewish community of Salonika can be found at the Russian Special Archive in Moscow, microfilms of which are available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C. Other original archival material can be found at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens, and at the Amsterdam Municipal Archive (which have been returned to Salonika).

Materials Specific Details

The following languages are represented in YIVO’s Salonika collection: Ladino, French, Hebrew, Greek, Italian, German, English, and Yiddish. The bulk of the collection is in handwritten or typed Ladino. Ladino appears in four different varieties or “fonts”: standard Hebrew block type (meruba), rabbinic type (rashi), the handwritten cursive variant of the Hebrew alphabet (solitreo: similar to rashi, used by Sephardim in Salonika and elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin), and the Latin alphabet. Often a combination of these varieties may be found. An effort has been made to indicate which varieties are to be encountered in each folder.

Ladino names and terms that appear in Latin characters are reproduced as such below. Other Ladino names and terms that appear in the collection only in some variant of Hebrew script have been transliterated using both the Aki Yerushalayim and the Ladinokomunita methods which seek to graphically represent the phonetics of the language.

Collection and arranged and guide compiled by Devin E. Naar, Project Historian Guide copy edited by Trudy Balch
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States