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Rena Molho, Greece
Rena Molho is the coordinator of Centropas Greek interviews, a professor of
Greek Jewish history, and the former chief interviewer for the Shoah Foundations video interviews in Greece. Renas newly published study,
Published by , is available directly from the publisher.
In these three excerpts, Rena provides an overview on Jewish life in Salonica, discusses Germanys annihilation of the community during the war, and sheds light on Salonicas incorporation into Greece in 1912.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF SALONIKA AND ITS INCORPORATION INTO THE GREEK STATE 1912-1919*.
Unlike the Jewish communities of other Greek towns which had established contact with the Central Zionist Organization as early as 1903, the Jewish community of Salonika did not begin communicating until December 1912. Then, the CZO received six different reports from the Jews of Salonika within a single month, detailing at length their concern about the consequences for them of the annexation of the city to the Greek state.
The fact that the community chose this specific moment to establish conÂ¬tact not only with the Central Zionist Organization but also with other Jewish organizations reveals of the community members need to define their national identity and reflects their preoccupation with the loss of their autonomy. Nevertheless, the content of this correspondence suggests that the main reason for these contacts stemmed from their fear of the immediate practical consequences that would follow any alteration in the status quo.
THE EVE OF GREEK ANNEXATION
The annexation of Salonika to a national state within defined borders would cut the city off from the surrounding hinterland: Albania, the rest of Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus and the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, representing a market of 4,000,000 people. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the 70.000 Jews, who not only constituted the largest percentage of the population but whose professional skills - as bankers, merchants, agents, pedlars, porters and sailors - covered the main activities of the port, realized that creating national borders would seriously curtail the range of their commercial activities. Moreover since the city's isolation from the Balkan hinterland, which for centuries had constituted the principal partner in their economic activities, could not and would not be replaced by compensatory trading opportunities within the confines of Greek territory where the ports of Volos and Pireus were already established.
The transformation of Salonika into a border city of strategic primarily interest would affect its purely commercial character, accelerating its economic decline and replacing the peaceful co-existence of the different autonomous ethnic groups - Jews. Greeks, Bulgarians. Turks, Serbs, Armenians etc. -with newly introduced and undesirable tensions. More immediate dangers existed too: the huge debts that the Turks owed to Jewish merchants would almost certainly be left unsettled, as had happened during the annexation of Thessaly, resulting in the bankruptcy of many Jewish businesses.
Special concern was expressed for the poorer sectors of the populace who were obviously directly threatened in the event of economic breakdown. It should also be noted that a majority of the Jewish working class was active in socialist organizations and it was clear to them that the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire put paid to any hope for a confederate state. Consequently, the Jewish proletariat came to reject the newly created establishment and to consider it as â€˜foreign occupation.
Furthermore, the Jews suspected that annexation would be followed by the systematic settlement in the city of Greeks, given special distinctions and privileges as inducements, so that the Greek element would finally prevail and become dominant in the social, economic and cultural life of the city. The Jews, being not only the majority community but also through their own national-religious structure resistant to assimilation, feared that they would be systematically set aside and finally forced into mass emigration in search of new means of survival.
As a result, the Jewish community embraced the Austrian plan for the internationalization of the city, seeing it as the only way to preserve the city in its present form and meet the expectations of the working class.
THE AUSTRIAN PLAN FOR INTERNATIONALIZATlON
The Austrians, who parallel to their expansionist policy of Drang nach Ã–sten had important interests in the Balkans, believed that the internationalization of Salonika would ease their peaceful penetration of the area. It should be noted in passing that the Austrians did not have a strong cultural influence in Salonika, although many merchants preferred Austrian products for their quality, the proximity of Austrian territory being an additional advantage. French and Italian, however, were established languages in Salonika, while few people understood German. The German school had only a few hundred pupils; the French ones had over 15,000. There was no German newspaper, and even the merchants addressing letters to Austrian and German companies wrote in French. The Austrians realized that their presence in the area would be minimized by the creation of a Balkan state which would naturally try to conÂ¬trol the economic potential of the area for its own advantage. As a result Austria would be deprived of a considerable market and simultaneously of an important foothold in the Mediterranean.
As a solution to this problem, the Austrian proposals, especially that of Baron J. Schwegel, advocated an internationalized aad neutral region of Salonika under international auspices with a free zone for Austria. In addition, within Austrian diplomatic circles it was also mooted that Austrian penetration would be better achieved if the city had a Jewish mayor who would guard its autonomy.
It is worth noting the principal details of this plan as well as the way they were expressed: The internationalized and neutral region of Salonika, extending to a territory of 400-460 square kilometres, would comÂ¬prise a multiethnic population of 260,000 inhabitants. The Great Powers on the one hand and the Balkan states and Turkey on the other would guarantee the established order of this small autonomous state while its government and police force would be entrusted to various local agents who would be supervised by Swiss and Belgian specialists. In addition the port would be free and open to all nations, with a separate free zone for Austria, and the town would be neither Greek, Bulgarian nor Turkish, but Jewish.
By adopting this plan, the Salonika Jews considered that they would be ideally suited since they would secure the support of the powerful Austrian Empire, whose economic interests would be promoted by maintaining the autonomy of the Jews. Furthermore the Jews welcomed and were eager to come under Austrian influence rather than that of any Balkan people.
While addressing themselves to the Central Zionist Organization, which had just been transferred to Berlin, the Salonika Jews requested that the organization use its diplomatic connections with the Austrian government to submit this proposal to the approaching Peace Conference in London, assuring the Austrians that they would have the support of the whole Jewish population of the city.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE ZIONIST ORGANIZATION TO THE POLITICAL FUTURE OF SALONIKA
The Central Zionist Organization, however, had dealt with the problem of the Salonika Jews as early as November 1912, setting aside the numerous reports and efforts of Dr A. Friedman, its specially appointed delegate, and deciding after extensive deliberations to reject the community's request and publish the following resolution:
Concerning the future of Salonika, the internationalization or neutraliztion of the city would best serve the interest of the Jews. However, it is too soon to take action towards that end. When it becomes clear that Salonika is to be annexed to some particular state or that it is to be neutralized and internationalized, it will be incumbent upon the Zionist Organization, in conjunction with other Jewish organizations, to secure for the Jews full equal rights and consideration for their national claims.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE GREEK STATE
Meanwhile, the Greek government, through adopting a special policy towards the Salonika Jews after the annexation of the city, thus saving them from acts of anti-Semitic violence on the part of the army and the local Greek population, had not only revoked the need for such interventions but surprised both the local Jewish community and the Jews abroad. The prefect, Periclis Argyropoulos, addressing a group of Jewish representatives, declared:
I am trying with all my heart to prevent all anti-Semitic incidents that unfortunately blackened our glorious entry to Salonika. The Jews can rest assured that in me they will find a firm protector. I also declare, even at the risk of being criticised, that, were discrimination to be operated^ it should be done in favour of Israelites, and should it be necessary for their benefit to commit an injustice, I would do it because I feel that we owe them some sort of recompense.
Consequently, the Jews commended the official Greek attitude in their correspondence, excerpts of which were published in the local and interÂ¬national press, so that any negative impression of the Greeks should be refuted, a necessary condition for the maintenance of the government initiative aimed at establishing a new-rapport between the two antagonistic minorities.
In addition to its positive initial dispositions, the Venizelos government, having promptly understood the position of the Jews, also applied practical measures in order to regain the confidence of the local Jewish population and at the same time secure the support of international Jewry.
The declarations stressing the benefits of Greek sovereignty made by a Jewish committee presenting other Greek cities who visited the Salonika community at Venizeloss instigation, was simultaneously confirmed by the special privileges the Salonika Jews were granted:
1. Exemption from military service in return for payment, for a period of three years after the arrival of the Greek army, without loss of voting rights;
2. The preservation of the Shabath in the city of Salonika;
3. The right to participate in public administration;
4. The right to continue keeping accounts in their own language;
5. The freedom of their press;
6. The possibility of collaboration between civil veterinary officers and the specially appointed shohet ensuring the observance of Jewish dietary taws;
7. Government allocations of 1,200 drachmas to Jewish communities in Greece numbering more than 50 families, as well as government allowances to various exclusively Jewish associations, such as the athletic and Zionist Macabi club;
8. Exemption from all taxes on imported unleavened bread used on Passover, etc.
INTERCOMMUNAL CRISIS OVER NATIONAL IDENTITY
The absence of anti-Semitic or prejudice on the part of the Greek government did not succeed in defusing the growing conflict within the community, which came to a head after the annexation of Salonika to the Greek state.
The crisis had been building up before the Greek occupation. On the eve of the communal elections of June 1911, the Jewish working class, strongly influenced by the ideology of the FÃ©dÃ©ration Socialiste, had mobilized against the communal council and the predominantly bourgeois party and demanded the extension of the right to vote to all social classes.
When this attempt fell through, the Zionists, who were few in number but most active, exploited the disenchantment of the majority which had been ignored by the re-elected bourgeois party by including these demands in their increasingly vocal nationalist propaganda.
Thus, when Greek troops entered the city, the Jewish community was divided into two opposing camps, the Jewish nationalists and the adherents of the Alliance Israélite Universelle or integrationists. Confusion was intensified by the resignation of the communal president which left the community leaderless until the next communal elections. The dissolution was accelerated by the fact that many affluent Jews swiftly changed citizenship, thus not only depriving the party of their vote, but also the community of their financial contribution. In the six months after the city was annexed, 450 Jews took Austrian citizenship, 750 became Spanish and 1,200 Portuguese, in the hope of securing the protection of the relevant country as foreigners living in Greece.
Characteristic of the ideological ferment and re-evaluations fostering this communal crisis was the emergence in 1913 of lnterclub, a federal representative committee which enlisted a number of the city's Jewish associations known for their opposing ideologies. This peculiar event occurred shortly before the communal elections of June 1913, when four of the most popular Zionist dubs - the Nouveau Club, the Association d'Anciens ElÃ¨ves de I'Ecole Franco-allemande, the Macabi and the Bnei Zion - chose to support the limited franchise over-ruling their previous commitments and their beliefs, in an attempt to ensure a majority. No less surprising was the fact that two of the main opposing parties, the Nouveau Club and the Club des Intimes, were aligned during the same elections in spite of their enormous ideological differences.
These basically contradictory actions are not only typical of the accord shown by people when their very being is threatened, they also indicate that the religious differentiation, which up until then satisfactorily defined the national identity of the Jews, had begun to be a doubtful indicator.
The rise of Balkan nationalisms and the subsequent incorporation of the Jews into national states overturned their Ottoman entity and forced them to seek modem and parallel ideological patterns in order to relocate themselves within the (by now) Greek Salonika, which the Jews had previously identified as â€˜City and mother of Israel.
As already stated, the equivocal position of the Jewish population in this transitional phase was exploited by the small number of Zionists, who gained popularity, at first primarily due to their contacts with international Jewish organizations, but mainly because their nationalist ideology offered ready-made patterns for a new Jewish national identification.
As a result, in this period we can observe an impressive increase in the number of Jewish national clubs. Moreover, they spread out to the suburbs, where from 1912 to 1919 many new Zionist associations were founded and supported by members of the tower soda) classes. The Ben Gurion and Ben Zvi visit to Salonika in 1911, and their delineation of the concept of a possible coexistence between socialist and Zionist ideals, had a most powerful influence on the demands of the working classes.
POLITICAL CHOICES DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR
The prevalence of Zionist ideas and associations over the other political tendencies and organizations within the Jewish community became evident in the community's political choices during the elections of 1915 and 1916.
The Salonika Jews' first participation in Greek elections considerably influenced the vote in the city, which favoured Gounaris and the king, even though the Jewish upper classes either voted in favour of Venizelos and the Entente or abstained. In line with the wishes of the largest class of voters, Gounaris, unlike Venizelos, was unconditionally committed to Greek neutrality. The same demand was put forward by the Workers' Federation.
Regardless of French influence stemming from education in the French schools of the Alliance and their attachment to the French language and culture, the Salonika Jews, like the rest of their co-religionists in Europe, could not at that time identify with an alliane that included the Russians, whose anti-Semitism was notorious. Moreover, a possible German victory was perceived as a guarantee that Austrian influence in the area, which had seriously diminished as a result of the annexation and the war, would be reasserted. Finally their position was consistent with the general Zionist perception that Vienna and Berlin that were pro-Zionist.
However, during the course of the war, especially after 1916, it became obvious that Austria and Germany were supporting Zionism only to the extent that it served their expansionist policy, avoiding committing themselves to official declarations or notions which could compromise their alliance with Turkey, while at the same time doing nothing to discourage the violent wave of anti-Semitism that had developed within their borders.
On the other hand, the Powers of the Entente had begun, at the instigation of the United States, to propound an indirect policy favouring the autonomy of minorities within the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, as happened in Palestine, for instance, where they tried to rouse the different minorities against increasing Turkish oppression.
It was this attitude which decisively turned the Zionist movement towards the Entente. At the same time it determined the change of opinion in the Jewish community towards Salonika. Also, the arrival of the Allies in the city had revived commercial activity, which contributed to an amelioration in the circumstances of the population. At the same time, some especially friendly relations emerged which are witnessed by the regular participation of the Allies in Jewish social and national events.
THE FIRST PANHELLENIC ZIONIST CONGRESS
The Jews of Salonika were further encouraged in accepting their new country by the official announcement of the Foreign Minister, Nikolaos Politis, who in June 1917 publicly supported the idea of the creation of a Jewish national state in Palestine, five months before Britain announced the Balfour Declaration. This event, combined with the prompt response of the Greek government to the great fire in Salonika in 1917 and swift assistance to the victims (40,000 of whom were Jews), as well as a renewed pro-Zionist statement by the Venizelos government following the Balfour Declaration, strengthened the ties between the Jews of Salonika and the Greek authorides. The willingness of the Jews to incorporate themselves into the Greek state was directly evidenced during the festivities for the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in November 1918. Twenty thousand Jews took part, a small percentage of them organized Zionists, while the whole city was specially decorated for the occasion.
It should also be noted that in March 1919, at the initiative of the Zionist Federation and with a savoir faire almost unknown to most European Jewish communities, the First Panhellenic Zionist Congress was held in Salonika. As well as the local associations, delegations from the Jewish communities throughout Greece participated; all local Greek authorities were also represented. The decisive choice of the term "Panhellenicâ" suggested not merely the beginning of the first co-operation between the country's Jewish communities but at the same time denoted the organizing community's identification with its new country.
In conjunction with the issues dealt with at the Congress and the decisions taken, these events defined the national identity of the Jews of Salonika at the time and also determined the final stage of their incorporation within the Greek state.
In these resolutions, which were submitted as requests from Greek Jewry to the Peace Conference to be held in Paris, the Jews of Salonika and the rest of Greece demanded:
1. That the social, political and religious equality of the Jews should be ensured by the constitution of all states and internationally guaranteed.
2. That internal autonomy should be granted to the Jewish communities of different countries who requested it.
3. That the Conference should create the necessary political and economic conditions for the reconstruction of the Jewish state in Palestine, within the historical limits defined by the Bible, under the supervision of the British who should act in the name of the League of Nations.
4. That the Jews, who constituted a nation, be granted the right to participate in the League of Nations on equal terms with other nations.
The Jews of Salonika, constituting the majority of the participants in the Panhellenic Congress, declared that they appreciated the value of their fair treatment by the Greek state while suggesting the possibility of similar treatment for Jews in other states, where problems of equality ted arisen. At the same time they were trying to guarantee their future security in Greece.
In addition, it was clear that though they naturally supported the idea of the reconstruction of a Jewish state in Palestine, this did not necessarily indicate their wish to emigrate to this second future motherland, nor it signify the incompatibility of their simultaneous Greek and Jewish national consciousness.
The adoption of this dual national identity prevailed during the subsequent Zionist congresses which took place in Salonika. It was confirmed even more by the fact that almost all the Jews remained in the city and, though hellenized, did not become assimilated within the Grwk element. They reacted to mountÂ¬ing Zionist propaganda for emigration to Palestine in a similar fashion: on the one hand they offered financial support to the Zionist cause, and on the other they demonstrated their intention to stay in the land of their forebears, characteristically stating: â€œWhat Palestine are you talking about? Palestine is here!â€
Though it may seem strange, it is significant that the incorporation of the Jews into the Greek state was not accomplished until they themselves reached the point of expressing and asserting their national differentiation. This process presupposes a reciprocal acceptance between Greeks and Jews, which was attained in the following manner.
Initially, the establishment of the right of differentiation did not suggest the need for any kind of political independence within Greece, which would obviously have created a conflict between the two nationalities. Their claims came down to the preservation of their cultural autonomy and political equality, reflected not only their acceptance of the sovereign right of the established nation but also their appreciation of Greek policy towards them. This latter followed the same line as the provisions included in the Balfour Declaration referring to the policy of the Jews towards minorities in the future Jewish state.
Unlike most Jews in other European countries, as well as those in the Balkan states who had tried to integrate culturally within the sovereign states and become accepted as regular citizens of their adopted countries, the Jews of Salonika eventually rejected the precedents of Western nationalism and kept their cultural differentiation. In this way they supported the policy of the Greek state which, in accordance with its own specific national claims, suggested a new attitude towards national minorities.
The Greeks not only understood this seemingly contradictory form of acceptance, but considerably encouraged it themselves. Having perceived that this was the only policy which could avert the interference of the familiar 'protector' countries, constantly on the watch for similar opportunities, the Greeks also understood that this policy might create a positive attitude on the part of the Great Powers towards Greek sovereignty in the disputed region of Macedonia.
There were, in addition, common points in the political priorities of the two nations which dictated this particular line of Greek nationalism, and which in turn resulted in the successful rapprochement of two formerly diverging minorities: they both aimed at the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire due to the fact that they were commonly defined through clearly outlined national-religious characteristics. This mutual goal was determined by their national claims, which stemmed from similar historical rights in neighbouring regions within the Ottoman Empire, viewed by both nations as the cradle of their respective civilizations. In the Ottoman area there were towns known for their high percentage of Greek population: the comparison between the Jewish minority of Salonika and the Greek minorities of Smyrna, Bursa and Constantinople was therefore obvious.
It is thus clear that the Greek state introduced a new political reality vis-a-vis the Jews according to which the sovereign state was not threatened by the different minorities within it, while it embraced them as equal members; in so doing it suggested a similar attitude towards all Greek minorities, especially those in the Ottoman Empire.
Meanwhile, this awareness served as a basis for friendship and mutual support between the two principal minorities of the Empire, whose coÂ¬operation was essential in their struggle to acquire an analogous right of cultural independence in areas where the first signs of Turkish nationalism had already been manifest.
At this point Greek nationalism appeared creatively unifying as opposed to the Western model which was violently disruptive. It would be of utmost interest, both for those specialising in Jewish history or nationalism, to examine the position of the Jews within the Greek state Following the Asia Minor catastrophe, however, the political priorities of the two emerging nations ceased to overlap and Greek nationalism developed strongly on the exclusive western pattern rather than the earlier inclusive concept.