The presence of Jews in Thessaloniki is recorded ever since the Hellenistic period, when several Jewish families migrated there from Alexandria in Egypt. The members of this first organized Jewish community of Thessaloniki, called “Romaniotes”, adopted the Greek language but kept the Hebrew writing system. It was these Jews that Paul the Apostle met during his stay in this historical city.
The Jewish community of Thessaloniki
The Jewish community grew during the Middle Ages with the arrival of Ashkenazi Jewish merchants and from other parts of Italy and Central Europe. But the Jewish population of Thessaloniki experienced its biggest growth after 1492, with the arrival of the Sephardi Jews who had been expelled by the Aragonese kings from Spain, Italy and Sicily, and a few years later from Portugal. It is estimated that a number of about 20.000 Jews chose to live in Thessaloniki. Thus, the Jewish population gradually became the majority, and in 1901 it represented 51% of the total population of Thessaloniki.
The Jewish community flourished under the Ottoman Empire, with the Jewish weaver’s workshops in Thessaloniki being the main provider of textiles used for the uniforms of the Ottoman army. Thessaloniki became an economic and cultural centre for Jews from all over Europe.
After the Balkan Wars, on the 26th of October 1912, Thessaloniki was surrendered to the Greek armies and integrated in the Greek state. The events which followed, such as the First World War, the great fire of 1917 which destroyed a great part of Thessaloniki, as well as the influx of Greek refugees from Asia Minor, led to a significant decrease in the Jewish population. Especially following the fire, very many Jewish families chose to emigrate. By 1940, there were about 50.000 Jews left in Thessaloniki.
The following year, on the 9th of April 1941, the armies of Nazi Germany occupied Thessaloniki and very rapidly put into practice a multitude of restrictive measures against the Jewish population of the city. They also ransacked the most important libraries and headquarters of the community. On the 11th of July 1942, the Jewish men aged 18 to 45 were ordered to gather in the Eleftherias Square (which, as a cruel irony, means “Freedom” in Greek). After being tormented and humiliated, they were sent off to forced labour. In the same year, the Nazis seized Jewish possessions and destroyed the Jewish Cemetery of Thessaloniki, one of the biggest in Europe and in the whole world, with over 400.000 tombs. Today, in place of where it once was, stand the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and its campus. In 1943, the complete extermination of the Jews of Thessaloniki was set into motion. They were forced to wear the Star of David and live in ghettos. In March, the first “death trains” began to transport them to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.
Thessaloniki Middle School no. 1
Among them, there were 149 Jewish pupils of the Thessaloniki Middle School no. 1 for Boys. Only 4 managed to save themselves by hiding in Thessaloniki, and from the concentration camps only 2 came back.
Thessaloniki Middle School no. 1 is the oldest Greek middle school in the city. It was founded in 1760. The building in which it is located was built between 1890 and 1896 by a Bulgarian merchant named Todor Hadjimishev and was named in his honour. In 1928, it became state property. Later on, the middle school extended into the adjoining building of Iosif Hadjimishev. In the aftermath of the powerful earthquake which struck Thessaloniki in 1978, the building was abandoned for 20 years and restored only in 1997.
Another detail which adds to the historical and sentimental value of this place is the fact that king George I of Greece was killed in 1913 opposite the school building.
When you pass the school on 3 Vasilissis Olgas Boulevard, you “stumble” upon 149 bronze plates called Stolpersteine, on which the names of the schoolboys killed in the Nazi camps are engraved. In German, Stolperstein literally means a “stumbling stone”, metaphorically a “stumbling block” and they are handmade by the German artist Gunter Demnig. In 1992, Demnig started a project aiming to commemorate the victims of Nazism and up until 2019 around 75.000 memorial plates have been placed in almost all of Europe!
Most of them commemorate Jewish victims, but also Roma people, adversaries of the Nazi regime as well as other sexual, religious or political minorities. The plates are deliberately set into the pavement, a hint to the Nazi’s habit of using tombstones to pave the sidewalk after destroying Jewish cemeteries. Even their name is a reference to the anti-Semite jargon used in Nazi Germany, Stolperstein metaphorically meaning “potential problem”.
A graduate of the Thessaloniki Middle School no. 1, namely Apostolos Dereklis, is the person behind the initiative to introduce Thessaloniki into the “Stolperstein” project. Another five plates have been placed in the port of Thessaloniki. Stolperstein contributes to the rich history of this magnificent city of Northern Greece. It is said that history repeats itself. But these plates remind us of the fact that we must NEVER allow this history to repeat itself.