Renee Saltiel and Solon Molho grew up in the greatest Sephardic Jewish community of them all, Salonika, or Thessaloniki, in today's Greece. 90,000 Jews lived there then; by the time the Germans had rounded up the city's Jews during the Second World War, almost none were left. Only a handful returned. This is the story of two Jews who did manage to survive, thanks to a Spanish diplomat and some very brave Greek families..
Sephardic Jews are the descendent of Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) before the 1492 expulsion. The word Sephardim, as “Sepharad” means Spain in Hebrew. For religious purposes, the term Sephardim also refers to all Jews who use a Sephardic style of liturgy, and therefore includes most Jews of Middle Eastern background, whether or not they have any historical connection to the Iberian Peninsula.
The precise origins of the Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula are unclear. There is inconclusive evidence of a Jewish presence dating from pre-Roman times. More substantial references date from the Roman period, when significant Jewish immigration probably first occurred.
However, in 1492 the Expulsion Decree (often called "Alhambra Decree“) by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile expelled more than 20,000 Spanish Jews from the country. In 1497 King Manuel I of Portugal issued a similar decree. Learn more about the expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain in this article from the Jewish Virtual Library.
Many of the expelled Jews re-settled in the Ottoman Empire, to which the area of Serbia belonged at that time, and where they were welcomed by Sultan Bajazet II. Others settled in places like what is today Morocco, Algeria, southern France and Italy. Some even settled on the island Curacao in the southern Caribbean.
Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is the language of Sephardic Jews. It only became a specifically Jewish language after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Cut off from the further developments in the language, the Sephardim continued to speak it in the communities and countries to which they emigrated. Ladino therefore reflects the grammar and vocabulary of 14th and 15th century Spanish.
In the Sephardic communities of the Ottoman Empire, the language not only retained the older forms of Spanish, but borrowed so many words from Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Turkish, and even French, that it became more and more distorted.
Ladino is also spoken by the Jewish minority in Turkey. “El Amaneser” is a monthly Ladino-language supplement of the Turkish newspaper "Salom" that publishes articles on Sephardic culture.
Like other historical Jewish languages, Ladino is in danger of language extinction (another prominent example is Yiddish). Most native speakers are elderly, many of them having emigrated to Israel where the language was not transmitted to their children or grandchildren. However, it is experiencing a minor revival among Sephardic communities, for example in music.
This Centropa film was sponsored by the Jewish Museum in Berlin and produced in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in Thessaloniki, which was established to honor the city's rich Sephardic heritage since the 15th century.
The website of the Jewish Museum in Thessaloniki offers a lot of information on the diverse Jewish history and culture of Thessaloniki.
Salonika is the second-largest city in Greece and home to around 1,200 Jews.
Before World War II, Salonika was home to a major Jewish community, mainly of Sephardic origin who arrived in the city after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Although the first Jewish presence in Salonika can be traced back to 140BCE, these new immigrants turned Salonika into "La Madre de Israel" (mother of Israel) due to their economical and cultural influence by bringing with them learned scholards and rabbies and establising yeshivot and synagogues. Because of these factors Salonika became home to the biggest Sephardic community in the world.
By the end of the 18th century over 80,000 Jews lived in Salonika, 61% of the total population of the city. In Salonika, which was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, the Jews enjoyed more privileges than most Jewish communities in other countries and as a result had a flourishing community life. For example, Jews were allowed to work in different trades and were allowed to enter universities.
You can read more on the professional, cultural and religious life of the Salonika Jews in this resource from Yad Vashem. In 1912, when Salonika became part of Greece, the Jews and all other minorities were granted the same rights as the Greek population.
A highly recommended book on the history of Salonika is "Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Jews and Muslims, 1430 - 1950" by Mark Mazower. Here is a review of the book.
After World War I, several events took place that greatly influenced the fate of the Salonika Jews and symbolized the decrease of the world's biggest Sephardic community. Below you will find a list of years and events that are of importance.
In 1917 a great fire destroyed most of the town, leaving some 55,000 Jews homeless. The Greek government was willing to compensate the Jews whose houses had been destroyed, but refused to let the Jews return to certain parts of the town, causing many of them to emigrate to the U.S., France, Italy, and Alexandria.
In 1919 - 1922 The Greco-Turkish Conflict, resulting in hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides.
In 1923, a separate electoral college was set up for the Jews of Salonika which enabled several Jews to be elected to parliament, although they could not participate in national elections for the prime minister.
In 1924 a law (no. 236) was enacted which forced all the inhabitants of Salonika to refrain from working on Sundays, thus causing another wave of emigration. Some went to Palestine, while most immigrated to Paris, where they founded an important community.
In the 1931 Campbell riots, which accompanied the elections and were antisemitic in tone. In the film, the narrator mentions the first anti-Semitic riots in Salonika which took place on June 29, 1931 and became known as the Campbell riots.
During the Campbell riots, Greek mobs belonging to the nationalist anti-Semitic party EEE (National Union of Greece) attacked the mainly Jewish neighborhood Campbell and burned it to the ground. As a result of these riots, between 200 and 500 Jewish families emigrated from Greece and left for Palestine. During the 30s, 30,000 Jews would follow them, leaving around 56,000 Jews behind in Salonika.
Greece entered World War II on 28 October 1940 when it was invaded by Italy from Albania, causing the Greco-Italian War.
The Greek army succeeded in stopping the invasion and forced the Italian army back into Albania, thus marking one of the first victories of the Allies against the Axis Alliance. As a result of this and in order to protect Italy's prestige, the Germans invaded Greece and Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941. Greece was occupied and divided between Germnay, Italy and Bulgaria while the Greek king and government went into exile to Egypt.
You can read more here on the Axis Alliance in World War II.
The occupation of Greece greatly influenced the fate of the Greek and Salonika Jews. As the narrator mentions, on 11 July 1942 thousands of male Jews between the ages of 18-45 were ordered to gaher at the Freedom Square in Salonika and were registered to forced labor brigades. In order to release the Jews, the German authorities demanded a ransom and the Jewish community in Salonika had to sell their cemetery to get the required sum of money. Salonika's city administration bought the cemetery, removed the headstones and used them for constructing materials and eventually built a university at the site.
Here you will find photographs of the Freedom Square on 11 July 1942.
In 1943 the Jews of Salonika had to move to the Baron Hirsch Ghetto in the West of the city and prepared for their impending deportations. Between March and August 1943, more than 45,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz Birkenau. Around 2,000 would survive and return to Salonika.
Read this USHMM article about the fate of the Jews from Salonika.
Because Renee's family had Spanish passports, their fate was to be deported to Bergen-Belsen together with the other Spanish Jews. In August 1943, 367 Spanish Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen but were transferred in Febraury 1944 to Barcelona, Morocco and Palestine. Around 144 Jewish Spanish nationals had escaped to Athens, among them were also Renee, her sisters and their father. In Athens they lived in different places until they arrived on Bouboulinas Street, in the house of Mrs. Lembesi.
In April 1944, they were discovered and Renee's sisters, Eda and Matilda, were taken to the infamous Haidari concentration camp, a transit camp in the suburb Haidari of Athens, operated by the German Schutzstaffel (SS), where Jews, Italian prisoners of war and Greek political prisoners were held.
After the death of her father, Renee was in danger of being deported to the Haidari camp as well. Mrs. Lembesi contacted Sebastian Romero Radigales, the Consul General of Spain in Athens, who had already helped the family before, and he gave her Spanish travel papers. Renee managed to escape to Palestine.