Academic journal article
By Stavroulakis, Nicholas
European Judaism , Vol. 36, No. 2
The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki (Salonika) has had an interesting history of experimentation determined to a great degree by the horrific effects of the Shoah on the Jewish community of the city. A museum, somewhat by definition, is a place where memories are stored, where tangible evidence provides witness to events and persons and the communities in which they lived and functioned. In this regard a museum is somewhat introverted and self-centred though at the same time it can create the sense of continuity and identity that are required in order to evolve healthy lives. The very tangible presence of the Shoah was envisaged as a potential danger to a museum dedicated to a very long and august history of Jewish creativity.
The new Salonika Jewish Museum has evolved as a statement of the ancient Jewish presence in the city leading up to its nearly complete destruction during the Second World War and the subsequent near loss of tangible contact with its past. Within the past twenty years several attempts at making a Jewish museum in the city were mainly directed to a community that was trying desperately to come to terms with a catastrophic change in its demography as well as to adjust to a sudden change in its physical presence as a community.
It is difficult to imagine Salonika as it was in 1941 when the community numbered over 70,000. It is even more difficult to imagine the sound of Castilian Spanish in certain of its streets or the presence of over thirty-two synagogues scattered in its centre. It is impossible to imagine the great Jewish necropolis whose acres stretched outside the Eastern walls of the city--with over 500,000 Jewish burials reaching far back into Salonika's history. Suddenly and almost without warning, within only four years, the synagogues had vanished, no sound of Spanish was heard, a bulldozed wasteland of broken monuments and tombstones lay scattered on the fringes of the university. The community itself had been reduced to some 3,000 persons, most scarred permanently; psychologically, economically and even physically, by the events. What was perhaps especially to play a role in coming to terms with the changes was the sense of not belonging. This sense was especially aggravated by the rapid recovery of the city without its Jews. They became a less than minor concern, a less than admissible presence, yet the Jews of Salonika had a history within the fabric of the history of the city. It was the need to link up the enormous losses suffered in the war with the challenge of coming to terms with the present that dictated the early attempts to make a Jewish museum, interestingly enough, mainly focused on the surviving community. Essentially these attempts were directed at trying to make some sense out of what had happened and perhaps even to give some meaning to the fact of survival. The attempts were modest, more often than not, directed to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. The resulting shock was still so deep that it smothered almost any other concern. What may well have played a part in delaying the creation of a museum for Salonikan Jewry was the highly centralised position of Athens that dominated the cultural and political life of the country and was the hub of its growing tourist industry. It may also reflect a question of Jewish identity.
It is not surprising to find that it was only after 1975, when a postwar generation was reaching maturity and the memory of the Holocaust was less vivid, that attention was turned to the immediate concern of a shattered Jewish identity. Prior to the war Jewish life was certainly rooted in religious observance or affiliation based on legal or social necessity--if only nominally. It should be borne in mind that Israel had not yet been established: hence Jews in general, once they had broken away from religious observance, had little to fall back on other than the national identity of their specific countries. In Salonika, the transition of the city (between 1912 and 1939), from being multiethnic, multi-religious and polyglot, into a modern Greek city to some degree alienated and to a degree marginalised the Jews. …