When Greece annexed Salonica in 1912, it became the Greek city with the largest concentration of Jews. These Jews, who for the most part spoke Judeo-Spanish, made up a plurality of Salonica’s population; only after joining Greece did they begin to think of themselves as Greek Jews and learn to read and write the Greek language. This newfound identity complicated Hanukkah, which commemorates a Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks. Devin Naar writes:
Continuing to plan for a Jewish future in Greece, even once the country entered the war against Italy in 1940, Jewish leaders in Salonica published a new prayer book, Sha’arey T’filah, in March 1941. . . . [T]he editors of the prayer book—Salonican-born Jews who had been educated in Palestine—dedicated it to a Jewish soldier who had fallen on the battlefield defending “our beloved homeland, Greece.” Written not in Greek, but rather in Judeo-Spanish, the dedication aimed to show to Jews themselves that they ought to think of themselves not only as religiously Jewish and culturally Sephardi, but as Greek patriots, too. They believed that all of these allegiances could be held simultaneously.
But in order to accommodate their Jewish and Greek identities, they made two noteworthy changes to the prayer book. In the Al ha-Nissim prayer added to the liturgy on Hanukkah that refers to the miracles associated with the holiday, the traditional reference to the “wicked Greek government” is quietly changed to the “wicked government.”
More remarkably, in the popular Hanukkah song Maoz Tsur (“Rock of Ages”), the reference to the enemy as Y’vanim (“Greeks”) is replaced by Suriyim (“Syrians”). . . . The Seleucid empire, the Hellenistic state in control of Judea at the time of the Maccabees, was indeed culturally Greek, but was geographically based in Syria. Hence the Salonican Jewish leaders could transform the “Syrians” into the Hanukkah enemies and thereby more easily embrace Greece as their beloved homeland.
Despite this sense of Greek patriotism cultivated by Salonican Jewish leaders, when the deportations to Auschwitz began in March 1943, local Greek officials and Orthodox Christian neighbors neither intervened nor objected. On the contrary, the local population participated in the dispossession of the city’s Jews, taking over thousands of homes and businesses. The university and the municipality—not the Nazis—initiated the destruction of the Jewish cemetery that stretched over a terrain the size of 80 football fields and housed more than 300,000 graves.
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