When Greece annexed the city of Salonica (Thessaloniki) from the Ottoman empire in 1913, it was home to a large and thriving population of Ladino-speaking Jews. Four years later, a devastating fire swept through the city, hitting the Jewish neighborhoods close to the center particularly hard. The Greek government used the opportunity to transform Salonica into a city that was more Greek, more modern, and less Jewish, as Devin Naar writes:
With its nationalist goal in mind, the government [seized] the burnt terrain and prevented residents from rebuilding on their land. Instead, under the guise of promoting state interests and a modern, European urban plan that would transform the downtown into a middle- and upper-class Greek [neighborhood], the government auctioned off the razed property. . . . The National Bank of Greece outbid the Jewish community for the plot on which the Talmud Torah, the main Jewish communal school, had stood before the fire. . . .
The prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, encouraged British and French urban planners to view the city as a “blank slate” and ignore the centuries-long imprint left by Jews and Muslims. One of the urban planners described Venizelos as “particularly enthusiastic about the new Salonica, almost to the point of regarding the fire as providential” and conceded that the “fundamental purpose of the plan was to deprive the Jews of complete control of the city.” But the planner also noted, as if to offer consolation, “There was no desire to oust the Jews completely.” . . .
Largely prevented from rebuilding in the city center, the Jewish community began to rebuild on the city outskirts. . . . Despite growing tensions between Salonican Jews and the Greek state, . . . the Jewish community succeeded in building several dozen new synagogues and a new school system. It restarted the Jewish hospital and medical dispensary and established new institutions, including a tuberculosis clinic, girls’ orphanage, and maternity ward. . . .
Jewish leaders did succeed in preventing Athens from nationalizing the community’s old cemetery—the largest Jewish burial ground in Europe—only for it to be destroyed by the Nazis, who slaughtered over 90 percent of the city’s Jews during World War II.