The Accidental Fire That Destroyed Jewish Thessaloniki

November 15, 2018 | Ro Oranim
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At the end of the 19th century, Jews constituted a plurality of the population of the Ottoman city of Salonica; this continued to be the case after 1912, when Greece seized the city and renamed it Thessaloniki. When World War I broke out, Thessaloniki played an important role as a harbor for Allied naval forces, and it endured a bombardment by Austrian planes in 1915. A single housewife roasting eggplants, however, would bring much greater destruction to the city, and especially its Jewish quarter, when an accidental fire in her kitchen got out of control. Ro Oranim writes:

On the evening of August 19, 1917, [after burning for 32 hours], the flames were finally brought under control, but the damage had been done. Forty-five percent of the population of Thessaloniki, approximately 70,000 people, were left homeless with nothing left to show for their lives . . . other than the smoking embers of the 9,500 homes that had found themselves in the destructive path of the insatiable blaze.

For the Jews of Thessaloniki, the majority population in the city, the devastating rampage of the fire proved catastrophic. Before the fire, the city was considered to be the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” with a rich, thriving, and educated melting pot of Jews from different countries and cultures who came together to build a new life. Along with the local post offices, banks, and newspaper offices, the local Jewish schools, community centers, the Jewish college, and 32 synagogues were completely destroyed along with the entirety of the archives of the community which held records of a centuries-long history of Jewish presence in Thessaloniki. . . . [Due to the fire], many Jews were forced to emigrate and left their home for Athens, the United States, France, and the Land of Israel in the hopes of starting over. . . .

After previous fires in the city the government had simply allowed for people to rebuild, but after the great fire of 1917, the government decided to use the opportunity to . . . build a fully modernized, Hellenized city from the ashes. As part of the planning process, the government revoked the old rights and deeds to the land and the former owners were [merely] given the opportunity to bid on plots of land at auction. [Thus] the government seriously hindered the ability of the Jewish community to reestablish itself.

On the eve of World War II, Thessaloniki’s Jewish population had declined to 40 percent of the city’s total. Those who had emigrated following the fire, however, proved the most fortunate, as the Nazis would oversee the murder of some 90 percent of those who remained.

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