UW News

November 2, 2016

Devin Naar’s book ‘Jewish Salonica’ tells of city’s transition from Ottoman Empire to Greece

UW News

Devin Naar is the Isaac Alhadeff Professor of Sephardic Studies in the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies — part of the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies — and an associate professor in the Department of History. He is the author of “Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece,” published in September by Stanford University Press.

“Jewish Salonica”
book launch
7 – 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3
Prof. Naar will explore the fate of Salonica’s Jews and offer behind-the-scenes insight into how he uncovered the previously lost sources necessary to tell the story.
UW Tower Auditorium
4333 Brooklyn Ave. NE
Presented by the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies and the Sephardic Studies Program.
Registration and more information here.

What is the book about?

A few years ago, The New York Times ran a piece about the city of Salonica (also known as Thessaloniki), the subject of my book. The headline read: “Greek youth remake the ‘Seattle of the Balkans.’” What makes a relatively obscure city on the Aegean coast in northern Greece seem like Seattle? The article explains that Salonica’s “growing appeal as a youthful city with an intriguing multiethnic history and an arty counterculture is turning it into something of a Seattle of the Balkans.” Suddenly, a place so distant strikes very close to home for us at the University of Washington.

My book is preoccupied with the “intriguing multiethnic history” that once characterized Salonica but was radically transformed and ultimately erased due to the pressures and upheavals of the 20th century: war, population movements, imperial collapse, rising nationalism, urbanization, and, ultimately, genocide.

The book tells this story from the perspective of Salonica’s Jews. Part of the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire for more than four centuries and now part of predominantly Orthodox Christian Greece, Salonica was long-defined by one of its more unusual features: Until the start of the 20th century, half of its multiethnic population was composed of Judeo-Spanish (Ladino)-speaking Sephardic Jews. Expelled from Spain in 1492, Sephardic Jews fled across the Mediterranean, settling in what was then the Ottoman Empire, and continuing to speak their language and practice their religion. The imprint of Jews on Salonica became so significant that, into the twentieth century, the markets closed every Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. For Jews in Salonica, their city became the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”

"Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece" was published in September by Stanford University Press.

“Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece” was published in September by Stanford University Press.

The book charts how the end of the Ottoman Empire and the incorporation of Salonica into Greece impacted the city’s Jews. It was a challenging transition. As an important part of a multicultural empire, Jews in Salonica suddenly became a minority in Greece: they observed a different religion and spoke a different language from the majority of the country’s citizens. The book focuses on the strategies that the city’s Jews developed to bridge the gap between their Ottoman past and their Greek future, to figure out ways for them to be Jews while also becoming Greeks. Would such a transformation even be possible?

As a clue as to how the story ends, one of the features that makes Salonica today a “youthful city,” as The New York Times suggests, is that it is home to the largest university in Greece and the Balkans. What is lesser known — often taboo to discuss — is that nearly all of the campus was built atop Salonica’s vast Jewish cemetery, which was once the largest Jewish burial ground in Europe. Destroyed at the initiative of the local authorities, but under the cover of the Nazi occupation during World War II, the cemetery and its disappearance from the urban fabric—with few traces left behind—symbolize the fate of Salonica’s Jews and their erasure from the city’s public memory.

How did Jews in Salonica try to bridge the gap between the Ottoman Empire and modern Greece?

One of the ways that Salonican Jewish leaders sought to re-anchor themselves in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and in the new context of Greece was to emphasize their connection to their city and their status as Salonicans. Rather than tying themselves to a country or a religion, these Jewish leaders saw their primarily connection as being to their city. Even if their new neighbors did not see them as members of the Greek nation, Jews’ longstanding roots in the city could not be refuted — or at least they hoped. They even proposed transforming Salonica into an independent city-state as an alternative to continued imperial control or the incorporation of the city into a new nation.

Although the plan for the city-state failed, Salonica’s Jewish leaders continued to believe that by seeing themselves as fundamentally Salonican, they could also become legitimate members of the national community. The experiment — both in local Salonican patriotism and in transforming the last generation of Ottoman Jews into Greek Jews — was ultimately cut short by the Holocaust, during which the Nazis tragically deported the city’s nearly 50,000 Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

What was the research process like for the book?

In conducting my research, I felt like I was living out a historian’s fantasy: the discovery of a dusty trove of previously unstudied archival documents in some obscure basement. That’s literally what happened.

The research for this book took more than a decade, required travel to six countries, and knowledge of six languages. As I wanted to tell the story of Salonica’s Jews through their own voices, I needed access to local sources written by Jews themselves. Until recently, the limited but growing scholarship about Salonica has relied on sources from outsiders, like foreign travelers or European consuls. Since the city had experienced such devastation as a result of fires, wars, and the deportation of the Salonica’s Jews, access to local sources was not easily attained.

During the Second World War, the Nazis had confiscated the libraries and archives of the Jewish community of Salonica.  It was long thought that these records had all been destroyed. But, sleuthing in American military records, I discovered that much of the archive had been preserved and dispersed across the globe. After the war, the Soviets found some of the archives and deposited them in Moscow. Only after the collapse of the USSR did their existence become known. Other materials, found by the Americans in Germany at the end of World War II, wound up in New York and another section was returned to Greece. Some of that material was later sent to Jerusalem for safekeeping. In Salonica itself, in 2005, I miraculously found another portion of those returned archives in the basement of an old Jewish communal building, transferred them to the new Jewish museum, and spent a year organizing and studying them.

In combination with local newspapers preserved abroad, the thousands of documents from the scattered archives of the Jewish community of Salonica became the primary sources through which I tried to restore the long-forgotten voices of Salonica’s Jews and to tell their story through their own words.

This scholarly work was also a personal project in many ways – could you tell about that?

My paternal grandfather was born in Salonica and immigrated to the United States in 1924. His brother, who stayed in Greece, was ultimately deported with his wife and two children to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943 along with the vast majority of Salonica’s Jews. Their world always intrigued me: enchanting stories recalling interactions between Muslims, Christians, and Jews; the question of whether our family were “Spanish Jews” or “Greek Jews” or something else; and the tragic fate of the relatives who perished in the Nazi camps. I decided at a certain point that I wanted to know more and was surprised to discover how little information was available. The quest to address that absence and to understand the world from which my family came inspired my career as a historian and the subject of my book.

As the first person in my immediate family to step foot in Salonica since 1924 — I first visited in 2004 — I experienced powerful, but mixed, emotions. “Returning” to my family’s city — a city where my ancestors lived for four centuries — I found few traces of their longstanding presence. When I enrolled in Greek language classes at the university, I could not help but lament the fact that generations of my own ancestors had been buried under the campus — beneath the very classroom in which I sat. Their eternal resting place had been destroyed and their very existence was unknown to my classmates. At the same time, I made many dear friends and found many allies in my pursuit of the city’s history. Salonica has changed since I began my research: now, certain segments of society are more interested in the city’s “intriguing multiethnic history” and are reclaiming it as their own.

When I arrived in Seattle in 2011, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter echoes of the world of Jewish Salonica in the Pacific Northwest. Among the many communities that comprise Seattle’s diverse population is one of the country’s largest contingents of Sephardic Jews. A handful of these families come from Salonica — primarily Auschwitz survivors and their descendants. Many have shared their memories with me and participate in our Sephardic Studies program.

I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that one the most important figures in the history of the Seattle Sephardic community was from Salonica. He was a journalist, poet, and educator. His great-granddaughter became a student of mine at UW and dedicated more than three years of independent studies with me to uncover the writings of her great-grandfather, translate them into English, write her own original Judeo-Spanish poems, and compile a marvelous online digital exhibition. How fitting: echoes of the “intriguing multiethnic history” of the Seattle of the Balkans continue to resonate in Seattle itself.


For more information, contact Naar at 206-616-6202 or denaar@uw.edu.