I found Joseph Nehama’s magisterial Histoire des Israélites de Salonique, and began to see what an extraordinary story it had been. The arrival of the Iberian Jews after their expulsion from Spain, Salonica’s emergence as a renowned centre of rabbinical learning, the disruption caused by the most famous False Messiah of the seventeenth century, Sabbetai Zevi, and the persistent faith of his followers, who followed him even after his conversion to Islam, formed part of a fascinating and little-known history unparalleled in Europe. Enjoying the favour of the sultans, the Jews, as the Ottoman traveller Eviiya Chelebi noted, called the city “our Salonica”—a place where, in addition to Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian, most of the inhabitants “know the Jewish tongue because day and night they are in contact with, and conduct business with Jews.”
Yet as I supplemented my knowledge of the Greek metropolis with books and articles on its Jewish past, and tried to reconcile what I knew of the home of Saint Dimitrios—”the Orthodox city”—with the Sefardic “Mother of Israel,” it seemed to me that these two histories—the Greek and the Jewish—did not so much complement one another as pass each other by. I had noticed how seldom standard Greek accounts of the city referred to the Jews. An official tome from 1962 which had been published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its capture from the Turks contained almost no mention of them at all; the subject had been regarded as taboo by the politicians masterminding the celebrations. This reticence reflected what the author Elias Petropoulos excoriated as “the ideology of the barbarian neo-Greek bourgeoisie,” for whom the city “has always been Greek.” But at the same time, most Jewish scholars were just as exclusive as their Greek counterparts: their imagined city was as empty of Christians as the other was of Jews.
As for the Muslims, who had ruled Salonica from 1430 to 1912, they were more or less absent from both. Centuries of European antipathy to the Ottomans had left their mark. Their presence on the wrong side of the Dardanelles had for so long been seen as an accident, misfortune or tragedy that in an act of belated historical wishful thinking they had been expunged from the record of European history. Turkish scholars and writers, and professional Ottomanists, had not done much to rectify things. It suited everyone, it seemed, to ignore the fact that there had once existed in this corner of Europe an Ottoman and an Islamic city atop the Greek and Jewish ones.
How striking then it is that memoirs often describe the place very differently from such scholarly or official accounts and depict a society of almost kaleidoscopic interaction. Leon Sciaky’s evocative Farewell to Salonica,the autobiography of a Jewish boy growing up under Abdul Hamid, begins with the sound of the muezzin’s cry at dusk. In Sciaky’s city, Albanian householders protected their Bulgarian grocer from the fury of the Ottoman gendarmerie, while well-to-do Muslim parents employed Christian wet-nurses for their children and Greek gardeners for their fruit trees. Outside the Yalman family home the well was used by “the Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Jews, Serbs, Vlachs, and Albanians of the neighbourhood.” And in Nikos Kokantzis’s moving novella Gioconda, a Greek teenage boy falls in love with the Jewish girl next door in the midst of the Nazi occupation; at the moment of deportation, her parents trust his with their most precious belongings.
Have scholars, then, simply been blinkered by nationalism and the narrowed sympathies of ethnic politics? If they have the fault is not theirs alone. The basic problem—common to historians and their public alike—has been the attribution of sharply opposing, even contradictory, meanings to the same key events. Both have seen history as a zero-sum game, in which opportunities for some came through the sufferings of others, and one group’s loss was another’s gain: 1430—when the Byzantine city fell to Sultan Murad II—was a catastrophe for the Christians but a triumph for the Turks. Nearly five centuries later, the Greek-victory in 1912 reversed the equation. The Jews, having settled there at the invitation of the Ottoman sultans, identified their interests with those of the empire, something the Greeks found hard to forgive.
It follows that the real challenge is not merely to tell the story of this remarkable place as one of cultural and religious co-existence—in the early twenty-first century such long-forgotten stories are eagerly awaited and sought out—but to see the experiences of Christians, Jews and Muslims within the terms of a single encompassing historical narrative. National histories generally have clearly defined heroes and villains, but what would a history look like where these roles were blurred and confused? Can one shape an account of this city’s past which manages to reconcile the continuities in its shape and fabric with the radical discontinuities—the deportations, evictions, forced resettlements and genocide—which it has also experienced? Nearly a century ago, a local historian attempted this: at a rime when Salonica’s ultimate fate was uncertain, the city struck him as a “museum of idioms, of disparate cultures and religions.” Since then what he called its “hybrid spirit” has been severely battered by two world wars and everything they brought with them. I think it is worth trying again.