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video: Renée Molho – A Bookstore in Six Chapters

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Renee Saltiel and Solon Molho grew up in the greatest Sephardic Jewish community of them all, Salonika, or Thessaloniki, in today’s Greece. 90,000 Jews lived there then; by the time the Germans had rounded up the city’s Jews during the Second World War, almost none were left. Only a handful returned. This is the story of two Jews who did manage to survive, thanks to a Spanish diplomat and some very brave Greek families.

The city of Thessaloniki (also known as Salonica) housed a major Jewish community, mostly of Sephardic origin, until the middle of the Second World War. It is the only known example of a city of this size in the Jewish diaspora that retained a Jewish majority for centuries.

Sephardic Jews immigrated to the city following their expulsion from Spain by Christian rulers under the Alhambra Decree in 1492. This community influenced the Sephardic world both culturally and economically, and the city was nicknamed la madre de Israel (mother of Israel). The community experienced a “golden age” in the 16th century, when they developed a strong culture in the city. Like other groups in the Ottoman Empire, they continued to practice traditional culture during the time when western Europe was undergoing industrialization. In the middle of 19th century, Jewish educators and entrepreneurs came to Thessaloniki from Western Europe to develop schools and industries; they brought contemporary ideas from Europe that changed the culture of the city. With the development of industry, both Jewish and other ethnic populations became industrial workers and developed a large working class, with labor movements contributing to the intellectual mix of the city. After Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire, it made Jews full citizens of the country in the 1920s.

During World War II, the German Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, and started to persecute the Jews as they had in other parts of Europe. In 1943 they forced the Jews in Thessaloniki into a ghetto near the rail lines, and started deporting them to concentration and labor camps, where most of the 60,000 deported died. This resulted in the near-extermination of the community. Only 1200 Jews live in the city today.

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