THESSALONIKI — Among the most thriving Jewish communities in Europe before decimated by the Nazis in World War II, those who lived in Greece's second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki are being remembered in a center also teaching Spanish.
The Sephardic Jews who came to Greece were expelled from Spain 500 years earlier and prospered in Thessaloniki before the Holocaust cost most of them their lives in another of World War II's horrors.
Now, Thessaloniki’s Jewish community signed a deal with the Spanish government’s Instituto Cervantes to create a small center where people will be taught modern Spanish while also learning about Sephardic culture and the exiles’ still-spoken language, Ladino, the British newspaper The Guardian said in a feature.
Many Spanish Jews came to Thessaloniki, which was then part of the Ottoman empire, following their expulsion by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. Some 90 percent of those in Thessaloniki were deported to concentration camps and killed.
There are only about 1,200 left in the city, most of them the descendants of the Iberian exiles, their past nearly being erased with the passage of time that chances places.
“The community here was built by Jews from Spain – places such as Toledo, Granada and Seville,” David Saltiel, President of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki told the newspaper.
“It was a community that spoke, ate and sang Spanish. After the Holocaust, only 1,500 Jews were left, but we’ve always kept that idea of our Spanish past in our hearts and we want to keep our traditions alive,” he said.
Under the deal, the community will provide premises, memories and tradition, while the Instituto Cervantes – which promotes Spanish language and culture – will provide teachers and academic experts on contemporary Spanish and Ladino, which is also known as Judeo-Spanish.
While the project is mainly aimed at children and young people in the Sephardic community, it will open to those of all ages and faiths in the predominantly Greek-Orthodox City that retains a cosmopolitan air.
Cristina Conde de Beroldingen, Director of the Instituto Cervantes in Athens, said the initiative was designed to help preserve Sephardic culture and language, and also to stop Thessaloniki losing a piece of its past.
After the Holocaust, many of those who survived decided to move to Israel, taking their history, language and culture with them. “With that, Thessaloniki as a city also lost a piece of its own memory,” said Conde de Beroldingen.
“But, as the President of the community put it, Spanish is coming back to Thessaloniki after 500 years. We want to recover this legacy for Thessaloniki: there were a lot of newspapers in Judeo-Spanish, so it’s a good time to go digging in the archives.”
There were 50,000 Jews when the Nazis entered the city and conducted a reign of terror, arresting the Jewish leadership, evicting families and confiscating their apartments, and seizing the Jewish hospital for use by the German army.
That's much of what the center wants people to remember despite the difficulty of confronting such a tragic past.
Conde de Beroldingen said Ladino was a reminder of both the exile of the Iberian Jews and of how people spoke Spanish 500 years ago. “I don’t think there’s another community that was expelled from a country but which has managed to keep its identity and its language for so many years,” she said.
Saltiel said the center keeps alive the heritage of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community and its language. “We can’t let this be forgotten; if it’s forgotten, it will die,” he said. “But if we carry on speaking, it will live on.”
“The Greeks can learn about our story because it’s part of Greek history, too,” Saltiel told The Guardian.
“We’ve been here for 530 years, and that’s a long old time. We lost 97% of the community in the Holocaust, but we’re still here and we’re going to carry on and show everyone that this Spanish-Jewish community is alive, is still speaking Spanish, and is going to keep carrying on.”