GREEK-JEWISH WOMEN ARE the bearers and transmitters of a rich but nearly vanished culture. Jews have lived in Greece continuously since antiquity, with Greek Jewish culture reaching its apogee after 1492. when thousands of Jews who had been expelled from Spain found refuge there at the invitation of the Turkish sultan. Today, though, the Jewish presence in Greece is mostly a memory. Of the approximately 80,000 Jews living in Greece in 1942, fewer than 10,000 survived the Holocaust, and now the entire Greek- Jewish population numbers only about 5,000, mostly in Athens.
But 1.000 Jews still live in Salonika, Greece’s second largest city and once the largest Sephardic community in the world. Here the Spanish Jews recreated Sefarad after the 1492 Expulsion and spoke their Castilian tongue, producing a vast rabbinic literature. The men, that is, but not the women, who—like many of their sisters—were kept illiterate, married off as children and confined to their homes. But despite these significant limitations, women are now the ones sustaining the vestiges of Greek Jewish culture.
By keeping alive language, customs and cookery, generations of women were actually the upholders of Sephardic tradition—not the patriarchal rabbis with their volumes of responsa written in scholarly Hebrew. The women spoke to each other and to their children the medieval Castilian Spanish infused with Hebrew and Turkish, the delicious Judezmo. In this language of everyday life they transmitted stories, proverbs, songs—and, of course, recipes—in their kitchens and in the hamam, the Turkish bathhouses, where they performed the rites of mikvah. These women passed along such unique ceremonial dishes as assure, served on Tu b’Shevat: a mixture of boiled wheat, raisins, and pomegranate seeds, dating from ancient Greece, when it was offered to placate the gods. And haroset for Pesach from the island of Zakynthos; to invoke the bitterness of slavery this dish includes vinegar and, literally, ground brick.
In Salonika today, some highly educated women struggle to infuse these memories into a Greek culture that, tragically, tries hard to forget them. Or worse. In April, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Salonika was defaced with red paint, with which the vandals also wrote the word “Palestinians” on the pavement below. Meanwhile, in Athens, leftist students were demonstrating in front of the Israeli embassy, sporting t-shirts with the words “Fuck Israel” displayed across their chests. Current events in the Middle East have given rise to overt expressions of the anti- Semitism in Greece that is always simmering below the surface.
“I AM SPANISH,” says Renee Molho (nee Saltiel) proudly, a tiny, sparrow-like woman of 82 with an aristocratic bearing. She remembers, she says, her grandmother wearing the distinctive costume of Saionikan Jewish women, which included the kofya, a head covering that supposedly originated in Spain, and the kapitana, a fur-lined jacket. Renee is the matriarch of the Molho family, whose bookstore on Tzimiski Street, packed with Greek and foreign books and newspapers, has been an institution in Salonika for 113 years. Renee still goes every morning to the store, which is now run by her son losif Here, she sits behind a desk piled high with books and catalogues in a multitude of languages, thumbing carefully through the pages, deciding what to order for her beloved bibliopoleion.
Renee Molho and I are sitting around the corner of the store at one of the many cafes in Aristotle Square, Salonika’s nerve-center, filled with the endlessly-socializing Greeks taking their evening outing. She is telling me that during the war, she and her family, like some other Salonika Jews, fled to Athens, at the time under Italian administration and far more protective of Greek Jews than German-occupied Salonika. The Germans had seized the family bookstore within three days of their invasion of Salonika in 1941. Solomon Molho, whom Renee had met before the war and would later marry, escaped to the island of Skopelos, where he and his sister were hidden by Greek-Christian friends. But the rest of his family died in Treblinka. Renee escaped from Athens to Israel, where she spent the remainder of the war years, and where she received a letter from Solomon in Skopelos, asking her to marry him.
She smiles at the memory. “So after the war we returned to Salonika. Et nous avons recommence notre vie.” She switches back and forth between her excellent English and French, which, once upon a time, all educated Salonika Jews learned at the Alliance Israelite, one of 183 such Jewish schools based on the French system established in the Balkans and Middle East in the nineteenth century. She and Solomon married in 1946. Her husband died in 1997.
In 1944, Solomon had managed to reclaim the family bookstore, now stripped bare and debt-ridden. But little by little, she said, the two of them rebuilt their business. “We were always the most important bookstore,” Renee says proudly. “After the war, all the elite gathered chez nous.” Molho’s became the de facto information center for Salonika’s news-hungry population during this tumultuous time, when a bitter civil war raged in Greece. For a time the British used Molho’s as their consular office.
But what did it feel like to build a life again from the ground up, to raise your children in a Salonika without Jews, a place that the survivors called “Ghost-city”?
Renee pauses. Of course, she says, it was difficult. Because I have a memory of how it was, when “everybody was Jewish.”
After the war, and for years after, she says, nobody talked about those terrible times. “We only began to talk because we realized we’d better before we die.”
Salonika is, always will be her home, says Renee.
“I have never felt for one minute,” she says, “that the city is not mine.”
HER BUSINESS CARD READS: Dr. Rena Molho. Historian. She is married to Mair Molho, one of the three children of Renee and Solomon; the couple have two grown children. Rena Molho studied history at Hebrew University, then in Greece at the University of Thessaloniki, finally in Strasbourg, France, where she received her Ph.D. in 1997. The book that she published based on her thesis—The Jews of Thessaloniki, 1856-1919—received an award from the Greek Academy. And while she doesn’t hold an official university position, Rena has made it her life’s work, through numerous articles, lectures, and conferences, mostly in Europe and occasionally in the U.S. as well, to make certain that the world does not forget that Salonika was once Jewish. At present she commutes every week to Athens, where for the third consecutive year she is teaching a weekly seminar at Panteios University on the history of Greek Jews. Last year, she says, her course rated first among 50, with 115 students.
Only once, she says, was she invited to lecture at a university seminar in Salonika. But it is in Salonika itself, says this tiny, dark-eyed woman of 55, where her work is most needed.
“My challenge is my city,” she says. Its once-dominant Jewish presence, she says, is “the terrible secret.” Schoolchildren are taught the history of Thessaloniki without any mention of the Jews, and the university history department has yet to establish a chair for Jewish studies, despite promises made at academic conferences in the presence of European and Israeli colleagues. Rena does not hesitate to publicly challenge such de facto anti-Semitism, both in print and on local television talk shows. Her scholarly research often leads her to facts that few dare to acknowledge: for example, she tells me that during the occupation, about 20 per cent of the Greek population of Salonika collaborated with the Nazis.
Her willingness to speak so bluntly has earned her enemies. Interestingly, she contrasts the discomfort that Salonika feels about Greek Jews with Athens, where her weekly seminar is filled to capacity. “Athens,” she says, “is a different country.” An essay that she contributed to a book published in France about the history of Jewish Salonika earned her insults in Stochos, a Greek fascist newspaper, which accused her of falsifying history by claiming that Salonika was once a Jewish city. Swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti were then spray-painted onto the Molho bookstore. A professor once remarked to her: “Come to terms with it, Rena. Salonika is not Jewish any more.” Another, who was her advisor for her masters degree, in an auditorium full of academics after she had just publicly presented her thesis, told the crowd that he did not agree with her “Zionist perspective.”
“I am not diplomatic,” Rena says, which fact is, for her, clearly a matter of pride. Nor, she points out, does her manner go over well within Salonika’s official Jewish community, who keep a low profile in a country that is 98 per cent Orthodox Christian. In 1992, for example, when the Jewish community invited Greek leaders and media to celebrate with them the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish expulsion, she objected to what she described as their slavishness.
“The Jews were kissing the hands of the Greeks,” she says angrily. “The Jewish community objects to me because I refuse to compromise my integrity.” Anything to do with the fact that you are a woman? I ask her.
She says not. Rather, she says, “They are intimidated by what I say.” She says that she identifies as a feminist. Her take, however, is decidedly not an American one. For example, she says she is uncomfortable with women as rabbis, a status they have not achieved in Greece.
“Not that I have an objection. But it’s not an issue to me. Maybe it would be, if I lived in the States.” In contrast, she says. women have the privilege of bringing up the children.
“I’m a feminist,” Rena says, “when I go out on my own, unescorted. Or because I have a career, and I tell my son how to prepare breakfast. Otherwise, I tell him, no girl will marry you.”
HER OFFICIAL JOB TITLE IS “executive secretary,” but by all rights should be “director.” Erika Perahia, 51, a sociologist who studied in Israel and France, where she raised her now-adult children, runs Salonika’s new Jewish museum, which opened in May 2001.
Erika met her husband, who was born in Algeria, when she was a student in Israel. The couple moved to France in 1975. Her husband died in his early 30s, in 1980, leaving her with two young children. Erika returned to Salonika in 1999 after 21 years in France, where her children remain.
Erika is writing her Ph.D. thesis about the Jewish museum, and why it is needed now. But her original topic, which she later dropped, was about the 2000 or so Salonika Jews who survived World War II. There were two distinct groups, she says, those who returned from Auschwitz, and those who hid and fought with the Greek resistance. That was, by her own admission, a difficult subject, in which she had a tremendous emotional investment: Erika, like much of her generation of Salonika Jews, is the child of concentration camp survivors.
“My parents met during liberation at Auschwitz,” she says matter-of-factly, sitting behind her desk at the Jewish Museum. They returned to Salonika and stayed, unlike most of the other camp survivors, who soon left for Israel and elsewhere because they could not stand living in a Salonika without Jews. One of the reasons her parents remained, Erika says, is that of her mother’s family, four of the five siblings had, incredibly, survived Auschwitz. Erika and her sister, who lives in Tel Aviv, had what their Jewish friends did not: an extended family.
Her generation of Greek-Jewish children, she says, grew up very protected by the small, tight-knit Salonika community, their lives filled with Jewish youth groups and summer camps and study in Israel. In the outside world, their parents kept a low profile, so low that Greeks born in Salonika after the war did not know that there were any Jews living in their city. But in the last eight years, says Erika, the community has opened itself up, sponsoring lectures and commemorations to which they invited outsiders.
And finally, the city has a Jewish museum.
Like all children of survivors, Erika’s generation suffered.
“I don’t remember my parents ever telling me fairy tales. Instead, they told stories about the concentration camps,” Erika says. “I was traumatized. By age 8, I refused to listen to them any more.”
But now, she says, she has come to terms with her parents’ past. Still, the Jewish population of Salonika is shrinking. “Young people leave, to study or work abroad. And they do not return. Those who do are special.”
Like herself “I feel a responsibility to transmit this culture. Other children of survivors feel as I do. It took us 40-plus years to assimilate all that our parents suffered. Now we try to do something with our knowledge. For example, this museum.”
Does she feel at home in Salonika? “Absolutely. If I have roots at all, they are here. I am a diaspora—galut—Jew, and I like it. I don’t belong in Israel. In Salonika, I am the transmitter of this diaspora culture.”
“I FEEL EMOTIONALLY VERY CLOSE TO JEWS,” says Valia Kiavva, 30, who describes herself as “a Greek citizen, a Thessalonikan, an Orthodox Christian and a religious person, and at the same time a sympathizer of minority groups.” When she was a child, her grandmother used to tell her stories about Jewish friends whom she had before the war. Always, says Valia, the stories ended quite abruptly with the comment: “They all went to the concentration camp.” But when Valia plied her grandmother with more questions about the Jews, her grandmother, not wanting to frighten the child with the truth, only said, “Ah, some day, you’ll find out.”
And she did. After studying at the University of Thessaloniki, where, she says, she heard hardly any mention of the Jews, Valia pursued graduate studies in anthropology at the University of London. The title of her Ph.D. thesis? “Tell Me What You Eat and I’ll Tell You If You Are Jewish: Food and Discourses of Belonging among Thessalonikan Jews.”
“I wanted to write about food,” Valia says, “and I needed to choose one group. I began to read about the Jews, and I instantly remembered my grandmother’s stories.” Valia returned to her native city, where she interviewed elderly Jews, who shared with her their memories of pre-War Thessaloniki, along with recipes like assure.
Her friends, she says, think that she is obsessed with her topic. “I can see it in their eyes. ‘Why?’ they are thinking. ‘Why are you interested in them?” And then this beautiful young woman smiles.
“I feel Jewish, in a sense,” she says. “By writing about the Jews of Thessaloniki, I feel that I’m doing justice to one part of myself.”