A Question of Survival for Jewish Youth in Greece

Thessaloniki, Greece

By: John Kazaklis

It has been one year and I find myself sitting across the table again from the elegant and poised Erika Perahia in Greece’s second city. After several days of travel delays and being stranded in Istanbul, Perahia was finally able to meet with me at her office at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. My trip from the previous year captured a more educational overview of the current status of the community, culture, and language. And now I was in search of a more personal look into the daily life of a member of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

What did life look like for a Jewish family in Thessaloniki? How did a family navigate education and community connection while their community remained at a population of less than 1,000 in a city of over a million? Perahia introduced me to Lucy Nachmia, a colleague at the museum, an active member of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, and a mother of three. I took the opportunity to ask her about what it was like to raise children in an ever-changing, modern Greek culture which happens to be one of the most anti-Semitic on the European continent.

 Erika Perahia - Director of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki

Erika Perahia - Director of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki

 Lucy Nachmia

Lucy Nachmia

Kazaklis: What does education look like for a Jewish youth in Thessaloniki?
Nachmia: There is one Jewish school in Thessaloniki, a privately supported one, that serves children up to 6th grade. The school teaches both in Hebrew and Greek. Students then transition to the Greek public school system. Most students are either Jewish or of Jewish and Greek descent.

Kazaklis: Is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) taught at the Jewish school?
Nachmia: No, Ladino is not taught in the Jewish school. My parents and grandparents spoke Ladino and it was not passed down to my generation as a result of World War II.

Kazaklis: Is it typical for Jewish students in Thessaloniki to go to university in Greece or Israel? 
Nachmia: Once they graduate from secondary school, our students either go to university within Greece, Israel, or other countries within the EU.

Kazaklis: Are there ways for the Jewish youth of Thessaloniki to connect or build community?
Nachmia: Our main community center, Kabalah-Shabbat, has a special community for young children. My teenage son is a leader in the youth council of the community.

Kazaklis: Is the Jewish community of Thessaloniki growing or do you see it getting smaller? 
Nachmia: The community is getting smaller because there aren’t too many marriages within the Jewish community. Mixed marriages are growing and sometimes our youth stay within the faith or leave the faith.

Perahia explained to me that mixed marriages are becoming more common in Greece because Greek marriage laws have changed to accommodate civil unions. This means that couples in Greece are not forced to solely marry through the Orthodox Church.

“Civil unions provide a way out for mixed couples. And now the Jewish school accepts mixed Jewish kids, which did not happen before,” explained Perahia. 

In retrospect, legalizing civil unions have actually brought longevity to the Jewish community of Thessaloniki by allowing jewry to survive and bypass antiquated Greek marriage laws. My interest on seeking information regarding Jewish youth of Thessaloniki was sparked because of the predicament that I see this community facing. How long will this endangered community be able to survive? And in many other like contexts, the future of a community is found in its youth.

Thessaloniki was once home to the largest Sephardic Jewish community in the world with a population of around 70,000 in the early 20th Century. The Spanish Inquisition and the Alhambra Decree forced many Sephardic Jews to leave the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th Century with many settling in Thessaloniki at the invitation of the Ottoman Empire. Due to World War II and the Holocaust, almost all of the city’s Jews perished, with only about 1,000 remaining today.

The current population of Greece born after World War II only knows a homogenous Greece. Prior to World War II and even as far back as the 1920s, Greece was, like her Balkan neighbors, an Ottoman-induced melting pot. The early years of the modern Greek state contained a population comprised of ethnic Greeks (both Orthodox and Muslim), ethnic Slavs (both Orthodox and Muslim), ethnic Turks (Muslim), and Jews (Sephardic and Romaniote). Sephardic Jewish communities were concentrated in Thessaloniki and in surrounding regions of Northern Greece. In other words, prior to World War II, the Sephardic Jewish community was one of the big fish in the fish tank called Thessaloniki.

Fast forward through the Treaty of Lausanne and World War II and Greece was transformed into a homogenous Greek Orthodox nation. Jews who survived the Holocaust returned to their homes, or what remained of their homes, and had to build their lives from scratch. They no longer had a significant presence in Thessaloniki.

Even though the Holocaust nearly destroyed the community, the beast they face today is the modern world as they fight to keep their small community of approximately 1,000 alive in a city of over 1 million Greeks. All odds were against them then and almost seventy years later, those odds still remain today.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION: PERAHIA & NACHMIA

Both Perahia and Nachmia come from families of Holocaust survivors that belong to the historic Sephardic community of Thessaloniki. Nachmia’s grandparents survived the Holocaust by hiding in the Pelion Mountain region near Volos during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Her mother was originally from Kilkis and both her grandparents and parents spoke Ladino.


Go here to read the story published in early 2017 focusing on the current status of the community, culture, and language of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki.