Upon visiting the Jewish museum of Thessaloniki, one will receive a four page leaflet with copious notes on each of the exhibition's acquisitions. Notes though, cannot possibly capture the profound impact that the palpable artifacts, which line each side of a narrow hallway, will have on visitors that come from around the world, in order to capture an intimate look into the Sephardim of Thessaloniki prior to, and during WWII.
The museum has stated that its “purpose is to collect evidence and heirlooms not destroyed in the Holocaust, to preserve the memory of the victims and to research the over thirty-year presence of the Jews in Thessaloniki”. In a building that has been owned by Thessaloniki’s Jewish community since 1904, and which has housed both the Bank of Athens and the headquarters of the newspaper, “L’Independent”, the community engaged in a considerable construction project to create a perfect space for the museum gallery . The building, originally designed by Italian architect, Vitaliano Poselli , was transformed primarily through funds gifted by the “Cultural Capital of Europe Organization Thessaloniki 1997”, although donors from the community were also great aids, and in recognizing this, the museum has given thanks by inscribing their names on the entrance of the site for each visitor to see . Museum visitors can find the site on Vasileos Herakleiou Street, a once bustling commercial thoroughfare .
The museum space has been split into two levels , and each of these levels' permanent displays were planned by Nicholas Stavroulakis, who, with the help of his Islamic Art and Architecture studies, co-founded the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens . This experience allowed him to be an exceptional consultant for the museum in Thessaloniki.
The first floor of the site is specifically devoted to the representation of the old Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki. This cemetery, located just beyond the eastern city wall, harbored approximately 50,000 tombs, a vast majority of which originating from the early years of the Ottoman Empire; the sheer size of this cemetery was due to the fact that the Jewish community constituted the majority group in Thessaloniki prior to WWII . The year 1942 saw the expropriation and complete demolition of the cemetery, leaving the area to be utilized for a Nazi swimming pool . In memory of the Jewish community members that were stripped of the opportunity to collect the remains of their loved ones, the museum displays both tombstones from the necropolis, as well as photographs of the cemetery's visitors prior to the war .
The second floor explores both Jewish life in Thessaloniki prior to the start of WWII, as well as the effects of the Holocaust on the city's Jewish community . Some historians believe that the port city has served as a home to Jews since 315 BCE, or the consolidation of the city itself, but a sizeable Jewish migration to Thessaloniki, and thus a notable community was not formed until 1492, the year in which the Sephardic community of Spain was expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella . As the Jews left their homeland with heavy hearts, they settled in new lands, such as Portugal, or Navarre, only to quickly re-experience the familiar ultimatum: to convert or to leave. The Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire served as a final, somewhat stable point of settlement. Sultan Bayazid II is remembered for his statement, “You call Ferdinand a wise king, he who impoverishes his country and enriches our own”, and thus his recognition of the worth of the Sephardim . Approximately 20,000 Sephardic Jews fled to a relatively vacant Thessaloniki; it seems as though, following the conquest of the city by the Turks in the 1430's, the original population of the city never garnered its original numbers. This Jewish majority wasted no time in transforming the city into an exemplary commercial hub, which came to a halt each Sabbath. More than thirty synagogues were proudly erected around the city, as well as a traditional Talmudic school . The museum celebrates this history largely through donations from Thessaloniki Jews and their ancestors, now residing around the world; rooms have been devoted to painting an in depth image of the mundane dealings of these Jews, from their economic endeavors, to their schooling (religious and secular), through utilizing artifacts originating from both the Ottoman period, and the period following 1923, or the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire .
There were of course, major moments of trauma for the community, such as the 1917 fire that devastated the city (fortunately leaving the future site of the museum untouched), and left over 50,000 Jews homeless; many of these Jews decided to migrate to the Land of Israel, instead of rebuilding their lives in Thessaloniki. This though, may have been a blessing in disguise as, only a couple of decades later, unspeakable evils were bestowed upon the community. In 1941, the city was invaded by the Axis powers, which immediately placed endless, demoralizing limitations on the Jewish community; Jews were forbade from areas in the city such as cafes, and could not pursue a list of professions, including those in medicine and law. The severity of the situation only escalated until 1943, when the community was forced to attach yellow Stars of David to their clothing. Very shortly after, the trains running between Thessaloniki and Auschwitz or Birkenau began; these trains would deliver ninety-six percent of the community members to their deaths . The museum has chosen to remember the lost community members by engraving each of their names on marble slabs for the museum visitors to read and remember . Though confronting the horrors of our history is never pleasant, the museum is crafting, not only a space to demonize the atrocious events in order to engrave them into humanity's collective conscience, but also a space to memorialize, and more than anything, celebrate the life and spirit that the Jewish community lent to Thessaloniki.
To make the sites information and resources available to as many individuals as possible, the museum has recently embarked on the project of adding all of its acquisitions to an electronic database .