The Cooking Accident that Destroyed a Jewish Greek Community

The inferno that decimated Thessalonica left 70,000 people, including 52,000 Jews, homeless and penniless.

Salonika homeless

A Jewish family left homeless by the fire that was relocated to a temporary tent camp. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The fire started on a Saturday afternoon.

What began with a small spark quickly became a massive inferno that, in just a few hours, managed to destroy a large section of the city. While Thessalonica had suffered fires in the past, local officials did nothing to prepare the residents for the colossal damage this fire would cause.

According to official reports, the cause was completely accidental. A woman was roasting eggplants in her home at 3 Olympiados Street on August 18, 1917, when a spark from the flame caught on the walls of the house and quickly grew to a full-fledged blaze. A small cooking accident quickly evolved into a widespread fire that lasted for 32 hours. Strong winds spread the flames through the cramped and narrow alleyways, igniting the wooden homes that served as kindle for the growing fire that engulfed the Jewish quarter of the second largest metropolis in Greece.

The destroyed Jewish quarter of Thessalonica after the fire of 1917. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The local firefighters did their best to quell the flames but found themselves hindered by a shortage of water. The city had suffered a severe drought the previous summer and the consumption of water had gone up considerably due to the allied forces taking up residence around Thessalonica and its harbor. With no water to come to its defense, the city burned as the fire continued to spread freely from the poor neighborhoods on its fringes, down to the city center, turning building after building to piles of ash.

Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes and hoisery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Salonika. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes, and hosiery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Thessalonica. The name of the store is written on the building in Hebrew lettering. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

On the evening of August 19, 1917, the flames were finally brought under control but the damage had been done. Forty-five percent of the population of Thessalonica (also known by the name Salonika), approximately 70,000 people, were left homeless with nothing left to show for the lives they had built other than the smoking embers of the 9,500 homes that had found themselves in the destructive path of the insatiable blaze.

For the Jews of Thessalonica, the majority population in the city, the devastating rampage of the fire proved catastrophic. Before the fire, the city was considered to be the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” with a rich, thriving and educated melting pot of Jews from different countries and cultures who came together to build a new life. Along with the local post offices, banks and newspaper offices, the local Jewish schools, community centers, the Jewish college, and thirty-two synagogues were completely destroyed along with the entirety of the archives of the community which held records of a centuries-long history of Jewish presence in Thessalonica.

A group of Jews from Salonika left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A group of Jews from Thessalonica left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The 70,000 newly homeless people were forced to find quick solutions to their predicaments. With the help of the Greek, British and French authorities, a portion of the homeless were given temporary housing. Parts of the Jewish community were rehomed in temporary tent encampments which provided little more than a roof over their heads and basic protection from the elements. With over 20,000 still without even temporary shelter, many Jews were forced to emigrate and left their home for Athens, the United States, France and the Land of Israel in the hopes of starting over.

With the destruction of the community archives and registry, the Jewish community had to start from scratch. The Jews who remained in the city following the wave of emigration had to build a new community register in order to properly obtain their civil status and file their claims to receive compensation and their land following the fire.

A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Families and individuals registered their personal information and provided a photograph of each family member for the records. Click to enlarge.

One by one the community members came forward to register themselves and their families and one by one their registration forms were filled out in handwritten Hebrew and Ladino. Each registration was accompanied by small photos of each family member to match the new records that made up the recreated community registry.

Salonika community registry
A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge.

After previous fires in the city the government had allowed for people to simply rebuild, but after the great fire of 1917, the government decided to use this as an opportunity to take the newly conquered territory and build a fully modernized, Hellenized city from the ashes. As part of the planning process, the government revoked the old rights and deeds to the land and the old owners were given an opportunity to bid on their plots of land at auction.  Using this methodology, the government seriously hindered the ability of the Jewish community to reestablish itself.

Despite the government’s best efforts and the rising air of anti-Semitism across the country, the Jews fought against the odds and worked to rebuild what had been lost. The community succeeded in rebuilding several synagogues, hospitals, and community centers, though many of the institutions were moved to the outskirts of the city due to the new building plans. The community also rebuilt a successful Jewish press which had three different newspapers in circulation written in Judeo-Spanish, and in French with a daily distribution rate of 25,000 copies.

A Jewish hospital in Salonika that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
A Jewish hospital in Thessalonica that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish community, once a majority, made up just 40% of the city. When the Germans occupied Thessalonica in the early 1940s they systematically destroyed the Jewish cemetery and more than 50,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka where over 90% of the once thriving community perished at the hands of the Nazis. Following the war, a handful of survivors returned to their homes and tried to once again reestablish the Jewish community.

The Jewish Cemetery of Salonika
The Jewish cemetery of Thessalonica in the early 20th century. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A large portion of the remaining archives of the Jewish community of Thessalonica is now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, a priceless remnant of a nearly lost culture.



The Ten Lost Tribes and the Return of the Jews to England

Menasseh Ben Israel, known as the “Ambassador of the Jews,” managed to convince the English that the readmission of the Jews to England would bring about Redemption.

Jews being burned alive for alleged religious crimes. German woodcut from the end of the 15th century.

In the year 1290, the Jews of England were expelled from the realm by royal decree of King Edward I. Even after there were officially no Jews remaining on English soil, Christian theologians continued to regard Judaism as a moral peril that threatened the peace of the pious English folk.  The Jewish community had betrayed Jesus and was culpable for his death. The generations of Jews born after the death of the Messiah were equally guilty of his murder and still had his blood on their hands. Jewish-Christian relations became even more contentious with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the forced baptism of the Jews who had chosen to remain on the Iberian Peninsula.

During the 16th-century, many New Christians and Jewish converts to Christianity began settling in the British Isles. They developed trade networks to ship all kinds of goods throughout Europe and to the New World. By this time, the attitude towards the Jews had changed somewhat. Many received the New Christians as brothers in all respects, but there were still some who viewed the Christian converts as two-faced shape-shifters, charlatans, and the devil’s henchmen.  This dubious role had, until then, been filled by none other than the Pope in Rome who was viewed by the English as the servant of the devil ever since England broke away from the Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII.

So long as England was ruled by devout Protestant kings, the chances of openly practicing Jews being readmitted to the kingdom was near zero. The relatively small presence of converted Jews was tolerated so long as they did not stand out, to which the bitter demise of Rodrigo Lopez, the real merchant of Venice, stood as proof.

Rodrigo Lopez was tied to a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth I, etching by Friedreich Von Holsen, 1627.

With the execution of King Charles I and the abolishment of the throne in 1649, a rare window of opportunity opened – a historic moment that might have quickly passed had there not been a leader with an iron fist on hand to steer its course. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Young Republic, was determined to be this leader. He was joined on the historical stage by another figure, a Jewish thinker who was known throughout Europe as the “Ambassador of the Jews,” and who helped to promote resolution of the “Jewish Question.”

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, in a painting by Samuel Cooper, 1656.

The Ambassador of the Jews Offers the Jewish People Salvation:

The positive attitude toward the Jews held by the victorious Puritans (who sent the king to his death on 30 January 1649) was an open secret. Their messianic belief had them convinced that the second coming of Jesus would occur only when the conversion of all the Jews in the world was completed. They were less certain of to how to go about making this ideal a reality.

Menasseh Ben Israel in an etching by Rembrandt.

Many found their answers in the short book written in 1650 by Menasseh Ben Israel, a Portuguese Jew whose family had fled to Amsterdam when he was a child. Ben Israel gained prominence in the Netherlands as a rabbi, author and printer. As a consequence of his discussions with the Portuguese journeyman converso Antonio de Montezino, Menasseh Ben Israel became convinced that the native peoples of South America were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. He provided dozens of testimonies and references from sources and travelogues in order to convince his readers. Menasseh dedicated his book to the English parliament – but why set his sights on England?

Since the Jews had already been expelled in 1290, Menasseh Ben Israel called for their readmission to the island nation – a return that would confirm the ancient prophecy that tied Jewish settlement in all corners of the world to the coming of the Messiah. The strange ideas spread by the Ambassador of the Jews rang true for the English. Ben Israel had provided a winning plan for those who believed that the conversion of the lost tribes in South America heralded the conversion of Jews all over the world, a necessary precursor for the second coming of Christ.

When the time came for serious discussion of the question of readmission of the Jews to England, Oliver Cromwell sent Ben Israel an official invitation to visit the new republic.

The discussions commenced in December 1655 in Whitehall Palace. The matter of the readmission of the Jews to England provoked a huge outcry among theologians, merchants, and the rank and file citizenry who opposed the prospect that the hated Jews would return once again to British shores.

Menasseh Ben Israel’s pamphlet “Vindicie Judaeorum (The Hope of Israel),” was devoted entirely to one purpose: the systematic refutation of the various accusations made against the Jewish people. This time, Ben Israel abandoned his messianic plea for a more legal-philosophical essay.

Hebrew version of Vindicie Judaeorum, by Menasseh Ben Israel, published in Vienna in 1813.


A page from “The Hope of Israel”, by Menasseh Ben Israel, published in London in 1650. From the Valmadonna Trust Collection at the National Library. Click to enlarge.

With the festive conclusion of the meeting at Whitehall, it was decreed that there would no longer be an official law prohibiting settlement of Jews in England. While the government did not necessarily welcome the return of the Jews as many had hoped at the start of the discussions, the door was opened at last for their gradual return. This policy was maintained and later intensified with the reinstatement of the monarchy in England in 1660.

The Great 1932 Victory of Bulgarian Jewry Over Anti-Semitism

In 1930s Europe, as evil parties were gaining traction in Bulgaria, the Jews managed - in one famous case - a victory of justice over hatred.

בוריס מלך בולגריה באחת מפגישותיו הרבות עם היטלר, נובמבר 1940

Hitler’s rise to power and the turbulent events that led to World War II have overshadowed some of the dramatic events that were of the utmost preoccupation for the Jewish world only a short time prior.  One such event which attracted the attention of Jews all over the world was a showcase trial held in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, in the summer of 1932. A rare collection of documentation of this fascinating case is kept in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

A page from the trial protocols. Click to enlarge.

Although Bulgaria and the rest of the Balkans are not generally identified as countries infected with anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews, there were, in fact, anti-Semitic organizations that gained political power and public sympathy in the time between the two World Wars. One of them was the “Rodina Zaschita” (“Homeland Defense”), which operated under the guise of a patriotic-nationalist movement. The organization spread anti-Semitic propaganda and called for harming Jews, the purported “enemies” of the Bulgarian homeland.

The emblem of “Rodina Zaschita” (“Homeland Defense”)

The wild incitement that was dispensed by the organization was embraced by the public. Impressionable young Bulgarians began to aggressively implement Rodina Zaschita’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and, by the end of 1931, attacks on innocent Jews merely walking the streets of the capital had begun. The attacks were often violent and accompanied by robbery. Much of the violence was organized by a young mechanic, born in one of Bulgaria’s provincial towns, Demeter Kalpakchiev.

In 1928, the unemployed Kalpakchiev arrived in the capital in search of work. He experienced difficulties integrating into the workplace and before long, he approached Rodina Zaschcita and rose to become one of its main activists. The attacks on Jews which began in an unorganized manner became the planned activity of a gang of criminals.

Demeter Kalpakchiev

The Sofia police’s lack of preventative action against the violence encouraged Kalpakchiev to broaden his activity. He planned kidnappings of affluent Jews for the purposes of collecting ransom against their safe return. Three victims were kidnapped, including the banker Reuven Alkalai, who was also robbed. The severity and daring nature of these acts continued to increase, culminating in an attempt to kidnap the head of the Jewish community. The attempt was botched as the Rodina Zaschita operative accidentally kidnapped his Bulgarian neighbor. This initiated a large-scale manhunt for the entire gang by the Bulgarian police. Eventually, all its members were captured, including the leader, Demeter Kalpakchiev.


Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe: 

The police and prosecution acted quickly and efficiently. Shortly after he was apprehended, Kalpakchiev was put on trial. Opening statements were delivered on the 25th of May, 1932 in the Sofia District Court. Chaim Kachels, the historian of Bulgarian Jewry, describes the events of that dramatic day.

“On that day, the streets of Sofia were filled with people who had come out on behalf of the leader of the anti-Semitic organization, in his defense, and to prop him up as a national hero. The District Attorney’s office received threatening letters.”

An antisemitic caricature on the cover of one of the booklets published by members of the nationalist party in Bulgaria at the time.

The Bulgarian authorities, who saw the atmosphere as growing ever more incendiary, feared riots and wanted to bring the trial to a quick conclusion. The Kalpakchiev trial was over in exactly one month, ending on June 25, 1932. During the trial, however, larger issues found their way to the forefront. The best lawyers from the Jewish community and the Bulgarian community leaders in Sofia became heavily involved in the trial. Kalpakchiev and his band were almost forgotten in his own trial as the case became centered on the larger phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the entirety of Bulgaria.

The Jewish community organized a long list of expert witnesses on behalf of the prosecution who testified enthusiastically in favor of the Jews’ loyalty to the Bulgarian homeland. The claims of the anti-Semites in Bulgaria were refuted one after the other as historians, economists, retired senior officers of the Bulgarian army and other personalities proved the decisive contribution of the Jews to the development of the Bulgarian nation. The trial spread well beyond the courtroom walls as mass rallies in solidarity with Bulgarian Jewry were held throughout the world, including one in Israel by the Bulgarian-Eretz Israel Fellowship Association.

Demeter Kalpakchev’s conviction was inevitable. Shortly after the end of the trial, the defendant was given a detailed and lengthy ruling signed by three judges, including the President of the Sofia District Court. In the verdict, the defendant was convicted on all charges but was only sentenced to 15 years in prison. Kalpakchiev’s lawyers rushed an appeal to the Supreme Court but the ruling handed down by the judges of the highest court only served to reinforce the original sentence.

Up to the time of his release in 1940, Kalpakchiev bombarded prison authorities and the Bulgarian legal authorities with letters of complaint, proclamations and venomous anti-Semitic “poems” that also reached his circle of friends outside the prison. Although some of them were printed, they received little attention. Eventually, law enforcement banned the distribution of his material entirely.

The first page of the verdict. Click to enlarge.

The Kalpakchiev trial, perhaps the most exciting affair in the history of the battle against anti-Semitism between the two World Wars, ended with a shaky victory. Counselor Davidov, one of the Jewish lawyers who participated in this trial, visited Israel in the summer of 1933. Recognizing the importance of the Jewish National and University Library as a repository for collective Jewish history, he donated the documentation he had accumulated during the trial to the archives.

The detailed protocols (almost 2,000 printed pages), the verdict, and the appeal are all kept today in the Archives Department at the National Library- a souvenir of an event from different times, and perhaps a reminder that the story of humanity is one of unfortunate repetition.

Jerusalem’s First Tourist Map

Where did one go to watch a movie in British-Mandate era Jerusalem? Where could you catch a bus? And what were the popular hot spots? Presenting the map that resurrects pre-state Jerusalem...

Not many maps are capable of visually resurrecting a city. The task is even more challenging when that city is Jerusalem, and not only that but Jerusalem as it appeared eighty-eight years ago. Rare are the maps that show us not only a schematic of a street grid, but also depict buildings, cultural and recreational institutions, as well as government structures, in a detailed and aesthetic fashion. Maps that place a picture of life in Jerusalem as it once was before our eyes. Such are the hand drawn Jerusalem maps of Spyro Spiridon.

But who was Spiridon?

Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav has traced the course of Spiridon’s life: He was born in Jerusalem in 1894 and, in his later years, served a President of the Greek Orthodox Society in the city. In his twenties, Spiridion studied electrical engineering and civil engineering in Switzerland. During his time there, he was exposed to a new style of modern tourist map that was becoming popular in the country. When he returned to Jerusalem, Spiridon struggled to make a living in his field and decided to focus on something entirely different – he set out to create a map that would express the urban space of Jerusalem in three dimensions.

His map was published in the 1930s. The very first tourist map of Jerusalem, it was originally printed by the Greek Orthodox Church and, later, by the Goldberg Press.

Below are some stellar examples from Spiridon’s map. Please feel free to click on any of the images to enlarge.

Spiridon’s tourist map from the 1930s. Click the map to enlarge.


The “Horva” and “Tiferet Yisrael” synagogues:


Spiridon designed a detailed key which marked the religious affiliations of various buildings in the city:


Neighborhoods that once existed are reconstructed before our very eyes – here are the houses of the Yemenite neighborhood Ezrat Nidahim in Silwan, accompanied of course, by a Star of David symbol:


Here is Djort al-Enab, once a neighborhood of Mizrahi Jews just outside the walls of the Old City, near the present-day location of the artists’ quarter of Hutzot Hayotzer:


The Amireh neighborhood on the outskirts of Rehavia:


Some of the buildings are depicted in impressive detail – Hansen House, once a Leper hospital, is today a cultural center and museum:


The clock tower, which stood until 1934 near the present-day Jerusalem City Hall compound and St. Louis French Hospital:


The luxurious Palace Hotel (today the Waldorf Astoria Hotel stands in its place) opposite the Mamilla Pool, next to the US Consulate:


The Lemel School opposite the Edison Cinema, referred to here as the Opera House:


In the 1945 edition of the map, we see that drawings of buildings continue to occupy a central role. It is interesting to note that the map is east-oriented, an unusual orientation for maps of Jerusalem:

Spiridon’s tourist map from 1945. Click the map to enlarge.


Most of the inscriptions on the 1945 map are in English, except for a few instances where a community-adapted caption was utilized – a small inscription in Russian in the area of the Russian Compound, a few Arabic inscriptions in the Old City and in the eastern parts of the city, Greek inscriptions in the Greek Colony and three Hebrew inscriptions – the Meah Shearim neighborhood, Ben Mimon Street and the Zichron Moshe neighborhood which houses the Edison Cinema Building:


Here we can see the Alliance school, where the Clal Building stands today:


In the center of the city you can see the Egged central bus station, where the “Jaffa Center” light rail station is located today. You can also see the Zion, Eden and Orion Cinemas. Also depicted are the famous cafés of the time – Café Vienna and Café Europe:


Not only do the cinemas in the center of the city center receive special attention, the Regent Cinema in the German Colony also has its place on the map (known today as Smadar Cinema):


In the Talbieh neighborhood there is a drawing of a leper house known as Moravian Home, and we can also spot the consulates of Turkey, Iran, Spain and Greece:


The consulates of Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia were located west of the Greek colony in the Katamon neighborhood:


In south Jerusalem, the map extends as far as the Dead Sea and includes the potash factory on its northern shore, King Herod’s desert palace of Herodium, and Government House, the seat of the British High Commissioner which serves today as UN headquarters:


The Hebrew University compound on Mount Scopus features a drawing of Beit Wolfson, home of the National and University Library at the time:


The Citadel and police headquarters in the Old City:


The map shows the names of streets as they were known during the British Mandate:

Julian Road = Kind David Street

Queen Mary = Queen Shlomziyon Street

Mamilla Street = Agron Street, Yitshak Kariv Street

Saint Paulos Street = Shabtai Yisrael Street

Saint Louis Street = Shlomo HaMelekh Street

Geoffrey Mavoyon Street = HaAyin Het Street

Sultan Suleiman = HaTsanhanim Street

Chancellor Street = Strauss Street


Perhaps due to the Greek origin of the author of the map, the area of the Greek Colony is very detailed:

The Greek Club = next to Avner Street

Beit Safafa Road= Emek Rafaim Street

Greek Colony Road = Rachel Imenu Street

Efthimios Road = Yehoshua Bin Nun Street


Information about Spiridon’s life and work is attributed to the work of Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav.