A haunting memoir of Salonica
EVOKING WITH haunting accuracy the sights, sounds and smells of Salonica around the turn of the 20th century, Leon Sciaky charts the changing fortunes of his extended Jewish family of traders in Farewell to Salonica (Haus Publishing, £16.99), a memoir composed at the end of the Second World War.
The Sciakys were descendants of Sephardic Jews from Spain who spoke Ladino, the Spanish dialect often referred to as “the Yiddish of the Sephardim”.
Jews had lived in Salonica since the time of Alexander the Great. The main burst of immigration followed the expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. The Sultan of Turkey ordered the Salonica authorities to welcome the Jews with kindness and to extend every assistance to them, remarking that Ferdinand of Spain “impoverishes his country to enrich mine”. Some 25,000 Jews came to Salonica from Spain and Portugal. At its peak, the city had a Jewish population of 40,000.
Salonica was the virtual Jewish capital of the Ottoman Empire. For centuries, Jews lived in a cosmopolitan community, alongside Muslims and Christians, in relative harmony. The Muslim presence ended with the triumph of the Greek nationalist movement. Many of the Jews remained until the catastrophe of the Holocaust.
Sciaky’s father Saloman took his family to America in 1915, leaving his beloved grandfather Nono behind.
Sciaky says “most of my friends had already left Salonica, others were preparing to scatter far and wide”. He concludes that, although for a while his family longed to return, “there can be no return to the past”. Nevertheless, his book brings it back to life. JEREMY KUPER