In 1492 Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand issued the Alhambra Decree expelling the Jews from Spain. About 150,000 left their historic homeland.
Where did these banished Jews go? Where are their descendants? My recent month-long sojourn in Europe provided an understanding of the fate of some of these “Sephardim” (“Sepharad” is Hebrew for “Spain”).
My husband and I and 22 others participated in “The Sephardic Balkans,” a 12-day bus tour focusing on the Jewish history of Bulgaria, Macedonia, and northern Greece organized and led by Bulgarian-born University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Joseph Benatov.
We then flew to Rome and boarded a ship for a 12-day cruise of the Adriatic Sea with 10 ports of call, many with Jewish stories to explore. Our trip ended with three days in Venice, where in 1516 the first segregated Jewish area to be officially called a “ghetto” was established.
The main concept we learned was that Beyezid II, the sultan of Turkey, extended a welcoming hand to the expelled Sephardim, inviting them to settle in his Ottoman Empire. Recognizing the Jews’ potential and knowing about their aptitude for commerce, he ridiculed the Spanish monarchs by saying: “You venture to call King Ferdinand a wise ruler? He who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine?” As a result, many Sephardim settled in Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece.
Another important fact we learned was that the Sephardim who began arriving in the 1500s were not the first Jews to dwell in these countries. They were preceded by the Romaniote Jews who had arrived from the Middle East over a millennium earlier, during the Roman Empire. We saw archeological excavations showing menorahs carved into stone on the island of Malta and in Split, Croatia, that bore witness to the presence of Jews in the area during ancient times. The Sephardim who arrived in the 1500s eventually blended in with existing Romaniote Jewish communities. Over time there were also small influxes of Ashkenazim.
Not all the areas we visited had been a part of the Ottoman Empire. Some, along the Adriatic, had been independent city-states, like Dubrovnik, Croatia. Others, like Split, were for years part of the Venetian Empire, a wealthy Italian-speaking independent city-state that existed for more than 1,000 years until the 1860s, when Italy was consolidated into one country.
Jews lived peacefully for hundreds of years in towns on the Adriatic coast and in the Balkans. They were involved in trades and commerce, and some were physicians. They retained their Jewish culture, continuing to speak Ladino, a mix of Spanish and Hebrew, while living alongside their Christian and Muslim neighbors.
In Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece, Jews were a majority of the population at the onset of World War II. The city’s rich Jewish culture earned it the nicknames “La Madre de Israel” (“Mother of Israel”) and “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” The Jewish influence was so powerful that on the Sabbath, commerce in town would stop for everyone, Jewish or not.
The amazing chronicle of Jewish life in Thessaloniki came to a tragic end when the Nazis took over the entire region and sent all its Jews, 50,000 from Thessaloniki alone, to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps. Only 1,800 from that city survived. In every place we visited on our trip — from the smallest island to the largest city — very few escaped death at the hands of the Nazis.
Most survivors emigrated; few returned to their towns to rebuild. We visited Thessaloniki’s Holocaust museum and restored Monastir synagogue, built in 1927 and one of 30 that once existed in the city, and the monument at the site of the 450-year-old Jewish cemetery, which, with 350,000 graves, had been one of the largest in Europe. It was destroyed by the Greeks with the approval of the Nazis in 1942, and a university was built on the land. In other towns we saw memorials to Jews who perished in the war; Skopje, Macedonia, has an impressive new museum dedicated to that country’s 7,500 Jewish victims.
Bulgaria offers the only exception to this grim Holocaust story — all its 48,000 Jews were saved through the intervention of several “righteous gentiles.” A high Bulgarian official, Dimitar Peshev, was contacted by politicians and friends from his home town of Kyustendil appealing to him to prevent the ordered deportation of Jews from that region. Understanding the impending tragedy, Peshev worked tirelessly to convince every government official, including King Boris III and two Eastern Orthodox priests, to join his cause and save Bulgaria’s Jews. The deportation order was rescinded, and all the country’s Jews survived; most moved to Israel.
So much can be said about the beautiful houses of worship we saw, each one lovingly maintained through many centuries and surviving wars, fires, earthquakes, political changes. The breathtaking synagogue in Sofia, Bulgaria, the largest Sephardic synagogue in southern Europe, was erected in 1909 in the Moorish style. We also saw Bulgaria’s other synagogue, in Plovdiv, built in 1878; the synagogue on the Greek island of Corfu; in Croatia, the 15th-century synagogue in Dubrovnik and the 16th-century synagogue in Split; and three synagogues in the Venice Ghetto.
The main challenges facing most of the Jewish communities we visited are secularization, intermarriage, and a shrinking Jewish base. There is also a shortage of rabbinic leadership, since the communities are all so small and lacking in funds. Three of the cities — Thessaloniki, Sofia, and Venice — do have Chabad houses as well as kosher restaurants.
Our month-long journey allowed us to indulge our passion for Jewish history. At home, we satisfy that interest through our involvement with the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold, whose recently installed permanent exhibit begins with the story of the first Jews to settle in Monmouth County in the 1700s. They were also Sephardim, originally from Spain, who like their forebears underwent the same experiences of expulsion and resettlement.
The Jews we met all proudly identify with their people and are happy to host tourists and convey their astounding multi-centuries stories of survival.