Devin E. Naar stopped speaking and turned his back on the audience to compose himself.
The author of “Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece” (Stanford University Press, 2016), had just talked about a call he received from an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor from the once-large-and-influential Salonican Jewish community that had been virtually wiped out in the Shoah.
“He told me,” said Naar, his voice breaking, “that he only wished this book had been written 40 years ago so other survivors from Salonica would know they were not forgotten.”
Naar’s book, which won the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Archival Research, highlights an oft-overlooked chapter in Holocaust history: the slaughter of Greece’s ancient Jewish community.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 72,000 Jews lived in Greece before the Nazi takeover in 1943, and 60,000 were murdered during the Shoah, many from the town of Salonica.
The Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, Naar spoke to several hundred people on Oct. 15 at the Douglass College Center of Rutgers University in a program sponsored by the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
At one time, he said, Jews made up nearly half of Salonica’s population of 170,000, he said, and were so woven into its life that its bustling Mediterranean port was closed on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath. At one point it was the largest Sephardi and the largest Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish-speaking community, in the world. It was comprised of descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition.
At the start of the Holocaust, 20 percent of Salonica’s population — about 50,000 of 250,000 — was Jewish; most were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where many perished.
Speaking at Rutgers was something of a homecoming for Naar, who was born in New Brunswick, grew up in Highland Park and Lawrence, and was a graduate of Lawrence High School.
His family’s roots in the community reach back to his great-grandparents, Chacham Benjamin and Rachel Naar, who came to New Brunswick along with many other Salonican Jews around the turn of the last century. Chacham is the Sephardi title used for a distinguished rabbi.
Chacham Naar became the first religious leader of Congregation Etz Ahaim, the state’s oldest Sephardi synagogue, which was founded by Jews from Salonica who came to New Brunswick to work at the Johnson & Johnson and the Michelin factories. The synagogue is now located in Highland Park.
Many were able to “pass” as non-Jews among their co-workers and employers because their names weren’t what Americans thought of as typically Jewish, said Naar.
“They weren’t named Moshe Schwartz, but rather names like Hanalay or Saltiel that didn’t resonate with Americans as being Jewish,” he said. “Some had Spanish names like Soto or Saporta. My first relative who came here was Alberto Naar.”
The ability to blend in led to tensions with the Ashkenazim, who initially looked down on the Salonicans as “Orientals” for whom bagels, gefilte fish, and Yiddish were foreign, said Naar.
Much of the Salonican community moved from New Brunswick to Highland Park in the 1950s and ’60s. A portion of the Elmwood Cemetery in New Brunswick, where Naar’s great-grandparents are buried, is maintained by the Sephardic Brotherhood of America.
Jews have lived in Greece since the time of the Romans, but Salonica’s Jews had a tumultuous transition into Greek society when the largely Muslim Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1912 and their town became part of independent Greece.
“It’s remarkable to think how the end of the Ottoman Empire impacted New Brunswick,” noted Naar. “New Brunswick is actually part of the global story connecting to the Balkans and Middle East,” he said, referring to the Jews who immigrated to Middlesex County after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Growing up in Highland Park and attending Etz Ahaim, Naar heard stories of Salonica, but as years passed he came to realize the city “was not part of the Jewish narrative and Jewish history had been erased from the city itself.”
Naar recalled a conversation he had with a survivor of Auschwitz during a Yom HaShoah commemoration while he was in college at Washington University in St. Louis. The woman, he said, insisted there were no Greek Jews imprisoned there. In fact, it wasn’t until 2003 that Ladino was added to a plaque that listed the languages spoken by those who were murdered in the concentration camp.
In Salonica, the 300,000-grave Jewish cemetery — the largest in Europe — had headstones dating back to the Roman Empire until a devastating fire destroyed the city’s downtown in 1917. As it rebuilt and expanded, the cemetery was moved to the town’s center. City officials coveted the land for development, but it wasn’t until the Nazis came that the grounds were seized and the cemetery desecrated.
“You can find the gravestones in fences in private homes, on walkways, churches, and courtyards,” said Naar. “Initially they were used to line latrines, pave roads, and as dissecting tables in the medical school.”
They were also used as steps at adjacent Aristotle University, which in recent years ripped them up and installed a small monument denoting the sacred ground on which it sits.
Today known as Thessaloniki, the city has about 1,000 Jews out of an overall population of approximately a million people, and it maintains a Jewish community council, museum, old age home, and school.
The Nazis confiscated the local records, but Naar was determined not to let the community known as “the Jerusalem of the Balkans” be forgotten: He trekked the globe finding community archives in French, Ladino, Greek, and Hebrew in Moscow, Israel, and New York, as well as in a storage facility in Salonica, to “remove the shroud of oblivion” and “restore a voice” for Salonica’s Jews.