Thessaloniki Old Jewish Cemetery
The earliest records of Jewish settlement in Thessaloniki, which was to become the largest and most famous Jewish community in Greece, begin around 140 B.C.E. At the end of the Byzantine period, Thessaloniki was home to 500 Jews. At the beginning of the Ottoman period (1453-1821), the Romaniot Jews were exiled to Istanbul, where they formed their own congregation. From the early 16th century, waves of immigration from the west, especially from Spain and Portugal, formed a new Jewish population, primarily Sephardi. The immigrants established separate congregations, synagogues, and institutions that bore the names and rites of their homelands, while the “community” constituted an umbrella organization uniting them all. Between the 16th and 18th centuries., Thessaloniki developed into the largest Jewish community in Greece and a centre of Torah learning. From 1520-25, the Jewish population was 13,225 (of a total population of 24,315). Moshe Almosnino, a revered 16th century rabbi, played a leading role in achieving the community’s autonomy from Turkish authority in 1567. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the community was renowned for its efforts to redeem Jews fallen into captivity as a result of war or sea travel. The messianic movement of Shabbetai Zvi swept up Jews from all walks of life. The Jewish population dropped from 30,000 between 1714 and 1715 to 23,000 in 1788.
Although the Jews suffered damages and losses in a number of epidemics and fires in the first half of the 19th century, the community of Thessaloniki nonethtless grew. In 1828, there were 36 synagogues, a large Jewish school, and a number of smaller schools. Growing modernisation left its imprint on internal Jewish life: a modern education system was established, based on linguistic, scientific, and technical studies. A network of schools run by the Alliance Israelite Universelle (from 1873) also engaged in vocational training; and many newspapers, libraries, clubs, and associations sprang up. The Jewish population reached 40,000-50,000 in 1876-80. In 1903, a Jewish hospital was opened. By 1910, there were some 60 institutes for religious studies. The first Zionist organization in Thessaloniki was established secretly in 1908. A fire in 1917 devastated a significant part of the city, including 34 (out of 37) synagogues and hundreds of Jewish homes, libraries and institutions. Between the World Wars, the Sephardi communities maintained an extensive network of institutions, organisations, and associations in every sphere of public life. On the eve of WWII, 40 active synagogues were there. A total of 48,533 Jews were deported to the death camps. By the end of the war in Thessaloniki remained the great centre of Sephardic Jewry in Europe. After the war, around 400 Jews returned to Thessaloniki. The community was reestablished and became the second largest Jewish community in Greece after Athens.
The exact period of the cemetery’s establishment is unknown, but it can be assumed that it was founded between the 14th and 15th centuries.