Greece: Greek Independence in 1832 to 1949 Departure

Greek Independence to Salonica becoming Greek (1832 to 1912)

Greece became an independent nation-state in 1832, but in Salonica where the bulk of the Varsanos lived, it would remain under Ottoman control for another 80 years. In 1896, the modern Olympics were revived in Athens but the very next year the Greco-Turkish War occurred. Known as “The Shame of ‘97,” the Greeks declared war on Ottoman Empire but lost the Greeks lost badly. The Greeks only win was autonomy for Crete.

As with much of world history, the Christian Greek leader blamed war loss on the Jews. The Jews of Salonica, for the most part, were pro-Ottoman and disloyal to the Greek royalty. After many years of enjoying the relative tolerance of Moslem rulers and unmatched prosperity, they were suspect of the Nationalist Greek Christians. Jews in Greece in other parts of Greece, however, were more pro-Greek. Zionism in other parts of Greece would later became more popular than in Salonica where Ottoman rule was popular and the Jewish community was semi-autonomous.

Greek historian Rena Molho in her book The Jews of Salonica 1856-1919: A Unique Community writes that in 1897  Salonica is larger than Athens and has the largest Jewish population in the world in terms of percentage of the population. In Salonika from 1897-1923, Jews were a plurality of the population. The Sephardim controlled ports and important businesses. While Jews in other parts of Greece were a small minority and much poorer than Salonica Jews. Despite their initial pro-Greek leanings, those Jews were subject to more antisemitism.

The Jews of Salonica in the early 1900s thought it was inevitable that Greeks or Bulgarians would take over Salonica eventually. They were considered a Jewish Millet which was a legally protected religious minority. By 1900, the Jews of the Balkans had a relatively large population but no national ideology. Zionism in Salonica was considered more cultural than political and not an alternative to Ottomansim. HaMevasser (Harbinger) was a Jewish Nationalist and very much pro-Zionism. However, many elements of the Jewish Press were anti-Zionist. such as the Ladino publications El Tiempo and La Epoca, as well as the French publication Journal de Salonique. Ottomans still ruled Palestine at the time so they were staunchly anti-Zionist.

By 1911, the Greek ”liberation” of Macedonia was a more pressing concern than Zionism for Ottoman Jews who pledged loyalty to Ottoman authority. Since the 16th Century, the Jews regarded Salonica as a form of Zion, a promised land of refuge, the Jerusalem of the Balkans. The real Jerusalem was an underdeveloped Ottoman outpost mostly populated by Muslim Arabs. For hundreds of years, Salonica provided a much better quality of life than Jerusalem for the Jews.

Formed in France in 1860, the Alliance Israelite Universelle provided education to in Salonica and other areas of the Balkans. These schools created a new generation of semi-secularized, Francophile youth. The young Jewish students in Salonica aspired to the West and consequently started dressing differently than their parents. They mingled with non-Jewish neighbors. The cafes and theaters on Salonica’s shoreside promenade were teeming with the semi-Europeanized Jewish bourgeoisie. As the embraced modernity and new ideas, they turned away from old traditions. By 1908,  Zionism started to grow more popular in Salonica driven, in part, by these Alliance Israelite Universelle-educated young people. The Young Turk movement demanded reforms and the Jewish community became more vocal about fighting for self-determination. They started to be more combative with the antisemitic Greek Press. Only a few years after the first modern Olympics, the Jewish Maccabees Athletic Club was founded in December 1908. “Salonica is neither Greek, nor Bulgarian, nor Turkish; she is Jewish,” proclaimed David Florentin, a journalist and the vice president of the Maccabi club of Salonica, amidst the Balkan Wars (1912–1913). Strength and pride in the Jewish community were on the ascent in many aspects of life. However, unity and power would be needed because political change was coming that would be bad news for the Jews.

Eleutherios Venizelos was a Greek leader who led a revolt in Crete. His Liberal Party called Komma ton Filobrethem would go on to a 20 year rule in Greece. The party sought Greek unity with a major goal of the “liberation” of Macedonia. Part of this unity strategy was to protect Greeks outside of Greece, especially ones under Ottoman rule. They would actively attempt to Hellenize territories in Greece with a large minority population such as Jews.

In 1912, the 1st Balkan War resulted in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro surprisingly defeating the Ottomans. The Greeks took control of Salonica which Bulgarians had wanted. Bulgarian and Greek Orthodox Churches were rivals and the Greeks won this round of conflict. Greek Nationalism had triumphed as the Greek Orthodox Christians had essentially conquered the Ottoman Muslims. The Greek Christians were not only concerned with the Muslims though. From 1912 to 1918 the Greeks started eliminating Jewish autonomy and power that they had enjoyed under the Ottomans. In Salonica, the population was about half Sephardic Jews and the other half consisted of Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Donme (Jewish Muslim Converts), Armenians, Slavs, and Roma. The Greeks wanted homogeneity and Christian rule in the multicultural center of Salonica.  In a city where old Spanish (Ladino), Greek, Turkish, Italian, Bulgarian, Serb, Romanian, and French were spoken among the multi-lingual populace, imposing Greek Nationalism seemed unnatural and oppressive.

In December 1912, the Salonica Jews wanted the internationalization of the city or Bulgarian rule or free Macedonia rule instead of Greek rule. Other Jews rejected the idea for fear of hurting Zionism. The Jewish community of Salonica was effectively split into two factions – assimilation and Zionism.

Greek Control of Salonica to WWII (1913-1939)

On August 10, 1913, in the Treaty of Bucharest Salonica officially became part of Greece. In Greek, the city is called Thessaloniki. The Greeks said they would have goodwill towards Jews despite the Jewish support of Turks. Germany, Spain, and Austria offer Jews citizenship and “protections.” Over the next 10 years, there would be more change in Salonica than the previous centuries combined. The golden age of the Sephardim in Salonica would steadily erode. The Greeks wouldn’t hire Jews in the ports of Salonica, so Zionist Jews hired Salonican Jews to work the ports of Jaffa in Ottoman Syria (Palestine) and later British Palestine. The Jewish workers replaced the Arab stevedores (dockworkers). In time, the Jewish port of Tel Aviv started to eclipse the Arab port of Jaffa.

In the Great Fire of 1917, most of Salonica was burned which left more than 50,000 Jews homeless. The fire destroyed 30 synagogues and 11 schools, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle. The heart and soul of the Jewish community in Salonica was ripped apart. Various groups and organizations tried to rebuild, but many were forced to live elsewhere. The majority of the displaced Jews, many of whom were educated at the Alliance, moved to Paris, France. The French migration started in 1921 and continued steadily continued while other Greek-ethnic groups displaced the Jews of Salonica.

King Constantine I sided with Germany and Bulgaria during World War I. However, the political leader Venizelos was in favor of intervening and sided with the Allies during WWI. The Greek people were divided.


Adapted from Wikipedia:

The sociologist Edgar Morin said that the core of every culture is its cuisine and that this applies especially to the Jews of Salonica, the community from which he descends.

The cuisine of the Jews of the city was a variant of the Judeo-Spanish cuisine mixed with Italian, Greek, and Turkish influences. The Jewish dietary rules of kashrut require kosher preparation of all foods.  Fish was abundant in this port city, which was prepared fried, baked (“al orno“), marinated or braised (“abafado“), and was often accompanied by complex sauces. Seen as a symbol of fertility, fish was used in a marriage rite called dia del peche (“day of fish”) on the last day of wedding ceremonies, in which the bride stepped over a large dish of fish that was then consumed by the guests. Vegetables accompanied all the dishes, especially onions; garlic was on hand but was not used, since the Ashkenazic synagogues were major consumers of garlic and had been given the nickname “El kal del ajo,” “the garlic synagogue.” Greek yogurt, widely consumed in the Balkans and Anatolia was also highly appreciated, as well as cream and Pan di Spagna.

In anticipation of Shabbat, hamin was prepared. Hamin was a meat stew with vegetables (wheat, chickpeas, white beans) that were let simmer until the Saturday midday meal. In preparation for Passover, housewives filled locked chests with sweets, figs, and dates stuffed with almonds, marzipan, and the popular chape blanche (white jam), which consisted of sugar water and lemon. Wine was reserved for religious rituals, but Sephardim, like their Greek and Muslim neighbors, were major consumers of raki. They also favored sugary drinks made of prune, cherry and apricot syrup, which they drank at the end of the large festive meal.

Kosher Sephardic Restaurant

While there is also the availability of non-kosher food, the real attraction here us kosher Sephardic food. Opened less than a year ago inside a restaurant that has been along the port got years, Regina Frezis Varsano is a gracious host, always smiling and knowledgable. We ordered off the kosher menu sand had fava (traditional dip) and salmon cooked with a black pepper crust that was superb. We also shared a moussaka, with a non dairy topping making it possible to enjoy this traditional dish usually not eaten by observant Jews because of the mixing of dairy and meat. Topped off by a chocolate sorbet, sitting outside on the balcony enjoying the warm summer Sslonika evening. I definitely plan to return.


La Liberté⁩⁩, 26 May 1916 – In the week preceding the Israelite feast of Passover, one could read, in the French newspapers of Salonika, this notice “- to the officers and soldiers allies” – “The Chief Rabbi of Salonika has the honor to invite all the Israelite officers and soldiers of the Franco-English armies located in Macedonia to kindly attend the Seder service as well as the dinner which will be organized in their honor during the first two evenings and the first two days of Passover. The premises of the Chief Rabbinate were The premises of the Chief Rabbinate being too small to contain all the guests, the rooms of the Varsano Restaurant, rented for this purpose by the Israelite community, will also be reserved for some of the guests… In 1928, Ovadia Varsano was a small private Jewish School in Salonica with 32 students. During WWII, Saby (Sampetai) Varsano was one of 876 Jews in the Greek resistance to the Nazi occupation.


Newly added to the Jewish Salonica Postcard Collection, this card depicts a crowd of men in front of a narrow two-store building in Salonica
(Thessaloniki), Greece, around 1917. The picture was taken by French photographer Henri Manuel (1874–1947), who served as the official
photographer of the French government from 1914 to 1944. The building was located on Salonica’s Promenade and stood adjacent to the
Jewish Nouveau Club — an organization established after 1908 by dissidents of another Jewish club, the Club des Intimes (founded originally in 1873 as the
Cercle des Intimes, Salonica’s first modern Jewish club). The captions on the back of the card point out, in Italian, French, and English,
that the building housed a bakery (and that no women were seen among the men standing in front of it!). Indeed, that bakery was the modern Electrically
Powered Bakery, located on the ground floor of the building — as indicated by the red and white sign, in Greek, above the entrance.

Above the sign in Greek, there is a Ladino (Jewish-Spanish) sign in Hebrew script with the words משה ארסאנו’ב ריסטוראן) Resṭoran Varsano Mosheh). That
was the kosher restaurant Varsano and Mosse, located on the first floor of the building. The kosher restaurant and its Ladino sign testify not only to the ubiquitous presence of the Jewish community in Salonica at that time, but also to the imprint Sephardic Jews left on the linguistic landscape of the famous Balkan town. In fact, several historical postcards from Salonica depicted establishments that displayed Ladino signs.

Inscribed in French, the card is apparently dated May 23, 1918. It was purchased for the University of Michigan Library Special Collections Research
Center with funds from Bruce and Ileane Thal.

Alexander, Tamar , Gila Hadar, and Shalom Sabar, “El oio ve, la alma desea:
Jewish Postcards from Salonika”, in Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 27
(2011), 183-229″ (in Hebrew) — see specifically page 197.
Costis Copsidas, The Jews of Thessaloniki through the postcards, 1886-
1917. Thessalonikē: K. Kopsidas, 1992.
Megas, Yannis. Souvenir: Images of the Jewish Community: Salonika 1897-
1917. Athenas, 1993 — see specifically page 96.
Uziel, Yosef, “Moadonim (klubim) ve-agudot le-sugehem [Types of clubs and
associations]”, in Saloniki: ir va-em be-Yisrael = Salonique: Ville-Mère en
Israël. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1967, 127-130. (in Hebrew

From University of Michigan Blog Post named “Varsano and Mosse restaurant in Salonica, photographed
by Henry Manuel in 1917”
Author(s): Gabriel Mordoch
NOVEMBER 3, 2022

Jewish Entrepreneurship in Salonica, 1912-1940, An Ethnic Economy in Transition
By Orly C. Meron, published in 2011 by Sussex Academic Press

During Greece’s national consolidation period


  1. Cohen & Varsano – referred to as a Fashion Studio (Atelier de Moda) in Cartas lacradas: 1850 – 1917 by Dora Openheim
  2. Raphael Jakob Varsano & Co.
  3. Salvator J. Varsano
  4. Varsano Albert
  5. Varsano Jacques
  6. Varsano Nahoum Fils

Greek Holocaust Survivors and Victims

 Jacques Varsano was the manager of Mercantil del Pacífico, S. A., from March 1 to October 5, 1952 purchases and sales of canned meats, including canned corned beef in 12-ounce tins