By Vicky Fouka and Elias Dinas
Thessaloniki, or Salonica, is a Greek seaport in the Northern Aegean. Nowadays second in population to the capital of Athens, it has historically been one of the largest and most vibrant cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, and a key trading center of the Ottoman Empire. For centuries, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Jews, the city’s major religious groups, co-existed in relative harmony, each managing their affairs independently, under the Empire’s policy of autonomy for religious minorities.
Sephardic Jews had found their way to Salonica and other big cities of the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. By the time of Süleyman the Magnificent they made up more than half of the city’s population. Not only were they the largest religious group in Salonica, but they turned the city into the biggest Jewish center of the world, giving it the nickname la madre de Israel. In an Ottoman city where even the post office would close during the Sabbath, Jews resided – until the major fire of 1917 – in the city center and were represented across all social strata. They spoke Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, a language that combines Old Spanish with Ottoman Turkish and Hebrew vocabulary. Under the auspices of the Ottoman empire, the Sephardic community managed to thrive economically, while retaining its identity as a self-ruled religious millet.
This identity was put under pressure in the period just before WWI, following the loss of the Empire’s Balkan territories and the annexation of Salonica by the Greek state. Greece was quick to implement an array of policies aiming at reducing religious and linguistic diversity in its newly acquired territories, and Salonica’s Sephardic Jews soon found that their religion and language were obstacles to full membership in the Greek nation. Their status in the city suffered an even bigger blow in 1923, when the compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and the newfound state of Turkey brought about 100 thousand Christian refugees from Asia Minor to Salonica, converting the Jews into an ethnoreligious minority. In the years that followed, Christian refugees and Jewish long-time residents competed for housing and jobs, but also for finding favor with the state, which, particularly under prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, undermined the Jewish community’s political and economic power with acts such as a ban on Sunday trading and a separate Jewish-only electoral college. Inter-communal tensions and surging anti-Semitism culminated in the 1931 Campbell pogrom, when 2000 Asia Minor refugees led by members of the right-wing nationalist organization “National Union Greece” attacked and violently displaced 500 Jewish families.
Group survival strategies
How do minority ethnoreligious groups in multiethnic societies respond to threats to their economic and social status? A number of possible strategies are available as responses to collective threat, ranging from full assimilation to outright conflict. One way to conceptualize the menu of alternatives for the case of Salonica’s Jews is in the terms of Hirschman’s triptych of exit, voice and loyalty. Jews could leave the city, making their way to France or the United States, where more cosmopolitan environments would pose a less significant threat to their group survival. They could exhibit loyalty to the consolidating Greek state and hope to maintain religious and cultural distinction by conceding that their children’s education would take place in the Greek language. Or they could double down on protecting and strengthening their group identity, potentially joining the global Zionist movement that had long focused on Salonica as “Turkey’s Jerusalem.”
Decisions like these are made at the group level, through collective choice mechanisms or under the guidance of elites, but also at the individual level by each member of the community. In her recent post, Volha discussed the incentives underlying parents’ decisions to transmit their identities to their children, and how their natural desire to preserve culture and religion may conflict with hostile environments. Particularly for minority parents, as per the seminal framework of Alberto Bisin and Thierry Verdier, increased investment in cultural transmission may be the only way to withstand assimilation by exposure to majority culture. At the same time, no parent wants to endow their children with identities that will make them a target of persecution.
So how did Salonica’s Jews respond to minoritization and the rising threat of nationalism? To study one aspect of these responses, as part of a broader project with Giorgos Antoniou from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, we turned to first name choices among Jewish parents living in Salonica in the first half of the 20th century. First names are one dimension of parent to child identity transmission – not the only, or even the most important one, but one that is possible to observe and systematically quantify in historical data. Names tend to correlate with other measures of cultural assimilation, like intermarriages or language fluency, as shown by the work of Ran Abramitzky, Leah Boustan and Katherine Eriksson on immigrants in the US. This makes them a reasonable measure of identity. At the same time, their observability means they serve a signaling purpose. It is possible that sometimes a group publicly endorses one identity while secretly adopting another – as in Greif and Tadelis’s crypto-morality paradigm, which explains how religious minorities have survived for centuries under persecution. Names capture the public dimension of a group’s survival strategies.
Data from the birth registry of Salonica’s Jewish community archive reveals a steady drop in Hebrew names given to children born between 1923 and 1943, the year that marks the community’s destruction and deportation to extermination camps by the Nazi forces that occupied Salonica. Sharper trend breaks can be observed around key dates, like that of the Campbell pogrom. The development could be interpreted as a sign of assimilation. In work examining minority persecution in a different setting – anti-Germanism in the US during WWI – Fouka (2019) finds substantive name assimilation triggered by societal harassment. Saavedra (2018) finds similar responses among Japanese-Americans born in the midst of the heightened anti-Japanese sentiment that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hiding distinctive identities and signaling assimilation is an obvious choice for minorities facing exclusionary or assimilationist pressures by majorities.
Yet, in this case, Hebrew names do not appear to be substituted by Greek names, the obvious choice for a community wanting to demonstrate assimilation. Instead, we see an increase in Ladino first names, or Ladino versions of traditional biblical names, like Moiz as an alternative to the Hebrew Moshe. Part of the broader trend can be explained by long-term secularization of the community, particularly after the great fire of 1917 which burnt down a large part of its religious infrastructure and undermined its religious conscience. Yet shorter term responses to external shocks like Campbell may suggest a different story.
Zionism, though not without supporters in the community, advanced a supranational politicized religious identity, which heightened conflicts with the Greek state and increased the salience of the community’s position as an ethnoreligious minority within an actively homogenizing nation-state. The Greek state, on the other hand, particularly during Venizelos’s reign, had set particularly high barriers to entry for Jews, by consistently displaying suspicion against them as a group of perpetual outsiders who defied integration. To these opposing forces, each of which threatened the community’s survival in its own way, community members re-asserted a different kind of group belonging, one that was more local in nature. Ladino names represented the unique identity of the Jews of Salonica, as built around their Spanish historical heritage, their language and their 500-year history as a constitutive element of the city.
The case study illuminates the rich identity repertoires of minority ethnoreligious groups in response to threats to their status and survival. Groups may reject binary decisions like the one between assimilation and conflict, instead creating new identities or re-invigorating old ones.
 As referred to by Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky during his visit to the city in 1909. Devin E. Naar. 2016. Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece. Stanford University Press.
 See Joseph Nehama. 2000. History of Thessaloniki Israelites. Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, p. 1592 (in Greek); Leon Saltiel, ed., Do Not Forget Me: Three Jewish Mothers Write to Their Sons from the Thessaloniki Ghetto (New York: Berghahn Books, 2021), xiiii.
 Mark Mazower. 2005. Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950. Harper Perennial.
One thought on “Moshe, Moiz, Moisis: Survival strategies of ethnoreligious minorities”