Macedonian Ramble: Leon Sciaky’s Farewell to Salonica

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A monument on the waterfront in Thessaloniki to the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust of World War II. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the ninth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

Walking from the Holocaust monument to the railway station to continue my journey to Istanbul, I decided (when back home) to hunt around for a book about Thessaloniki’s vanished Jewish quarter.

It took me several months of searching—on Amazon and elsewhere—but at The Strand bookstore in New York City I finally came across a book with the title Farewell to Salonica: City at the Crossroads by Leon Sciaky.

I had been looking for books about life in Thessaloniki in the Judaica section and had found nothing, but then this book, with its distinctive jacket, caught my eye on a shelf about classical Greece.

The cover shows the old port in Salonica and has the subtitle: “A world of Sephardic Jews, Greek Orthodox, and Turkish Muslims in the early 1900s.” The book was first published in 1946, but this copy was a reprint edition by Paul Dry Books of Philadelphia that was released in 2003.

I didn’t know anything about Leon Sciaky, but I liked the quote at the top of the jacket, which read: “A jewel of a memory.” On the back, there were these words from a review in the New York Herald Tribune: “The author has made Salonica a living town, peopled by men and women of flesh and blood, people with all the human faults and weaknesses, but also with lovable qualities that may be found in humanity everywhere by the man with skill to pick them out.” He writes about Salonica in roughly 1894-1915, the period that I had tried to decipher on the museum maps and as I walked in the rain to the railway station.

In the preface to the memoir, the publisher sets the stage, writing:

Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Bulgarian, French, Spanish, and Hebrew were all spoken regularly in the city’s busy streets and quays, with these last two languages holding a clue to one aspect of Salonica’s—and Sciaky’s—unusual history. In 1890, roughly half of the city’s one hundred thousand inhabitants were Jewish, many of them merchants and bankers to the city’s robust overland and overseas trade. Descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, from Italy in 1493, and from Portugal in 1497, the Jews of Salonica spoke a fifteenth-century Spanish dialect known as Ladino….Today, fewer than twelve hundred Jews live in Thessaloniki.

Sciaky was born to a prosperous Salonica family in 1894. He father and his grandfather were merchants and prominent in the Macedonian and Jewish communities, and his parents sent Leon to a local French school. As a result, later in his life, he was able to adapt to life in other cultures (he traveled in Spain) and eventually settled in the United States.

Leon’s extended Salonica family was warm and nurturing, and he especially loved his visits to the neighborhood houses of his grandparents. He writes of his grandmother’s garden, where he often played after school:

As I look back upon this period of my childhood, it appears more like a picture than a series of events. It springs up in its entirety as if it had always been. It comes back with a disconcerting lack of chronological sequence, an immovable landscape over which the eye can sweep, or dwell on this detail and that. Here and there incidents, which I recall with particular clarity, form salients and reliefs. The garden, as a fertile maya [a Greek goddess associated with spring] from which had sprung that early dream world of mine, is at the focus of this picture, and with it the figure of my Nono, endowing all with breath and life, and radiating warmth and tenderness.

As a schoolboy, Leon senses some of the tensions that come with growing up in the fractured worlds of Judaism, Macedonia, and Salonica, but these are distant rumblings, nothing immediate to threaten the secure world of his childhood. He writes:

It was an age-old struggle, this. For Macedonia knew the word “freedom” before the people of the West had learned to lisp it. From the time of the Roman domination to this day, the savage spirit of independence which burned in the breasts of its tillers of the soil had taken poorly to a yoke, and had repeatedly rebelled against any master. Its people, Bulgarians, Greeks, Vlachs, Albanians, Turks, separated by mountains, hemmed in their valleys, had remained distinct and aloof from one another. Each group had clung to their language, their customs, their traditions, and their national consciousness.

At the turn-of-the-twentieth century, Macedonia was Turkish (“The Turks never made an effort to assimilate the non-Moslems, neither did they attempt to impose upon them their own Koranic laws…”), although the Ottoman Empire was coming apart, following its 1877 defeat to the Russians and the encroachments of other great powers. But power politics meant little to a boy growing up in the embrace of a large family and his own overlapping cultures.

Leon writes: “The Jew, the Greek, the Bulgarian, the Turk, each lived in himself. They were as so many strangers, with as many distinct attitudes and ideas, with as many ways of life.” Then he adds: “The Jewish population in Turkey was concentrated in the cities, with Salonica ranking first as a preponderantly Jewish capital. Jews had resided in the land since the dawn of history, tradition having a colony in Thessaly at the time of Alexander the Great.”

If anything, from his school lessons he most identifies with France, a country where he has never been. (He writes: “As the months went by and the Chronicles of Villehardouin and Froissart lent color and vividness to our study of French history, as our reading and our teachers brought ever closer to us the thought of the West, our identification with France became the greater, since we, the non-Moslems of Turkey, were intellectual waifs, unclaimed and uncared for by our country of birth.”)

From the composition of his class (“three French boys, one Greek, four Spanish Jews, a Serb, a Mamin, an Armenian, a Turk, and a Montenegrin boy who had come from Cetinje expressly to join us…”), Leon is aware that nationality and place can be transitory and he begins to appreciate, if not fear, that Salonica is perched on one of the world’s political fault lines (as it is today).

The foreboding of doom first creeps into his consciousness when the so-called Young Turks (a group of military officers) revolt in 1908 (Leon was 14), speaking of freedom for oppressed minorities throughout the Ottoman Empire. But it is the Balkan Wars (1912-13) that turn upside down the cloistered world of Sciaky’s Jewish quarter in Salonica. First Greece is at war with Turkey, and then Bulgaria attacks Greece, with much of the fighting taking place near Salonica.

Leon writes of the peace that ended these latest wars: “The Balkan coalition which had been the hope of the people, the war which was to be the liberation of the oppressed, had ended with the Treaty of Bucharest, that treaty of August 1913, which for the first time partitioned Macedonia and sowed the seeds of further hatreds and cruelty.”

No sooner is that war over than a new one (World War I) begins in 1914 with nearly every European power sending soldiers to fight in Macedonia. At one time or another during the next four years, Austrian, German, French, British, Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian soldiers would be engaged on the front lines north of Salonica.

Little by little the Sciaky family leaves for America. For a while they talk of returning when the wars are over, but of the 1920s Leon writes:

No longer did we speak of returning. What was there to return to? Salonica, our Salonica, the city of crowded streets lined with noisy cafes and bazaars, the city of crooked little streets winding their way up to the slumbering squares shaded by venerable sycamores, where Grandfather and I sat over coffee on our Saturday-afternoon walks, the city of old whitewashed houses whose latticed windows silently surveyed the passerby, that city of our childhood was no more.

Like many American immigrants, Sciaky never quite adjusted to life in the new world. He married, raised a family, worked at various jobs—often as a teacher and camp counsellor—but things, for whatever reason, remained at times a little off.

Living outside New York City, Leon loved boating and hiking, and eventually he and his wife Frances settled on a routine of teaching in winter and running a camp in summers, a pattern that appealed to Leon’s love of the outdoors and the rigorous school lessons he had learned so well (in French) as a child of Macedonia. But those worlds, for a myriad of reasons, came crashing to a halt in 1941, and he was left without a job or a purpose in life. It was then that he began writing his memoir. In the afterword to the book his son Peter writes:

An unexpected bright spot was the success of Leon’s article about Eddyville. The Rondout and Its Canal was published in the New York State Historical Association’s Quarterly. After that, Leon started writing about his youth. Thus, it was during those dismal months of 1942 that Farewell to Salonica was conceived. They [Leon and his wife] worked on it each day. Leon would write in longhand on those familiar yellow tablets; Frances would read; they would discuss, edit, and make changes. Frances would then type the manuscript. They worked until the last pages were written, on the Maya [their boat] in the fall of 1943. Through this writing, I think, they regained their self-esteem, so badly damaged by the upheaval at Hessian Hills [this refers to an American school where Leon had worked].

After the Second World War, Leon became involved in another summer camp, located in upstate New York, and it was a success well into the 1950s. He and his wife began spending their winters in Mexico, which appealed to their free spirits. And it was in Mexico that Leon died in 1958, at age 64, of kidney failure, the result of earlier bouts of malaria.

From my reading of the memoir, I sense Leon never did return to Salonica, except in his imagination. But those dreams remained vivid, enabling him to write forty years later of his grandfather’s business: “To this office came daily visitors as heterogeneous and as polyglot as Macedonia itself: Turkish beys, Albanians from the region of Monastir and Skopje, Hellenizing Kutzo-Vlachs from Seres, Bulgarians from Kilkish, Greeks from Drama, and Spanish Jews from the city.”

In other ways Leon never left Salonika. He writes: “Awakened from my dreams with a start, I would remember the familiar voice of our old neighborhood; the magic of Alico’s reed flute, now grave and somber like his dour Albanian mountains, now joyous and laughing like the brooks in his green valleys.”

Sadly, without Sciaky’s memoirs, Thessaloniki—especially in a winter rain—has the look and feel of a modern Greek city, in which traffic jams and nondescript waterfront buildings have whitewashed the past.

Next: The refugee train to the Bulgarian border. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.