The port city at the north end of the Aegean Sea, spelled Thessaloniki since Greece seized it from the Ottoman Empire before WWI, would be a fine setting for an Umberto Eco novel or a Dan Brown knock-off of an Eco novel.
Salonika had an appropriately Byzantine social history a century ago. It was the home of both Mustafa Kemal, founder of modern Turkey, and of the Donme, the crypto-Jewish followers of the 17th Century false messiah Sabbetai Zevi, who comprise much of the secular elite of Istanbul today. (In
Salonika is back in the news as the birthplace of new French president Nicolas Sarkozy's beloved maternal grandfather Benedict Mallah, who was the scion of a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family in that remarkable city.
Sarkozy's father, an anti-Communist Hungarian refugee of castle-owning minor aristocratic stock, abandoned his family, so little Sarkozy grew up in the small mansion of his maternal grandfather, who had converted to Catholicism upon marrying a French war widow in 1917 and then became a respected Parisian clap doctor.
"To this day many Mallahs are still active Zionists around the world," says the Australian Jewish News:
Sarkozy’s grandfather, Aron Mallah, nicknamed Beniko, was born in 1890.
Beniko’s uncle Moshe was a well-known Rabbi and a devoted Zionist who, in 1898 published and edited “El Avenir”, the leading paper of the Zionist national movement in
His cousin, Asher, was a Senator in the Greek Senate and in 1912 he helped guarantee the establishment of the Technion – the elite technological university in
In 1919 he was elected as the first President of the Zionist Federation of Greece and he headed the Zionist Council for several years. In the 1930’s he helped Jews flee to
Another of Beniko’s cousins, Peppo Mallah, was a philanthropist for Jewish causes who served in the Greek Parliament, and in 1920 he was offered, but declined, the position of Greece’s Minister of Finance. After the establishment of the State of Israel he became the country’s first diplomatic envoy to Greece.
During the Holocaust, 57 members of the Mallah family were murdered by the Nazis. Sarkozy's grandfather, who had changed his name to Benedict upon his conversion, had to lie low during WWII to keep from being caught by the Nazis in France.
Nicolas was especially close to Benedict, who was like a father to him. In his biography Sarkozy tells he admired his grandfather, and through hours spent of listening to his stories of the Nazi occupation, the “Maquis” (French resistance), De Gaulle and the D-day, Benedict bequeathed to Nicolas his political convictions.
During a visit to Greece in 2006, a visibly moved Sarkozy received a family tree album from a delegation of Thessalonikian Jews, saying "My roots are here."
By the way, each time I've tried to post something about Salonika, my computer acts up and tries to swallow my entry. I blame albino monks.