"Before the holocaust, they called us 'the mother of Israel.' We were one of the three largest Jewish communities in the world . . . Today," Jewish community president David Benveniste shook his head sadly, "perhaps we are the last generation. After us, no one can be sure."
Benveniste, now a prosperous 57-year-old merchant, escaped to the mountains of Grammos and Vitsi and joined the partisians during the Nazi occupation of 1940-44. When he left Salonika it was the wealthy international capital of the Sephardic Judaism, with a population of 52,000 Jews.
When he returned, he found a city devastated: 50 synagogues, 10 Jewish hospitals and 6 schools destroyed. Ninety-six per cent of the Jewish community had perished in Auschwitz. The majority who survived the German occupation emigrated to Athens. Israel or the United States.
Today, the 1200 Jews of Salonika with a history dating from the 4th century B.C., are struggling to maintain their identity.
"The destruction was so great during the war," said Benveniste, "that customs, traditions and religious practices gave way to the simple wish to survive. And, for those who survived, the older generation, their memories are so painful that they don't want to be reminded of what things were before . . . And the young people, as youth around the world, are rebelling against the traditions. They want a less conservative life."
"After the war, the Jewis of Australia became religious fanatics. Here they became secular," said Joseph Molho, 28, whose family owns Salonica's oldest, most prestigious bookshop.
"And there is a great deal of controversy over who and what was most responsible for the holocaust . . . The Jews of Salonika had never assimiliated. They didn't speak the language, share the religion or life style of the Greeks . . .Therefore, they were easily detectable, as opposed to the Jews of Athens who, due to circumstances, had been forced to assimilate."
"Today, this realization, plus the memories of whatt Salonika had been has brought the Jews into a sense of retreat. There's a psychological hangover," explained Mohol, the youngest member of the Jewish Assembly, the community's legislative arm. "Our parents say, 'Why should we give our children a Jewish education? We had one, and look what happened to us."
Today there is a viable community structure - a synagogue and rabbi, a community center and cemetery, but no rabbinical schools. A new old-age home has just been completed, with the hopes of bring to Salonika all those now scattered in the tiny hamlets of Greece.
The community continues as an autonomous unit, with independence to administer its own affairs, from taxation and property ownership, to welfare projects, and rabbinical and educational affairs.
An economic renaissance has placed the Jews of Salonika in the solid up-per-middle class. They control immense real estate holdings. One community estimate puts the value of Jewish businesses confiscated by the Nazis - for which full compensation was paid - as high as $80 million in 1945.
In spite of wealth and prominence in the commercial-industrial fields, the haunting memories of the occupation, and the adjustments of being a minority in a city which once was their's, have bred what one community member described as a "ghetto mentality in the upper-middle class."
"Traditionally," said Mohol, who recently returned from studying sociology in the United States, "Jews were in the vanguard of politics. We produced some of the leading scientists, intellectuals and progressive thinkers of Greece. Now we have no one involved in politics. The mentality is 'we'd never be elected'. But why not try? It's the holocaust psyschology of being inferior . . . It's up to our generation to resurrect Judaism . . . To day 'I'm a Jew' with understanding and pride."
With the exception of those like Benveniste and Mohol, the task of rebuilding has been largely assumed by those now middle-aged - old enough to have been part of pre-war Sephardic traditions, but young enough to have been smuggled out of the capital and not subjected to Salonika's pain.
"There is so much we can do", said Rosie Saltiel, 41. "We must build a library, a museum, set up archives. Everything, but everything, the Germans destroyed. We just preserve 'Ladino' - the dialect of medieval Spain - which we have spoken since the 15th Century, when 20,000 Spanish Jews fled the Inquisition and arrived in Greece . . . I once spoke only Ladino with my mother. But it's being forgotten today."
"Certainly there is a problem with the young people," she continued. "They're going to Israel to study and may remain. Here, there's a great problem with marriage. There is no civil service so, in any intermarriage, one must convert. And we're now such a small community. How and I tell my daughter. "Choose between the three of four eligible Jewish boys?"
"And," added her husband, Nico, "It's almost impossible for a Jew to enter the government or administration. We have only one professor at the university here. For our generation, we're businessmen, it didn't matter. But for the young people, out of university, this will be a problem if they're not given the choice".
Other sources confrimed a subtle, new prejudice that has developed over the years. According to community records, no Jew has been accepted as an officer in the armed forces, with the exception of a few veterinarians, since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Greece remains one of two Western European countries that have not recognized Israel.
"It's sad and ironic", a member of the community said, "that Greece suffered damage out of proportion from the Nazis for protecting its Jews . . . It shower courage, no prejudice during the occupation. Then, with the establishment of Israel, a prejudice began to grow."