H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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from the messes they pass through. And as everybody
knows, every good General has a nickname by which
his troops know him. Unhappy the General who is only
known by his proper rank and titles. Napoleon had
his nickname. And our General was called " Uncle
George." Perhaps he knew it, and perhaps he didn't,
but there can be no doubt that it was a very good name
to have.



" The Coveted City."

Sai.onica is a city with a very long street and a very
long history. But the history is far the longer of the
two, and runs back right through all the ages of civil-
ization as we know them, to a time when the world
was very young indeed.

Everybody who comes first into the city by sea says
instinctively, " How beautiful ! " An hour afterwards,
if they have landed, they exclaim, " Heavens ! What
a place ! " Its site is a splendid one, although the hills
which rise sharply behind the town are absolutely de-
void of verdure. It has a touch of Venice as the ship
comes in, and seems to be floating on the water of the
harbour. The sight of it, as sometimes seen through
the early morning sunshine shining on a touch of
pearly grey mist, can be enchantment itself. It is im-
possible, even when you know it well, to realise that
this filmy cloak of splendour conceals so much that is
squalid and mean. The wooden Turkish houses are
washed in all sorts of colours, blue, pink and green, and
at many points trees peep out of the houses. The old
Turkish town runs up the steep slope of a hill, and
from the sea, the ancient walls can be seen circling
all round it like a girdle, with the grim old Citadel
frowning down from the top. Away to the right rise
the high wooded crests of Hortiach and Kotos. The
long suburb stretches round the bay and gives the place
the air of a mighty city. The picture is complete, or



would be, if there were a few trees on the barren hills.
So powerful is the illusion of the East that even since
the fire Salonica looks beautiful from the sea.

" La Ville Convoitee," its only modem historian has
called it, and somebody or other, indeed, has been
coveting it throughout the ages. Somebody was always
trying to steal it; some savage tribe or other was
always battering at its walls, and often breaking
through. Being in a geographical situation of great
importance carries its disadvantages. In the First
Balkan War (1912) three Balkan States coveted it, and
it fell to Greece. This fact was largely the cause of the
Second War, in the following year. Austria, looking
down the broad corridor of the Vardar, had long
cherished designs on it, and her desire to possess it was
one of the motives behind the laimching of the Great

" The City of Salonica," we read, "' was founded by
King Cassander, 315 years before the Christian era.
The King, being very ambitious, and wishing to possess
himself of a portion of the rich Empire conquered by
Alexander the Great, ravaged Macedonia. Many towns
and villages were only heaps of ruins." So we see that
well over two thousand years ago, Macedonia was
going through the same process which has continued
practically without interruption up to the present day.
In Macedonia, history does not merely repeat itself. It
is a sort of cinematograph which flicks the same pic-
tures on to the screen time after time. The costumes
and weapons of the ravagers vary as the centuries roll
on, but their methods remain much the same.

King Cassander thoughtfully built the new town to
give shelter to the many people he had rendered home-
less elsewhere, and named it after his wife (the Great
Alexander's sister) Thessalonica. Salonica has always



been worried by the problems of refugees, and we have
three very recent instances ; in 1914, owing to the
deportation of Greek populations from Thrace ; in 1917,
following the Great Fire, when over seventy thousand
people were homeless ; and in December, 1918, and
January, 1919, when thousands of wretched Greek
families were brought down from Bulgaria — whither
they had been deported by the Bulgars during the War
— and huddled into the roofed shells of buildings re-
maining from the fire. Happy is the country that does
not know the meaning of the word " refugee."

Fire, pestilence, famine, earthquake, revolution, war
and massacre — " The Coveted City " has known time
and time again all the major ills that can afflict poor
humanity. It is really a wonderful story. Following
its palmy Greek days, the Romans came and, as was
their wont, remained a few hundreds of years. The
city had everything a city could desire ; purple pro-
consuls, triumphal arches, temples and the rest, not to
mention the famous massacre ordered by the Emperor
Theodosius in which anything from seven to fifteen
thousand people were wiped out in three hours at the
Hippodrome. It was a propitious beginning for tribu-
lation on the grand scale. Salonica was attacked in-
numerable times by sea and by land ; often resisted
successfully but was as often taken and sacked. Name-
less Asiatic tribes of the very long ago ; Tartars, Goths,
Visigoths, Huns, Slovenes, Bulgars, Serbs, Arab and
negro corsairs, bloodthirsty Normans, Venetians, Mag-
yars, bands of adventurers from Catalonia and Aragon,
and finally the Turks — all of them " had a go " at one
time or another, and some of them came many times.
History has long ago lost count of the successive in-
vasions of Macedonia, nearly all of which aimed at
Salonica. The stout old fortifications have rumbled



and shaken to a hundred sieges. The Vardar valley
and the road down from Seres have always been two
great arteries for war.

It was in 1431 that the Turks came to Salonica.
Murad II. chased out the Venetians, who, by the way,
built the White Tower, for long afterwards a Turkish
prison, and known both as the Bloody and the Janis-
saries Tower. This sttirdy bastion, with its cells,
cachots and oubliettes, was throughout the Allied occu-
pation a signal station for the British Navy. Our
sailors (who raced the French for it and got there just
in time) found it in an amazingly dirty condition, but
soon had it spick and span and whitewashed. They
kept chickens and grew tomatoes on the crenulated
summit, and slept soundly in it unmindful of the trage-
dies and cruelties with which it was haunted.

The Turks soon " turkified " the city, and so it was
to remain for four centuries and a half. The famous
old Christian churches of St. Demetrios, St. Sophia, St.
George, and others, had minaxets added to them and
became mosques. The city which, under the Venetians,
as on many previous occasions, had sunk very low in
population, was filled up with imported Turks, and
Salonica subsided into an Ottoman sleep.

The next invasion was a peaceful one, but one of the
most curious and interesting of all. At the end of the
fifteenth century the Jews of Spain began to arrive in
Salonica. They came as refugees from the terrors of
the Inquisition, and found under the Turk a religious
tolerance which was lacking in the most powerful
Christian country of the time. They found Salonica
still largely depopulated, and in the course of time they
imposed their own Castilian tongue on most of the in-
habitants. The commerce of the Jews, as hardly needs
saying, prospered. Salonica became a great Jewish

81 G


centre, and attracted other Jews, who came from Spam,
Portugal, Italy and Provence. They soon had business
relations with their relatives and co-religionists in
Venice, Amsterdam, Genoa and the Hanseatic ports.
They became firmly rooted there, and for two hundred
years this immigration continued, in varying degrees.
And that is why, when the Allies in 1915 landed in a
Greek city, which less than three years before was
Turkish, they found they were in a markedly Jewish
community where a very large proportion of the popu-
lation still conversed among themselves in Spanish.
And those of the newcomers who spoke French had a
further surprise in finding that it was the only language
they needed in their dealings with all the people of any
education — and most of the children in Salonica can
now, with very little difficulty, obtain an excellent
education. Practically all the Jewish boys and girls
now speak French with all the ease of their traditional
Spanish, even though to the French ear it may not
always be in the purest accent. The reason is that the
Jews adopted French as their educational language in
1873, at which time the Israelite Alliance founded its
first school, and since that time the French themselves
have opened schools which supplement the Jewish
schools. The Jewish hamals, or street porters, who
carry huge loads on their back for a living ; whose
hands are knotted, and beards matted, and whose backs
are perpetually bent beneath the load of the lowest form
of human labour, have sons who wear white collars and
bowler hats and work in banks and shops. The hamal
lives on dry bread and olives and a scrap of goats' milk
cheese, and sleeps in a hovel, but he somehow realises
that education is good for his children. Many of these
beneficiaries of such humble parental wisdom have emi-
grated to America and done well there, and later sent



for their parents. It thus happens that many a street
porter, who, like a human donkey, has padded for
years up and down the quays and uneven streets of
Salonica, his big, bare feet flattened out by the weights
he is perpetually carrying on his back, has been called
to New York and ended his declining years in ease and
comfort. He spoke only his Judseo-Espagnol, but his
son was taught to speak French and do other wonderful
things of which the father had only the dimmest con-
ception, or none at all. So much for the benefits and
power of education.

I was invited once to an annual gathering of the
Israelite Alliance. There were many hundreds of Jews
there, male and female, and a great proportion of them
were once removed only from the street porter class.
But they rattled off French as though they had been
born to it, and most of them had a wide acquaintance
with French literature. I don't suppose one of them
had heard of Meredith, but it is certain that a hundred
per cent, had read Pierre Loti — and, of course, Racine,
Moliere and the rest remained to them from their school
days. Some of the young men wore evening dress —
with more or less success. At supper (for which, by the
way, the caterer should have been shot) one found that
their education had not included the art of eating. But
there was no doubt about the quality of general in-
telligence, which was as sharp and direct as a needle.
It was quite easy to distinguish the various grades of
Jewish society ; the wealthy merchants belonging to
old-established families ; those who had found their
financial feet at a very recent date, but whose position
had been consolidated by the handsome profits made
in Salonica during the war ; those who were only on the
very first rung of the financial ladder; and those who
had not begun to climb at all. But here, at the Alliance



Israelite, all were on pretty much the same footing,
although one could detect a sort of indulgent pity by
the wealthy for those not so fortunate in this world's
good things. It was a striking object lesson in Jewish
solidarity and clannishness. The Jew often protests
that he is regarded as a being apart. But see him at
a gathering of his own kind and you see that he makes
himself a being apart. It is not merely a question of
religion, but is very much a question of tribe.

The Jews of Salonica maintain all their ancient reli-
gious and social customs very rigidly, although, in
later generations, due to the spread of education, the
orthodoxy is little more than an outward form. But
most of them keep it up as being, as it were, a thing
for the general good. One saw this at a circumcision
ceremony one day, where the Grand Rabbi and many
lesser rabbis were congregated in great state. It was a
curious scene. The father, wearing his bowler hat
tilted back on his head to make room on his forehead
for the tefilliriy or phylactery — containing a slip of
parchment inscribed with certain passages from the
Scriptures — was possibly a little conscious of the clash
between his own modem outlook and the ancient
tribal customs which he was helping to perpetuate.
*' Ah," he said afterwards, with a laugh, " these are
old customs. They must be kept up. II vaut mieux.^^
But education is completely driving out the old Jewish
dress which, until recent times was much as in the
middle ages. Only the older men and women of the
lower classes are now to be seen in the ancient cos-
tumes ; the old men in long gown with slippered feet
and the old women in the quaint gaudy head-dress in
manj'^ colours, reminding one rather of a parrot, with
a long tail hanging down the back containing the hair,
and embroidered with seed pearls. The young men



have long been wearing bowler hats and the young
women would not dream of ever being seen as
mother is.

When the Allies went to Saloniea the population of
the city was supposed to be something like 175,000. Of
these, somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 were Jews,
and of these again a small proportion were registered
at foreign consulates, calling themselves Portuguese,
Italian or Spanish. A few years ago, it was possible to
become quite easily any nationality you liked — or as
many as you liked — but the coming of the Greeks made
that more difficult, and all those in Saloniea who were
not definitely something else became Greek subjects.
The Greeks numbered somewhere about thirty thou-
sand. Next came about ten per cent, of Mussulmans,
and the rest' were made up of Bulgars, Serbs, Vlachs,
Armenians, Albanians, Montenegrins, many real gip-
sies of the purest and dirtiest type, and all the various
sweepings one might expect to find in a seaport which
combines all the characteristics of the Levant and the
Balkans. Turkish, Greek and Judaeo-Espagnol are the
languages of the streets, with some Italian ; and Greek
and French the languages of the shops, restaurants and
cafes. The young Israelite who looked after the smaller
business side of The Balkan News and controlled the
many vendors did his complicated business in Greek,
Turkish, Jewish-Spanish and French, spoke German
and some Italian and made — more or less unconsciously
—marked headway in English.

A curious people, not yet mentioned, who stand
apart from all the rest are thie Deunmehs, the name
being taken from the Turkish word for converts. These
people are of Spanish-Jew origin who became converted
to Islamism, and as th'ey have kept very much to
themselves they may be regarded as Jewish Mussul-



mans. The conversion of these people came about in
a most interesting way. In 1655 a Jewish rabbi from
Smyrna, named Sabbati Cevi, an enthusiastic mystic,
landed in Salonica and proclaimed himself the Messiah.
His movement spread like wild-fire, and followers
flocked to him. The Turks allowed him a considerable
measure of liberty, but he went to Constantinople, pro-
nounced himself to be the King of Kings, and talked
of dethroning sultans. There the Sultan of the day
soon found drastic methods which persuaded the rabbi
to become Mussulman on the spot. His many followers
in Salonica and elsewhere followed his example, and
the sect has remained to the present day. Much
mystery is supposed to attach to their form of religion.
The name they give themselves is " True Believers,"
and what one hears about their religion reminds one
of the mysterious Druses of Syria. They are said —
probably quite wrongly — to practise ancient Jewish
and Cabalistic rites, while outwardly showing all the
signs of Mussulmans. There are said to be about 15,000
in Salonica, and generally they belong to a fairly well-
to-do class. They have powerful representatives in
Constantinople and were well to the fore during the war
as successful merchants and profiteers, and also in the
councils of the sinister Committee of Union and Progress.
The Deunmeh young man of Salonica is, as a rule, very
correctly attired in European costume, but wears the
fez. He may be seen sitting in Floca's consuming
sweet cakes, his large liquid eyes reminding one rather
of over-ripe gooseberries.

Enough has been said, we may hope, to show that
Salonica is a varied and polyglot city, and the subject
can be overdone. Polyglottery, as one may call it,
ceases after a time to have any effect on one. The
babbling of many tongues becomes merely a noise, and


one notices only that there are large crowds in the
streets, who get stupidly in your way, and not that
they are dressed in many costumes. But now and
again, even when you are used to it, this mingling of
races brings its special note of humour or tragedy. A
notable case was that of the tragedy of Floca's. Some
eight months or so after the fire, the cafe managed to
open again, and began by putting on some excellent
dishes for lunch. One day I noticed that the cooking
had distinctly fallen off. I asked the waiter why, and
he replied that the cook was dead, and told me some-
thing of the story.

Rachel, Mehmet and Sophocles were the three people
concerned, Jew, Turk and Greek. These are the real
names of the three actors in the drama. Rachel was a
young girl of sixteen or seventeen who served at the
Floca chocolate counter. She had her hair down her
back and a striking Greek profile, and the mere sight
of it made newcomers to Salonica begin to talk about
Aspasia and Pericles and other long-forgotten things.
But in spite of her long straight nose, Rachel was a
Jewess, and a nice quiet little miss. And she had
nothing to do with the tragedy beyond being the inno-
cent cause of it.

For a long time past, Rachel had been fiercely adored
by Mehmet, a Turk in his middle twenties, who helped
Sophocles, the cook, in the kitchen. I imagine he must
have had very little, if any, encouragement. Salonica
maidens, and especially the Salonica Jewish maidens,
are most extraordinarily careful of their reputations,
and all of them, whether Jew or Greek, immediately ask
a stranger " his intentions " at the earliest opportunity
if the acquaintance suggests developing beyond a two-
minute conversation. And Rachel, who served out
chocolates in nice boxes to British Officers and nursing



sisters, would certainly not let her thoughts dwell on
a Turk in the kitchen. But Mehmet, it appears, talked
of it often while he was working with Sophocles, and
Sophocles, who was well past forty with a wife and
three children, would occasionally rally Mehmet on the
foolishness of being in love.

The tragedy came during one such conversation on
the eternal question. The two cooks were round the
corner from their kitchen, drinking coffee together in
a little hole of a cafe let into the wall of what had been
one of the largest hotels. Mehmet was talking on the
subject nearest his heart. And Sophocles, as was his
wont, chaffed him. This time it was too much for
Mehmet. Labouring under his obsession, and stung by
a remark which suggested that he could never attain
the object of his desire, he suddenly " saw red," and
plucking an automatic pistol from his pocket fired three
shots into the body of his companion. Poor Sophocles
dropped his coffee cup and rolled over, murmuring,
"Oh, my children ! My poor wife ! " And then Meh-
met, with a cry of remorse, turned the pistol on him-
self. I was tlold that he fired four shots into his own
waistcoat. That is all there is to the story, except
that Rachel left the chocolate counter and never went
back to it. But Rachel, Mehmet and Sophocles — Jew,
Turk and Greek in conflict^ — it is quite an epitome of
the Near East. As a rule, the mixed races there
quarrel only over their politics. It was unfortunate
for poor Sophocles that the question of love should have

Salonica's unhappy gift of being a centre of trouble
has followed it uninterruptedly down to the most recent
times. In 1908, the young Turk revolution broke out
there ; the wonderful world-regenerating programme of
the new Committee of Union and Progress was pro-



claimed, and rabbis, Greek priests and Moslem imams
went about arm in arm and embraced ench other.
Abdul Hamid was deposed, brought to Salonica as a
prisoner, and lodged in the Villa Allatini. On October
9th, 1912, the Greek Army entered the city in triumph.
The Bulgars, who had raced down the Seres Road in
order to try to be there first, came in next day, though
in much smaller strength. In March of the next year,
King George I. of Greece was assassinated by a lunatic
Greek as he walked along the main street of his new
city, and many thousands of Britons are now familiar
with the poor little obelisk, bearing withered wreaths,
which marks the spot on the pavement where he fell.
At the end of June, 1913, the delicate situation which
had all along existed between the Greeks and the Bul-
gars still in the town broke out into battle. There
was a hot fight in the White Tower and the St. Sophia
quarter before the Bulgars were overpowered. The
fight in and around St. Sophia must have been a very
pretty one. Bulgars were all round the gallery of the
tall minaret and the Greeks peppered them from below.
The marble balustrade is still all pitted with bullet
holes, and some of the Bulgars are said to have been
finally thrown from the top. Then came the Great
War, making of Salonica one of the busiest hives of
humanity in the world. And finally the all-consuming,
devastating fire ; but we must give that a little place
all by itself.



The Fire.

Saturday, August 18th, 1917, is a day that will be
long remembered by many thousands of members of
the Salonica Force. They may not always be able to
recall the date itself, but they will never forget the fire
that occurred on it, when nearly a square mile of the
city was burned down in a few hours.

In those days I lived in a very pleasant and roomy
apartment above one of the town's big shops. It was
a very hot day, and the local Sirocco — a hot wind from
the direction of the Vardar — was blowing half a gale,
and had been doing so for two or three days. I was
sitting at tea, clad as lightly as the convenances would
allow, when Christina, the Greek maid from Constantin-
ople, came in with some more hot water.

" You know there is a big fire," she said. " They
say half the town is burning."

One accepted this as mere exaggeration, and so it
was at the moment. But a little later I went up on to
the flat roof to look. From here one had a view of
practically the whole of the city and its surroundings.
And sure enough, away up the hill in the north-western
corner of Turkish Town, there was a big blaze in pro-
gress. Through glasses I could see a sailor standing
on a roof semaphoring with his arms. It looked as
though a considerable area was alight, and the hot wind
was blowing strongly and steadily down towards our
part of the city. Then I became aware that dozens of



the springless, rattling carts that make life hideous,
were dashing over the cobbles and up the hill, presum-
ably having been engaged for salvage work. But big
as the fire looked it seemed a very remote thing, having
no concern with one's own existence. Naturally a lot
of these half-wooden houses would be burnt down, and
Turks and Jews would be homeless ! But life is some-
times hard and one must expect these things ! I went
down again and began to make preparations for a
journey up Monastir way.

Perhaps rather less than an hour later I went up to
have another look. Jove, but the fire had made pro-
gress ! In the foreground people were standing on roofs,
free from concern and enjoying the spectacle. But it
began to look ugly, with that dry, hot wind like a forced
draught blowing continuously. I went down to the
street, where the car was waiting.

" Mason," I said, " I don't think we shall go up-
country to-day. It looks to me as though there won't
be any Salonica left to-night."

" Very good, sir," said Mason. " I heard there was
a lire somewhere."

Mason, who was a corn merchant in a comfortable
way of business at home, was always like that.

At the office I found that people were becoming
slightly concerned, although there was no sense of im-

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 7 of 23)