While trying to come to grips with devastating hurricanes and earthquakes, I saw a jarring yet uplifting 60-minute film entitled "Thessaloniki1917, the fire that birthed a city." It showed with amazing documentation -- moving pictures, photos and testimony -- how a good part of the city burned down 100 years ago and was then re-imagined/rebuilt. Not, of course, before many residents suffered great loss and displacement. Sound familiar?
I had learned at the Thessaloniki Jewish Museum that the fire had decimated the Jewish community, but it was more complicated than that. In August1917, a bustling "Salonika" -- as Thessaloniki was then known -- had about 158,000 residents, mostly Jews. She was a diverse commercial hub only recently freed from the Ottoman Turks, basically under French command, and hosting 200-300,000 French etc. troops. It was very dry at the time, and as food was cooked over open flames there were frequent fires. The troop encampments to the west of the city consumed a lot of the available water.
An initial small fire spawned a 3-day nightmare waiting to happen, with huge flames spreading while people watched in disbelief from various vantage points. The Vardari wind turned those flames southward, and suddenly the restaurants and hotels quayside were also burning. People were running everywhere along very narrow streets trying to save themselves and a few belongings. Slow to respond, the French forces did too little too late.
75,000 people were rendered homeless: 54,000 Jews (many of whom emigrated to France and Palestine), 11,000 Muslims, and 10,000 Christians. 16 synagogues were lost along with 12 mosques and 3 churches. Gone were the market areas at the city's core and most of the historic eastside. 3 camps were set up, and 20,000 people lived in tents while many elders perished. Message to the outside world: "Old Salonika Finished!"
Enter Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who had a very soft spot in his heart for Salonika. Three months after the fire he went to work on a plan for rebuilding the city, to be followed by a succession of leaders/planners that created the new Thessaloniki -- but not before more synagogues came down and small businesses were closed. Deeds for property were sold at open auctions displacing more people. Add to that many, many refugees that poured in from Asia Minor in 1923. The rich took advantage of the poor, eliminating the middle class. Real people paid a price for progress.
Nevertheless, a new "Greek city" emerged, with a vertical axis north and south of Platia Aristotelous. Planner Hebrard saved the historic Ano Polis, while cross streets with marketplaces were included downtown to bring back the flavor of Old Salonika. The urban plan hatched in the ashes of 1917 became the Thessaloniki of today -- and the envy of many in that the main square opens down to the sea, the only large European city to do so.
That's why Thessaloniki is so beautiful and well-ordered -- because of the Game-Changing Fire of 1917, a remarkable piece of history that seems too familiar as we watch destruction in the Caribbean, Florida and Mexico. And as everyone is asking, "What's next?"
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone.