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Thessaloniki burning — the Great Fire of 1917 that left 70,000 of the city’s residents homeless

By Iota Myrtsioti - Kathimerini

The fire of 1917 is one of the most dramatic events in Thessaloniki's history. It radically changed the appearance of the city, in the middle of a crucial decade (1912-1922) of war and national rift. Historians, town planners and architects studying whether the city designed after the fire can meet contemporary demands are still investigating the consequences of that major disaster. Many specialist and general publications have analyzed the architecture and town planning of Thessaloniki, but «The Chronicle of the Great Fire: Thessaloniki 1917» (published by University Studio Press), brings back to life eyewitness accounts of the fire. Panic, despair The authors of the texts are survivors, travelers and newspaper correspondents who describe scenes of panic, violence and selflessness. They record moments of resignation, despair, courage, solidarity and finally optimism, as they lived through the 32 hours during which the fire burned most of the historic city center before their eyes. Their direct narratives, which the editor, Aleka Karadimou-Gerolymbou, assistant professor of architecture, has included in this volume, read like a screenplay. 70,000 homeless The descriptions, some calm and analytical, others dramatic and imbued with horror, convey in detail the terrifying speed with which the flames turned 9,500 buildings to ashes, leaving 70,000 people homeless (52,000 Jews, 10,000 Christians and 11,000 Muslims). Writer and historian Joseph Nehama, who wrote «on my knees, amid a pandemonium of noise, sobs, and laments,» conveys the agony over the fate of the homeless Jews, asking: «In the general misery, will anyone think of Salonica? A spark that escaped from a refugee's homemade cooker caused greater harm than hundreds of shells on Reims.» The French-language newspaper of Thessaloniki, L'Independant, which came out for the first time after the August 9 fire, devoted its editorial to «the death of a town,» comparing the destruction with previous calamities such as Herculaneum and Pompeii. Takis Economakis, editor of the Volos newspaper Thessalia, which reported the event on August 10, described the dead city, and his surprise when he saw people enjoying themselves at the White Tower «as if nothing extraordinary had happened just 50 meters away from them: lots of light, fine evening gowns, passionate glances, a joy to behold.» In his report for the French magazine L'Illustration, Inahim Jesse-Asher records the outbreak of the fire and the attempts of the residents to save their belongings, mainly sewing machines, mirrors set into wardrobe doors and eiderdowns. «On foot, a ragged old man is bringing down a trunk. A little girl in white is carrying a heavy sewing machine. Muslim women hurry by, their veils floating as they forget in their fear to use their teeth to hold the veils close to their faces. A Jewish woman is holding a baby that keeps feeding, ignoring the tears of its young mother, who is running along with her hair loose and green satin ribbons over her naked breast. An old Jew with a red fez and a white beard stumbles along in his heavy green coat. He is protectively supporting an old woman who... is trembling, weeping, you expect her to fall at any moment. A little girl is calling for her mother who has got lost in the crowd, holding tight two hens and a gold-embroidered cushion.» The texts, which were written from the day after the fire (August 5) to November that year, come from various libraries and archives. The striking images come from 60 photographs, many of them published for the first time. They were kept in a handmade commemorative album sold in army canteens to soldiers at the front. Taken by soldiers, they are of exceptional quality. Also published for the first time is the acquittal of the two refugees who were accused of having started the fire. They were found innocent on the basis of sworn testimony by three residents - a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim - of what was then a harmonious multiracial, multicultural city.

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