Jews of Greece
by Helen Roberts
When you think of Greece, what images come to mind? Islands and legends?
Hot sun and sea? Migrants being rescued by lifeguards from Lesbos?
I am thinking about the Jews! On a tour recently we focused on the long history of the Jews of Greece. That is what I would like to talk about now.
It is hard to believe, but in the early 1900s nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Greece, very many of them in the northern town of Salonica, now called Thessaloniki. There was also a sizeable community in Athens, and smaller communities in some important centres like Ioannina and Veria as well as small groups in other towns and on the islands, such as Crete and Rhodes. Now the number of Jews in Greece amounts to barely 5000. It is a sad story in some ways - yet at times the Jews of Greece were in a far better position than those in other lands, including Britain.
The first Jews in Greece dated back to before the time of Alexander the Great in the 3rd Century BC. More came during the Roman empire. Romaniot Jews, as they are called, are very proud of having such a long ancestry. Their unique customs are called the Minhag Romania. Often prayers were recited in Greek, and sections were even copied from the Tanach in Greek using Hebrew script. The Romaniot Jews read the Torah Scrolls by placing them upright in brilliantly ornamented cases, turning the page by means of a screw mechanism in the rimonim. The melodies in the Romaniot service are ancient and strange to contemporary ears.
One Romaniot synagogue we visited is now maintained as a museum in the town of Ioannina, once a thriving Jewish centre. It is located inside the walled citadel of the old town.The seats for men seemed oddly placed to our eyes, in rows back to back. The women were seated above behind a high ornamental screen. Another thing we English Jews found strange was that the Bima was placed directly opposite the Ark,so the Torah scrolls would be paraded down the shul from the Ark to be read from the podium at the other end.We were shown a Torah scroll 500 years old. Of several thousand in the congregation before the 1940s there are now only 27 quite elderly Jews in the vicinity, many too frail to come to shul at all. Here is a photo of the interior of this synagogue.
Another old Romaniot synagogue now only maintained as a historical site is in hilly Veria, in an an old Jewish quarter , secluded and picturesque. The exquisite little shul was built above a fast-flowing river which served as the mikva. It must have been delightful to be in a service there and hear the lulling flow of water below. A devoted young non-Jewish volunteer takes responsibility for the upkeep of the building, which is mostly financed by donations from tourists looking into Jewish history. Here is a photo of that shul.
In the 15th Century after the Edict of Expulsion there was a great influx of Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal.They brought new customs, established their own synagogues and spoke Ladino as their vernacular.The Ottoman Turks were ruling Greece but allowed freedom of worship and welcomed the incoming Sephardi Jews, as they contributed well to the economy.
By the 16th Century there had been considerable integration and Ladino was the accepted language of Greek Jewry. However, the Romaniot and Sephardi communities tended to compete with each other for authenticity in their religious observance. Things were not bad for Jews until the Greek War of Independence of 1821. Many Jews were massacred along with the Turks for supporting the Ottoman Empire.
Jewish refugees had been coming to Greece since Crusader times, mostly living peacefully with their Christian neighbours and having equal rights. In fact, in the conflict with Italy in 1938-9 before Mussolini sought Hitler’s aid, many Jewish soldiers played their part as patriots and equals with the Greeks.
But by 1945 only a couple of thousand Jews remained in Greece. Some of these had been hidden and some obtained fake Christian- Orthadox ID documents. Younger fitter people had escaped to the hills to fight with the partisans. Most, though, 87% in fact,had been forced off to Auschwitz, taken in cattle wagons from Athens. The country is dotted with Holocaust memorials, some very moving, and several memorial plaques testify to the sorrow felt by many Greek people at the catastrophe of the Shoah .Several bishops, such as the Metropolitan of Volos district, or the Bishop of Athens, had conspired with local rabbis to help hide the Jews by issuing false papers, but the Nazis penetrated every community, even in the smallest towns, and managed to round up the majority . Here are photos of some moving memorials we saw.
In the port of Volos, once a vibrant Jewish community, only 75 individuals are left now and there are few services. When a rabbi is needed, one is summoned from another town. It still has a lovingly- maintained shul and a community centre. Some interesting exhibits include evidence of the collusion of the rabbi and the local bishop in trying to protect Jews from the Nazis.There some haggadot, still in use, translated on alternate pages into Greek and Ladino.
The Jewish people of Greece up to the 1920s had many varied occupations in trade, industry, printing and shipping and were important workers on the docks in Salonica, the largest Jewish centre.It was called The Mother of Israel before the State of Israel was founded – the largest Jewish centre in the Near East. In 1900 the majority of the population of Salonica was Jewish,and would not work on Saturday.The city council gave in - the official day of rest for the whole city would be Saturday. This continued until 1922 when separate ethnic identities were discouraged. The new law forbidding work on Sundays was a blow to Jewish workers.
Things started to slide. In 1927 a Fascist party was founded and there was a large- scale antisemitic incident - the looting of a poor Jewish neighbourhood.
Salonica is still a Jewish centre and we attended a Service here in a regularly functioning synagogue on Friday night, but found it very hard to follow! Here is a photo of the splendid interior.
Athens is the main centre of Greek Jewry now. The Modern Ashkenazi community in Athens dates from the early 19th Century. The Jewish museum has a tiny shul within it reconstructed from an abandoned one in Patras, and there are two other synagogues. Etz Chaim, founded in 1904, is an offshoot of the ancient Romananiot synagogue of Ioannina, and rarely used. The other shul, called Beth Shalom, was founded in 1935 and is the only one with regular services. It has wonderful stained glass windows, with abstract designs called Genesis and Exodus. The Israeli-trained rabbis of both Athens and Thessaloniki , where there are two Shuls in use,are busy men, having to act as mohel and shochet as wel
In the best times Greece had been a welcoming and encouraging haven for Jewish people. Now things are not so good, with economic hardship nurturing the growth of fascist groups such as Golden Dawn.Many Greek Jews now live overseas, most in Israel.
But the Jewish strand in the long history of Greece, though worn somewhat thin, still continues to today, and some Greek volunteers are keen to preserve the Jewish heritage.