History of the Jews in Greece
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Jews have been present in Greece since at least the fourth century BC. The oldest and the most characteristic Jewish group that has inhabited Greece are the Romaniotes, also known as "Greek Jews". However, the term "Greek Jew" is predominantly used for any person of Jewish descent or faith that lives in or originates from the modern region of Greece.
Aside from the Romaniotes, a distinct Jewish population that historically lived in communities throughout Greece and neighboring areas with large Greek populations, Greece had a large population of Sephardi Jews, and is a historical center of Sephardic life; the city of Salonica or Thessaloniki, in Greek Macedonia, was called the "Mother of Israel". Greek Jews played an important role in the early development of Christianity, and became a source of education and commerce for the Byzantine Empire and throughout the period of Ottoman Greece, until suffering devastation in the Holocaust after Greece was conquered and occupied by the Axis powers in spite of efforts by Greeks to protect them. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, a large percentage of the surviving community emigrated to Israel or the United States.
The Jewish community in Greece currently amounts to roughly 8,000 people, concentrated mainly in Athens, Thessaloniki (or Salonica), Larissa, Volos, Chalkis, Ioannina, Trikala and Corfu, while very few remain in Kavala and Rhodes. Greek Jews today largely "live side by side in harmony" with Christian Greeks, according to Giorgo Romaio, president of the Greek Committee for the Jewish Museum of Greece, while nevertheless continuing to work with other Greeks, and Jews worldwide, to combat any rise of anti-Semitism in Greece.
- 1 Jewish cultures in Greece
- 2 History of Judaism in Greece
- 3 Post-war community
- 4 Synagogues
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
- 8 Notes
Jewish cultures in Greece
Most Jews in Greece are Sephardim, but Greece is also the home of the unique Romaniote culture. Besides the Sephardim and the Romaniotes, some Italian-Sicilian and small Ashkenazi communities have existed as well, in Thessaloniki and elsewhere. All this communities had not only their own custom (minhag), they also had their own siddurim printed for the congregations in Greece. The large variety of Jewish customs in Greece was unique.
Romaniote Jews have lived in the territory of today's Greece for more than 2000 years. Their historic language was Yevanic, a dialect of the Greek language, but Yevanic has no surviving speakers recorded; today's Greek Romaniotes speak Greek. Large communities were located in Ioannina, Thebes, Chalcis, Corfu, Arta, Corinth and on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, and Cyprus, among others. The Romaniotes are historically distinct from the Sephardim, some of whom settled in Greece after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain. All but a small number of the Romaniotes of Ioannina, the largest remaining Romaniote community not assimilated into Sephardic culture, were killed in the Holocaust. Ioannina today has 35 living Romaniotes.
Sephardim in Greece
The majority of the Jews in Greece are Sephardim whose ancestors had left Spain, Portugal and Italy. They largely settled in cities such as Thessaloniki, the city which was to be named "Mother of Israel" in the years to come. The traditional language of Greek Sephardim was Judeo Espaniol, and, until the Holocaust, the community "was a unique blend of Ottoman, Balkan and Hispanic influences", well known for its level of education. The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture calls Thessaloniki's Sephardic community "indisputably one of the most important ones in the world".
History of Judaism in Greece
The first recorded mention of Judaism in Greece dates from 300-250 Before Common Era (BCE) on the island of Rhodes. In the 2nd century BCE, Hyrcanus, a leader in the Jewish community of Athens, was honoured by the raising of a statue in the agora.
According to Josephus (Contra Apionem, I, 176-183), an even earlier mention of a Hellenized Jew by a Greek writer was to be found in the work "De Somno" (not extant) by the Greek historian Clearchus of Soli. Here Clearchus describes the meeting between Aristotle (who lived in the 4th century BCE) and a Jew in Asia Minor, who was fluent in Greek language and thought:
"'Well', said Aristotle, [...] 'the man was a Jew of Coele Syria (modern Lebanon). These Jews were derived from the Indian philosophers, and were called by the Indians Kalani. Now this man, who entertained a large circle of friends and was on his way from the interior to the coast, not only spoke Greek but had the soul of a Greek. During my stay in Asia, he visited the same places as I did, and came to converse with me and some other scholars, to test our learning. But as one who had been intimate with many cultivated persons, it was rather he who imparted to us something of his own.'"
Greek Jews played an important role in Greek history, from the early History of Christianity, through the Byzantine Empire and Ottoman Greece, until the tragic near-destruction of the community after Greece fell to Nazi Germany in World War II.
The Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great conquered the former Kingdom of Judah in 332 BC, defeating the Persian empire which had held the territory since Cyrus' conquest of the Babylonians. After Alexander's death, the Wars of the Diadochi led to the territory changing rulership rapidly as Alexander's successors fought over control over the Persian territories. The region eventually came to be controlled by the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the area became increasingly Hellenistic. The Jews of Alexandria created a "unique fusion of Greek and Jewish culture", while the Jews of Jerusalem were divided between conservative and pro-Hellene factions. Along with the influence of this Hellenistic fusion on the Jews who had found themselves part of a Greek empire, Armstrong argues that the turbulence of the period between the death of Alexander and the 2nd century BCE led to a resurgence of Jewish messianism, which would inspire revolutionary sentiment when Jerusalem became part of the Roman Empire.
Hellenistic Greece and Macedonia fell to the Roman Empire in 146 BC. The Jews living in Roman Greece had a different experience than those of Judaea Province. The New Testament describes Greek Jews as a separate community from the Jews of Judaea, and the Jews of Greece did not participate in the First Jewish-Roman War or later conflicts. The Jews of Thessaloniki, speaking a dialect of Greek, and living a Hellenized existence, were joined by a new Jewish colony in the 1st century AD. The Jews of Thessaloniki "enjoyed wide autonomy" in Roman times.
Originally a persecutor of the early Jewish Christians until his conversion on the Road to Damascus, Paul of Tarsus, himself a Hellenized Jew from Tarsus, part of the post-Alexander the Great Greek Seleucid Empire, was instrumental in the founding of many Christian churches throughout Rome, including Asia Minor and Greece. Paul's second missionary journey included proselytizing at Thessaloniki's synagogue until driven out of the city by its Jewish community.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, elements of Roman civilisation continued on in the Byzantine Empire. The Jews of Greece began to come under increasing attention from Byzantium's leadership in Constantinople. Some Byzantine emperors were anxious to exploit the wealth of the Jews of Greece, and imposed special taxes on them, while others attempted forced conversions to Christianity. The latter pressure met with little success, as it was resisted by both the Jewish community and by the Greek Christian synods.
Tobiah ben Eliezer (טוביה בר אליעזר) a Talmudist and poet of the 11th century worked and lived in the city of Kastoria. He is the author of the Lekach Tov a midrashic commentary on the Pentateuch and the Five Megillot and also of some poems.
The first settlement of Ashkenazi Jews in Greece occurred in 1376, heralding an Ashkenazi immigration from Hungary and Germany to avoid the persecution of Jews throughout the 15th century. Jewish immigrants from France and Venice also arrived in Greece, and created new Jewish communities in Thessaloniki.
The Ottoman Empire
Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the mid-15th century, until the conclusion of first the Greek War of Independence ending in 1832, and then the First Balkan War in 1913. During this period, the centre of Jewish life in the Balkans was Salonica or Thessaloniki. The Sephardim of Thessaloniki were the exclusive tailors for the Ottoman Janissaries, and enjoyed economic prosperity through commercial trading in the Balkans.
After their expulsion from Spain, between fifteen and twenty thousand more Sephardim settled in Thessaloniki. According to the Jewish Virtual Library: "Greece became a haven of religious tolerance for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other persecution in Europe. The Ottomans welcomed the Jews because they improved the economy. Jews occupied administrative posts and played an important role in intellectual and commercial life throughout the empire."  These immigrants established the city's first printing press, and the city became known as a centre for commerce and learning. The exile of other Jewish communities swelled the city's Jewish population, until Jews were the majority population in 1519.
In the year 1523 the first printed edition of the Mahzor Romania was published in Venice, by Constantinopolitan Jews which contains the Minhag of the Jews from the Byzantine empire. This Minhag represents probably the oldest European Prayer rite. A polyglot edition of the Bible published in Constantinople in 1547 has the Hebrew text in the middle of the page, with a Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) translation on one side and a Yevanic translation on the other.
The middle of the 19th century, however, brought a change to Greek Jewish life. The Janissaries had been destroyed in 1826, and traditional commercial routes were being encroached upon by the Great Powers of Europe. The Sephardic population of Thessaloniki had risen to between twenty-five to thirty thousand members, leading to scarcity of resources, fires and hygiene problems. The end of the century saw great improvements, as the mercantile leadership of the Sephardic community, particularly the Allatini family, took advantage of new trade opportunities with the rest of Europe. According to historian Misha Glenny, Thessaloniki was the only city in the Empire where some Jews "employed violence against the Christian population as a means of consolidating their political and economic power", as traders from the Jewish population closed their doors to traders from the Greek and Slav populations and physically intimidated their rivals. With the importation of modern anti-Semitism with immigrants from the West later in the century, moreover, some of Thessaloniki's Jews soon became the target of Greek and Armenian pogroms. Thessaloniki's Jewish community comprised more than half of the city's population by the early 1900s. As a result of the Jewish influence on the city, many non-Jewish inhabitants of Thessaloniki spoke Judeo Espaniol, the language of the Sephardic Jews, and the city virtually shut down on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, given it sometimes the name of 'Little Jerusalem". Many sea-travellers reaching the port of Thessaloniki humorously recalled that Thessaloniki was a city where people worked only four days while resting three consecutive days. This was due to the three major religions the population adhered to and their respective resting days: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians.
Ottoman rule of Thessaloniki ended in 1912, as Greek soldiers entered the city in the last days of the First Balkan War. Thessaloniki's status had not been decided by the Balkan Alliance before the war, and Glenny writes that some amongst the city's majority Jewish population at first hoped that the city might be controlled by Bulgaria. Bulgarian control would keep the city at the forefront of a national trade network, while Greek control might affect, for those of certain social classes and across ethnic groups, Thessaloniki's position as the destination of Balkan village trading. After liberation, however, the Greek government won the support of the city's Jewish community, and Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos was one of the first countries to accept the Balfour Declaration, 1917.
In 1934, a large number of Jews from Thessaloniki made aliyah to Mandatory Palestine, settling in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Those who could not get past British immigration restrictions simply came on tourist visas and disappeared into Tel Aviv's Greek community. Among them were some 500 dockworkers and their families, who settled in Haifa to work at its newly constructed port.
World War II, Resistance and the Holocaust
Population of Thessaloniki
|Year||Total Population||Jewish Population||Jewish Percentage|
During World War II, Greece was conquered by Nazi Germany and occupied by the Axis powers. 12,898 Greek Jews fought in the Greek army, one of the best-known amongst them being Colonel Mordechai Frizis, in a force which first successfully repelled the Italian Army, but was later overwhelmed by German forces. Some 60,000-70,000 Greek Jews, especially jurisdictions where Nazi Germany occupied and Bulgaria, or at least 81% of the country's Jewish population, were murdered. Thousands of Jews were saved by the Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy due to a proclamation by Archbishop Damaskinos, instructing the church to issue false baptismal certificates to all Jews who requested them. Although the Germans  deported a great number of Greek Jews, others were successfully hidden by their Greek neighbours.
On July 11, 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki were rounded up in preparation for slave labour. The community paid a fee of 2 billion drachmas for their freedom. In addition to the destruction of the old Jewish cemetery, located in the center of the city. 50,000 people were sent to Auschwitz, and most of their sixty synagogues and schools were destroyed. Only 1,950 survived. Many survivors emigrated to Israel and the United States. Today the Jewish population of Thessaloniki numbers roughly 1,000, and maintains two synagogues.
The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture writes "One cannot forget the repeated initiatives of the head of the Metropolitan See of Thessaloniki, Metropolitan Gennadios, against the deportations, and most of all, the official letter of protest signed in Athens on March 23, 1943, by Archbishop Damaskinos, along with 27 prominent leaders of cultural, academic and professional organizations. The document, written in a very sharp language, refers to unbreakable bonds between Christian Orthodox and Jews, identifying them jointly as Greeks, without differentiation. It is noteworthy that such a document is unique in the whole of occupied Europe, in character, content and purpose".
In Corfu, after the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, the Nazis took control of the island. Corfu's mayor at the time, Kollas, was a known collaborator and various anti-Semitic laws were passed by the Nazis that now formed the occupation government of the island. In early June 1944, while the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the landing in Normandy, the Gestapo rounded up the Jews of the city, temporarily incarcerated them at the old fort (Palaio Frourio) and on the 10th of June sent them to Auschwitz where very few survived. However, approximately two hundred out of a total population of 1,900 managed to flee. Many among the local populace at the time provided shelter and refuge to those 200 Jews that managed to escape the Nazis. As well, a prominent section of the old town is to this day called Evraiki (Εβραική) meaning Jewish suburb in recognition of the Jewish contribution and continued presence in Corfu city. An active Synagogue (Συναγωγή) is an integral part of Evraiki today with about 65 members.
On March 4, 1943, Bulgarian soldiers with a help from German soldiers took the Jews from Cuomotini and Kavala off the Karageorge passenger boat, massacred them and sunk the boat. The Bulgarians confiscated all of the Jewish properties and possessions.
The 275 Jews of the island of Zakynthos, however, survived the Holocaust. When the island's mayor, Carrer, was presented with the German order to hand over a list of Jews, Metropolitan Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos returned to the Germans with a list of two names; his and the mayor's. The island's population hid every member of the Jewish community. In 1947, a large number of the Jews of Zakynthos made aliyah to Palestine (later Israel), while others moved to Athens. When the island was almost levelled by the great earthquake of 1953 , the first relief came from Israel, with a message that read "The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us."
The city of Volos, which was in the Italian zone of occupation, had a Jewish population of 882, and many Thessaloniki Jews fleeing the Nazis sought sanctuary there. By March 1944, more than 1,000 Jews lived there. In September 1943, when the Nazis took over, head rabbi Pessah worked with Archbishop Ioakim and the EAM resistance movement to find sanctuary for the Jews in Pelion. Due to their efforts, 74% of the city's Jews were saved. Of the more than 1,000 Jews, only 130 were deported to Auschwitz. The Jewish community remained in Volos after the war, but a series of earthquakes in 1955-57 forced many of the remaining Jews to leave, with most immigrating to Israel or the United States. Only 100 Jews remain in Volos today.
Many Jews from Salonika were integrated into the Sonderkommandos. On 7 October 1944, they attacked German forces with other Greek Jews, in an uprising planned in advance, storming the crematoria and killing about twenty guards. A bomb was thrown into the furnace of the crematorium III, destroying the building. Before being massacred by the Germans, insurgents sang a song of the Greek partisan movement and the Greek National Anthem.
In his book If this is a man, one of the most famous works of literature of the Holocaust, Primo Levi describes the group thus: "those Greeks, motionless and silent as the Sphinx, crouched on the ground behind their thick pot of soup". Those members of the community still alive during 1944 made a strong impression on the author. He noted: "Despite their low numbers their contribution to the overall appearance of the camp and the international jargon is spoken is of prime importance". He described a strong patriotic sense among them, writing that their ability to survive in the camps was partly explained by the fact that "they are among the cohesive of the national groups, and from this point of view the most advanced".
Recognised for his contributions to the Greek cause early on in the war, Mordehai Frizis became one of the most honoured Greek officers of World War II in the postwar years, with a monument outside the national military academy in Athens.
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The community has further decreased since the Greek government-debt crisis. Many younger Jews are leaving the country, mostly to other European nations, though some have gone to Israel. As of 2015, about 5,000 Jews live in Greece, mostly in Athens, with less than 2,000 in Thessaloniki. The Greek Jewish community has traditionally been pro-European.
Anti-semitism in Greece
Misha Glenny wrote that Greek Jews had never "encountered anything remotely as sinister as north European anti-Semitism. The twentieth century had witnessed small amounts of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks... but it attracted an insignificant minority". The danger of deportation to death camps was repeatedly met with disbelief by Greece's Jewish population.
A neo-fascist group, Golden Dawn, exists in Greece and recently won 18 seats in the Greek Parliament. Reportedly in 2005, it was officially disbanded, to no avail, by its leadership after conflicts with police and anti-fascists. The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia 2002-2003 report on anti-Semitism in Greece mentioned several incidents over the two-year period making note that there were no instances of physical or verbal assaults on Jews, along with examples of "good practices" for countering prejudice. The report concluded that "...in 2003 the Chairman of the Central Jewish Board in Greece stated that he did not consider the rise in antisemitism to be alarming".
On November 21, 2003, Nikos Bistis, the Greek Deputy Minister of the Interior, declared January 27 to be Holocaust Remembrance Day in Greece, and committed to a "coalition of Greek Jews, Greek non-Jews, and Jews worldwide to fight antisemitism in Greece".
The Greek government debt crisis, which started in 2009, has seen an increase in extremism of all kinds, which has included some cases of antisemitic vandalism. In 2010, the front of the Jewish Museum of Greece was defaced, for the first time ever. On Rhodes, on October 26, 2012, vandals spray-painted the city’s Holocaust monument with swastikas. Partly to head off any new-found threat from extremism, thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish Greeks attended Thessaloniki's Holocaust Commemoration in March 2013. The meeting was personally addressed by Greece's Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, who delivered a speech to Monastir Synagogue (Thessaloniki).
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