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History of the Greek Jewish Community

The mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue in the small island of Aegina, near Athens, probably dating from 400 BCE, the ruins of a synagogue in the island of Delos (near Mykonos), a 5th Century BCE "menorah" and a "lulav" carved on marble, found in the Ancient Agora of Athens (adjacent to Acropolis), an inscription dated 300 B.C. saying "Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew" found in Oropos (small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia) are only a few of the relics that witness the fact that Jewish presence in Greece has been in existence for over 2.400 years and maybe more. This is tending to be virtually forgotten, now, that the once flourishing greek - Jewish community is dwindling. Only about 5.000 Jews are still to be found in no more than nine greek towns, tragic remainders of 25 communities numbering some 80.000 souls in 1939, eve of World War II. Greek jewry paid to the nazi criminality one of the highest tributes in Europe: Over 86% of its members were murdered in the concentration camps

An old battered showcase with a score of old pocket watches, their hands frozen at various hours, included in the Holocaust Collection of the Jewish Museum of Greece (Central Athens) marks the tragic moments of 1943 when history was frozen for greek jewry, with its one-way journey to Auschwitz, Buchenweld, Dachau, Treblinka and the other nazi death camps. This woeful collection with included children identification bracelets, rings, ritual objects and dispatch notes was contained within eight sacks of personal objects, belonging to deported greek jews, was gathered by the Bulgarians and then returned to the reek state and by the greek state to the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece. These sacks provided in 1977 the foundation and the first collection of Jewish Museum of Greece dedicated to the 2400 years of Jewish presence in Greece and presenting a major expression of the historical and cultural aspects of the greek jewish tradition, which is as complex as it is old.

Indeed, greek jewry had separate and distinct tradition or MINHAGIM (Romaniot, Ashkenazi and Sephardi) which in the course of the years mixed among themselves. The oldest organized Jewish communities were established as early as 400 B.C. and flourished during the reign of Alexander the Great and the following Hellenistic period. Rich Jewish Communities were to be found all along the Aegean Coast and in the greek mainland.

From the list of cities in I Maccabees 15:23 (probably dating to the year 142 B.C.), as well as a similar list transmitted by the Jewish historian Philo, it appears that Jews resided in Sparta, Delos, Sicyon, Samos, Rhodes, Kos, Gortynia, Crete, Cnidus, Aegina, Thessaly, Boeotia, Macedonia, Aetonia, Attica, Argos, Corinth, as well as in Cyprus. When Saint Paul visited Greece, during the first century C.E., he found well - established jewish communities in Thessaloniki, Veroia, Athens, Corinth and other towns. Josephus relates that the emperor Vespasian sent 6.000 youths from Palestine to work for Nero's ambitious project to cut across Corinth. These old communities of the hellenistic times and then one of the Roman, Byzantine and early Ottoman periods, adopted the greek language, were known as "romaniot" (hellenized latin word meaning greek) Jewish communities and developed the so-called MINHAG - ROMANIA. Traditional jewish prayers were recited and chanted in greek, but were written with hebrew letters (Rashi).

Benyamin De Tudella, the famous 12th century jewish traveller, states in his diary that he found jewish communities in Corfu, Arta, Amfilochia, Patras, Lepanto (Nafpaktos), Corinth, Thebes (where there were 2.000 jews), Chalkis, Thessaloniki, Drama, Lesbos or Mytilini, Chios, Samos and Rhodes. Relatively unknown is the fact that a great number of Central European ashkenazi jews, panicked by the Crusadors' persecutions during the 9th - 12th centuries, found refuge in Northern Greece while an ashkenazi community existed in Thessaloniki until the eve of World War II.

The Sephardic history in Greece starts later-on, stemming from a double exile. Following the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the Hadrian persecutions, many Palestinian jews were compelled to flee to Spain, where they developed their own culture and identity. In 1492, at the time of the Inquisition, following an order issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Jews were compelled to leave Spain (and Portugal) and a large part of them found refuge in the main cities of the then powerful Ottoman Empire, bringing with them their own traditions and their own language "ladino", which gradually became the distinct language of greek jewry, just as yiddish became the language of Ashkenazi jews.

The small and old romaniot communities accepted gradually the sephardic - castillian traditions (MINHAG SEPHARDI) and also the Spanish language (ladino) and so starting 16th century a new common history of greek jewry starts to develop, which is mainly sephardic. Romaniot traditions remained only in very few communities such as Yoannina in Epirus and Chalkis. Sephardic jewry prevailed and Thessaloniki became one of the largest jewish communities in the world, known as IR VEEM BEISRAEL (Metropolis and MOTHER OF ISRAEL), with Jews constituting about two thirds of the town's population. Thessaloniki had in 1900 - 1910 over 50 synagogues, 20 jewish schoold (talmud tora) and numerous jewish institutions and associations, while being a centre of Torah learning for all of Europe. Over 4.000 religious and non religious artifacts and pieces of history are kept by the Jewish Museum of Greece and providing evidence of this rich greek jewish historical past.

The aim of the Museum, is to collect, conserve, safeguard and exhibit anything tied to the history of greek jewry and to show to as many people as possible, the richness of the greek jewish cultural heritage. The collection includes a wide range of textiles such as ancient costumes and tapestries, items of popular art, embroideries, silver, gold, wooden religious pieces, books, documents, and other memorabilia. Extremely important is the photographic collection of the Museum, incorporating all Jewish remains around Greece (communal buildings, synagogues, schools, costumes, artifacts) which are thus conserved for posterity. A most unique collection of old SFER TORA and of picturesque costumes that Balkan and Greek jews were wearing during in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century attract the visitor's eyes.

The whole collection is housed in a centrally located building in Athens (36 Amalias street) just five minutes walk from Constitution Square and directly opposite the National Gardens and the Zappeion Exhibition Centre. An interesting fact is that the building is located very near a section of land, adjacent to the Old Royal Palace (today housing the Greek Parliament) which belonged in the mid-19th century, to American - born French Lady Sophie de Marbois, Duchess of Plaisance. In love with Athens, Greece and an admirer of jewish history and religion, the Duchess of Plaisance, a close friend of greek Queen Amalia, bought a large plot adjacent to the Royal Palace and the royal gardens and when she died she stipulated in ther will that this land should be given to the Jews of Athens to construct a synagogue. For obscure reasons, maybe also because of the fact, that athenan jews did not constitute a community unitl 1904 (when the first athenian synagogue was built), the terms of this part of the will were never realized nor claimed by the Jews of Athens, who lost, thus, the opportunity of having their synagogue and communal buildings on the Constitution Square, in centre Athens.

Visiting the Jewish Museum is a must for any Israeli or a jew even if only to see the reconstructed interior of the historical ALKABETZ synagogue. This synagogue was originally built in 1905 in Patras and is a perfect example of the classical type of sephardic synagogues that developed in venetian times and were to be found in Italy and in Venetian ruled cities such as in Crete, Corfu and Zante. Other exhibits depict in a logical way the greek jewish history and traditions: they start with a series of displays in which greek jewish history is presented through artifacts, maps, photographs, and texts. The specific periods covered are: Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern. It goes on by covering jewish religious life in Greece. Individual displays depict the various jewish celebrations, holidays and family traditions of greek jewry as well as customs, costumes and rituals objects.

A most important section of the Jewish Museum of Greece is devoted to the Holocaust and the memory of the some 70.000 cremated greek jews. Documents, photographs, memoirs and artifacts setting out the story of the almost total annihilation of the jews of Greece. Other display areas contain fine ancien headwritten KETUBOT (Jewish marriage contracts), photographs of jewish soldiers in the greek army (12.898 greek jews fought with the greek army in 1940 - 41), books on greek jewry an last but not least a complete history of the zionisst movement in Greece.

Two Associations sponsor the Jewish Museum which is now an official foundation under the aegis of the Greek Ministry of Culture. The Greek Association of Friends and the American Association of Friends. Both work hard in securing funds and keeping vivid and constant the public interest, in bringing to public knowledge and greek authorities the fact that jews have been an integral part of Greece for 25 centuries and in presenting this history to tourists visiting Greece and to researchers wishing to dig into the roots of greek Jewry.

A bimonthly news bulletin, published by the Museum, presents new acquisitions and historical articles while reflecting the growing interest for greek jewish history. Thanks to the efforts of the two Associations and tot the support of the Greek Government (Ministry of Culture), the Jewish Museum of Greece acquired in the Plaka historical district of Athens a 100 year old building, which is being presently renovated and thus the Museum will be, until the end of 1997, relocated in more adequate and more suitable premises.

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