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A Short History of the Jews of Greece
Ancient Times to the 1940's

Menorah carved on marble found in the Ancient Agora of Athens, 500 C.E.Jewish presence in Greece dates at least to the mention by Strabo in approximately 85 B.C.E. that Jews could be found in all the cities of the eastern Mediterranean (VII 7 4). There may well have been Jews, if not Jewish communities, living in Greek cities as far back as the Babylonian Exile (586-530 B.C.E.). After the wars of the Maccabees, between 170 and 161 B.C.E., many Hellenized Jews left Judaea and settled in the new commercial centers, such as Alexandria and Antioch, of the Hellenistic world. From these communities smaller groups moved to some of the coastal Aegean cities such as Ephesus, Smyrna, Thessaloniki, and, according to tradition, Chalkis. Jewish communities also may have been founded on Crete at this time. In any case, by the time of the Apostle Paul there were flourishing Jewish communities in most of the major Greek cities.

Byzantine Jews-Mt Athos 10th Cen. The scanty surviving evidence concerning the Jews of the late antique and Byzantine periods indicates that the Jews in Greece lived more or less as did their Christian neighbors. The famous 12th century record of the Jews of Greece compiled by Benjamin of Tudela during his travels through Greece indicates a uniform dispersion of Jewish communities. The Jewish community of Thebes was so closely identified with the silk industry that Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154) forcibly moved almost the entire community to Sicily to introduce the silk industry in his Norman kingdom. In Crete, under Venetian rule after the fall of Constantinopole to the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Jews were producers and exporters of agricultural goods. Kosher wines and cheeses from Crete were sent as faras the Baltic port of Lubeck.

Two Jewish women In general terms the Jews of Greece during this period can be described as “Romaniot” Jews, i.e. , Jews of the empire of the “second Rome”, Byzantium. Their status under Byzantine rule was peculiar, but they were protected by law and only rarely do contemporary sources convey the impression of persecution. Life was not made easy for them, lest they forget their refusal to accept the Christian Messiah, but they were recognized at least as descendants of the Chosen People. Integration into the cultural pattern of Greek life can be seen in the loss of Hebrew by many communities. Some communities tried to maintain at least the form of Hebrew by writing out whole sections of the Tanah in Greek using Hebrew script, as in the illuminated Book of Job from Crete (Ms. Gr. 135 Bib. Nationale). Other communities must have been assimilated completely. In the Mani, in southern Greece, the inhabitants claim to be descendants of “lost” Jews , claims now mixed with legends of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Despite this assimilation, on the eve of World War II there were still several communities of Romaniot Jews in Greece claiming unbroken continuity back into antiquity. Kerkyra (Corfu), Zakynthos (Zante), Ioannina, Arta, Preveza, Patras, Chalkis, and Volos still maintained traces of the old Romaniot minhag, or liturgy.

Jewish doctor and merchant. 1574 C.E.By the third quarter of the 15th century the Ottoman Empire had supplanted the Byzantine. Ottoman policy toward minorities was based on Islamic law, which recognized both Jews and Christians as a separate millet (nation) with religious and , to an extraordinary extent, legal autonomy within their own communities. This tolerant millet system encouraged the immigration of Jews from Europe who had been feeling the brunt of Christian persecution, notably, in the late 15th century, in Spain. This immigration was welcomed by the Ottomans because of the economic stimulation it brought. In 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella proclaimed the Edict of Expulsion for the Jews of Spain, Sultan Bayezid II proclaimed that Jews from Spain would be welcome in the Ottoman Empire, and over 20,000 Sephardic or Iberian Jews arrived in Thessaloniki the same year. Soon afterwards 36,000 Jews left Sicily, many of them to settle in the Balkans.

The Rojo Quarter of Salonika. 17th CenturyWithin a generation a Judaeo-Spanish culture had been transplanted to many centers in the Ottoman Empire. This was not always done smoothly. Many of the Sepharadim were Marranos, Jews who had converted to Christianity in the 14th century, thereby being able to participate in much of Europe’s cultural and intellectual life. Their reconversion to Judaism was sometimes difficult, and their pride and sense of cultural superiority caused friction in their dealings with Romaniot Jews. Whatever the difficulties, the former Romaniot communities of Constantinople, Edirne (Adrianople), Thessaloniki, and Rhodes were forced by the weight of numbers and cultural superiority to adopt not only the minhag but also the language of the newcomers. A new, and certainly one of the most exciting periods of Balkan Jewry began. In 1497 the first book printed in Constantinople was published in Hebrew, well over two hundred years before the first Greek books were printed in the Balkans. Some Jews, notably Joseph Nasi (1520?-1579) during the reigns of Suleiman the Magnificent and Selim II, rose to high positions in the Ottoman service.

A scene in the Kasim Pasa Cemetery of Istanbul by A. Preziosi, c. 1841 The Greek War of Independence brought disaster to the Jewish communities in the Peloponnesos, where the revolution erupted in 1821. The Jews, because of their close associate with the Ottoman administration, were massacred along with the Turks. The Jewish communities of Mistras, Tripolis, and Kalamata were decimated; the few survivors moved north to settle in Chalkis and Volos, still under Ottoman rule. Patras lost its ancient Jewish community, which was refounded only in 1905. By the late 19th century much of the energy of the Greek state was being spent in attempts to regain those southern Balkan territories historically associated with Greek history and language. National “Hellenic” consciousness became the ideal, and Jews, along with the other non – “Hellenic” peoples of the country, found themselves in the process of Hellenization. This was not much of a problem to the Jews of southern or northwestern Greece, for as Romanios they already were Hellenized to a great extent in both language and custom. For the Sepharadim in northeastern Greece, however, who came under the Greek rule after the Balkan Wars of 1912/3, there was a problem. 

Rabbinical official in the Jewish Cemetery of Salonika, 1918 Thessaloniki was a bizarre city even by Balkan standards. At the turn of the century its population was approximately one-third Greek and more than one-half Jewish, with the balance made up of Turks, Bulgars, and other nationalities. The language of government and law was Osmanli, but the general commercial life of the city was conducted in the language of the Sepharadim, Ladino, the Spanish of Cervantes with heavy accretions of Turkish, Arabic, Greek, and Bulgarian. The city’s horizon was spiked with minarets and in its center lay a sprawling Jewish cemetery that reached up to the walls of the old city. On Friday afternoons almost all of the city’s commercial life ceased for most of the stevedores and porters were Jews. Over 32 synagogues, with names like Aragon, Castille, Toledo, and Magrebi, reminiscent of a time long past in a land abandoned in desperation and sadness, provided religious centers for the Sepharadim. The population included Karaites as well as Donmeh,  followers of the 17th century pseudo-Messiah Sabbatai Zevi. Hellenization sought to absorb this incredibly medieval city into contemporary Greek life.

Kal Yashan Synagogue in Salonika destroyed in 1917 For the Sepharadim, their Spanish culture was a means of preserving their Jewish identity when religious observance began to slip. If a Sephardic Jew were to lose his religious commitment to Judaism, he had a strong secular Judaeo-Spanish culture to fall back on. By the late 1930’s, however, several factors had disrupted much of this culture. Hellenization required the official imposition of the Greek language; of the establishment of Sunday, not Saturday as the day of rest; and the considerable re-organization of the traditional religious life of the Jews according to the laws of the Greek state. In August 1917, fire swept through the Jewish quarter, causing great loss of life and property, from which it did not recover. Confiscations, which continued until the late 1930’s, began of of vast sections of the ancient cemetery. In the 1920’s the enormous influx of Greek refugees from Asia Minor resulting from the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey fundamentally altered the city’s ethnic structure. National and economic life increasingly came to be centered in Athens, and many Jews from Thessaloniki moved south to the capital. As these factors weakened the Thessaloniki Jewish community, more and more of its members left Greece altogether, for Palestine, Europe, South Africa, and the United States. By 1939 the Thessaloniki Jewish community had fallen from approximately 90,000 at the turn of the century to 56,000.

Rabbi E. Cohen, Athens, 1894If the Thessaloniki Jewish community was unique in its identification with its Spanish past, the Athens Jewish community was equally unique for its heterogeneity. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the 17th century when Sabbatai Zevi visited the city there are periodic references to a Jewish presence in Athens. The absence of Jews in Athens immediately following the Greek War of Independence is ominous, indicating that they either fled or were massacred as were the Turks. We hear of the first ‘new’ Jews in the city when the Bavarian King Otto I of Greece settled in Athens in 1834, for with him came a man named Max Rothschild, perhaps the first Jew to arrive in the new capital. He was soon followed by a number of other Jews, most of them Bavarian and therefore Ashkenazi in background. Within a short period of time Jews from Turkey, many of them from Smyrna if one can judge by family names, began to settle in the city. By the middle of the 19th century a small Jewish community, but one with no determining tradition, had been established in Athens.

Sophie Berbe MarboiseFor a time this community was the object of attention for the Duchess of Plaisance, Sophie Berbe Marboise. A highly eccentric French-American lady who had married the Duke of Plaisance, a member of the Napoleonic aristocracy, Sophie fancied herself an adherent of what she called ‘the faith of Moses.’ She dressed heavily in veils, ate no pork, befriended Jews, and would seem to have lived in her own world of fancy and romance. On her death in 1854 Sophie left much of the considerable property she had bought in Athens to the Athens Jewish community, which at that time had no official charter of incorporation. The land she donated stretched from the Zappeion southwest around the acropolis and north to Omonia Square. The Jews of Athens never claimed their gift. Even if the community’s legal position had been defined, the time was not such for it to press claims in Athens. 


John KolettisDuring the 1840’s a regular part of the Easter celebrations in Athens included the ritual burning of a ‘Judas’ in effigy. In 1847 Max Rothschild persuaded the Greek prime minister, John Kolettis, to stop this practice. Lacking a Judas, public feeling focussed on a Jew of questionable business integrity named Don Pacifico, who had been born on Gibraltar and was therefore a British citizen. Rioters sacked Don Pacifico’s house and burned his warehouse. Don Pacifico’s exorbitant claims for restitution were supported by the British prime minister, Viscount Palmerston, who sent the British fleet to blockade Piraeus. Whatever the justification for Don Pacifico’s unsavory reputation, the strength of public feeling against him does not suggest a secure position for the Jewish community in Athens at the time.

Secure or not, the community was well established by the late 19th century. It was legally organized in 1885 and its official charter was granted in 1889. A synagogue was built in 1904 and dedicated in 1906 as Etz Hayyim (indicating a strong Romaniot element). Heterogeneous as it was, the Athens Jewish community had several advantages in its favor against the coming Nazi storm.

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