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Friday, 26 June 2009 11:30

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF LARISSA


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The largest Jewish Community of Thessaly and the third largest of Greece has always been and still is today, the Community of Larissa.
The Jewish Community of Larissa is ancient. A community existed in the years before Christ, probably established during the Roman era. According to many historians and travelers who visited the city, it has had a live presence for at least 1900 years. This is also proved by several archaeological findings with Jewish symbols that were found during excavations in the city.
At times, the Jewish Community of Larissa absorbed Jews from Hungary, Poland, etc (Ashkenazim), from Spain (Sepharadim) and from the Peloponese (Moraitis). Upon the arrival of Spanish Jews (Sepharadim), who came to Greece after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, the community took its final form. The Spanish Jews mingled with their fellow-Jews, passed on their culture and language to them, and contributed not only to the development of the community, but to the progress of the entire city, as well. In the beginning, they established a separate community in Larissa, but later on, with the guidance of learned rabbis, they united into one, still existing today.

 



Archaeological finding of the 1st
century B.C., bearing the symbol of
the "Menorah". It was found during
excavations in the city.




  The Community of Larissa developed significantly between the 15th and the 18th centuries, when it was given the title "Madre d' Israel" Its progress stopped during the Turkish domination. In 1881, when Larissa was liberated from the Turks, the population of the city were 13,000 inhabitants, 2,200 of whom were Jews.
Most of the Jews of Larissa lived, and still live today in an area called "Exi Dromoi", also known as "The Hebraica" ("The Jewish Quarter"). The Jewish quarter of Larissa did not have the form of a "ghetto" like was the case in other cities. Jews and Gentiles lived there in harmony and in friendly terms. The Jewish quarter is at the centre of the city and at a very short distance from the Synagogue, the Hebrew school and other communal institutions.


   

The interior of the "Etz Hayyim" Synagogue in Larissa

  The Jewish Community of Larissa ran 7 synagogues that had been founded at different periods of time and existed until a few years before World War II. Today, only one Synagogue, called "Etz Hayyim" (Tree of Life), is still standing. It was built in 1860 and is in perfect condition after three reparation and maintenance projects. The first and main project was carried out in 1947, after the War, because the Germans had used it as a stable. It did, however, keep its original traditional, austere and imposing shape.
  

Since 1931 the Jewish Community of Larissa has been running a Jewish Elementary school which is the only Jewish school of Greece that runs as a state school under a special Law of the Greek State. It is titled "8th Primary School of Larissa (Jewish)". The instructors of Greek and Hebrew are appointed by the State.
Long before 1931 the Community of Larissa ran a Jewish school where only Hebrew was taught by rabbis-teachers. Much earlier than that, (during Turkish domination), a religious school (Yeshivah) of University level, functioned too. Significant Rabbis and religious scholars graduated from it.
Next to the synagogue was the Great Religious Court of Thessaly ("Beth Din"), where the learned Chief Rabbi, Simeon Pessach, served as chairman for many years.
The same space housed the communal library with extremely valuable leather-bound books, papyruses, and rare religious artifacts, all destroyed by the Germans.
The Community had a "Mikveh" (ritual baths) for the needs of the faithful.

 

    
The school children with their Rabbis - teachers (1920)


    
The school children with their teachers (1996)


    
The school building



 

    

View of the new section of the Cemetery

  The old cemetery of the community was in the quarter of "Neapoli". It functioned until 1900, when it was trespassed upon by conquerors, after an existence of approximately 500 years. The new cemetery which has been in use since then, was founded on a plot of land purchased by the Community of Larissa. It is located next to the Christian one. Since 1973, the Community has a special hall in the courtyard of the Synagogue for the ritual needs of the dead.

 

Deportation & Holocaust / After the Liberation

Before World War II Larissa had 1,020 Jews. Several members of the Community in arms participated and fought the enemy in many fronts. Later, many of them joined the National Resistance groups. Thirteen (13) Larissan Jews fell for Mother Greece (4 in the Albanian front and 9 in the battles against the Germans).
On March 24th 1944, the Germans arrested the Jews of Larissa and deported them to the death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, etc. Only 5 returned; 235 (36%) were exterminated. The Community and the Municipality of Larissa have dedicated a Monument of Jewish Martyrs of the Holocaust in their memory. This Monument was built on the square called Plateia Evraion Martyron Katohis (Square of the Jewish Martyrs of the Holocaust), at the centre of the city (in the junction between Kyprou and Kendavron Streets). The square was made on a land plot that resulted from the town-planning of communal properties. The Monument was unveiled in April 1987.
It bears the following inscription:

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY ERECTED THIS MONUMENT ON THE SQUARE DEDICATED BY THE CITY OF LARISSA, TO THE MEMORY OF THE 235 INNOCENT JEWS OF LARISSA AND THEIR 6,000,000 BRETHREN, WHO WERE VICTIMS OF AN ATROCIOUS GENOCIDE IN THE NAZI CAMPS.

In 1999, the Municipality of Larissa honoured the victims of the Holocaust by raising a votive stele in the memory of the tragic figure of Anne Frank, on a square which is named after her and which is on Erythrou Stavrou Street. The General Secretariat of the District of Thessaly had offered its financial support for the erection of this stele.

 

    
The Monument of the Jewish Martyrs
of the Holocaust




The votive stele in the memory of
Anne Frank





  Administrative Organization - The Community today

The Jewish Community of Larissa is a Public Entity of religious and charitable nature that functions under State Law 2456/20.
The Administrative Board of the Community which governs, has 6 members and is elected by a Body of Assembly of 25 members that results from elections held every three years.
After the Holocaust and the emigration of many Jews to Israel and the United States, as well as to the larger communities of Athens and Thessaloniki, today the Community of Larissa has 330 members.

 
 

The Community has various committees, such as the women's organizations WIZO and AVIV, the Zionist Association, which exists since 1906 and is the first one in Greece, and the Youth section. It is active in all areas, organizing religious, cultural and social events that are not limited within the Community. The Larissan Jews, having competent administrators, participate actively in the life of the city and keep excellent relations with their Gentile fellow-citizens.
Since 1996, the Community has modern community offices that were built on a land plot donated by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. They are located on Kendavron Street across from the Monument.
All other institutions of the Community, in other words the Community Centre, the synagogue, the school, the hall for funeral services, are located on the same block.
The Community Cultural Centre has been functioning since 1954. This is where most events were and are being held: Sabbath services (Friday night) twice a month, school events and Passover Seder for the young. The hall was renovated in 1999. The upper floor, which is mainly used by the Jewish Youth, was repaired in the same year.

 

    
The building of the Community offices

    
The Community Centre (exterior) after its renovation (1996)

  
The hall of the Community Cultural Centre


The synagogue helds services every Friday evening, led by Rabbi Elias Sabethai with the active participation of the children attending the Hebrew school. Services are also held on Saturday morning and of course on all Jewish holidays. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs, B'rith Mila (circumcision ceremonies), memorial services, Holocaust Remembrance Services (attended by municipal authorities and the public) and Yom Ha'Atzmaouth (Israel Independence Day), are also held in the synagogue.
The Hebrew school has been running since 1931 and the majority of the students who have graduated (several generations) have developed into important members of society in all areas. Since 1959 Hebrew is taught by the competent Hebrew teacher Jacob Fellous. It is generally considered that all graduates have excelled in their knowledge of Hebrew.
At all times, the Community of Larissa was governed by significant people, each of whom contributed to its growth and development. Today, the Administration Council of the Community is comprised of: Minos Albelansis - chairman, Morris Magrisos - vice-chairman, Rita Moissi - general secretary, Albertos Begas - treasurer and Betty Magrisou, Samis Begas - members and Elias Philosof, Magy Magrisou - substitute members.
This is the Community of Larissa. Due to the small number of its members, it faces functional problems, problems in the school, problems of creating new Jewish families (because of intermarriage) etc.
In spite of this, however, it persists to survive and is optimistic about the future.


 

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