KASTORIA Print
Friday, 12 June 2009 11:02

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF KASTORIA

Oh, lake, your blue water
Bear so many children's dreams
Oh, how the past turns its laughter
On memory's enormous wings

But when I listen to the dead past
I feel the lake weeping, alas
The ecstatic stare of fantasy.

    Although the verses by the Greek Jewish poet Yosef Elijah, were about another lake, the Lake of Ioannina, they seem to fit perfectly with the Jewish Community of this picturesque city of Western Macedonia, Kastoria.
    Greek speaking Jews settled in Kastoria as early as the 10th century and soon formed a Romaniote community. In addition to the economic power that it gained through its significant merchants, this community also had spiritual glamour through great rabbis, Torah scholars, the most significant of whom was Toviah ben Eliezer.
    In the middle of the 15th century, many members of the community moved to Balat, Istanbul. Mohammed himself was in favour of this move, and he sought to enrich devastated Istanbul by bringing a healthy and flourishing group. The Kastorian Jews settled in "Eptalofo" as 'surgunlu', in other words forced to move, they built their own Synagogue and for a period of time the entire region of Balat was called Kastoria.
    Vayiazit proposed to Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula to settle in the Ottoman Empire; this resulted to the immigration of many Sepharadim to Kastoria. In 1550, a new community had already formed, composed of Spanish speaking and Italian speaking refugees.
    In the centuries that followed, the Jewish population of Kastoria was to reach one tenth of the total population of the city.
    Most members of the Jewish community were peddlers and artisans. Yet, many of them were wholesale merchants, holding leading positions both within the community and in the local society; their enterprises spread to all significant economic centers of Europe (Vienna, Budapest, Dresden).
    In 1830 the last (in chronological order) synagogue was built in Kastoria. This was Beth Kahal Synagogue, sponsored by Senor Sakos, Isaac Bohor and Mois Rousso, and it was built in order to replace smaller synagogues destroyed mainly in fires. In addition to the building housing the synagogue there was also a ritual bath (Mikveh), and the Greek-Hebrew school at the back.
    In 1912 the city was incorporated to the Greek state. The Jews of Kastoria were living mainly in Tsarsi quarter and were involved in textile and glass trade and modern enterprises; others owned pastry-shops, groceries, etc.
    Between 1941 until the surrender of Italy, whose zone of influence included Kastoria, the Jews spent two years of "peace". In September 1943 the Germans marched in the city. On the Eve of Yom Kippur, (according to their usual scheme, the Germans picked High Jewish Holidays to impose anti-Semitic measures), they demanded of the community to pay a high sum as a penalty because some young people had fled to the mountains.
    In her book, Berry Nahmia mentions that another scheme that the Germans used was to write forged letters from relatives supposedly living in Poland, in order to reassure the Jewish community.
    On the night of March 24, 1944, the Jewish population of the city was arrested and detained in the Girls' High School of Kastoria. Three days later, 763 people, and a small number of Yugoslavian Jews who had found refuge in Kastoria were transported to Thessaloniki on vans and then to Poland, never to come back again.
    The Synagogue was demolished in 1948 and so was the school a few years later. The community's cemetery, by Doblitsa fountain, no longer exists. Today only one Jewish family lives in the city.
    A little over fifty years later no one seems to remember, or, even worse, no one seems to know that a large Jewish community lived in this place for one thousand years.
    The Memorial of the Jewish Martyrs of Kastoria, victims of the Holocaust, stands on a panoramic spot, with a lovely view of the lake.




   

The Holocaust Memorial of Kastoria




   

View of an old Jewish home in Kastoria


** The photos come from the archive of Mr. Thrasyvoulos Papastratis