THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN GREECE, THE OLDEST COMMUNITY IN EUROPE Print
Friday, 05 May 2017 10:26

by VICTOR I. ELIEZER, EJP May 04, 2017

The first Greek Jew known by name was "Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew", a slave identified in an inscription dated approximately 300 - 250 B.C. found in Oropos, a small coastal town 40 klm from  Athens. It could be assumed that as a result of frequent Jewish movement through Greece,  a Jewish Community was eventually established. This community is believed to have grown further after the Hasmonean uprising (142 B.C.) when many Jews were sold into slavery in Greece. 

In the early Christian era, the fact that Paul the Apostle, upon his arrival in Greece, preached in the Jewish Synagogues in Athens, Corinth, Veria, Kavala (Philipus) gives proof of the existence of many Jewish Communities in this Country. These Greek Jews were known as Romaniote and had developed their own customs and language (Judeo-Greek). Remnants of this unique tradition survived to our days.

From the end of the 14th century Jewish refugees emigrated from Spain and Portugal to the Greek mainland and adjacent islands. Mainly in Thessaloniki, the Jews known as the Shephardim introduced their own language (Judeo-Espagnol) and customs. During the 16th-18th centuries, Thessaloniki had one of the largest Jewish communities in the World and a solid rabbinical tradition.

Today, the Jews in Greece are organized in eight active Jewish Communities. In Athens, with almost 3000 Jews, there are two synagogues and the Lauder elementary school. In Thessaloniki (Salonika), with 1000 Jews, there are two synagogues and one elementary school while another 1000 Greek Jews are living in six different cities, having a synagogue which is the center of the Jewish life, in Larissa, Chalkis, Volos, Corfu, Trikala, and Ioannina. There are also synagogues located in Greek cities where no Jewish Communities exist, as in the islands of Rhodes and Crete in Chania, which are open for visitors and special services for Yiamim Noraim and Pessach as well as weddings and Bar Mitsva. There are also two Jewish Museums, one in Athens which preserves the heritage of the Greek Jewry and one in Thessaloniki preserving the history of the local Community. The Holocaust Museum and Research center of Human rights is going to be opened in Thessaloniki in 2017 by the Municipality headed by the Mayor John Boutaris and the local Jewish community headed by David Saltiel. 

 

Holocaust

During World War II, when Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany, 86% of the Greek Jews perished owing to enemy actions, extermination and execution, and in many cities where prosperous Jewish communities existed, only a few individuals remained. Out of 77.377 Greek Jews, only 10.000 survived the Holocaust. Only 5000 remained in Greece while the rest left for Israel.

What happened in Greece and such a high rate of loss of the Jewish population was recorded. Recent researches reveal that in northern Greece, mainly in  Thessaloniki of  55,000 Jews, the local authorities collaborated with the Nazis in order to bring about the displacement of the city's Jews and then to plunder their property. Even the cemetery was confiscated and destroyed completely to build on it the Aristotle’s University of Thessaloniki.

In contrast, in central and southern Greece, both local authorities and resistance organizations contributed to saving as many Jews as possible. The example of the island of Zakynthos, where the 275 Jewish inhabitants of the island were saved, is unique in Europe. Thanks to the Mayor Loukas Karrer and the Greek Orthodox Bishop Chrisostomos, when the German commander asked them to list the Jews of Zakynthos, they only wrote their own names and in the meantime organized the escape of  the Jews to homes of Christian fellow citizens in different villages .

Anti-Semitism

Despite the fact that there are no violent anti-Semitic incidents against Jews in Greece, at least 48 anti-Semitic blogs are at the disposal of the Greek internet surfers.  More than 30 cases of anti-Semitic speeches within and out of the parliament, and much more articles written by the leaders of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, make this party one of the most dangerous neo- Nazi parties in Europe. Despite everyday violence, despite the murder of the rock singer Pavlos Fyssas, despite the many and different aspects of criminal activity that came to light after the prosecution of Golden Dawn leading members, the party still ranks third among political parties and gathers the preference of 6,3% - 8,1% of the people.

The leaders of Golden Dawn, in their articles, turn their fire against the Zionists and Israel in order to reach the sympathy of supporters of Palestine and the anti-Zionists who do not see positively the recent progress of the bilateral relations between Greece and Israel. This is exactly the point where anti-Semitism of the far right meets the attempted de-legitimization of Israel and Zionism of the extreme Left. This “meeting” makes the position of the Jews in Greece even more difficult and the essential solidarity of international Jewry is more necessary than ever.

The anti-Semitic speech is completed by few Bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church who encourage the stereotypes by condemning the Jews as responsible for the economic crisis in Greece using their “global Zionist power”. Recently, the Bishop of Thessaloniki Athimos published photos of his meeting with the leader of Golden Dawn Nikos Michaloliakos.      

How does Greek Jewry reacts?  David Saltiel, president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE), the umbrella organization of the Greek Jewry,  considers “educational programs and Holocaust history teaching as the main venues and tools to the struggle against neo-Nazism.’’

Saltiel adds: ‘’To this end there is a close cooperation with the Ministry of Education that has already endorsed specific projects which include visits of Greek students to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. In addition there is a continuous effort to bring together all the democratic political parties in fighting against anti-Semitism in Greece”.

And the truth is that after the recent vandalism of the Holocaust monuments in the cities of Kavala and Arta, the local authorities, the government and the democratic parties strongly condemned any act of anti-Semitism. T

The Secretary General of religious affairs George Kalantzis stressed: “Whenever they destroy (the Holocaust monuments) we will rebuild them, to keep the memory alive”. 

Victor Eliezer is Editing Director of 'Alef', the Magazine of the Jewish community of Athens and correspondent of Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

 SOURCE: EJPRESS