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Jews n the island of Chios by Scott L. Marks - 28.5.00
The Greek island of Chios is in the Northeastern Aegean sea midway between the islands of Samos and Lesvos. Just a few miles off the West coast of Turkey, it is the fifth largest island in Greece.
There are two theories on how the island received it's name. The first is that the name Chios stems from "Chiona," who was the daughter of the island's ancient King Inopion. The other theory is that comes from the name "Hios," the son of Neptune, at the birth of whom, too much snow (hioni) fell on the island. Folklore contends Chios was the birthplace of both the Greek poet Homer in 8 BCE, and that of Christopher Columbus in 1451.
Historically the island was known for it's wealth and large populus. The main city on the island of Chios is also called Chios. It is located on the eastern coastline looking over the straight to the Turkish mainland of Anatolia. Because of the position of its port, neighboring a rich land, and controlling the narrow passage to Constantinople, the island has always been considered geographically important.
The island came under control of the Romans late in their history, after the Empire split up. Chios continued under the leadership of the Byzantine government, but later in the 13th cen- tury was taken over by two of the Italian Republics, the Venetians (with their unique architecture), and then the Genovese, of whom Chios prospered under. Although the Byzantine empire lasted technically to 1453 when the Ottoman Turks seized Constantinople, it wasn't until 1566 when the Turks took over the island of Chios; for the next 346 years the island would be occupied by the Turks and their Islamic culture.
There was a flourishing city on Chios which thrived in trading pottery, wine, marble, silk, and mastic resin. This resin is a unique and valuable product that is produced by the mastic tree which grows only on Chios. In the past this island has been a target for various attacks and conquerors because of the importance of this product. This defensive need against foreign invaders led to the creation of defensive architecture. The most notable of such is the large Chios fortress which lies north of the island's modern capital. It played an important role in the medieval and modern history of Chios, being the center of its political and military government. At one time it enclosed the island's entire main city, but soon the town expanded outside the precinct of its walls. The Jews of Chios lived within this structure and in 1607 a visitor named Giust described the Juderia (known as the Ghioudeka) as the loveliest part of the fortress, "far away from the noise of the town."
Chios has had a Jewish population of Romanoite Jews (hellenized Latin word meaning Greek) well before the inquisition and the subsequent Iberian diaspora, and well before the Jewish "golden era." Romanoite Jews were the descendants of the Jews who were slaves brought to the Roman lands from Palestinewhich was then under Roman rule. These Jews had developed their own customs, and they spoke a language known commonly today as Judeo-Greek. Remnants of this unique tradition still survive in parts of Greece today. However, even though the Jews had a presence in Chios prior to 1492, historical records before this period only refer to a few events in the history of these island Jews.
While visiting the island around 14 BCE it was told that the non Torah compliant King Herod (King of Judea) was received by all that wanted an audience with him. Herod came to see the thriving city for himself, and paid off debts the islanders' owed to the Romans. During the visit Herod had his workers rebuild the failing sea wall and parts of the fortress where the Jews lived. Benjamin of Tudela who was the son of Jonah, visited the island and met with the Jewish leaders Eliah Thiman and Schabtai. The Jewish population at the time was said to be at least 500 strong.
The Venetian and Genovese left their mark, with Chios Jewish families having kept Italian surnames like Scandalli, Segala, and Gaspari. While visiting in the 14th century, the Talmud codifier and author of the Arban Tourin. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher of Toledo and his ten men fell ill and died on the island; his tomb is still visited by Jews today.
Throughout the dark ages and medieval years, Chios was known as a significant Mediterranean seaport as it was a landmark separating East and West. In 1346 when the Genovese took the island over, many Jewish financiers and merchants arrived with them. This is evident by the notarized seals found with Jewish Italian surnames on historical deeds from the period. The Jews were afforded security and economic prospects by the Genovese on the island. As Argenti states in The Religious Minority of Chios "they (Genovese) did not wish to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs!"
Documents from the 14th and 15th century discuss Jews trading in everything from soap to carpets. One notary document in particular names a Jewish grain merchant Michaeli Nicosia who was trading in wine which was grown by the islands' Jewish community. In 1492 after the Edict of Expulsion was signed by The Catholic Kings which banished all Jews from Spain, Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II offered to accept many of these fleeing Spanish refugees. The Sultan would allow the Jews to continue to practice their own religion; this was quite different than what the Christian tulers of the same period felt considering they thought all religions other than their own should cease to exist!
Because of it's large harbor and merchant inhabitants, Chios became one of many entry points for Sephardic Jews. Many moved on to nearby Smyrna (now Izmir) and other Ottoman lands. However, many Jews stayed on the island renewing its vigor by bringing new intellect and culture. Historical documents demonstrate a significant number of Spanish surnames within the population; and around this time Judeo-Spanish (ladino) songs and stories took up a position in Chios tradition. The number of Sephardic Jews who arrived overwhelmed the Romaniots who were not as well educated in the religious law, or as well formed in terms of scholarly works. Eventually, Sephardic customs, language, and traditions superseded the Romaniot culture in most cities.
The Turkish Sultan was tolerant of the Jews. This can easily be seen in the fact that large Jewish communities existed in the all of the Ottoman lands until the end of the Empire. The Sephardic community even built a new synagogue on Chios as late as 1890. As a non-Muslim community in the Ottoman Empire, the Jews kept their own courts, schools, and welfare systems; this type of community was known as a millet. The members of these self-run millets were pleased to have these functions in their own hands, and the Ottoman government was relieved of the necessity of providing this themselves. Religious toleration on the island was not perfect. Ottoman life was definitely Islamic life, and this gave preference to Muslims in all parts of community and government. Jews were an accepted, but lower class.
Jews were involved with the production of the islands' most valuable commodity, mastic. The wealthier Jews financed the operation and acted as a go between to the Muslim Turks and the Orthodox Christian Greeks.
The producers of the product were funded by the Jews, and after harvest, the debts were paid off. The majority of Jews who did not have much worked as cloth dyers; this was an occupation practiced in both Iberia and North Africa before the 15th century diaspora. Other common occupations for Sephardic Jews of the time were the making of silk garments, weaving, wine production, and even olive farming.
Historical population figures and Jewish political infrastructure for the period after the Iberian diaspora are not very common. However it is known that in 1566 Rabbi Jehiel Basan was called upon to settle a question of Jewish law. At the time of his decisions upon the matter the Jews numbered at least 300. In 1549 Calueran Albanell (a variant of the Jewish name Abravanel) was chosen as the Catalonian consul, and in 1566 Barcelona established a consulate on the island. By 1681 it was described that Spanish was the best known language of the Jewish population; and in this same year Aaron ibn Hayyin became their Chief Rabbi. In the Synagogue they read and chanted the Torah in Greek, but all writing on religious matters were written with Hebrew letters using Rashi script. These island Jews had their own cemeteries; many of the Spanish names written in Hebrew and Ladino on the headstones are still visible today.
Many Spanish Jews who were headed East towards the Turkish mainland ended up remaining on Chios. They took up residence in the fortress, and proceeded to expand the Jewish population; their community thrived over the next 300 years. In 1821 Chios participated in the revolt of Greeks against the Ottoman Turks, and the next year the Sultan gave orders to attack the island. An estimated 25,000 were killed and over 80,000 were enslaved. Those who escaped went to other islands or on to major cities around the world. Later, Jews moved back into the fortress, and occupied it until a tremendous earthquake struck the island in 1881. After the Turkish attack, and subsequent earthquake, most Jews fled the island for surrounding islands such as Lesvos, and Rhodes where they made their new homes.
Chios was taken from the Turks by the Italian Army in 1912, and subsequently reunited with Greece a few years later. It was told that at the start of World War II, there was only one Sephardic family left, and they soon migrated to Palestine. Unlike the terrible murder of 60,000 Greek Jews killed during the holocaust, there are no documented cases of Chios Jews being deported by the nazis. The only remnants of the once vibrant Jewish past are relics in the Jewish museum in Athens, as there is no Jewish community on Chios today.
Photographs of tombstones from the Jewish cemetery of Chios
For decades we have traveled during summers, and when in our native land, were roasted by the almost unbearable heat. This was to be our first experience in the Mediterranean basin in the best of all seasons, spring. Our great Uncle Abe Cohen took us to the airport, and soon we were boarding the new OA's European Airbus A340-300: roomier, with each seat individually equipped with a monitor to view three first-run films (Song of the Heart, The Cider House Rules, Anna and the King), and earphones to listen to world music but no dancing in the aisles, please. Additionally, a large screen provided a constant illustration of the flight's progress to Athens: altitude, ground speed, (in meters and kilometers) the time to destination (nine hours going, nine hours and fifty minutes returning due to the role of the jet stream and an altered route), and outside temperature (-51o C, if one wished to stroll). Kosher meals were pre-ordered, and we were amused with the interest fellow passengers took in wanting to know their contents.
Upon our arrival, I approach the currency exchange window and receive my first drachmas, 342 to $1 (a fortnight later, upon our return, it was 371!). We are met by Iordanis, the sent cabdriver, for our three-hour trip to Volos a majestic city inside the Gulf of Pagasitikos, combining the twin vistas of sea and nearby Mt. Pilion. Our arrival is greeted with embraces and kisses (twice on each side of the face is customary), and calls from relatives and friends, near and far, welcoming us. Toula and Maurice Franses (my in-laws) have decked out new slippers, toothbrushes, and robes for each of us. We shower with a telephone device held with one hand, spewing water that was solar-heated. Then, a festive mid-day meal is followed with a few hours' siesta.
Daily, there is a news analysis and a review of headlines from the country's more than score newspapers. Indeed, ANT1's George Papadakis has become a folk hero with his casual, easy-going approach on matters serious and not so in the patterned televised program Kalimera Hellas (Good Morning Greece). Shopping for shoes, fashionable and pricey (but not for Americans) became a frequent activity and we easily amassed a half-dozen pairs in the first days. A reflection of the relative prosperity enjoyed by contemporary Greeks, people are mesmerized by the activity of the stock market on Sophocleous Street frequently plunging to dizzying depths even when indicators elsewhere in the world are in an upswing mode. Many confess to having done precisely what elementary economics forbids: investing the whole of assets shelter, retirement, savings in dicey equities.
Further, as to
underscore the country's economic progress, it has become dependent on
15,000 Albanian, Russian, and Romanian laborers without whom seasonal crops
would not be picked. Greece, with a population close to 12 million, has
770,000 unemployed, and 2 ½ million living below the poverty line.
Yet, cafe bars are full with young people in the middle of the day (do
they not work, or go to school? Are they on daddy's allowance?), typically
sporting cell phones, cigarettes, and wheels there are 20,000 motorcycles
in Volos, with riders absent helmets! A well publicized study screams the
news that each cigarette consumed shaves six minutes off a smoker's life!
Greeks are hooked on soap operas, too. Kalimera Zoe (Good Morning, Life),
The Young and Restless, and Lamsi (Glow) are favorites.
During the intermediate
days of the Passover Festival, we commemorate in worship services my father
Jacob's, z"l, third anniversary since his death. Greek Orthodox Easter
Week begins with solemn daily liturgies. The faith's
English supplement of a popular Greek daily appended to the International
Herald Tribune reports an attack on the Monastir synagogue in Salonica,
and defacement of the city's Holocaust monument with swastikas and splattered
red paint suspiciously the work of Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist organization.
It takes the government five days to respond and condemn the incident,
and when it does, it is not the Ministry of Culture
Legal action is undertaken, and censorship is proposed for an author who has written a book that is not politically correct in its description and interpretation of the life of Jesus. The heated televised debates are reminiscent of the ruckus which attended the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses several years ago. The Greek model has not degenerated to the point of calling for the author's head, in large part, due to the calming influence of the remarkable theologian Archbishop of Athens and Whole of Greece Christodoulos (incidentally, previously having served in Volos).
But, truly, the
most agonizing moment of agitation for me as a Jew was April 28, Good Friday
in the Christian Orthodox calendar. In the afternoon edition of the televised
news, one Terrence Quick, ANT1's premier anchor,
Still, such negative
vignettes cannot erase the country's beauty, or the warmth of its people,
their essential decency, the vaunted "philotimo" after all, it was a Gentile
family (Stamos of Agios Lavrendios) who, with
As we rose to
take our leave on Sunday, April 30, there were fires everywhere for the
traditional lamb / goat roasting on open spits. It was Greek Orthodox Easter.
As the airplane lifts, the weird recurrent sentiment gnaws: I can't wait
for us to be out of Greek airspace; then, in time out of Europe, and feel
relief only when North America comes into view. Were we to suddenly encounter
an emergency, it is good that we shall come down in Canada
Sincerely, and with fraternal affection,
Asher J. Matathias is the President of the L.I. Lodge #1353, B'B'
|The general historical belief is
that Jews have been in Ioannina for some two thousand years. These
Jews came to speak a predominantly Greek language known as Judeo-Greek.
They also developed unique customs, cantillations, and prayers. When
the Sephardim began to arrive in Greece from Spain in the late fifteenth
century, their culture generally overwhelmed that of the Greek, or Romaniote,
Jews. However, Ioannina retained much of its distinctive Romaniote
tradition. Today, few Jews anywhere in the world identify themselves as
Romaniote. Only two Romaniote synagogues still function regularly. One
is the Kehila Kedosha Ioannina on 280 Broome St., the only remaining non-Ashkenazi
synagogue on the Lower East Side in NYC. The other is in Jerusalem.
There remains an elderly Jewish population in Ioannina of about forty.
Their synagogue holds services on only one day a year.
In 1997, at a celebration for the seventieth anniversary of the Kehila, a Christian guest, Takis Makridis, president of the Ioannina Cultural Association, announced plans for a joint Jewish-Christian trip to Ioannina. This trip provided an opportunity for Jewish members in the travel group to explore their unique pasts and learn about their Romaniote heritage. During the week in Ioannina, the group toured the city and a good deal of the surrounding Epirus region of northwestern Greece.
On the first afternoon the group
saw homes belonging to Jews who had, in later years, moved outside the
Turkish Kastro (old walled city), into the modern city. Most are
modest apartments situated above small shops. The group then entered
the Kastro and walked to the old synagogue where, together with some of
the few local Jews and various other visitors, the Minchah service was
davened, led by Hy Genee, spiritual leader of New York's
On Monday morning the group went
to Arta, one of the "feeder" cities to Ioannina for many Jewish families.
The whole group met with the mayor, then split, the Jews touring Jewish
sites in the city. It was an attempt to find
Wednesday, several of the Jews visited the Ioannina archives and searched for records about relatives. Some of the bureaucrats had apparently not been very helpful in the past, but there was greater cooperation now. Still, record keeping had been unreliable. Even so, some found at least some information about their ancestors and one found a great deal.
In Preveza, the mayor presented the
group with a list of all the names of Jews previously living in Preveza.
The mayor had also recovered a photograph of the now destroyed synagogue.
This he presented, enlarged and
The rest of the week was spent in
Ioannina itself. On Friday morning, the Jews made their return trip
to the archives and then went to see the cemetery--a sad sight. Older
grave stones were unidentifiable. Everything
Members toured the interior of the kastro, including the old fashioned fourno (bakery) where Ioannina Jews bought their bread. The fourno is a single small, hot room with bread and pastries covering the shelf-lined walls and a large wood-fueled oven. Many members enjoyed purchasing bread as a means of connecting with the past. Also toured was the former Turkish mosque and fortress overlooking the lake. Inside this complex there is a museum of Ioanniote history. A whole section is devoted to Jewish artifacts, including traditional costumes and household furnishings, arc coverings, Torah covers, and other synagogue items. There are also three old handmade ketubot or marriage contracts that the group attempted to translate.
On Friday evening, the group's Jews
went to the synagogue for Friday night services. There had been two
synagogues in Ioannina. The newer one had been built outside the
Kastro; with the Hebrew school, it used to occupy the entire block.
Both were destroyed by the Nazis, and converted into a stable. Part
of the lot is now the site of Jewish apartments. Members filmed the Minchah
service at the old synagogue--a large, beautiful structure enclosed within
high white walls. It is reached through a gate on a quiet kastro
side street. In front of the synagogue building is a sunny patio,
with an arbor on one side. To the other side and the back, there
The interior of the synagogue is
large, with the bimah in the back, an ehal, or prayer platform, in the
middle, and the ark in the front. The women's gallery is no longer
usable. At one time, the synagogue's ample space was
On Saturday, the Jewish members of the group attended services, joined toward the end by many of the Christians. It was a beautiful service, conducted by Hy Genee in conjunction with a leading member of the remaining Ioannina Jewish Community. Some expressed the fear that this might be the last Shabbat service held in Ioannina.
After the service, a sculpture was dedicated to the memory of victims of the Holocaust by the mayor of Ioannina with participation of the group. Thus, Ioannina joins the growing list of cities that have finally erected such monuments. After the dedications, the group attended an official meeting at the town hall, where the mayor presented awards to both group leaders-a Christian and a Jew.
|In July Jews tracing their ancestry
to Ioannina, in northwestern Greece, embarked on a week-long search of
their roots. They were accompanied by non-Jewish Ioanniote-Americans. Whereas
their counterparts had left Ioannina recently, still had family there,
and had regularly returned, the Jews were returning to the land of parents,
grandparents, or great grandparents; they had hitherto seen Ioannina briefly
if at all. Their Greek was either non-existent or quaintly antique or text-book
Until recently, some of the Jews had been but dimly aware of their heritage: a Jewish presence in Ioannina for perhaps nearly two thousand years and its Romaniote, Greek-speaking rather than Sephardic-Ladino background, though the traditions had largely blended over time. Most of the Jewish travelers were related to the Kehila Kedosha Janina (KKJ), one of two Romaniote synagogues (the other in Jerusalem) where services take place regularly. The KKJ's congregational leader, Hy Genee, and the curator of
its museum, Isaac Dostis, had planned the tour with Dimitrios Makrides, President of the Yiannina Cultural Association. Makrides' energy and commitment to Ioannina --including the historical Jewish presence and role there --made this trip special.
Arrival in Ioannina brought a rush of emotions. Most potent was the hope of connecting with ancestors--perhaps even living relatives. Most painful was the contrast as Greek Christians were greeted by familiars while Jews confronted the lonely legacy of the Holocaust.
That first afternoon Jews saw what had been homes (modest shop-top apartments) of those Jews who had moved outside the Kastro (old walled city). In the Kastro a narrow street led to the old synagogue where, together with several local Jews--the community numbers some forty-- visitors davened Minchah. At night, they attended a banquet where the Ioannina Mayor Lefteris Glinavos began a series of reflections by the region's mayors and governors on the place of Jews in Greek history and of steps to commemorate it.
On Monday the group visited Arta, met the mayor and visited Jewish sites (no buildings exist). A local showed where synagogue and Hebrew school had stood. All saw the square where Nazis had rounded up Arta's Jews. A monument is to be erected there. Tuesday the group toured the Zagoria and its scattering of mountain villages. There was discussion of how Greek resistance fighters, including Jews, had here successfully confronted Italian invaders in 1940.
Wednesday's visit to Ioannina's archives brought frustration for some but others found longed-for family information. That afternoon, near the Albanian border, all were officially greeted by Konitsa's local musicians and mayor's office, then taken to a country inn. Amid the rejoicing, dining, and dancing, a remarkable change occurred. Visiting Arta and the Zagoria, Jews and Christians had formed mostly separate though cordial groups. Now, celebrating together above the remote mountain town, they melded more into one group. The Jews were home. By the end of the week, all would join at a local's house where tables were laid with delicacies and a lengthy banquet cemented feelings of brotherhood. Many speeches expressed deep feelings about the remarkable trip.
In Preveza, Thursday, Mayor Dimitrios Tsoumanis had had the names of all Jews once of the town catalogued and certificates prepared for relatives. He also presented the Jews a photograph of the now-destroyed synagogue. The Christians again participated in the historic ceremony.
The last days centered on Ioannina itself. On Friday Jews, with Makrides, visited the cemetery. The older grave stones, worn and overgrown, were almost unidentifiable; some had been shattered. Makrides filled the group in on the vandalism and communication with city leaders and the Jewish community to redeem the ancestral resting place. Kaddish was said. Later, the group toured a former mosque, now a museum of Ioanniote history with a section devoted to Jewish artifacts: costumes, housewares, ark covers, and other synagogue items including two handmade ketubot.
Shabbat was to echo in history. On Friday evening, the Jewish visitors joined with the local Jewish community in the remaining synagogue. Eventh the women's gallery closed, the synagogue is commodious, with bimah in back, central prayer stand, and ark in front. Once, this ample space was filled every Shabbat. Now, only two rows were filled. Nonetheless, the group made the minyan, permitting the first Shabbat services in some time. The leader of the community made formal remarks, reviewing its modern history and the specialness of the occasion. Afterward, participants examined marble tablets with the names of the nearly 2000 exterminated Ioannina Jews.
Shabbat morning services again evoked many emotions--joy, pain, hope- and fear that this might be the last Shabbat service held at the synagogue. Unwilling to leave, visitors lingered within the outer wall. Next was a dedication, with the mayor presiding, of a Holocaust memorial to Ioannina's martyred Jews. The memorial stands now just outside the Kastro. After that was another wreath-laying, this at the city's memorial to fallen soldiers. The mayor then hosted a reception at which he presented awards to the trip's leaders and official photographs were taken. That night the mayor hosted a final dinner for the group. Throughout all the day's activities, including the synagogue service, Jews were joined by their Christian counterparts.
As travelers left to visit other parts of Greece, all felt the joy and sadness of a departure but not an end. Bonds had been forged, along with hope for a new unity between Ioannina Jews and Christians. On November 15th a group reunion at the Kehila Kedosha would provide an opportunity to discuss plans for dissemination of information about the trip as well as for a possible future joint trip of Ioanniote Christians and Jews. An Association of Friends of Greek Jewry has also been formed to preserve Jewish culture in Greece and promote awareness of Greek Jewish identity in the U.S.
| This article appears on
the site of Archaeology
Magazine (Online Archive) since September 23, 1998
Greek synagogues are modest buildings. Like their counterparts in Turkey, they are often hidden behind walls, accessed through small doors from the market or side streets. Their importance rests not so much in their architecture. Rather, they are remnants of an ancient tradition that has been lost in most parts of Greece, vestiges of thriving communities that perished during World War II. Their preservation and study is an obligation, and perhaps a last opportunity to save a tradition that is being lost to emigration, assimilation, and ignorance.
I returned to Greece in the summer of 1993 after spending ten years abroad studying and working in Israel and the United States. Coming from a world where Jewish heritage was considered worthy of preservation, I was shocked to find that the conservation of synagogues was not on the agenda of Greek or Greek-Jewish officials. The extent to which this was not an issue became clear when I started writing articles about the endangered state of Greek Jewish heritage, only to be told that I was threatening the well-being of the community! Despite this indifference, I began surveying and studying Greece's remaining synagogues, supported in part by the World Monuments Fund and a seed grant from the Jewish Museum of Greece.
Romaniots, the original Jewish population of the eastern Mediterranean
and the Balkans, have lived in the area since antiquity. Both the Greek
historian and geographer Strabo and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria
reported that organized Jewish communities existed throughout the known
world in the first centuries A.D. In Greece, substantial communities existed
in Thessaly, Beoetia, Macedonia, Aetolia, Attica, Argos, Corinth, throughout
much of the Peloponnese, and on the islands of Euboea and Crete. In the
first century A.D., Greek Jewish communities were visited by St. Paul the
Apostle on his second journey, when he preached Christianity in synagogues
at Philippi, Thessaloniki, Veroia, Athens, and Corinth. During the Byzantine
and early Ottoman periods the Jewish presence in Greece continued, but
little is known of the community's life, customs, and architecture.
The year 1492 marked an important revival of Jewish life in Greece, as many of Spain's expelled Sephardic Jews, and later Portuguese Jews, found refuge in the Greek territories and cities of the Ottoman Empire. Fighting between the Ottomans and the Byzantines had caused most major Greek cities to lose their Jewish populations. The Ottomans invited Jews to their new capital, Istanbul, to increase its population and revive trade. Territorial shifts in the Balkans throughout the early twentieth century brought changes in the composition and character of the Jewish communities of Greece. Salonika, a Jewish city throughout Ottoman times, became part of Greece in 1913 after the Balkan Wars weakened the Ottoman Empire strategically and territorially.
Serbia, Austria, and Bulgaria,
all fighting against the Turks, were eager to annex this majority Jewish
city and prosperous international port after it was seized from the Ottomans.
The city was finally "granted" to Greece, rather than declared an international
neutral city, only after political and economic speculation by Bulgaria,
Serbia, Russia, and Austria, and fighting between the Greek and Bulgarian
armies in the streets of the city in June 1913. During the 1930s, there
were 31 Jewish communities in Greece. The largest, in Salonika, had more
than 50,000 people, and no fewer than 60 synagogues and midrashim (oratories)
to serve a diverse population with roots all across the Mediterranean and
Eastern Europe. The German occupation of Greece during the Second World
War resulted in the annihilation of 87 percent of the country's Jews and
the destruction of most of its synagogues. Fortunately, a great many artifacts,
religious objects, and costumes of the Romaniot and Sephardic communities
have been preserved, many of which were bequeathed to the Jewish Museum
of Greece in Athens, which opened in the late
Jewish architecture was not nearly as fortunate. By the end of World War II, Jews had lost a great deal of their community property. Synagogues were destroyed, cemeteries were bulldozed and built over, and property was confiscated. Except for very few photographs and descriptions of survivors, little evidence of these buildings remains. In the postwar years, many more synagogues have been lost, mostly because there has been no Jewish community to maintain them.
Early Greek synagogues
were built by traveling builders' guilds (called isnaf) of the Byzantine
and later Ottoman times. These builders established a very distinct architectural
style that can be found in northern Greece, Bulgaria, Skopje, Izmir, and
elsewhere in lands that lay within the Ottoman Empire. The scale and detailing
of isnaf-built synagogues are similar to those of local houses and mansions
by the same or different isnafs. Unlike churches or mosques in the region,
which borrowed their architectural vocabulary from the Byzantine and Turkish
traditions, synagogues had no distinct architectural tradition, and thus
used design from residential construction. The isnafs used local materials,
mostly wood, to build synagogues which they placed atop shallow stone foundations.
Most interiors were decorated with wood, while the walls were coated with
three layers of plaster reinforced with
The layout of Greek synagogues is also a product of influences from abroad, as these communities were at a crossroads of international trade. The bipolar type of Romaniot synagogue is probably a product of Italian, mostly Venetian, influences. In this type, the bimah, or reader's table, is located against the western wall of the synagogue, while the eihal (scroll repository) is against the eastern. The central bimah in Sephardic synagogues derives from the Spanish tradition, and the Reform style of Greek synagogues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the bimah and the eihal are next to each other at the east end of the synagogue, has its roots in the Reform movement of mid-nineteenth-century Germany.
The most effective way to preserve Greece's Jewish architecture is to preserve the buildings themselves. Unfortunately, this effort began too late, after the Sephardic synagogue of Didmoticho, in Thrace, an astonishing building greatly influenced by the Signora synagogue in Izmir, was demolished in 1985. The Didmoticho and Signora synagogues shared a distinct architectural and decorative style; their interiors were organized in a central plan, where four columns define the center of the hall, a scheme known as Ottoman style. Capitals of these columns are neither classical nor of any defined style. They are most like the work of builder refugees from Izmir (Greeks or Jews who left Izmir after 1922), or of Balkan isnaf architects who were exposed to or involved in the building tradition of Izmir.
Two more synagogues were demolished in 1994 and 1995: the Beit El synagogue in Komotini, Thrace, a fine example of Balkan construction dating from the mid-nineteenth century, unique for its exposed roof lantern, and the synagogue in Xanthi, in Thrace, an impressive basilica dating from 1926, influenced by the Reform synagogues of Europe and Edirne (Adrianople) in Turkey. These two buildings were demolished in 1993 and 1995, respectively, months after I had surveyed them in their dilapidated state. Together with their survey and complete photographic documentation, I collected pieces of the buildings, such as floor and roof tiles (the latter made at the famous factory of the Jewish Allatini brothers in Salonika), pieces of the walls with painted floral decoration, a piece of a plaster capital of the columns, and other such "souvenirs." In a way, I was trying to keep their material memory alive, despite the fact that I knew that they were already dead as buildings.
Despite this destruction, though, efforts are now under way to preserve two of the most important remaining synagogues in Greece. Etz Haim synagogue in Chania, Crete, is a converted Catholic church of the seventeenth century that has been listed on the World Monuments Watch list of endangered sites thanks to the efforts of Nikos Stavroulakis, former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, and Lilian Kapon, of a Chaniot family. Support from international foundations such as Samuel Kress Foundation in New York and the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece will enable the restoration of the building and its conversion into an active synagogue and museum of Crete's Jewish history.
A similar effort is in progress in Veroia, a small city with ancient history important not only to Greek Christians, but to Greek Jews as well: Veroia was one of the cities that St. Paul the Apostle visited in A.D. 49-52. The synagogue of Veroia, a jewel of Balkan vernacular architecture built by isnaf craftsmen, remains in a state of neglect, within the fairly well-preserved Jewish quarter of the city. This quarter, one of the last remaining in Greece, is unique for its Hebrew inscriptions and verses painted on the exterior walls of houses.
The conservation effort in Veroia, coordinated by the author on behalf of the municipality of Veroia, has relied for support on two grants from the Getty Grant Program in Santa Monica, California, and matching funds from the local municipality. The goal of this effort is not only to preserve the last (outside Salonika) and oldest remaining synagogue in northern Greece, an area once scattered with thriving Jewish communities; it is also to create a permanent photographic museum in the building's basement presenting the history of the town's Jewish community, the synagogue, and the conservation program. As a matter of fact, Connecticut's Paideia Hellenic Society has already pledged to provide seed money for the conservation work and the creation of a permanent exhibition.
The final phase of the work on the building is scheduled to begin this fall. The small Jewish communities of Greece, such as Ioannina, Halkida, Rhodes, and others, with populations of fewer than 60 people, are as endangered as Chania and Veroia were 20 years ago. Soon the communities will disappear and their synagogues will be abandoned. The conservation projects of Chania and Veroia are important case studies and open the way for the preservation of Jewish heritage.
Back in 1993,
I felt alone in my efforts to preserve Greek Jewish synagogues. Today,
a new era is dawning for Greek Jewry; the international rediscovery of
Greek Jewish heritage is the necessary ingredient to help us preserve it
for the generations to come.
Copyright: Kol haKEHILA 2000.
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