Jews in Greece

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There have been organized Jewish communities in Greece for more than two thousand years. The oldest and the most characteristic Jewish group that has inhabited Greece are the Romaniotes, also known as "Greek Jews". However, the term "Greek Jew" is predominantly used for any person of Jewish faith that lives in or originates from, or has lived in and originated from the modern region of Greece.

Aside from the Romaniotes, Greece is the home of a historical centre of Sephardic life; the city of Thessaloniki, called the "Mother of Israel" by Samuel Usque.[1] Greek Jews played an important role in the early development of Christianity, and became a source of education and commerce for the Byzantine Empire and throughout the period of Ottoman Greece, until suffering devastation in the Holocaust after Greece was conquered and occupied by the Axis powers in spite of efforts by Greeks to protect them.[2][3]

The Jewish community in Greece currently amounts to roughly 5000 people, concentrated mainly in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larisa, Volos, Chalkis, Ioannina, Trikala and Corfu, while very few remain in Kavala and Rhodes.[4] Greek Jews today largely "live side by side in harmony" with Christian Greeks, according to Giorgo Romaio, president of the Greek Committee for the Jewish Museum of Greece,[5] while nevertheless continuing to work with other Greeks, and Jews worldwide, to combat any rise of anti-Semitism in Greece.

Jewish cultures in Greece

Most Jews in Greece were Sephardim, but Greece is also the home of the unique Romaniote culture. Besides the Sephardim and the Romaniotes, small Ashkenazi communities have existed as well, in Thessaloniki and elsewhere.


Main article: Romaniotes The Romaniotes are a Jewish population who have lived in the territory of today's Greece for more than 2000 years. Their historic language was Yevanic, a dialect of the Greek language. Yevanic has no surviving speakers recorded; today's Greek Romaniotes speak Greek. Large communities were located in Ioannina, Thebes, Chalcis, Corfu, Arta, Corinth and on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, and Cyprus, among others. The Romaniotes are historically distinct from the Sephardim, some of whom settled in Greece after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain. All but a small number of the Romaniotes of Ioannina, the largest remaining Romaniote community not assimilated into Sephardic culture, were killed in the Holocaust. Ioannina today has 35 living Romaniotes.[6]

Sephardim in Greece

The majority of the Jews in Greece are Sephardim whose ancestors had left Spain, Portugal and Italy. They largely settled in cities such as Thessaloniki, the city which was to be named "Mother of Israel" in the years to come. The traditional language of Greek Sephardim was Judeo Espaniol (Ladino), and, until the Holocaust, the community "was a unique blend of Ottoman, Balkan and Hispanic influences",[7] well known for its level of education. The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture calls Thessaloniki's Sephardic community "indisputably one of the most important ones in the world".[1]

History of Judaism in Greece

The first recorded mention of Judaism in Greece dates from 300-250 BC) on the island of Rhodes. In the 2nd century BC, Hyrcanus, a leader in the Jewish community of Athens, was honoured by the raising of a statue in the agora.[8]

According to Josephus (Contra Apionem, I, 176-183), an even earlier mention of a Hellenized Jew by a Greek writer was to be found in the work "De Somno" (not extant) by the Greek historian Clearchus of Soli. Here Clearchus describes the meeting between Aristotle (who lived in the 4th century BC) and a Jew in Asia Minor, who was fluent in Greek language and thought:

"'Well', said Aristotle, [...] 'the man was a Jew of Coele Syria (modern Lebanon). [...] Now this man, who entertained a large circle of friends and was on his way from the interior to the coast, not only spoke Greek but had the soul of a Greek. During my stay in Asia, he visited the same places as I did, and came to converse with me and some other scholars, to test our learning. But as one who had been intimate with many cultivated persons, it was rather he who imparted to us something of his own.'"

Archaeologists have discovered ancient synagogues in Greece, including the Synagogue in the Agora of Athens and the Delos Synagogue, dating to the 2nd century BC.

Greek Jews played an important role in Greek history, from the early History of Christianity, through the Byzantine Empire and Ottoman Greece, until the tragic near-destruction of the community after Greece fell to Nazi Germany in World War II.

Hellenistic period

The empire of Alexander the Great conquered the former Kingdom of Judah in 332 BC, defeating the Persian empire which had held the territory since Cyrus' conquest of the Babylonians. After Alexander's death, the Wars of the Diadochi led to the territory changing rulership rapidly as Alexander's successors fought over control over the Persian territories. The region eventually came to be controlled by the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the area became increasingly Hellenistic. The Jews of Alexandria created a "unique fusion of Greek and Jewish culture",[9] while the Jews of Jerusalem were divided between conservative and pro-Hellene factions. Along with the influence of this Hellenistic fusion on the Jews who had found themselves part of a Greek empire, Armstrong argues that the turbulence of the period between the death of Alexander and the 2nd century BC led to a resurgence of Jewish messianism,[9] which would inspire revolutionary sentiment when Jerusalem became part of the Roman Empire.

Roman Greece

Greece fell to the Roman Empire in 146 BC. The Jews living in Roman Greece had a different experience than those of Judaea Province. The New Testament describes Greek Jews as a separate community from the Jews of Judaea, and the Jews of Greece did not participate in the First Jewish-Roman War or later conflicts. The Jews of Thessaloniki, speaking a dialect of Greek, and living a Hellenized existence, were joined by a new Jewish colony in the 1st century AD. The Jews of Thessaloniki "enjoyed wide autonomy" in Roman times.[1]

Originally a persecutor of the early Jewish Christians until his conversion on the Road to Damascus, Paul of Tarsus, himself a Hellenized Jew from Tarsus, part of the post-Alexander the Great Greek Seleucid Empire, was instrumental in the founding of many Christian churches throughout Rome, including Asia Minor and Greece. Paul's second missionary journey included proselytizing at Thessaloniki's synagogue until driven out of the city by its Jewish community.

Byzantine Empire

After the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire, elements of Roman civilisation continued on in the Byzantine Empire. The Jews of Greece began to come under increasing attention from Byzantium's leadership in Constantinople. Some Byzantine emperors were anxious to exploit the wealth of the Jews of Greece, and imposed special taxes on them, while others attempted forced conversions to Christianity. The latter pressure met with little success, as it was resisted by both the Jewish community and by the Greek Christian synods.[1]

The first settlement of Ashkenazi Jews in Greece occurred in 1376, heralding an Ashkenazi immigration from Hungary and Germany to avoid the persecution of Jews throughout the 15th century. Jewish immigrants from France and Venice also arrived in Greece, and created new Jewish communities in Thessaloniki.[1]

The Ottoman Empire

Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the mid-15th century, until the conclusion of first the Greek War of Independence ending in 1832, and then the First Balkan War in 1913. During this period, the centre of Jewish life in the Balkans was Thessaloniki. The Sephardim of Thessaloniki were the exclusive tailors for the Ottoman Janissaries and enjoyed economic prosperity through commercial trading in the Balkans.

After their expulsion from Spain, between fifteen and twenty thousand more Sephardim settled in Thessaloniki. According to the Jewish Virtual Library: "Greece became a haven of religious tolerance for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other persecution in Europe. The Ottomans welcomed the Jews because they improved the economy. Jews occupied administrative posts and played an important role in intellectual and commercial life throughout the empire." [10] These immigrants established the city's first printing press, and the city became known as a centre for commerce and learning.[1] The exile of other Jewish communities swelled the city's Jewish population, until Jews were the majority population in 1519.

The middle of the 19th century, however, brought a change to Greek Jewish life. The Janissaries had been destroyed in 1826, and traditional commercial routes were being encroached upon by the Great Powers of Europe. The Sephardic population of Thessaloniki had risen to between twenty-five to thirty thousand members, leading to scarcity of resources, fires and hygiene problems. The end of the century saw great improvements, as the mercantile leadership of the Sephardic community, particularly the Allatini family, took advantage of new trade opportunities with the rest of Europe. According to historian Misha Glenny, Thessaloniki was the only city in the Empire where some Jews "employed violence against the Christian population as a means of consolidating their political and economic power",[11] as traders from the Jewish population closed their doors to traders from the Greek and Slav populations and physically intimidated their rivals. With the importation of modern anti-Semitism with immigrants from the West later in the century, moreover, some of Thessaloniki's Jews soon became the target of Greek and Armenian pogroms. Thessaloniki's Jewish community comprised more than half of the city's population by the early 1900s. As a result of the Jewish influence on the city, many non-Jewish inhabitants of Thessaloniki spoke Judeo Espaniol, the language of the Sephardic Jews, and the city virtually shut down on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, given it sometimes the name of 'Little Jerusalem".[12] Many sea-travellers reaching the port of Thessaloniki humorously recalled that Thessaloniki was a city where people worked only four days while resting three consecutive days. This was due to the three major religions the population adhered to and their respective resting days: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians.

Ottoman rule of Thessaloniki ended in 1912, as Greek soldiers entered the city in the last days of the First Balkan War. Thessaloniki's status had not been decided by the Balkan Alliance before the war, and Glenny writes that some amongst the city's majority Jewish population at first hoped that the city might be controlled by Bulgaria.[13] Bulgarian control would keep the city at the forefront of a national trade network, while Greek control might affect, for those of certain social classes and across ethnic groups, Thessaloniki's position as the destination of Balkan village trading. After liberation, however, the Greek government won the support of the city's Jewish community,[2] and Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos was one of the first countries to accept the Balfour Declaration, 1917.[8]

World War II and the Holocaust

Population of Thessaloniki[14]

Year Total Population Jewish Population Jewish Percentage
1842 70,000 36,000 51%
1870 90,000 50,000 56%
1882/84 85,000 48,000 56%
1902 126,000 62,000 49%
1913 157,889 61,439 39%
1943 53,000
2000 363,987 1,400 0.3%

During World War II, Greece was conquered by Nazi Germany and occupied by the Axis powers. 12,898 Greek Jews fought in the Greek army, one of the best-known amongst them being Colonel Mordechai Frizis, in a force which first successfully repelled the Italian Army, but was later overwhelmed by German forces.[8] 86% of the Greek Jews, especially those in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany and Bulgaria, were murdered despite efforts by the Eastern Orthodox Church hierarchy and many individual Christian Greeks to shelter Jews. Although the Germans and Bulgarians[15] deported a great number of Greek Jews, others were successfully hidden by their Greek neighbours. Entire villages and towns of Greek Orthodox Christians were killed by the Nazis including the village of Distomo and the town of Kalavryta as punishment for their resistance in WW II.

On July 11, 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki were rounded up in preparation for slave labour. The community paid a fee of 2.5 billion drachmas for their freedom, the effect of which was only to delay deportation until the following March. 46,091 people were sent to Auschwitz. 1,950 returned[2] to find most of their sixty synagogues and schools destroyed.[14] Many survivors emigrated to Israel and the United States.[2] Today the Jewish population of Thessaloniki numbers roughly 1,000, and maintains two synagogues.[14]

The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture writes "One cannot forget the repeated initiatives of the head of the Metropolitan See of Thessaloniki, Gennadios, against the deportations, and most of all, the official letter of protest signed in Athens on March 23, 1943, by Archbishop Damaskinos, along with 27 prominent leaders of cultural, academic and professional organizations. The document, written in a very sharp language, refers to unbreakable bonds between Christian Orthodox and Jews, identifying them jointly as Greeks, without differentiation. It is noteworthy that such a document is unique in the whole of occupied Europe, in character, content and purpose".[2]

In Corfu after the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, the Nazis took control of the island. Corfu's mayor at the time, Kollas, was a known collaborator and various anti-semitic laws were passed by the Nazis that now formed the occupation government of the island.[16] In early June 1944, while the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the landing in Normandy, the Gestapo rounded up the Jews of the city, temporarily incarcerated them at the old fort (Palaio Frourio) and on the 10th of June sent them to Auschwitz where very few survived.[16][17] However, approximately two hundred out of a total population of 1900 managed to flee.[18] Many among the local populace at the time provided shelter and refuge to those 200 Jews that managed to escape the Nazis.[19] As well, a prominent section of the old town is to this day called Evraiki (Εβραϊκή) meaning Jewish suburb in recognition of the Jewish contribution and continued presence in Corfu city. An active Synagogue (Συναγωγή) is an integral part of Evraiki today with about 65 members.[18]

The 275 Jews of the island of Zakynthos, however, survived the Holocaust. When the island's mayor, Carrer, was presented with the German order to hand over a list of Jews, Bishop Chrysostomos returned to the Germans with a list of two names; his and the mayor's. The island's population hid every member of the Jewish community. When the island was almost levelled by the great earthquake of 1953, the first relief came from the state of Israel, with a message that read "The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us."[3]

Post-war community

A small Jewish community continues to live in Greece.[20] There are communities in Athens and Thessaloniki.

Anti-Semitism in Greece

Misha Glenny writes that Greek Jews had never "encountered anything remotely as sinister as north European anti-Semitism. The twentieth century had witnessed small areas of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks... but it attracted an insignificant minority".[7] The danger of deportation to death camps was repeatedly met with disbelief by Greece's Jewish population.

A Greek Neo-Nazi group, Chrysi Avgi, existed in Greece from 1980 until 2005, when it was officially disbanded by its leadership after conflicts with police and anti-Fascists. The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia 2002-2003 report on anti-Semitism in Greece mentioned several incidents over the two-year period making note that there were no instances of physical or verbal assaults on Jews, along with examples of "good practices" for countering prejudice. The report concluded that " 2003 the Chairman of the Central Jewish Board in Greece stated that he did not consider the rise in antisemitism to be alarming.".[21]

On November 21, 2003, Nikos Bistis, the Greek Deputy Minister of the Interior, declared January 27 to be Holocaust Remembrance Day in Greece, and committed to a "coalition of Greek Jews, Greek non-Jews, and Jews worldwide to fight antisemitism in Greece".[22]

There have been fears of resurgence of anti-Semitism in the context of the Greek government debt crisis which started in 2009. Makis Voridis of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) was described as having been an "an axe-wielding fascist" in his youth. He acted as minister of infrastructure and transport in the 2011 coalition government headed by Lucas Papademos.[23] Voridis later resigned from LAOS and joined the New Democracy party lead by Antonis Samaras; he remains in government.[24]

Famous Greek Jews


  • Glenny, Misha (1999). The Balkans: nationalism, war and the great powers 1804-1999, New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 0-14-023377-6.
  • Fleming KE (2008). Greece - A Jewish History Princeton University Press
  • Mazower, Mark (2004). Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 2004 HarperCollins
  • Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU, 2002-2003 Part on Greece, European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). URL accessed April 15, 2006. [PDF]
  • Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. URL accessed April 15, 2006.
  • The Holocaust in Greece at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Andrew Apostolou, "Mother of Israel, Orphan of History: Writing on Jewish Salonika", Israel Affairs 13:1:193-204. A review of recent work on the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.
  • Annette B. Fromm, Folklore and Ethnic Identity of the Jewish Community of Ioannina, Greece, Lexington Books, 2008, ISBN 9780739120613
  • Connerty, Mary C. Judeo-Greek: The Language, The Culture. Jay Street Publishing, 2003. ISBN 1-889534-88-9

External links



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, p. 1
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, p.2
  3. 3.0 3.1 Zakynthos: The Holocaust in Greece, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, URL accessed April 15, 2006.
  4. Short History Of The Jewish Communities In Greece (pdf), publicized by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece
  5. Current Activities of the Jewish Museum of Greece, The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. URL accessed April 15, 2006.
  6. The Holocaust in Greece: Ioannina, '. URL accessed April 15, 2006.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Glenny, p.512
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, p. 3
  9. 9.0 9.1 Karen Armstrong 2006 The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions Knopf New York isbn=0-676-97465-1 pages=350–352
  10. [1], Jewish Virtual Library The Virtual History Tour of Greece.
  11. Glenny, p. 183
  12. Daskalovski, Zhidas. Remembering the Past: Jewish Culture Battling for Survival in Macedonia. Central Europe Review. URL accessed July 10, 2006.
  13. Glenny, p.236
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Molho, Rena. The Jerusalem of the Balkans: Salonica 1856-1919 The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. URL accessed July 10, 2006.
  15. Glenny, p.508
  16. 16.0 16.1 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Holocaust in Corfu. Also contains information about the Nazi collaborator mayor Kollas.
  17. From the interview of a survivor interviewed in the film "Shoah"
  18. 18.0 18.1 Central Jewish Council of Greece website
  19. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: "[...]two hundred of the 2,000 Corfu Jews found sanctuary with Christian families[...]"
  20. Plaut, Joshua Eli, Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1973; Patterns of survival in the Greek Provinces before and after the Holocaust, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison and Teaneck, 1996,
  21. EUMC, p.12
  22. EUMC, p.13
  23. Rise of the Greek far right raises fears of further turmoil, Helena Smith, The Guardian 2011-12-16
  24. Israel must fight to keep neo-Nazis out of Greece's government, Sabby Mionis, Haaretz 2012-03-06

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