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. 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.
The Jewish community in Greece currently amounts to roughly 5500 people, concentrated mainly in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larissa, Volos, Chalkis, Ioannina, Trikala and Corfu, while very few remain in Kavala and Rhodes. 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, while nevertheless continuing to work with other Greeks, and Jews worldwide, to combat any rise of anti-Semitism in Greece.
The first recorded mention of Judaism in Greece dates from 300-250 Before Common Era (BCE) on the island of Rhodes. In the 2nd century BCE, Hyrcanus, a leader in the Jewish community of Athens, was honoured by the raising of a statue in the agora.
An even earlier appearance can be found in the work "De Somno" by the Greek historian and student of Aristoteles Clearchus of Soli (apud: Josephus, Contra Apionem, I, 176-183) Here Clearchus of Soli describes the meeting between Aristoteles (who lived in the 4th century BCE) and a Jew, who was already fluent in Greek language and thought in Asia Minor:
"'Well', said Aristotle, [...] 'the man was a Jew of Coele Syria (modern Lebanon). [...] Now this man, who entertained by 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.'"
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.
Greece fell to the Roman Empire in 146 BCE. The Jews living in Roman Greece had a different experience than those of Iudaea 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 first century CE. The Jews of Thessaloniki "enjoyed wide autonomy" in Roman times.
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.
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 fifteenth century. Jewish immigrants from France and Venice also arrived in Greece, and created new Jewish communities in Thessaloniki.
Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the mid-fifteenth 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. These immigrants established the city's first printing press, and the city became known as a centre for commerce and learning. The exile of other Jewish communities swelled the city's Jewish population, until Jews were the majority population in 1519.
In the late 1650s, Thessaloniki became home to Sabbatai Zevi, a Jew from Smyrna who claimed to be the messiah. Zevi gained a number of sincere believers in Thessaloniki, which was undergoing a revival of interest in mysticism and Kabbalah at the time. After Zevi's forced conversion to Islam, three hundred families of his followers became Donmeh, Zevi followers who continued a messianical crypto-Judaism after their conversion. The events prompted the organisation of more central leadership in the Jewish community, which would oversee increasing liberalisation of Ottoman laws two centuries later.
The middle of the nineteenth 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 the Jews employed violence against the Chrisitian population as a means of consolidating their political and economic power", as Jewish businessmen closed their doors to Greeks and Slavs and physically intimidated their rivals. This unusual balance of power shifted with the importation of modern anti-Semitism with immigrants from the West, however, and Greek Jews were the target of Greek and Armenian pogroms. Thessaloniki's Jewish community comprised more than half of the city's population until the early 1900s. As a result of the Jewish influence on the city, many non-Jewish inhabitants of Thessaloniki spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews, and the city virtually shut down on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Many sea-travellers reaching the port of Thessaloniki humorously recalled that Thessaloniki was a city were people worked only four days while resting three consequtive 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 the city's majority Jewish population had hoped that the city would be controlled by Bulgaria. Bulgarian control would keep the city at the forefront of a national trade network, while Greek control endangered Thessaloniki's position as the destination of Balkan village trading. After the liberation, however, the Greek government won the support of the Jewish community, and Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos was one of the first countries to accept the Balfour Declaration, 1917.
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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 being Colonel Mordechai Frizis, which first successfully repelled the Italian Army, but was overwhelmed by German forces. 86% of the Greek Jews, especially those in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany and Bulgaria, were murdered despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy and many individual Christian Greeks to shelter Jews. Although the Germans and Bulgarians deported a great number of Greek Jews, others were successfully hidden by their Greek neighbours.
On July 11 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki were rounded up in preparation for deportation to the German camps. 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 to find most of their sixty synagogues and schools destroyed. Many survivors emigrated to Israel and the United States. Today the Jewish population of Thessaloniki numbers roughly 1,000, and maintains two synagogues.
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".
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. 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. However, approximately two hundred out of a total population of 1900 managed to flee. Many among the local populace at the time provided shelter and refuge to those 200 Jews that managed to escape the Nazis. As well, a prominent section of the old town is to this day called Evraiki (Εβραική) 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.
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."
Muslim Cham Albanians collobarated with Nazis and played an active part in the Holocaust in Greece, including the round-up and expulsion to Auschwitz and Birkenau of the 2,000 strong Romaniotes Greek-Jewish community of Ioannina in April 1944
A Greek Neo-Nazi group, Hrisi 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 "...in 2003 the Chairman of the Central Jewish Board in Greece stated that he did not consider the rise in antisemitism to be alarming.".
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".
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