Guide to SKOPJE

Tracking down Greek-Jewish landmarks in Athens

In order to present a portrait of Athenian Jewish landmarks for Balkon3, I had a look at the Athens archives of the Jewish Museum downtown. There I heard some very pleasant news: a group of (what turned out to be) some 600 people of non-Jewish ancestry were shortly to follow a similar trail. So I joined the guided walk organized by Polis/Atenistas, a group that works on actively improving aspects of our urban life. They had decided on this event after the success of their previous walk tracing Ottoman Athens.

Introducing…

The Jews of Greece are the oldest recorded Jewish community in Europe, dating back 2.300 years. You’ll hear them identifying themselves as “Greek Jews” and their story today is profoundly intertwined with the one of the country. Athens is the city where the majority of the community lives today (some 2.500 of a total 5.500). The Athens Community has been officially recognized by the modern Greek state in 1889. Following the gradual abandonment of Athens historical centre by its residents since the 1970’s, they now mostly live scattered around the suburbs in concrete-built apartment blocks, in which indeed most Athenians live.

The Jewish Museum of Greece

Established in 1977, definitely a must-spot for getting acquainted with the history, legacy and everyday life of the Jewish community in Greece. Awarded for its contribution to inter-cultural understanding, it is now hosted in a building of the Athenian neo-classical style, refurbished in 1997 to facilitate the needs of the display and the regular educational activities.

Mrs Orietta Treveza – Sousi is responsible for the educational program, ongoing for over a decade. She told me that there is an increasing amount of schools from all over Greece visiting the museum in organised tours now planned 3 or 4 times per week. Moreover, there are seminars for school- teachers at the museum itself (in formal education curriculum Greek children are taught about the Holocaust), as well as an educational pack addressed to 10-15 year old school children, which travels in schools around the country. 

Jewish Museum of Greece

Ms Trevela welcomed the visiting “Atenistas” and offered a special guided tour to the Museum’s remarkable collection. The crowd filled the basement which includes an old Synagogue, removed from the (no longer operating) original building in Patras, SW Greece. 

Two types of traditional costumes represent the two principal origins of the Greek-Jewish heritage: the Romaniotes (“ Rom-” being a generic name for the people of Greece who came under the Roman Empire) and the Sefardites (from “Sefarad” i.e. Spain), evicted by the Spanish Monarchs after the entire country was overtaken by King Ferdinand (1492). 

Romaniotes have been a unique Jewish-Greek amalgam. They became a peoples highly integrated into the Greek communities in fundamental aspects of everyday life though keeping of course their faith. It is characteristic that they spoke Greek but used the Hebrew alphabet in writing down the Greek language. For a period of 1.800 years their presence in Greece as representatives of their faith was overwhelming prior to the 15th century settlement of 20.000 Sephardi Jews as refugees from Spain, Southern Italy and Portugal. Sephardites became equal to all other non-Muslim Ottoman subjects (which also meant religious recognition and rights) after the politics of Sultan Beyazit II. They introduced Judeo-Spanish or Ladino (a dialect of Castilian), were highly urbanized as a culture and brought an air of cosmopolitanism to the places they inhabited. Most settled in “Mother of Israel” Thessaloniki, since then a significant cradle of Jewish diaspora heritage in Greece, the Balkans and the Mediterranean.

Wine and utensils for performing the Sabbath prayer from various Synagogues of Greece. The exception is the lower framed embroidered cover for the bread which comes from Bitola, Rep. of Macedonia. Today, the most central Synagogue in Thessaloniki is the Monastiriotes Synagogue (1925) built with the contribution of Jews originating from Monastiri (Bitola).

The ceremonial bridal bath equipment from the Ottoman days (water bowl and wooden clogs) looks very similar to the ones found today in historical hamams of Istanbul, Turkey. Indeed, the items here originate from Istanbul, as well as Egypt and Greece.

Greek Jews followed the fate of Greece along the much turbulent history of the first half of the 20th century; here, joining the long list of war casualties as soldiers and officers in the Balkan Wars, WW I, the Asia Minor Campaign, WW II, the Anti-Nazi resistance. The Museum especially dedicates its premises to Mordehai Frizis, one of the first Greek army officers who fell at the frontline defending the country from Mussolini’s troops in 1940.

There is a unique all-European fact, understandably highlighted at the Museum: the saving of thousands of Greek Jews via openly expressed and co-ordinated action by non-Jewish Greek institution during the Nazi occupation; namely the Greek Church, the Police, the Academy, institutes of tertiary education, technical and professional chambers and various local authorities. For this cause, Jews were kept by their fellow citizens into hiding and new ID’s with Greek-Christian names were given to people who consequently escaped eviction and death in concentration camps.

This was the case of the majority of Jews living in Italian-occupied Athens in the early 1940’s (some 4.000 prior residents plus 3.000 refugees from Nazi-occupied Thessaloniki), who were “considered fellow-Greeks and were trusted by their neighbors” (Chronicles of the Central Israelite Council of Greece). They inhabited and worked in a culturally – mixed environment around the districts of old Athens namely Plaka, Monastiraki, Petralona, Thission. The Chronicles and the Encyclopaedia Judaica go on to record the plot of “kidnapping”(to safety) of the city’s Rabbi Barzilai with the contribution of the local authorities and members of the Anti-Nazi resistance. Despite the Rabbi’s crucial aid to the local population, 1.500 Athens Jews didn’t escape arrest and eviction to Auswitch-Birkenau. 800 of them were arrested here, outside the Synagogue.

The first Jews in Athens

Our group stood for a short history briefing by a specialized guide/researcher outside the Ancient Agora (archaeological site), where traces of an Ancient Synagogue (3rd c. A.D.) were discovered. 

According to historian M. Molcho contact between ancient Athenians and Judeans was recorded already by 6th c. B.C. yet actual settlement in Greece started in the Hellenistic times, following Alexander’s conquests in the Middle East. Living under common Empire and using Greek as a common language continued during the Roman and Byzantine eras. The group’s guide reminded us that one can easily trace late-antiquity Jewish settlements all over Greece simply by referring to the Christian Bible (Acts of Apostles), particularly Apostle Paul’s epistles (and actual visits) to the Jewish communities of the 1st century A.D.

3rd c. A.D. fragment of a bas-relief found in the Athens Agora, depicting a Menorah and a palm-tree leaf (lulav). Jews continued to arrive and settle in Greece after the revolts in Judaea and the destruction of the Temple of Solomon by the Romans.

A new monument for the Holocaust

The group continued the walk to the most central monument for the Holocaust in Athens located right next to the Agora near the end of Ermou st. (Thissio district). It was inaugurated in 2010 after a five-year process and is a contest-winning marble sculpture by Diana Magania. Loses of lives for the total Jewish population of Greece amounted to 87%, one of the highest in Europe. Hence the “rays” of the “star” (reference to the Star of David) are broken apart from a core that still remains.

Names of Greek cities are engraved onto the rays reminding once prominent communities. Here they commemorate Thessaloniki, Kavala, Drama, Serres, Xanthi, Larissa, Veria, Volos, Chalkida.

Cities that never recovered from the loss of their important Jewish heritage also include Ioannina in NW Greece (central point of reference for the Romaniotes) and Chania in the island of Crete (which saw the flourishing of a particular Rabbinical scholarship).

By vote of the Hellenic Parliament (2004) January 27th is commemorated as Day of Memory for the Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust.

Melidoni Street of Synagogues

Near the Monument, small elegant Melidoni st hosts the 2 Synagogues operating in Athens. The group of trailers was welcomed by Rabbi Mizan and members of the Athenian Jewish community in Beth Shalom Sephardic Synagogue (b.1935), the only one that operates regularly. Its architectural features are original, different than what is usually found in Synagogues in Greece and include two stained-glass windows depicting perceptions of the faith, crafted by a non-Jewish Greek artist.

 

Entering Beth Shalom I was quite surprised by the sudden change of my compatriots (they stopped talking and quietly, calmly found their way to the chairs) and the Rabbi obviously felt the need to clarify that a Synagogue is not a Church, i.e. it is not considered the Residence of God where everyone must keep silent! Consequently… relaxed, the visitors were informed that this is a multi-purpose social interaction point, including casual meetings of friends. The Hebrew language preserved via observing religion has been of utmost importance for keeping bonds among the diverse groups of Jews who have lived and live in Greece. Larissa-originating Rabbi Mizan responded to our crowd’s preference of getting to know the Synagogues’ oldest Tora scroll (the Holy Book of Judaism), which he personally bought and restored in the accurate way that religion demands.

Ets Haim Romaniote Synagogue (b.1904; also called Yianniotiki, “from Ioannina”) faces Beth Shalom on Melidoni st. By a twist of history, the only Romaniote Synagogue serving to an original Greek-Romaniote community lies in Manhattan, New York City. Kehila Kedosha Janina was built in 1927 by Ioannina Romaniotes joining the great immigration movement immigrating to the U.S.A. at the turn of the 20th century. In post-Holocaust Greece such distinction by origin practically lost its meaning and the community is interested in preserving an identity that corresponds to their contemporary needs.

Food for thought

At the end of our trail we met Nechama Hendel from France, who is (together with her Rabbi husband) the proprietor of Athens’ new and sole kosher restaurant, i.e. serving food as according to the dietary rules of Judaism. She charmingly excused herself for her French accent and welcomed the group to “Gostijo” for a special meal offered to our crowd. The Sephardic restaurant aims in serving locals and tourists who either need to observe Jewish diet or simply wish to get introduced to a cuisine inspired from Greek and Mediterranean Jewish tradition.

Kosher food is largely compatible with traditional Greek (strictly) vegan dishes, as well as the local love for wine and sea-sourced fish – unfortunately, it is hard to find ingredients with proper certification in the mainstream Greek market (thus depend on imports). According to some views from the Community, the population is too small to determine demand. But there is a growing kosher certification trend that came from abroad but aims, instead, at local Greek food to be kosher-appropriated.

There is one undisputed fact: Greek Jews are decreasing in numbers not only because of mixed marriages but also due to the general population ageing (an all-Southern European phenomenon) and youth immigration in our times of financial crisis.

For the day’s closure and since music is indispensable to any social gathering in Greece, a group of musicians performed live songs of the Sephardic tradition. We were joined by other members of the Community sitting down with us to a delicious lunch.


Want to follow a trail for yourself? Here is some useful information:

  • Jewish Museum of Greece, 29 Nikis street (Syndagma)

www.jewishmuseum.gr

  • The Athens Agora

http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2485

  • Beth Shalom Synagogue

http://www.chabad.gr/templates/articlecco_cdo/aid/66375/jewish/Synagogues.htm

  • Gostijo Sephardic restaurant

https://www.facebook.com/Gostijo?sk=photos#!/Gostijo

  • Kosher food in Athens (generally)

http://www.jewishmuseum.gr/en/information/restaurants.html

  • Kosher consultants in Greece (technical info)

www.koshertechnicalkonsultants.org

Sophia Nikolaou

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