The Jews of Greece. A chronicle

Antiquity and Early Modern Times

Above: Menorah from the Synagogue in Ancient Athens

Right: Jews in Traditional Dress

Starting in antiquity, Greek Jewry was constituted historically through successive waves of immigration, which defined its multi-faceted profile. In the Hellenistic and Roman period, small groups of Palestinian Jews settled in the great harbours of the Aegean and in the hinterland of the Southern Balkans. They adopted Greek, were incorporated into local societies, and transformed themselves into a specific national and linguistic sub-unit, the Romaniote Jews. The dominance of Christianity and the supersedence of Rome by the Byzantine Empire did not alter their position, and, unlike in the medieval West, there are no reports of mass, violent persecutions.

In the 16th century, the arrival of Sephardic Jews redefined the demographic and cultural features of Greek Jewry. Hounded from the Iberian Peninsula because of the Christianizing policies of the Spanish and Portuguese “Catholic Monarchs”, the Jews exploited the economic opportunities, religious tolerance and incentives to settle offered by the Sultans and migrated en masse to the great commercial centres of the Ottoman Empire. Centred on Thessaloniki, where 20,000 Sepharadim transformed the desolated city into a Jewish metropolis, they dominated in terms of population, finance and culture, absorbing or marginalizing the existing Romaniote communities. The 16th century was their golden age. Thanks to their expertise and their wide commercial networks they quickly became an organic feature of the booming Ottoman economy; thanks to the innovative Thessalonican rabbis, they made a decisive contribution to the renewal of Biblical studies; and finally, thanks to their pioneering printing-shops they spread new, scientific knowledge to the Ottoman East.

Thereafter, their position deteriorated. In the 17th century, the discovery of new trade routes weakened their networks, while the economic infiltration of European states strengthened their Christian Ottoman rivals. At the same time, the movement of the pseudo-Messiah Sabbatai Zevi divided the Jewish communities until it ended with the conversion of himself and his supporters to Islam and the creation of a new ethno-religious group, the Dönmeh. The economic, social and cultural position of the Jews in the Greek domain remained much the same throughout the 18th century, although the settlement of prosperous Italian Jewish merchants, particularly in Thessaloniki, finally prevented their total isolation from the West.

Modern Greece and Late Ottoman Empire

Thereafter, however, developments proceeded apace. In the 19th century, the advent of modernism, nationalism and capitalism in the Ottoman Balkans overturned all the certainties of life for the Jewish populations there. In 1821, the Greek Revolution broke up the Jewish Ottoman world. In the areas taking part in the Revolution, the religious anti-Semitism of the Orthodox Greek populations, the identification of the Jews with the Ottoman overlords, the ambivalence of prominent representatives of the Modern Greek Enlightenment as regards the position of Jews in the Greek state which was then being built and, in particular, the circumstances of the war all abraded Greek-Jewish relations and led to the massacre of the important Jewish communities in Tripolis and Patras. By and large, Jews would have no presence in the new, independent Greek state. In the first place, in terms of population, since their numbers shrank dramatically because of the persecutions and emigrations. Secondly, in terms of institutions, since the small and heterogeneous group of European Jews who had settled in Athens lacked any organized and recognized community until 1894. And thirdly, ideologically, since Orthodox, Greek Christianity formed the lynch-pin of Greek national ideology. Even though they had the right to vote, the Jews were symbolically excluded from the Greek political body. The idea of a “Greek Jew” was a lexical paradox and the Jewish residents in the Greek state were regarded as social pariahs -sometimes even being subject to violent persecution. In 1847, the Jewish foreign citizen Don Pacifico was denounced by the Athens mob and, in 1891, because of a blood libel, the Jews of Corfu suffered attacks over many days from their Christian fellow-citizens.

Jewish Members of a Masonic Lodge

In the same decades, the Jewish communities in Ottoman Macedonia, Epirus and Thrace, on the other hand, enjoyed a second period of prosperity. The reforms of the Tanzimât, the induction of the Ottoman Empire into the world economy, the increased Western European presence and, above all, the reform of the educational system (thanks to the activities of the French-Jewish educational organization Alliance Israélite Universelle), contributed to the demographic recovery, economic development, social reorganization and cultural restructuring of the Jews in Thessaloniki, initially, and thereafter of the other communities. At the beginning of the 20th century, the economic dominance and public activity of the Jews of Thessaloniki were determining inter-communal relations in the city and gave them a distinctly Jewish cast. At the same time, the Jewish identity itself was changing. Whereas the lower strata continued to live in the Sephardic world they had always known, French education provided by the wider school network of the Alliance linked being a Jew with being European. A broad stratum was created which considered French culture an integral part of their ethnic identity. At a time of acute nationalism, the Jews of Thessaloniki remained Jews precisely because the most dynamic element among them became increasingly Thessalonican, and also increasingly cosmopolitan./p>

The Inter-War Years

Victims of the Campbell arson attack housed temporarily in a school of the Alliance

The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the conquest of Macedonia, Epirus and Western Thrace by Greek forces put a violent end to this procedure. 100,000 Jews, together with numerous Slavo-Macedonians and Muslims, were incorporated into the Greek state. Until then Greece had been a homogenous country, but now acquired, for the first time, sizable minorities, as well as a closely-knit Jewish population. The issue of how to absorb them was one which needed to be addressed in any case, but after the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the collapse of the grandiose dreams of a Greek empire in 1922, it became a matter of urgency.

For the Greek state in the inter-war years, particularly for the party of Venizelos, the expansionist policy of Italy in the Eastern Mediterranean, the revanchism of Bulgaria and the domestic anxieties raised by an emerging Communist party made it imperative to establish state authority through swift reorganization of the administrative mechanism and the extension of its powers to all sections of society. The multiple cultural (and, potentially, political) dependencies of a “cosmopolitan” Jewish community, such as that of Thessaloniki, as well as the active participation of its lower echelons in the Socialist movement, therefore constituted a threat. Because of this, its total absorption became a necessary gamble -but one which would be difficult to win.

Roza Eskenazi

In the end, the process of incorporation proved painful, traumatic and less than perfect. The separation of the city from the Balkan hinterland and its conversion into a border town, as well as the change from a state of free trade into an increasingly state-protected economy, combined with the repercussions of the historical circumstances of the time (the continual wars during the decade of the 1910s, the Great Fire of 1917) to bring the city into economic decline, and with it the Jewish businessmen living there. At the same time, the resettlement of Greek Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor after 1922 was achieved largely through policies of ethnic preference and national homogenization. These policies were not narrowly anti-Jewish. They were, more broadly, anti-minority and were aimed more at incorporation rather than exclusion. Nevertheless, the Hellenization of the school system, the introduction of an obligatory day of rest on Sundays and the compilation of a separate electoral roll brought the Jewish community of Thessaloniki to the brink of ghettoization. Cleavages within the community itself, as well as inter-ethnic tensions also contributed to this development. The issue of the best way to handle incorporation into the Greek society did not unite the community. On the contrary, the allegiance of the lower middle classes to Zionism and of the working classes to Socialism hindered the upper class, who was in favour of assimilation, and led to a lengthy and harsh conflict within the community, where class antagonism was another aspect of the clash between different versions of incorporation. Within the city itself, economic competition from the refugees, the rise of anti-Communism and the spread of an extreme form of nationalism fuelled and legitimized an increasingly rough anti- Semitism, which came to a head in June 1931 with the arson attack on the Campbell Jewish neighbourhood by the Fascist organization “National Union of Greece”. At the beginning of the 1930s the Jews of Thessaloniki were, for the first time and to such an extent, undesirables in the city which had been for long known as “the Mother of Israel”.

And yet, in the midst of all these difficulties the first sparks of a new Greco-Jewish culture appeared. In the institutional sector, a new law concerning Jewish communities was passed in 1920 and transformed the content of Greek Jewry by adding civil rights to its confessional dimension. Since “Greek” and “Jew” had ceased to be considered mutually exclusive categories, the notion of a “Greek Jew” became feasible. As a legal category which incorporated all the Jewish citizens of Greece, it contributed to the reduction of community identification to the benefit of a broader identity of “Greek Jewry”. At the same time, the acceleration of linguistic Hellenization and the spread of a modern way of life produced new fields of Jewish-Christian co-existence, especially among the younger generation. This co-existence was accompanied by a more systematic embracing of modern Greek culture, to some extent high-brow, but mostly popular, the best-known examples being the poet Josef Eliyia and Roza Eskenazi, who sang rebetika songs. As the tensions which characterized the 1920s gradually receded, the institutional modernization and cultural osmosis seemed to be finally contributing to the forging of a Greek-Jewish culture and, indeed, perhaps to broader Greek national consciousness.

The Holocaust

The Second World War seemed temporarily to strengthen these tendencies. Jews of Macedonia, and particularly those from Thessaloniki, enlisted in the first battalions which were sent to the Albanian front. Indeed, the death of the Romaniote colonel Mordechaï Frezi symbolically made the Greek Jews part of the fighting nation. But the German invasion in 1941 and the concomitant triple occupation of the country meant that their fate would depend on the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime and the ambivalences of Greek national ideology, as well as the imperfect integration of the Jews themselves.

Jews being marshalled in Liberation Square

The implementation of the “Final Solution” started from the German Occupation zone and, more specifically, from Thessaloniki. On 11 July 1942, Jewish males were rounded up in Liberty Square, where, at the orders of German officers and under the eyes of the Greek police, they were subjected to public ridicule before being deported to forced labour camps. The high percentage of deaths from the inhuman conditions of work forced the community to pay extortionate ransoms for their liberation, part of which was the ceding of the Jewish cemetery. In December 1942, a necropolis which was one of the largest and most ancient in Europe was utterly destroyed, thanks to the collaboration between the German authorities and the Municipality of Thessaloniki. The deportation of the Jews of the city themselves began four months later, in March 1943, and was completed in August of the same year. At the same time, all the Jews in Macedonia and Thrace, which were subject to German and Bulgarian administrations, were also deported. Those who escaped were very few, either hidden, having enlisted in the Resistance, or having fled to the Italian zone of occupation.

The capitulation of Italy in September 1943 meant the extension of the “Final Solution” to the rest of Greece. But the fate of the Jewish communities there was not at all uniform. The Jews of Ioannina, Corfu, Crete and Rhodes disappeared; but those of Athens, Thessaly and Zakynthos survived. They were an exception, however. The Holocaust decimated the Jewish population of the country, to the extent that almost 88% of the population was lost, one of the highest proportions in Europe. In 1940, some 80,000 Jews were living in Greece. In the wake of the liberation, they numbered just over 10,000.

Jewish children disguised and hiding in a Greek village

The geography of the Holocaust was shaped by a host of factors. Among these, the degree of Hellenization of the Jews themselves perhaps played the smallest role. The Greek-speaking Romaniotes of Ioannina suffered the same fate as the Spanish-speaking Sepharadim of Thessaloniki. On the other hand, some of the crucial variables proved to be the size of the population of the communities, the point in time when the deportations took place, the extent to which resistance organizations had developed, the chances of getting away and the exploitation of existing networks (business, political or societal). These were interwoven with the various attitudes evinced by local agencies and the people involved, vanquishers and vanquished, persecutors and persecuted- attitudes which extended from active assistance to indifference and compliant collaboration. In the end, though, the almost total loss of Greek Jewry was the result of the conjunction of two differently weighted factors. The first and principal of these was the policy of genocide on the part of the Germans. But to a secondary degree, it was also due to the handling of the deportations by the apparatchiks of the Greek state (and even, to some extent by the resistance organizations) as a German-Jewish issue which had more to do with a foreign minority than with a constituent part of the Greek nation.

After the war

After the war, Greek Jewry was made up of survivors: from the concentration camps; those who had enlisted in the Resistance; those who had hidden in Greece or escaped to Palestine; as well as those who had been baptized Christian. And yet, the different experiences of the war and the persecution worked in different ways. During the first of the post-war years, there was intense controversy over the “hostages” from the camps and those who had managed to avoid deportation. Those who had embraced Christianity were expelled from the community, as were a great number of young women. Stigmatized for having been raped in the concentration camps, symbols of the danger of moral degeneracy among a small proportion of the Jewish nation, they searched, for the first time, for security elsewhere, marrying either Christians or non-Greek Jews.

Jewish leftist exiles on Makronisos

Internal conflicts were thrown into even starker relief by the initial problems of the task of restoring their situation. For all of the survivors, the process of adjustment proved particularly difficult and, for many, impossible. They had to live in towns where they were haunted by pre-war memories and to overcome a great number of obstacles in order to reclaim their properties. Former EAM partisans, and those survivors of the camps who were freed by the Soviet Union, also encountered opposition due to the Civil War. The resurgence of a more zealous Orthodox, Greek, anti-communist national sentiment yet again restricted the terms of Greekness and made the Jews doubly undesirable. Large numbers were persecuted for their left-wing leanings, while others were drafted into the National Army. Understandably, emigration presented itself as a realistic option for many survivors. In the deportation camps in Germany and the preparatory hashkara in Athens, the pointlessness of returning to Greece, the difficulties involved in getting back on their feet, combined with Zionist propaganda to persuade many young people take the option of emigration to Palestine- though this often resulted in them spending many months in Cyprus as temporary internees of British Displaced Persons camps. A second wave made use of the opportunities granted by the U.S.A. which facilitated migration, and, from the start of the 1950’s they began leaving the country. Today, there are around 5,000 Jews living in Greece. But there are a great many more Greek Romaniote and Sephardim holocaust survivors and their offspring in the U.S.A. and Israel. Contemporary Greek Jewry is now part of a diaspora. And it remains, as ever, plural and multi-faceted, the product of successive waves of emigrants and of multifarious cultural interactions.


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Katherine Fleming, Greece. A Jewish History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007

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Orly C. Meron, Jewish entrepreneurship in Salonica, 1912-1940: an ethnic economy in transition, Brighton: Sussex ACademic Press, 2011

Anthony Molho, ‘The Jewish Community of Salonica: the end of a long history’, Diaspora 1/1 (1991), pp. 100-122

Rena Molho, Salonica and Istanbul: social, political and cultural aspects of Jewish life, Istanbul: Isis Press, 2005

Leon Sciaky, Farewell to Salonica: city at the crossroads, Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2003

Nikos Stavroulakis, The Jews of Greece, Oak Brook, IL.: American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece, 1984

Minna Rozen, ‘Jews and Greeks Remember Their Past: The Political Career of Tzevi Koretz (1933-43)’, Jewish Social Studies 12/1 (2005), pp. 111-166