Christian History

Jewish Communities in Greece

Organized Jewish communities in Greece have a history of over two thousand years. The oldest and most characteristic group that dwelled in the country is the Romaniotes. Apart from the Romaniotes, Greece was the historic center of another large group of Jews, the Sephardites, and Thessaloniki was called in past the "mother of Israel" (Hebrew ir v'em beyisrael).

Large communities of Romaniotes existed in Ioannina, Thebes, Chalkida, Corfu, Arta, Corinth, as well as the islands of Crete, Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Cyprus. The Romaniotes are historically distinguished from the Sephardites who settled in Greece (mainly in Thessaloniki, Salonika in Ladino), following Sultan’s permission and determination of location, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 (decree of Ferdinand II and Isabella against all the heathens who refused to convert to the Christian Faith).

The first mention of a Jewish element in Greece dates back to 300-250 BC, in an inscription of Oropos, referring to a Jewish slave named Moschon Moschion. In the 2nd century B.C., Hyrcanus, a leader in the Jewish community of Athens, was honored by the raising of a statue in the agora. Nevertheless, the information and evidence of the presence of the Jewish element in the Greek world increase mostly during the Hellenistic period.

Synagogue Aegina Greece 5AD Above: Mosaic floor from 5th Century AD Synagogue, Aegina, Greece

Alexander the Great seized the former kingdom of Judah in 332 BC, having gradually been imposed on the Persian Empire, which occupied that area since King Cyrus conquered Babylon. After the death of Alexander the Great, the area remained under the control of the Ptolemaic dynasty, obtaining as a result the Hellenistic character. The Jews of Alexandria created a unique blend of Greek and Jewish culture, and the Jews of Jerusalem were divided into conservatives and philhellenes.

In 146 BC. the entire Greek territory was subjected to the Roman Empire. The New Testament describes the Jews of Greece as a separate from the Jews of Judaea community. That is enhanced by the fact that the Jews of Greece did not participate in the First Jewish-Roman war or in following it conflicts.

One of the most famous Jews, who acted on the Greek land in the 1st century, was a former persecutor of the first Jewish Christians (until his conversion on the road to Damascus) Paul from Tarsus, also known as the Apostle Paul. Paul from Tarsus, which formerly was part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, played a crucial role in the establishment of many Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire, especially in Asia Minor and Greece. Paul's second missionary journey included proselytizing at Thessaloniki's synagogue until he was expelled from the Jewish community of the city.

Synagogue in Chios Greece Above: Mosaic floor from 4th Century AD Synagogue, Chios, Greece

After the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire, elements of Roman culture continued to exist within the Byzantine Empire.

During the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews began to settle in Greece. The first group arrived in the region in 1376 heralding an Ashkenazi immigration from Hungary and Germany. The flow of these migrants increased during the 15th century due to the persecution of the Jews from these countries. Additionally, Jews from France and Venice arrived in Greece and founded new Jewish communities in Thessaloniki.

The Greek regions remained under the Ottoman occupation from the mid-15th century until the end of the Revolution with the Treaty of 1832 and the First Balkan War in 1913. Throughout this period Thessaloniki was the center of Jewish life in the Balkans.

After being expelled from Spain, some fifteen – twenty thousand Sephardites Jews settled in Thessaloniki. The constant arrival of Jews from various European regions due to persecution led to an increase in the Jewish population, until in 1519 it was the majority of the inhabitants of the city.

Synagogue Of Veria Above: The Jewish synagogue in Veria, Greece

By the middle of the 19th century, however, new changes took place in the life of Greek Jews. The Sephardic population of Thessaloniki had grown to between twenty-five to thirty thousand members and this had led to a lack of resources, hygiene problems and fires.

In fact, as early as the early 20th century, the Jews constituted more than half of the city's population. As a result of Jewish influence, even many of non-Jews in Thessaloniki spoke of the Judaeo-Spanish language(Ladino) of the Sephardi, and the city was virtually closed on the Jewish Sabbath. Travelers passing by the harbor of the city at that time were saying, humorously, that Thessaloniki was the city in which the working days were in fact four, followed by three days off, Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians.

The Ottoman domination in Thessaloniki ended in 1912 when the Greek soldiers entered the city during the last days of the First Balkan War.

During World War II, Greece was seized by Nazi Germany and was held by Axis forces. It is estimated that 12,898 Greek Jews fought in the Greek army. One of the most well-known was Colonel Mordechai (Mardochaeus) Frizis, who first successfully defeated the Italians, was later killed by a firing of Italian aviation. In total, 86% of Greek Jews, mostly in the German and Bulgarian occupied areas, were murdered in spite of the efforts of the Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy and many Greek Christians to provide shelter. Still, some have managed to hide with the help of their Greek neighbors.

In total 96% of the members of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, 46,091 people, were sent to Auschwitz. Only 1950 returned and found most of their sixty synagogues destroyed, their cemetery looted and their schools ruined. The Jewish community of Thessaloniki currently has about 1,000 members and maintains three synagogues.