Jews have left their imprint in Greece in many cities and towns over the more than 2,000 years of the community's history. The indigenous Jewish communities of Greece are the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. It was in Greek comminities (in modern Greece and Turkey) within the Roman Empire that St. Paul preached the Gospel to Jewish communities. This was before the Jewish Revolt and resulting Roman supression of the Jews in Palestine (66-70 AD). More Jews settled in Greece (at the time part of the Ottoman Empire) after their expulsion from European Christian kingdoms. Many of the Sephardic Jews from Spain found shelter in the Ottoman Empire. Many of these Jews settled in Greece which at the time was contolled by the Ottomans and Greek areas of Anatolia. The Ottoman policy was to allow Jews to set up community institutions like schools and hospitals. When Greece became independent (1830s) they allowed this practice to continue. They follow the same policy when after the Balkan Wars (1910s) they obtained Thessalonnika (a European are of the Ottoman Empire in what is now northeastern Greece. The NAZIs succeeded in almost entirely destroying these communities. At that time, the Germans occupied Greece, there were about 76,000 Jews in the country. Most or about 55,000 were in Salonika in the German occupation zone. There were 6,000 Jews in western Thrace under Bulgaria and 13,000 Jews in the Italian zone. The process of the Holcaust was thus affected by which occupation zone the Jews lived.
The indigenous Jewish communities of Greece are the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. We know that Jews were known to the ancient Greeks. we know very little, however, about Jewish communities at the time or their origins. There are reports of Jews in in Sparta, Samos, Rhodes, Cos, Delos, Crete, Aigina, Argos, and other sites. Archeologists have found evidence that synagogues existed in Athens, Corinth, Salonica, and Veria. It is not all together whether some of these communities date to the Greek or Roman period.
It was in Greek comminities (in modern Greece and Turkey) within the Roman Empire that St. Paul preached the Gospel to Jewish communities. This was before the Jewish Revolt and resulting Roman supression of the Jews in Palestine (66-70 AD). This leaves us to speculate as to the origins of the original Greek communities in Greece.
With the division of the Roman Empire and the adoption of Christianity as a state religion, the Jews in Greece came under the authority of the Eastern Empire which evolved as the Byzantine Empire. Not a lot of information about specific Jewish communities in Greece at the time. One report by Benjamin of Tudela describes prosperous Jewish communities in Greece (11th century AD). The Byzantine Jews are referred to as Romaniote Jews and spoke Greek. There were important communities in loannina and Arta.
The Ottomans finally took Constantinople (1453). This solidified the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans which was already begun. The Ottomans had already seized most of peninsular Greece. The remaining ouposts of Hellenism gradually fell under Ottoman control. The kingdom of Trabzon (Trebizond), at the southeast corner of the Black Sea, fell (1461). The Greek islands managed to hold out longer. The Ottomans took Rhodes and Chios (Khios) in the Dodecanese Islands (Dodekanisos), Naxos in the Cyclades, and Cyprus (16th century). The last major Gree outpost was Crete which fell after a lengthy siege (1669). The Ionian Islands west of the Greek Peninsula remained independent because of support from Venice. The situation for Jews actually improved under Ottoman rule. Many European Jews settled in Ottoman Greece after their expulsion from European Christian kingdoms. Many Hungarian Jews found refuge in Greece after their expuksion. Jews accused of spreading the plague also found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Many of the Sephardic Jews were stripped of their possessions and expelled from Spain and Portugal, but found shelter in the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan remarked, "They tell me that the Christian rulers are wise. But how can they be wise if they expel the Jews who enrich me?” The Sephardic Jews arrived in such numbers that they founded a new culturally detinct group of Jews. The Sephardim predominated in cities like Salonica or Veria, Rather than speaking Greek like the Romaniote Jews, but Ladino. The Sephardim
made important economic contributions to Greece, including printing, the textile industry, and international trade. More Jews arrived from Sicily and Apulia. Russian Jews fleeling the Cossacks (1648). Regardless of where they Jews came from they generally assimilated into either the Sephardic or Romaniote communities. Many of these Jews settled in Greece which at the time was contolled by the Ottomans and Greek areas of Anatolia. The Ottoman policy was to allow Jews to set up community institutions like schools and hospitals.
Greeks began a national revolt against the Ottomans (1821). A long war of national liberation followed. The Greek cause received support from the Great Powers (especially Britain and France). It was the great romantic cause of the day. Lord Byron, for example, went to Greece and died there. The Ottomans brutally repressed the Greeks supporting the revolt. The Ottomans in Constantinople executed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Gregory V in retaliation when the Greek revolt broke out. They reportedly then ordered some Jews to throw his body into the sea. Rumors spread in Greece that a Jewish mob desecrated the Patriarch's body. As a result, Jewish communities were targeted by Greek mobs (1821). [Finley] Mamy Jews were killed, others firced to convert. Some fled to areas of Greece still controlled by the Ottomans. With Western aid the Greeks were able to liberated almost half of mainland Greece. The Jewish community of Greece ceased to exist, Prince Otto and Princess Amalia of Bavaria became the first king and queen of independent Greece (1834). They brought a dentist from Vienna with them, Dr. Lefkowitz. He was at the time virtually the only Jew in all of Greece. He converted to Christian Orthodoxy.
The Balkan countries fought a series of wars known as the Balkan Wars with the Ottomans and with each other (1911-13). As a result of these wars, the Greeks liberated the rest of mainland Greece, including Thessaloniki with Salonica and its substantial Jewish community. The Ottomons had allowed the Jews to establish their own community institutions like schools and hospitals. The Greeks allowed this situation to continue. The Jewish community of Salonica, however, was devestated by a great fire (1917). The origins of the conflagration are unknown. There were 32 synagogues destroyed and about 50,000 Jews made homeless. Many went to France and Palestine.
After World war I, Greece and the new Turkish Republic fought a war over eastern Anatolia. Greece lost the war and afterwards there was a mandatory exchange of populations. About a million Greeks were repatriated from Turkey. This only worsened the tension between Christians and Jews. For many enpoverished and embittered refugees, there was little difference between Turks and Jews.
Jewish boys in the early 20th century were involved in both Zionist and non-Zionist organizations. The Zionist organization B'nai Zion was active in Greece (early 1920s). It was led by dentist Isaac de Botton. B'nai Zion did some fund raising for the Jewish National Fund. De Botton also edited the Judeo-Spanish Zionist newspaper La Fuerza (1922). This showed the Sephardic origins of many Greek Jews. De Botton also published the Judeo-Spanish periodical El Progresso (1924). These publications covered both local and regional events with on the the Jewish world. To mak the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, de Botton issued Leumi (National) in Judeo-Spanish (1925). In addition to B'nai Zion, Jews organized the HaTikva sport organization (1922). There were also non-Zionist youth groups. The principal group was the Boy Scouts. One group of Jewish Scouts organized in Xanthi (mid-1920s). They joined with the Salonikan Jewish Boy Scout Chapter Maccabee. We are not sure to what extent Jewish Scouts groups were organized because Jewish boyswere not welcomed in other Scout Gruops or if the primary reason that the boys wanted to be with other Jews. Perhaps a little of both. There were several other Jewish youth groups. One of the most important was a Jewish youth theater group. It was favorably commented on by the local press. There were also a music and sports association. We also note the club Cercle Israélite.
Metaxis tried to keep Greece out of World War II. Despite his Fascist-like regime, Greece had toes with Britain. Hitler after his victory in the West (June 1940) wanted stability in the Balkans so that he could concentrate on the Soviet Union in the east. A neutral Greece would was acceptable. What he did not want was a Briyosh presence. British planes from Greece would threaten the key Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Within the Axis, however, there was no joint planning. Mussolini decided to invade Greece with out consulting with the Führer (October 1940). It was the Greeks that handed the Axis there first defeat. The Greeks not only stopped the Italian invasion force, but drove them back into Albania. Colonel Mordechai Frizis played an important role at Epirus. He was killed in the fighting. His body only recently was returnrd to Greece for a hero's burial. About 500 Greek Jewish soldiers were killed during the fighting with Italy (1940) and Germany (1941). At the time of the War were about 77,000 Jews in Greece, 56,000 of whom lived in Salonica.
The NAZIs succeeded in almost entirely destroying these communities. Mussolini seized Albania in 1939. Without consulting Hitler, he launched an invasion of Greece, which had a Fascist Government, in 1940. The Greeks not only resisted the Italian invasion, but drove the Italians back into Albania. The Italian invasion was a miscalculation of imense proportions. It rurned a neutral Fascist Government into a regime sympathetic to the British. This and subsequent events in Yugoslavia forced Hitler to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union and secire his exposed southern flank in the Balkans. The Germans defeated the Greek and British armies and occupied Greece (April-May 1941). Greece was divided into three zones of occupation. Bulgaria annexed Thrace. Germany occupied Greek Macedonia, including Thessaloniki, Piraeus, and western Crete. Italy occupied the remainder of the mainland and the islands. Where Jews resided in these different occupation zones to a large degree determined their subsequent fate and their possibility of escape. Most of the 10,000 Jews who were in Greece when the Axis occupation ended, including the remnants of Macedonian and Thracian Jewries, made their way to Israel and other countries in the following decades.
The current centers of Greek Jewry are Athens (3,000) and Salonika (1,000), although the latter is today sadly only a remnant of the large, vibrant community that thrived in the city for some 500 years. Jews are also present in Corfu, Chalkis, Joannina, Larissa, Rhodes, Trikala, and Volos.
The clothing worn by Greek Jews seems to have been similar to the fashions worn by the wider Greek community. We have little information during ancient times. During the Ottoman era Jewish fashions often followed Ottoman styles. The red fez was often worn bu Jew into the early 20th century. We note boys wearing European fashions in the 20th century.
Finley. An English hisorian who traveled in Greece at the time.
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