Sephardic Studies

The Jews of Greece were proud descendants of the Spanish Jews who had fled the religious persecution of the Inquisition some five hundred years earlier. The Sultan had opened the lands of the Ottoman Empire to the Jewish refugees, and they settled all across the Mediterranean — in cities like Salonica, Kastoria, Athens and Constantinople.The customs and traditions of the Spanish Jews soon dominated the Jewish communities of the region, and within a few years the port city of Salonica, in northern Macedonia, became the most
important Sephardic city in all of Europe.

View of the quay in the port city of Salonica, in the Macedonian region of Greece, circa 1930’s. The greatest per-centage of Greek Jews could be found in Salonica, where the community Population numbered some 56,000. Salonica was the headquarters of the German Command in northern Greece, and the community was among the first to be deported to Poland. Barely 2,000 of the city’s Jews survived to return at the end of the war.

By the early twentieth century, Sephardic communities could be found throughout the entire Balkan region. With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, however, many communities found themselves separated by political and territorial boundaries, and centuries of commercial and spiritual ties were instantly severed. By the second decade of this century, there were twenty four official communities in Greece, a small percentage containing Romaniotes, or Greek-speaking Jews, whose origins dated back to the first century. Despite successful attempts to Hellenize the communities throughout the years, the Jewish presence in Greece resisted assimilation, and retained their unique Sephardic language, customs and traditions.

Economic conditions and the rise of fascism encouraged emi-gration in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and many thousands of Greek Jews resettled in America, France and Palestine. By the eve of the Second World War, Salonica still remained the largest and most prominent Sephardic community in Greece. Despite the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, Greece was in no way prepared for the Italian invasion in October 1940.

View of Athens, the capital of modern Greece, on the eve of the Second World War. Although the Athens Jewish community numbered around 1,000, the protection of the Italian authorities and the Greek church brought an influx of Jewish refugees during the war. While the Jewish the population rose to over 4,000, most were safely hidden among the Christian population and only 800 Jews were deported from the city.

The Greek army was victorious in defeating the Italian forces, but despite their successes they were powerless to pre-vent the German onslaught in April 1941, and the country was occupied shortly after. In Greece, as throughout all of occupied-Europe, the Nazis set about preparing for the Final Solution – the eventual liquidation of the Jewish population. Sheltered in their commu-nities and grouped around their ancient synagogues, the Jews of Greece were easy targets for the ruthless Germanauthorities. Despite the intervention of the Greek church and the temporary protection of the Italian authorities, the Greek Jews were systematically rounded up and sent to annihilation camps in Poland. In Salonica, where the community had flourished for nearly five centuries, it took the Germans only five months and nineteen transports to empty the city of its Jews.

Deportations from Greece continued into the spring and summer of 1944, as Jews were rounded up from nearly every community. Only a small handful managed to escape, retreating to the mountains or hidden safely by Christian families.

By war’s end the staggering loss of population became evident. Nearly 90% of the Jewish population in Greece had perished – some 62,000 individuals. Most had disappeared without a trace in the crematoria of Auschwitz / Birkenau.The small remnants who survived returned to find their property and possessions gone – all evidence of the Jewish presence in Greece had vanished completely. Many chose emigratin to the U.S. or Israel; others resettled in Athens, where many Jews had found shelter within the former Italian-occupied zone. Today the Jewish population of Greece numbers under 5,000 – a small percentage of the Sephardic communities, which had survived for centuries

And yet, too often in modern Holocaust texts, historians have overlooked the destruction of Greek Jewry. Greece suffered one of the highest percentage of losses in Jewish population during the Second World War and is often recounted as a footnote in Holocaust history.

The destruction was so complete, that today – only two generations later – few traces remain.As the surviving communities struggle with assimilation and intermarriages, it is not impossible to conceive of the day when historians will begin to question the very existence of Jewish culture in Greece.

General view of Didimitoka, in eastern Thrace, circa 1920’s.The Jewish communities of Thrace and Macedonia were Sephardic, and were influenced by the great Jewish communities in Salonica and Adrianople (Edirne). Much of eastern Macedonia and Thrace fell under Bulgarian occupation during the war, and as a consequence suffered the highest losses of Jewish population in Greece - nearly 99%.

To this effect, we offer a brief photographic record of the Jewish presence in Greece – their pre-war heritage, the destruction of their communities, and post-war reconstruction of the survivors. By focusing on the faces and families of the communities, we present this testimony to the vitality and color of the Jewish heritage in Greece. To these silent martyrs, who perished during the Holocaust, we dedicate this small exhibit. Let it ensure that our heritage and culture will not be forgotten, and that the memory of those who perished will endure forever in our hearts.


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