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The Flame Still Flickers in Greece

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

After more than 2,000 years, the once-vibrant ancient Romaniote kehillah — swallowed up by Sephardic immigrants and nearly wiped out by the Nazis — aren’t packing yet. We wanted to catch them before it’s too late

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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FORMER GLORY In Trikala’s well-kept but lonely shul, we davened the first Minchah the shul has seen in many years (Photos: Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan)

F or the longest time we’d wanted to visit the Jewish communities in Greece, and see if we could encounter the last remaining Romaniote Jews in their home setting before they entirely disappeared from the stage of history. This ancient community, dating back to 300 BCE — the era of Antiochus and the Hellenists — became known as the Romaniotes, speaking their own language, Yevanic or Judeo-Greek, a version of Greek infused with Hebrew and written in Hebrew script. But the community numbers in just the tens today, having been swallowed up by the larger Sephardic communities that immigrated to these islands over the centuries, and then nearly finished off by the Nazis.

We finally had opportunity to make the journey, and as we drove into their native Ioannina (pronounced Yo-a-nina and also known as Janina) in northern Greece, we were struck by the sight of an ancient fortress whose maze-like lanes were originally designed to confuse pirates who breached the walls. Just outside the walls stand many buildings in disrepair, and while wandering these alleyways searching for a place to bed down for the night, we came across an old building with a Magen David on its plaster — and another building with the Jewish star on its metal grill work. We knew we weren’t too late.

These days the large synagogue in Ioannina — a town known for its feta cheese and baklava — opens its doors for prayer only one day a year, on Yom Kippur. The inscription over the door gives its date of completion as 1829, but it sits on the site of an older synagogue that dates back to the 16th century. There was also a “new shul” outside the fortress that was all but obliterated by the Nazis. We headed to northern Greece, not far from the Albanian border, to investigate what’s left of this community. There are so few Jews left that even prearranging access to the shuls, an important prerequisite for such a mission, proved difficult, and we headed out counting on siyata d’Shmaya, which did not fail. We had a good feeling when we asked a random man for directions out of Athens; he looked at our yarmulkes and told us that he was an Iraqi Jew now living in Switzerland, and gave us his number to call should we have problems during the week. What are the chances?

We found ourselves driving through long tunnel after long tunnel — a phenomenal feat of modern engineering. In this area 76 tunnels totaling 99 kilometers in length lead right through the forested hills.

Although we couldn’t understand a word spoken on the streets (reminding us of the phrase “it’s all Greek to me”), we remembered many Greek letters from our coursework in trigonometry and calculus, so we had fun trying to read the road signs. We were constantly attuned to the significance of Greek — of all the languages in the world, Greek is the only one that the Mishnah (Megillah 1:8) says might be acceptable for writing sacred books, although Rambam explains (Hilchos Tefillin 1:19) that modern Greek differs from the language Chazal were familiar with. Still, there are reports that in the 16th century there were communities here that read Maftir Yonah in Greek as a remembrance of the language’s unique halachic status.

Almost the End

During our visit we were fortunate to meet with Dr. Moshe Elisaf, the longtime president of this tiny community, which today numbers fewer than 40 people. Some of them are well into their 80s, and most of the youth have moved to Athens and other large cities. The kehillah hasn’t celebrated a bris or wedding in more than 30 years. The last bar mitzvah was in 2000.

It was nevertheless amazing to learn that seven of the community members are university professors of medicine, physics, math, or archaeology. Dr. Elisaf, an educated and motivated Romaniote, shares how the community had been large and active, with both boys’ and girls’ schools, until the last century. Between 1902 and 1904, about half the 4,000-strong population emigrated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they established the Kehillah Kedosha Janina, the largest Romaniote kehillah existing today.

In July 1943, Ioannina and its 1,950 Jews were transferred from a relatively safe Italian occupation that had begun in 1941 to a brutal Nazi rule. The Jews of Ioannina were rounded up by the SS, which in Greece was run by the notorious General Jurgen Stroop, who had earlier put down the Warsaw ghetto uprising. (For his crimes in Warsaw and Greece he was later sentenced to death by a US military court and hanged in Poland.)

On March 25, 1944, the Jews were shipped out to spend a cold, snowy night in the Jewish cemetery in the nearby town of Trikala, from where, together with the Jews of Trikala and Larissa, they were transported to Auschwitz. The overwhelming majority was immediately gassed. Only 112 survived the death camp, and another 69 had escaped the roundup by hiding with Christian families or fleeing into the mountains, where some fought with the Greek resistance. (Sabethai Cabilli, a wealthy businessman, chazzan, teacher, and strong-willed opinionated community leader, was seemingly duped by the Nazis, and mistakenly called for people to tell their children who had joined the partisans to return to the city where they would be safe.)

After the war, about 100 made their way back to Ioannina to try to rebuild what had been ripped away. Many found their properties looted and homes occupied. So after more than 2,000 years, this once-vibrant Jewish community limped along with just a handful of its original members.

The magnificent sifrei Torah of Ioannina were hidden in a crypt during the Holocaust. When the Nazis discovered them, a sympathetic mayor convinced the conquerors to leave the spoils. Today they’ve been returned to the survivors

But they were not ready to give up. Before World War II, there were two main synagogues in the city. Until the 16th century everyone davened in the Old Kehal Kadosh synagogue, located within the old city walls. With the expansion of the community into a new neighborhood outside the fortress, the New Kehal Kadosh synagogue was constructed. The second shul was destroyed by the Germans, and many of the Jewish houses in that neighborhood were also damaged beyond repair and still sit dilapidated as quiet testimony to their occupants who never returned. The owner of the charming boutique hotel in which we stayed told us that she actually tried to buy one of those collapsing Jewish properties, but there are endless rules about preserving exterior facades.

The old shul had a different fate. At one point during the occupation, the trustees of both synagogues hid the Torahs, parochos, and other ritual objects in a crypt in the old shul. After the Jews were deported, the Nazis found the hidden objects, but the mayor, Demetrios Vlachides, persuaded the Nazis to spare the building; he said he wanted to use it as a municipal library, and he put the religious items in the local museum. All were returned to the survivors after the war. That shul was later renovated and is the community’s focal point today.

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