Behind the Headlines the Jews of Greece

The Jews of Greece go back to biblical times, but the one single event which completely overshadows Greek Jewish history is the Holocaust.

When the German army invaded Greece on April 6, 1941, the fate of Greek Jewry was sealed. Seventy five thousand Jews, some of whom could trace their genealogy to slaves forcibly brought to Greece from the kingdom of Judah, were suddenly endangered.

The Nazis, aided by a compliant Bulgarian ally did their work well. The Germans rounded up the Jews of Salonika — where 90 percent of Greek Jews lived — and later dealth with Greeks of Jewish descent who had survived the fairly benevolent Italian occupation in the Athens zone. Capitulating to German demands, Bulgaria dispatched to concentration camps Greek Jews in Macedonia and Thrace, regions the Bulgarians had occupied during World War II. When Greece was liberated from the Nazi yoke, Greek Jewry and its institutions were devastated. There were no more than 10,000 survivors. In the late 1940′s, while a civil war convulsed Greece, several thousand Jews renounced their citizenship and immigrated to Israel. By the mid-1950′s, Greece was home to some 5,000 Jews, practically all of whom had made it through the Holocaust.

A COMMUNITY OF SURIVORS

"We are a community of survivors," says Nikos Stavroulakis, the director of the Jewish Museum in Athens. "The shock of the war is still enormous." Today, 6,000 or so Jews live in Greece, courageously trying to maintain the integrity of a community which was so irreparably shattered by the Nazis in just a few short years.

Greek Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom are Sephardic, are concentrated in Athens (3,000), Salonika (1,100) and Larissa (350). Smaller communities exist in places like Volos, loannina, Trikkala, Chalkis and the lonian island of Corfu.

Ironically enough, the president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, Joseph Lovinger, is Ashkenazic. Sixty nine years old, and looking fit, Lovinger left his native Hungary in 1933 for a new life in Athens.

Lovinger, the chairman of a pharmaceutical company, speaks in a slight Hungarian accent. But in common with his fellow Greek Jews, he is well integrated into the general society.

JEWS ARE IN EVERY SECTOR OF THE ECONOMY

Jews in Greece, being almost entirely natives in a population numbering some nine million, are found in every sector of the economy. There are doctors and lawyers, taxi drivers and teachers, merchants and civil servants.

Until 1983, David Sefardi was general secretary of the Ministry of Health. Before he stepped down, a Jew was director of the Greek Electricity Company. Several years ago, a Jew attained the rank of brigadier general in the army, and now, there is a Jewish colonel in the air force.

Greece, since winning independence in 1821, has recognized the civic and political equality of its Jewish citizens.

During World War II, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop, Damaskinos, issued a rather emotional appeal to the Quisling Prime Minister to prevent the deportation of Jews to concentration camps in Poland. He also gave instructions to monasteries and convents to shelter Jews. And yet the Greek Orthodox Church is, and was, a carrier of religious anti-Semitism.

CHURCH STILL PREACHES JEWISH DEICIDE OF JESUS

Lovinger, who heatedly denies that anti-Semitism is a problem in contemporary Greece, acknowledges that the church is unsophisticated, inasmuch as it still preaches the Jewish deicide of Jesus.

A rabbi, who prefers to remain anonymous, observes: "As an institution, the church is still in the Middle Ages. The age of ecumenism hasn’t reached the church. It’s still closed, and Jewish-Christian. dialogue under church auspices is not well advanced."

Acts of religious discrimination against Jews now constitute a crime in Greece, thanks to a recent penal code amendment passed by Parliament. Under it, an individual found responsible for activities leading to religious discrimination against a religion recognized by the Constitution is liable to punishment of up to two years imprisonment.

Lovinger, who for 10 years had been pushing for such an amendment, got a receptive hearing from the Socialist government, headed by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, which has been in power since the autumn of 1981.

PAPANDREOU SET OFF SPASM OF ANTI-SEMITISM

Papandreou, in a twist of irony, inadvertently set off a spasm of anti-Semitism in 1982 when, during the war in Lebanon, he compared Israel’s invasion with the Nazi genocide of Greek Jews.

"It was a very bad time for us," says Lovinger. Rabbi Elie Sabetai, who is one of six rabbis in the country, points out. "The state-run media took a strong pro-Arab attitude and, for the public, there was a direct link between Greek Jews and Israel."

As a result of the ensuing uproar, which no doubt tarnished Greece’s image among diaspora Jews, policemen were assigned to guard Jewish institutions and synagogues. Papandreou himself, in response to fears expressed by Greek Jewish leaders, said that Greece and the Greek people are not anti-Jewish.

"Papandreou is an emotional man, and he was shooting from the hip when he drew a comparison between Israel, and the Nazis," explains Lovinger. "Papandreou is not anti-Semitic. Nor is he anti-Israel, just anti-Begin."

In Lovinger’s view, the crisis of the 1982 has passed. And, while he makes no bones about the existence of some 15 far-right or simply fascist groups in Greece, he contends that they are insignificant and do not pose any threat to Jews.

THE REAL, LONG-RANGE PROBLEM

The real, long-range problem facing Greek Jewry is not anti-Semitism, but survival in a communal sense, says Sabetai, who ministers to the needs of small-town Jews. Religious life is exceedingly weak and, while Jews are generally traditional minded, they seldom go to synagogue. "What we have is a problem of indifference to Judaism from a strictly religious view-point," Sabetai notes.

Mixed marriage is something of a concern today because civil marriage is now possible in Greece. Lovinger, for one, expects intermarriage to increase in the years ahead. This factor, when combined with the Jews’ low birth rate, can induce gloom among Jews who fear for the future of the community.

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