(JTA) — Corsica saw its first public celebration of Hanukkah in its recorded history, according to the French Mediterranean island’s only rabbi.
The event took place in Foch Square of the capital Ajaccio on Tuesday, the last of the Jewish holiday’s eight days, on which Jews light menorahs with candles, the Corse-Matin daily reported.
“This has been the first time in the history of the Island of Beauty that the Hanukkah menorah was lit in public,” Rabbi Levi Pinson told the daily, adding it is “a historic moment.”
Pinson, 27, and his wife, Mushky, opened the country’s first permanent Beit Chabad – the Hasidic movement’s term for a Jewish community center and synagogue – last year.
Ajaccio Mayor Laurent Marcangeli said he was “proud to be the first mayor of any city in Corsica to permit the lighting of candles in public,” as he put it. He said it was “an important message of tolerance.”
Several hundred people attended the candle lightings, including Jews who traveled there especially for the ceremonies from the southern mainland city of Nice, located 120 miles north of Ajaccio.
“I have to say I sort of expected to see only 20 people here this evening,” Nice resident Alain Schraub told Corse-Matain, adding that the local Jewish community of a few dozen people is “small but dynamic.”
Yvonne Malka Cohen, whose parents settled in Corsica in 1919, said that for her, the candle lighting was “the biggest celebration” she’s ever seen at Foch Square.
Roni Barkats, a local barber and member of the Jewish community, attended Tuesday’s ceremony wearing a kippah and sang Hanukkah songs. He told the Corse-Matain daily it was a “moving experience.”
Whereas on mainland France anti-Semitic attacks have become routine, with hundreds of incidents reported annually, “you never experience anything like that here,” Barkats said. “Jews here live in security.”
Corsica was the only region in France whose authorities, operating under the Nazi puppet Vichy government, refused to comply with orders to round up and deport Jews to be murdered. Thousands were saved thanks to authorities turning a blind eye to the presence of refugees and local Jews, and then falsely reporting to headquarters that Corsica had no or very few Jews.