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Behind the Headlines Europe’s Oldest Jewish Community Inhabits Greek Isle

June 8, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Sixty miles northeast of Athens, on the island of Evia (or Euboea), is a Jewish community that is the oldest continuously-inhabited one in all of Europe.

It is quite a distinction for the 100 Jews of Chalkis, the capital of this green, pleasant island which has been ruled by the Persions, Thebians, Romans, Crusaders, Venetians, Turks and Nazis.

But Leon Levy, the 48-year-old president of Chalkis Jewry, takes it all in his stide. By now, he is accustomed to the Jewish visitors from abroad who come here to be at one with history.

A merchant, Levy has no idea how long his family has lived in Chalkis, (which is also known as Halkida and has a population of 60,000.) But Levy says the Jews here can trace their roots back at least 2,250 years. Local records indicate that Jews were brought to Chalkis as captives of Antiochus, but some scholars believe they arrived as followers of the returning soldiers of Alexander the Great.

Levy, whose family survived the German occupation by going into hiding with Christians, directs a traveler to the town’s museum. And there, in an ancient tomb, is a record of a conversation between Caius, a Roman emperor, and Philo of Alexandria.


Philo, in reply to a question from Caius, observes that Jews can be found on “the celebrated islands of Evia, Cyprus and Crete… ” Caius’ exchange with Philo occurred around the time of Christ.

In 1165, Benjamin of Tudela, a noted Jewish traveller, passed through Chalkis and encountered Jews. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, Chalkis was often called Little Safad because of the rabbinical sages who studied there.

Chalkis’ white-washed synagogue, the foundations of which go back some 1,500 years, has been rebuilt six times. On Good Friday, 1845, a Christian fanatic set fire to the building and it was not reconstructed until 1849.

Strangely enough, the walls of the synagogue, on Kotsou St. , are embedded with ancient Jewish gravestones. During the Venetian era, the Italian overlords used the Jewish cemetery as a quarry to build castle walls.

And when the ruined walls were demolished 23 years ago, the stones were returned to the Jews. They, in turn, placed them into the synagogue walls.

In the cool courtyard of the synagogue is a 12th century mikva, a very tiny one, and on the far side of the walled enclosure are fragrant lemon and mandarin trees. With Levy’s permission, I pluck two bright orange mandarins and eat them. On major holidays, when the citrus is blooming, congregants pick them off the boughs and nibble on them.

Chalkis’ Jewish communal center, adjacent to the mini orchard, is small, and replete with framed photographs of Theodor Herzl, the Viennese founder of modern political Zionism; David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, and three Israeli Presidents.

There are also WIZO posters and a glassed-in map of Israel on the wall. Inside the synagogue, on a white marble slab, are etched three names: Ferdinand de Rothschild, Damaskinos and Gregorious.


Rothschild, of the famous European banking dynasty, berthed his yacht in Chalkis’ harbor in the late 19th century. So impressed was he by the durability and unity of the Jews here that he donated money towards the construction of a protective wall around the Jewish cemetery.

Rustic in appearance, the cemetery is filled with tombstones, some of which are extremely old. Beautiful red, yellow and blue wildflowers grow in the high grass, and graceful pines and cypresses abound throughout, forming shady pathways.

Damaskinos, the Greek archbishop during World War II, is honored because he tried — but failed — to stop the deportation of Jews to Poland’s death camps. Gregorious, Chalkis’ Monsignor when the Germans marched in, is remembered because he hid the torah scrolls and other religious artifacts in the crypt of a church. In 1939, two years before the Nazi invasion, Chalkis was home to approximately 250 Jews.

Unlike the majority of their fellow Jews in Greece, they spoke no Ladino, but only Greek. Having settled in Chalkis centuries in advance of the Inquisition in Spain, the so-called Romaniot Jews of Evia had no knowledge of Ladino, a jargon of Sephardic Yiddish which arose in the Iberian Peninsula.

When the war broke out, Elias Levy, Leon’s aged father, owned a dry goods shop which Leon runs today with his brother, Monos (Menachem), who is 40.

Leon Levy was barely out of diapers when Italy invaded Greece, but he knows that the first Greek army officer to fall in battle was Col. Mordechai Frizis, a Jew whose family has lived on Evia reportedly for 13 generations. A marble bust of Frizis stands today in Chalkis’ Military Square.

The war was a terrible time for the Jews, yet the Levys were lucky. At first, Evia and environs were under Italian occupation — a fortuitous stroke because Italy did not harass the Jews, nor attempt to ship them off to concentration camps. Later, the Germans replaced the Italians, and the tragedy began.

“When we learned that the Germans had deported the Jews of Salonika, we escaped to the mountains and found shelter with a priest,” recalls Levy. By war’s end, the Levys– parents, brothers and sister — were in Athens, under the assumed name of Papadimitriou. A sympathetic policeman, Levy explains, provided false papers.

All told, the Germans managed to kill two Jews from Chalkis and about 25 from the vicinity, Levy says.

In the wake of the war, 120 Jews emigrated to Israel and the U.S. The Levys remained because they were not as destitute as some of their fellow Jews. Today, the Jews of Chalkis are “strong economically.” Leon Levy himself seems quite prosperous, and his shop at 42 Kriezotou stocks men’s and women’s garments and rolls of cloth.

Intermarriage is still an unknown phenomenon, A hazzan conducts regular services. On the major holidays, a rabbi from Athens leads the congregation in prayer. A butcher in Athens supplies Chalkis with kosher meat.

Levy, the father of two, says that 10 Jewish students from Chalkis study at universities — six in Greece and four in Israel. Asked if they’ll return after their graduation, Levy shrugs his shoulders.

However, he is confident that the community’s continuity will not be affected by their decisions. The Jews of Chalkis, he declares, do not intend to disappear — not after 2,250 years.

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