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The 2004 Olympics Greek Jews Are Small in Number, but Heirs to a Rich and Long Tradition

August 5, 2004
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Although the largest Jewish community in Greece resides in Athens, Jews from Salonika — remnants of a once-thriving community — are more active and cohesive. In Salonika, known in Greek as Thessaloniki, where 1,000 of the country’s 5,000 Jews live today, the synagogue has a regular minyan and younger Jews gather at the local Jewish community center.

But even these activities are a far cry from what Jews have meant to the city — and what the city has meant to Jews — during the approximately 2,400 years of Jewish life in Greece.

The first Greek Jew whose name is known was “Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew,” a slave identified in an inscription dated to approximately 300 BCE-250 BCE. The inscription was unearthed in Oropos, a small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia.

The Jewish community is believed to have grown further after the Hasmonean uprising, when many Jews were sold into slavery in Greece.

During the Helleni! stic period, a Jewish community formed mainly in Thessaloniki, where Jews concentrated in an area near the city port. The center of both their social and religious lives was the synagogue.

Later, the Romans granted autonomy to the Jewish community which was comprised largely of traders, craftspeople, farmers and silk growers.

This ancient community came to be known as the Romaniotes, some of whose descendants still live in Greece today.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, many Jews expelled from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sicily and France, as well as refugees from North Africa, settled in Salonika. Once there, the Romaniote and Sepahrdi communities founded separate synagogues.

By the mid-16th century, Salonika — once known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” — had become a Jewish center of Europe, as persecuted Jews poured in.

In 1900 there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Salonika out of a total population of 173,000.

In the early 20th century, the city! was under Turkish rule, and after the Turkish sultan was overthrown b y republicans known as the Young Turks, Jews in the city entered a “golden era” in which they could found in most every profession: They were traders, tobacco and port workers, lawyers, physicians and teachers.

The first Zionist organizations in Greece — Agudat Bnei Zion and Maccabee — appeared in Thessaloniki, and by the eve of World War II there were more than 20 Zionist organizations in the city.

But at the same time, increasing competition in the job market during the first decades of the 20th century, particularly among craftsmen and tradespeople, motivated thousands of Jews to emigrate, largely to the United States.

The war itself was a disaster for the community. The Nazi army occupied the city on April 9, 1941. In early 1943, all of the city’s Jews were herded into ghettoes; later that year they were deported.

All told, 43,850 Jews, 95 percent of the Salonikan Jewish population, were deported from Salonika. Out of 77,377 Jews in Greece, only 10,000 ! survived the Holocaust.

Today, there are nine active Jewish communities in Greece: Athens; Thessaloniki, or Salonika; Larissa; Chalkis; Volos; Corfu; Trikala; Ioannina; and Rhodes.

In the former three communities, synagogues hold services regularly — and in Athens and Salonika there are also Jewish schools.

The umbrella organization of Greek Jewry is the Central Board of Jewish Communities, known by its Greek abbreviation KIS.

Other organizations include the Women’s International Zionist Organization, the Bat-El Union of Zionists for young women and the Union of Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors.

The Jewish Museum of Greece, founded in Athens in 1977, preserves the heritage of the community.

As it is elsewhere in the world, intermarriage is common among Greek Jews, who are generally assimilated and well-off and work in business or in white-collar professions.

Many observers say that anti-Semitism in Greece today is on the rise. Most instanc! es of anti-Semitism have appeared in fringe papers and electronic medi a of the extreme right.

One or two mainstream papers, such as Elefterotypia and Ta Nea, do occasionally carry anti-Semitic cartoons, mainly when they are trying to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Israeli policies.

International Jewish groups have been quick to criticize the Greek government for not reacting to increased anti-Semitism, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a travel advisory urging Jewish travelers to avoid visiting Greece for the upcoming Olympic Games, which get under way on Aug. 13.

Perhaps in reaction to the criticism, Greece recently announced that it would establish a national day of remembrance for Greek Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Greece’s Interior Ministry said it will submit legislation to Parliament that would make Jan. 27 — the day prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz — a “Day of Remembrance of Greek Jewish Holocaust Victims.”

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