Bernard Katz a frequent contributor to Jewish Affairs is a Chartered Accountant who does freelance corporate finance advisory, investigations and sits on several boards.

The earliest known Jewish presence on the Greek mainland dates to the 3rd Century BCE. However, it is highly probable that Jews travelled or were forcibly transported to Greece prior to this date.[1] The first Greek Jew known by name is “Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew,” a slave mentioned in an inscription, dated approximately 300-250 BCE. This date coincides with the reign of the Spartan king Areios I (309-265 BCE), who according to later sources, corresponded with the Judean high priest Onias. If this correspondence was authentic, it is likely that Jews would have travelled to Greece around this time and local Jewish communities would have existed. [2]

Growth in the Jewish community probably took place in the 2nd Century BCE as a result of the Hasmonean uprising, which resulted in Jews being sold into slavery. At least two inscriptions from Delphi from the middle of that century refer to Jewish slaves. During the Hasmonean period Jewish communities were reported in a number of important centres including Sparta, Rhodes, Samos and Crete.[3] In the 1st Century BCE, the Greek historian Strabo mentioned that there was no city in the known world where Jews did not live. [4]

The Jewish population of Greece probably increased significantly during and after the Jewish War (66-70 CE). Josephus wrote that Vespasian sent 6000 youths from Palestine to work for Nero at the Isthmus of Corinth.[5] In the 3rd Century CE Jews are estimated to have comprised approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire.[6]

Greece and Judea (333 BCE-164 BCE)

In 333 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Judea on route to Egypt and Persia. The Talmud records that on meeting Shimon HaTzaddik, he remarked that an image of his likeness appeared in his dreams before all his victories.[7] Alexander changed the world by spreading Greek civilization. Greek became the international language and Hellenism the dominant culture. After his death his empire was divided amongst his generals, with Ptolemy gaining control of Egypt and Seleucos of Syria. Judah and Jerusalem lay strategically between these two rival kingdoms and fell under the control of Ptolemaic Egypt from 332 to 201 BCE.

Whilst under Ptolemaic control the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. This made it accessible to Diaspora Jews such as those living in Alexandria, who increasingly were Greek speaking and whose knowledge of Hebrew was diminishing, as well as to the wider public, which ultimately enabled the spread of Christianity. Legend has it that the translation was made at the instigation of Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) who invited 70 scholars to undertake the assignment, hence the name Septuagint. Under the rule of the Ptolemies Alexandria became the world’s paramount Greek city and one of the great cities in Jewish history – at one time 200 000 Jews lived in there, comprising one-third of the city’s population. [8]

In 201 BCE the Seleucid Antiochus III captured Jerusalem. He recorded in a letter that he had received an excellent reception from the Jews and had granted them permission to live “according to their ancestral laws.”[9][Dr Victor Tcherikover writes that under the Seleucids Jews felt absolutely no external pressure to their way of life, just as they had felt none under the rule of the Ptolemies.[10]

This tolerant state of affairs changed during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE). Between the extremes of religious zealots and Hellenizers there were many observant Jews who did not object to Greek rule provided that autonomy remained in relation to religious observance.[11] The possibility of coexistence was destroyed by the emergence of a Jewish reform party, who wished to accelerate Hellenization and were contemptuous of Jewish tradition. Little is known of this faction for the history of this period was ultimately written by the victorious fundamentalists.[12] The reform movement received support from Antiochus IV and the pace of Hellenization accelerated. The priesthood became politicised and corrupt. Onias III was replaced by his brother Jason as high priest in 172 BCE, and he, in turn was outbid for the position by Menelaus the following year.

Antiochus IV had ambitions to unite the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. In 170 BCE he conquered Egypt only to withdraw after being given an ultimatum by the rising power Rome. False rumours that Antiochus had been killed in Egypt probably resulted in Jason, who had fled to Transjordan, returning to Jerusalem and leading a rebellion. The rebellion incensed Antiochus who returned to Jerusalem and according to the Books of Maccabees killed 40 000 inhabitants and sold a further 40 000 into slavery. In the words of Simon Schama, “So the king turned monster, and the jokes that he was not Epiphanes (God manifest) but epimanes (lunatic) suddenly became serious.”[13]

The conflict reached its peak in 167 BCE after the Temple was looted, an altar to Zeus built, pigs sacrificed and Jewish worship and observance, including kashrut and circumcision outlawed. These events led to a rebellion launched by Mattathias and his five sons, led by Judah Maccabee who between 166 and 164 BCE drove the Greeks out of the area surrounding Jerusalem. In December 164 BCE, the Temple was rededicated, an event celebrated today as Chanukah. A protracted war continued for 25 years with the Seleucids, who were beset by many problems, not least by Rome, oscillating between repression and tolerance. Eventually, in 143 BCE the last surviving son of Mattathias, Simon, signed a peace treaty. Judah’s independence lasted until Rome took control in 63 BCE.

The decrees and behaviour of Antiochus IV have puzzled scholars who have struggled to explain what caused someone who had been schooled in an atmosphere of religious tolerance to behave in so intolerant a manner. Tcherikover maintains that the Jewish Hellenizer movement failed to take into consideration the strength of the nation’s resistance to their political plans[14] and it was not the revolt which came as a response to the persecution but the persecution which came as a response to the revolt.[15][Encyclopaedia Judaica concurs that the religious oppression appeared to Antiochus to be the only means of achieving political stability but adds that it would be wrong to completely disregard the strange behaviour of the king, who contemporaries referred to as a madman or lunatic,which must have played a major part in the formulation of such oppressive policies.[16]

Greek fortress uncovered in Jerusalem, 2016

Greek fortress uncovered in Jerusalem, 2016

Schama acknowledges that while Antiochus IV may well have committed all the infamies attributed to him, this behaviour was the exception, not the rule. In his view, there was nothing about the conduct of the first Seleucid to rule Israel, Antiochus III, to suggest intolerance, much less persecution. He quotes 2 Maccabees which recounts that Antiochus IV repented on his deathbed, and once the fiercest fighting between Jews and Greeks was over it was perfectly possible for the old working relationship to be restored.[17] In Schama’s view Greek culture and Torah observant Judaism were not mutually exclusive [18] or fundamentally incompatible.[19] He stresses that the enemy of the Jews was Antiochus IV and not the Greeks.[20]

Byzantine Period (330-1453)

The Byzantine Empire dates from 330 CE, when Constantine reorganised the Roman Empire into a Greek East and a Latin West. The Greek East became known as Byzantine and was essentially a Greek Empire centred on Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire survived the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century and continued for a further thousand years until 1453, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.

In 313 CE Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire and enacted legislation restricting the rights of Jews. It resulted in a deterioration of their position from an era of tolerance to one of subjection. As Christianity grew, later emperors further restricted Jewish rights.[21]

The 12th Century Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela reported that Jewish communities were present in Corfu, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Thessaloniki, Rhodes and Samos. Thebes was the largest community, with 2000 souls, and Jews of Thebes were the most skilled craftsmen in silk in all of Greece. 500 Jews lived in Salonika, were also involved in silk-weaving and were oppressed.[22]

Ottoman Period (1453-1821)

The Ottoman Turks made regular inroads into the Byzantine Empire, capturing Thessaloniki (renamed Salonika) in 1430 and finally Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman period lasted in Athens and the Peloponnese until the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 and in Salonika and northern Greece until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Under the Muslim Turk Ottomans, conditions for Jews were significantly better than under the Christian Greek Byzantines. They were well treated although subject to dhimmi regulations. In 1492 more than 160 000 Jews were expelled from Spain.[23] Approximately 100 000 of them migrated to Turkey and of these a significant proportion settled in Salonika.[24]

Until the arrival of the Sephardi Jews the great majority of the Jews in what is today Greece were Romaniot, namely Greek speaking Jews living in the Roman Empire. The Sephardi newcomers were assisted by the local Romaniot communities but differences in language, customs and Sephardi feeling of superiority led to tensions. More numerous and wealthier, Sephardim soon dominated the Romaniots, in particular those of Salonika where the Sephardi language and customs were adopted.[25] It was only in a few isolated places, including Ioannina that Romaniot customs continued.

By 1520 the Jewish population of Salonika numbered 20 000, amounting to half the city’s population and making up the world’s second largest Jewish population.[26] For almost five centuries Jews comprised the major ethnic group and dominated the life of the city.

Sephardi Jews in Salonika

Sephardi Jews in Salonika

Jews were principally engaged in the crafts of spinning silk, weaving wool and making cloth and developed the textile industry within the Ottoman Empire. They also controlled an important part of commerce, moneylending, and the lease of the taxes. During the 1500s, Sephardic Jews built a vast trading network based in Constantinople, Salonika, Izmir and Edirne. They were leading importers and exporters of goods and their warehouses in Salonika dominated the harbour skyline. By the 17th Century Jews so dominated business activity in Salonika that all businesses, Jewish and non-Jewish and the port were closed on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

By the 1620s commerce was increasingly shifting to the Atlantic and Amsterdam’s increasing importance was mirrored by Salonika’s decline. Taxes were becoming more difficult to afford, social despair was on the rise and protests and even riots broke out amongst Jewish Salonikans. The Turks responded with arrests, imprisonments and even the occasional execution.

Against this background the attraction of the false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi can be understood. He spent two relatively peaceful years in Salonika before being exiled under cherem in 1657 after a ceremony in which he married a Torah. This frenzy reached its peak in 1666 when thousands of Jews sold their businesses and homes as they prepared for their journey to Palestine, and nowhere was this frenzy greater than in Salonika. But by then the Turks had had enough of the charade. Shabbatai was given an ultimatum – he chose to live as a Muslim rather than to die as the Jewish Messiah.

After Shabbatai’s death a new sect emerged. Nominally Muslim but with its own strange mix of Kabbalistic, Shabbatean and crypto-Jewish practices, it became known as Donmeh (false prophets) and by the late 19th century they may have numbered about 15 000 in Salonika. For purposes of the population swaps between Greece and Turkey (see below) these Donmeh (who were considered Muslim) were moved to Turkey and have all but given up their dual existence.[27]

By the mid-19th Century Salonika’s continued decline seemed terminal. However, a major new harbour completed in 1889 and the connection of the city to the Trans-Balkan Railroad led to an economic resurgence. By the beginning of the new century Jews were prominent in shipping, import-export, tobacco manufacturing and distribution and retailing. Despite the significant wealth of a small minority, at the close of the 1800s, the vast majority of Salonikan Jews lived in poverty.

Salonika was a multicultural city. In 1912 the Jewish population numbered 70 000 out of a total of 160 000 (roughly 40% of the population; with Greek Orthodox 30% and Muslim 25%).[28] But despite this, Salonika was known for being a closed world, even to other Jews.[29] The Ladino newspaper La Solidad Ovradera wrote in 1911 that it was not one city as the Jews, Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks and Donmehs “lived side by side, without mixing, each shut in its community, each speaking its own language.”[30] Most of the inhabitants “know the Jewish tongue because day and night they are in contact with and conduct business with Jews.”[31] Angel Pulido, a Spanish senator, visited Salonika in 1904 and was “astonished and overjoyed” to discover that he could converse in his mother tongue with the local Jews.[32]

Modern independent Greece (After 1832)

The Greek War of Independence against Turkish rule commenced in 1821 and by the time it ended in 1832 the Kingdom of Greece consisted of Attica (area encompassing Athens), Peloponnese and the Cycladic Islands. It is estimated that in this uprising the Greeks massacred 5000 Jews on the Peloponnese because of their support for the Turks.[33] After Greek independence less than 1000 Jews were living in Greece and none on the Peloponnese.

Between 1932 and 1947 the borders of Greece were expanded six times until it settled into its current composition. During the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, a number of Jews from Old Greece (including Patras, Corfu, Athens, Zakinthos) fought on the side of the Greeks whereas Jews living in the Ottoman Empire fought on the Ottoman side. This war is possibly the first instance in modern times of Jews fighting against Jews in the context of a national war. [34]

An unlikely alliance between Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia against the Ottomans resulted in an equally unlikely victory. The significant outcome of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) was that the population and territory of Greece nearly doubled. Salonika (renamed Thessaloniki) became part of Greece, whose Jewish population increased from under 10 000 to well over 80 000 of whom around 70 000 lived in Salonika.[35]

Before Salonika was conquered by the Ottomans in 1430 it had already enjoyed 1700 years as a Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine city and as a result was viewed by Greece as rightly theirs. The Jews of Salonika had been strong supporters of the Ottomans and were unenthusiastic about the Greek conquest. Few of them had believed that they would be better off under Greek rule.

In 1912 the population of Salonika had been 40% Jewish, 30% Greek and 25% Muslim but by 1926 it was 80% Greek and 15-20% Jewish.[36] This change was directly as a result of Greece’s determination to Hellenize Salonika and the population swaps with Turkey. The catastrophic fire of 1917 assisted this outcome. On 4-5 August of that year, a fire caused massive destruction to the area within the city walls including the business district and the waterfront – the area where Jews had historically lived. It left 52 000 Jews homeless and 32 synagogues destroyed. Greece took this opportunity to design and build a new city and to transform Jewish Salonika into Greek Thessaloniki.

Great fire of Salonika, 1917

Great fire of Salonika, 1917

Suspicions were aroused as to the cause of the fire. The New York Times published an article in 1919 stating that the Greek government had not provided a “satisfactory explanation” in this regard. These suspicions were heightened given the celebrations emanating from newspapers in Athens in response to the tragedy.[37]

The Treaty of Sevres in 1920 partitioned the Ottoman Empire and, inter alia, allocated Izmir (Greek Smyrna) and the surrounding territory in Asia Minor in Turkey to Greece. By then Greece had already landed troops in Izmir to implement the promise made to it at the Paris Peace Conference. Before the arrival of refugees 150 000 Greeks lived in Izmir, comprising about half the city’s population.[38] Turkey launched a counter-attack in 1922 under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), who had been born in Salonika, and ultimately Greece was defeated and ejected from Asia Minor. The Treaty of Sevres was annulled and replaced in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne which recognized Turkish sovereignty in Asia Minor. The Treaty also legislated for mandatory swaps of population between Turkey and Greece. Muslims living in Greece (except Thrace) were to be relocated to Turkey and Christians living in Turkey (except Istanbul) were to be relocated to Greece. About 400 000 Muslims were moved from Greece to Turkey and well over a million Christians were moved from Turkey to Greece. [39] Of these about 100 000 were relocated in Salonika[40].

Greece was determined to Hellenize Salonika. Measures introduced to advantage Salonikan Greeks included punitive taxes on traditional Jewish vocations such as textiles and retailing and Jews working in the port were forced out by legislation forcing the port to be open on the Sabbath. Jews, increasingly marginalised, began emigrating from Salonika in growing numbers. The exodus had already commenced on a small scale from 1910, but in the 1920s and 1930s the pace was stepped up. Perhaps 20-25 000 left before World War II, of which about a quarter moved to Palestine.[41]


Germany invaded Greece on 6 April 1941 and three days later captured Salonika. Under German occupation, Greece was divided into three zones namely: German, Bulgarian and Italian. The German zone included Salonika and its surrounding region. There, anti-Jewish measures resulting in the impoverishment of the Jewish community were instituted immediately. The first transports to Auschwitz departed on 15 March 1943 followed by further transports of 3000 Jews every two to three days. Of the 46 000 Salonikan Jews who were deported, 95% were murdered.[42]

The Bulgarian zone comprised Thrace and eastern Macedonia. Although Bulgaria protected the Jews living in Bulgaria itself, in occupied Greece they complied with German wishes, and over 4000 Jews from Thrace and over 7000 from Macedonia were deported by them.[43] Some members of the Bulgarian parliament protested this collaboration, and were reprimanded for signing a petition.

The Italian zone comprised Athens, Peloponnese and most of the islands. As long as this zone was held by the Italians, Jews were not persecuted. However, after the Italian surrender in September 1943, the Germans took control and deportations commenced. Whereas only 5% of Salonika’s Jews escaped deportation, 50% of those in Athens a year later did so. There are many reasons for this including that Salonika’s Jews were more numerous, more obtrusive and less assimilated. It was considerably easier helping a few thousand Jews in a city of nearly half a million than helping 50 000 in a city half its size. Timing was also a crucial contributory reason, in that by 1944 much more was known about German atrocities and so the Jews had some warning.

In Salonika, by and large, there was little protest against the German persecutions. Athens was very different. Archbishop Damaskinos condemned the German occupation’s treatment of Jews, condemned the deportations in Salonika and later when the Jews of Athens were in jeopardy issued instructions to all monasteries and convents to shelter all Jews who knocked on their doors. Many Greeks hid with their Greek Jewish neighbours.

It is estimated that 77000 Jews were living in Greece before the war. Of these, some 10 000 survived the war. Up to half of those who survived did so with the assistance of the leftist Greek resistance.[44] Over 300 Jewish soldiers and 1000 other Jews joined Greek partisan units.

The greatest single heroic act of Greek Jews was the mutiny of a Sonderkommando charged with cremating corpses, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Aided by French and Hungarian Jews they blew up two crematoriums. Attacked by SS guards and by five planes, the rebels held out for an hour until all 135 were killed.[45] This is remembered as a significant moment of Greek national pride.

Holocaust memorial, Thessaloniki

Holocaust memorial, Thessaloniki

Relations with Israel

Greece was the only European country to vote against the United Nations partition plan for Palestine in 1947. In the subsequent period relations between Israel and Greece remained problematic for Greece maintained a pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian orientation and many Palestine Liberation Organisation members found refuge there. Greek policy was partly motivated out of Israel’s close relationship with Turkey and Greece not wanting to jeopardise the flow of oil from Arab states.

Over the last decade relations between Israel and Greece have undergone a dramatic transformation. Aristotle Tziampiris writes in his book The Emergence of Israel-Greek Cooperation that six decades of Greek policy making were overturned, almost overnight..[46] Reasons for this policy shift provided by Tziampiris include the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations, the weakening of Greece in recent years and the strengthening of Turkey, and the discovery of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Gallia Lindenstrauss, writes that the improvement in Israeli-Greek relations should also be seen in light what Yossi Alpher presents in his new book as a potential “New Periphery.”[47] After Israel’s independence, Iran and Turkey were the most important elements in the original “Periphery Doctrine,” meant to break Israel’s isolation in the Middle East. In view of hostilities with Iran and the deterioration of relations with Turkey, Greece is one possible element of this possible reincarnation of the “Periphery Doctrine.” Lindenstrauss writes that other countries include Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Bulgaria, South Sudan and Kenya, although sharing several traits of the original periphery relationship they do not bear the same strategic weight of Iran and Turkey.[48]

In July 2010, the then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou visited Israel and a few weeks later Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Greece. Bilateral cooperation in the zone between Israel and Crete (a distance of about 1400 km) has allowed Israeli pilots to engage in bombing drills across a distance similar to that between Israel and Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.[49]

Despite the leftist Syriza Party becoming the government in Greece relations between the two countries continued to improve. This was particularly surprising given Prime Minister Tsipras’ stance while in opposition. Tsipras has also shown sensitivity in fighting antisemitism.[50]Syriza was replaced in July 2019 by the centre-right New Democracy Party under Prime Minister Mitsotakis who has given his commitment to further strengthen Israel-Greek ties.[51]

Greek Jews and Places of Jewish Interest

Karen Fleming in her book Greece: A Jewish History discusses the issue of Greek Jewish identity.[52] Until the 20th Century there was no such thing as a Greek Jew. Salonika, home to the significant majority of Greek Jews only became Greek in 1912 (and with great reluctance on the part of its Jewish community) and Rhodes only became part of Greece in 1947 (it was previously Italian). It is only in retrospect that the Jews from these places have come to be regarded as Greek Jews. Both Salonika and Rhodes are included in Yad Vashem’s list of destroyed Greek communities. With the exception of some, largely Romaniot communities, i.e. indigenous, Greek speaking Jews (notably communities in Athens and Ioannina) the designation Greek Jews would have met with puzzlement up until at least the end of World War II.[53]

Today 5000 Jews live in Greece, mainly in Athens.[54]

Thessaloniki (Salonika)

Thessaloniki was a Greek city for its first 1700 years, the Turkish city Salonika for 500 years and, since 1912, has been Greek again. Although historical evidence is scarce it is believed that Alexandrian Jews who arrived there around 140 BCE were amongst the first to settle in the city.[55] Local Jewish tradition holds that Jews have had a presence in Thessaloniki for 2300 years which would correspond to the founding of the city in 315 BCE.

Evidence of the existence and growth of Jewish life in Salonika during the Hellenistic and Roman periods derives from several sources. The apostle Paul, born Saul to a devout Jewish family in Tarsus, preached to the Romaniot Jews of Thessaloniki on three consecutive Sabbaths at the Etz Haim Synagogue and that afterwards he was forced to leave the town. Only when this and other congregations turned against him did he turn his attention to pagans. The Jews of Thessaloniki during the Roman and Byzantine periods had Greek names and spoke Greek.

Sephardi Jewish settlers founded 32 communities in Salonika, each with its own synagogue, traditions and unique customs, bearing the names of places of origins in Spain and Portugal such as Castilla, Catalunya, Aragon, Toledo and Cordoba.

The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, which opened in 2001, contains: “A Short History of the 2300-Year Jewish Presence in Thessaloniki.” On the ground floor are tombstones from the Jewish cemetery which the Nazis destroyed. A room in the museum contains 23 panels of names of those murdered. Before 1997, no Holocaust memorials existed in Thessaloniki.[56] That year, such a memorial was unveiled in Eleftherias (Freedom) Square, the location where the Jews were summoned in 1942 to be tortured and humiliated. The memorial depicts a menorah with flames mangled with human bodies for its seven branches.

The Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki, which dated to 1492 was the largest in Europe and contained more than 300 000 graves.[57] It has become the new geographic centre of Greek Thessaloniki and a university complex has been constructed on top of the burial ground. In 2014 a Holocaust memorial was finally erected on this site.

The Yad Lezikaron Synagogue, used for daily services, has a long history since it constitutes the continuation of various synagogues in the city centre and particular in this area. Specifically its history begins from the Synagogue ‘Askenaz’, founded in 1376.[58] It walls contain a long list of the names of synagogues that once existed in Salonika. The Monastiriotes Synagogue survived the Holocaust as it was used as a warehouse. Today it is used during the Jewish holidays.

The promenade along the waterfront passes along the area that was once the Jewish quarter, where the Jews once lived and worked.

About 1000 Jews live in Thessaloniki today out of a population of one million.[59] Almost all the citizens are Greek and the multicultural city of Salonika exists no more.

Promenade along waterfront which passes the old Jewish quarter, Thessaloniki

Promenade along waterfront which passes the old Jewish quarter, Thessaloniki


Concrete information of a Jewish presence in Athens dates to the first century CE.[60] There may have been Jews living in Athens in the Middle Ages but Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th Century made no mention of this.

After Athens became the capital of an independent Greece in 1834, a Jewish community in Athens started developing, with an influx after the Balkan Wars when places such as Ioannina and Salonika became part of Greece. By World War II it numbered 3000, many of whom were of Romaniot background. This doubled to 6000 as Jews sought protection in Italian-controlled Athens.

Among the many highlights of the Jewish Museum of Greece is a reconstructed synagogue from Patras, containing the original bimah, some of its pews and the ark. The section on the ancient Jewish presence in Greece mentions twelve Jewish communities that existed dating back to the 1st Century CE and an ancient synagogue from the island of Delos dating to the 1st Century BCE. A copy of a small piece of marble engraved with a menorah and lulav was found in a 5th Century synagogue that once existed in Athens below the Acropolis in the Agora. The original is stored in a basement of antiquities of the Ministry of Culture.[61]

Two synagogues in Athens are still in use. The Beit Shalom (Sephardi) was built in 1935 and renovated and modernised in 1972. It contains stained glass windows depicting Isaiah’s ascent in a chariot and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Across the road is Etz Chayim (Romaniot), built in 1905.

A Holocaust memorial taking the form of a deconstructed Magen David has the names of all the Greek Jewish communities from where deportations took place on its six separated triangles.


Ioannina is home to Romaniot Jews who are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi but Greek speaking Jews who were part of the Roman Empire. Many Romaniot Jews believe that their origins date to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE but some communities, notably Ioannina, claim that their ancestors arrived even earlier – somewhere between the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the early Roman period. [62] Of the Romaniot communities that were not subsumed by the Sephardi arrivals and retained their customs, Ioannina was the largest.

Ioannina has only existed as a town since about 1000 CE. The first recorded evidence of Jews living there dates to 1319. [63] Ioannina became part of Greece in 1913 during the Balkan Wars after having been part of the Ottoman Empire for the previous 500 years. An observer of the battle for Ioannina in 1913 described it as: “The city that went to sleep Turkish and Ottoman woke up Greek and Christian. [64]

At the beginning of the 20th Century 4000 Jews lived in Ioannina. By World War II this had decreased to 2000. [65] Only 5% of the Jews of Ioannina survived the Holocaust[66] and just 34 Jews remain there today. Of these, five are professors at the university including the recently elected mayor of the town Moses Elisaf, the first ever Jewish mayor in Greece.[67]

The Jewish Museum of Ioannina contains interesting exhibits including specialities of Ioannina Jews – exquisitely embroidered wedding dresses, some of which were converted to parochets after the wedding. Silver and gold plating were important occupations of the Jews of Ioannina and some items are on display.

The Kahal Kadosh Yashan Synagogue is only used for the High Holidays where a big effort is made and many Jews of Ioannina heritage from around the world attend. Last year 240 people attended.[68] The parochet once again displays fine embroidery and inside are a number of exquisitely painted boxes (called Tiks) containing Torah scrolls. These scrolls are never removed from the Tiks so the Torah is read in an upright position on a flat surface.

A Holocaust memorial can be found in the town near the lake.


Jewish history on Rhodes dates to the second century BCE with the earliest references recorded in the Book of Maccabees and later in the writings of Josephus. [69]

Jews were mentioned in Rhodes after the Arab conquest of the island when in 653 CE the Arab conqueror ordered the destruction of the remains of the Colossus of Rhodes. It was sold to a Jew who carried away 90 camel loads of bronze.[70] Benjamin of Tudela, in the 12th Century reported that 400 Jews lived in the city of Rhodes.[71]

After being expelled from Palestine, the Knights of St. John Hospitallers settled on Rhodes (1309-1522). During the siege of the city by the Turks in 1480, the Jews fought in the defence of the city.

In 1522 the Turks took control of Rhodes and held it until 1912. After the Turkish conquest Jews from Salonika arrived on the island and the number of Jews during the 19th century amounted to between 2,000 and 4,000.[72]

In 1912 Rhodes became an Italian possession.

Race Laws were promulgated against Jews on 1 September 1938. One of its immediate consequences was that foreign Jews were no longer permitted to remain on Italian territory and resulted in a forced exodus of about 850 Jews.[73] The Italian administration on Rhodes substantially ignored the racial laws against the Jews which they considered unethical and unjust. After Mussolini was deposed on 24 July 1943 relations between native Italians and Jewish Italians returned to near normal.[74] But this respite was short lived as the 7000 German troops stationed on Rhodes took control of the island despite the presence of 30 000 Italian troops.[75]

From the early 1900s, due to the lack of opportunities, Jews had started to emigrate from Rhodes. Many moved to Rhodesia, Belgian Congo, Palestine and USA. For this reason and the promulgation of the Racial Laws, of the 5,500 Jews living on Rhodes in 1920, only about 1673 remained by the time the Nazis took control.[76] The were all deported to Auschwitz in July 1944 and only 151 of them returned.[77]

The Kahal Shalom Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Greece. In the courtyard where a fountain once existed is a plaque dated 1577 when it is thought the synagogue was consecrated.[78] It is thought that the fountain was used by the Cohanim before their priestly blessing.[79]

An interesting feature in the synagogue is its two arks. One hypothesis is that the one ark represents the exile from Spain and the other the longing for Jerusalem. The second hypothesis is that in some Muslim countries a Koran had to be housed in the synagogue to protect it from being destroyed. However, in the 1960s a synagogue was unearthed in Sardis, Turkey which dates to the 4th century CE which also has two arks and bears a remarkable similarity to this one and of course predates the Spanish exile and the birth of Islam.

The museum, in what was formerly the ladies section of the synagogue, contains a Torah scroll which is 800 years old. It is well preserved and one of the oldest scrolls in the world and was originally used in the Iberian Peninsula.[80]

Rhodes became part of Greece after World War II in 1947. A Holocaust Memorial was dedicated in the “Square of the Martyred Jews” in 2002 to the 1604 Jews from Rhodes and Cos murdered in the death camps.

The Kahal Shalom Synagogue, Rhodes

The Kahal Shalom Synagogue, Rhodes


Crete has been identified with the biblical Caphtor, the original home of the Philistines.[81] Recent genetic studies indicate that the Philistines originated from the Aegean world which would add support to the Crete hypothesis.

The earliest evidence of a Jewish community living on Crete is in a letter in support of the Jews sent by the Roman Senate in 142 BCE to various countries at the request of Simon the Hasmonean.[82]

During the Venetian period (1204-1669) the Romaniot community formed the upper class and in 1481 there were 600 Jewish families and four synagogues in Candia (now Heraklion). After the Spanish expulsion, Sephardi Jews arrived in Crete.[83] The Turkish period (1669-1898) marked a decline in the cultural life of the Jewish community. When Crete became independent in 1897, the Jewish population numbered 1150.[84]

In May 1944, the Nazis rounded up the entire Jewish population of Crete and forced them onto a tanker ship called the Tanais. The ship was subsequently mistaken by the British for a German war ship and sunk, drowning nearly all of the 300 Jews aboard.

Zakinthos (Zante)

Zante is located off the western coast of the Peloponnese. All 275 Jews living here survived the Holocaust. When the island’s mayor was ordered by the Germans, at gunpoint, to provide a list of the islands’ Jews he and the bishop turned over only two names. His, Karrer, and Hrysostomos (the bishop’s). While arguing about this with the Germans the Jews were taken to the mountains and hidden by Christian families. In 1978 they were honoured by Yad Vashem as “righteous gentiles.”

Thessaloniki (Salonika) today, photographed by the author

Thessaloniki (Salonika) today, photographed by the author


[1] Encyclopaedia Judaica, Keter Publishing House Ltd, 1972, 7:868, hereafter referred to as EJ

2 Ibid

3 Ibid

4 Stavroulakis, Nicholas, The Jews of Greece, An Essay, Talos Press,1997, p19

5 EJ,7:869

6 Stavroulakis,op cit, p19

7 Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69a, The Artscroll Series, Mesorah Publications Ltd, 1998

8 Schama,, Simon, The Story of the Jews, Finding the Words, The Bodley Head,2013, p100

9 Tcherikover, Victor, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, Translated by S Applebaum, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961, p83

10 Ibid, p88

11 Johnson, Paul, A History of the Jews, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987, p100

12 Ibid

13 Schama, op cit, p113

14 Tcherikover, op cit, p203

15 Ibid, p191

16 EJ, 3:74

17 Schama, op cit, p92

18 Ibid, p108

19 Ibid, p123

20 Ibid, p124

21 EJ, 7:871

22 Tudela, Benjamin, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, Travels in the Middle Ages, Joseph Simon / Pangloss Press, 1983, pp68-69

23 Gilbert, Martin, Letters to Auntie Fori, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002, p132

24 Dubnov, Simon, History of the Jews, From the Later Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Volume III, Translated by Moshe Spiegel, A.S. Barnes and Co. Inc., 1968, p472

25 Stavroulakis, op cit, p42

26 Sachar, Howard, Farewell Espana, The World of the Sephardim Remembered, Vintage Books, 1994, p134

27 Ibid, p155

28 Fleming, K.E., Greece - A Jewish History, Princeton University Press, 2008 pp 47, 67, 86

29 Stavroulakis, op cit, p54

30 Mazower, Mark, Salonica, City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, Harper Perrenial, 2004, p253 quoting Niyazi Berkes

31 Ibid, p8, quoting Evliya Celebi

32 Sachar, op cit, p134

33 EJ, 7:876

34 Fleming, op cit, p45

35 Mazower, op cit, p402

36 Fleming, op cit, p86

37 Naar, Devin, A century ago, Jewish Salonica burned, Times of Israel, 18 August 2017

38 Fleming, op cit, p81

39 Beaton, Roderick, Greece, Biography of a Modern Nation, Allen Lane, 2018, p234

40 Sachar, op cit, p147

41 Mazower, op cit, p406

42 EJ, 7:879

43 Ibid

44 Fleming, op cit, p183

45 EJ, 7:880

46 Tziampiris, Aristotle, The Emergence of Israeli-Greek Cooperation, Springer, 2015, p8

47 Lindenstrauss, Gallia, Book review, Tziampiris, Aristotle The Emergence of Israeli-Greek Cooperation, The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Volume 9, Number 2, 2015, p318

48 Lindenstrauss, Gallia, Book review, Alpher, Yossi, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Volume 10, Number 1, 2016, p126

49 Tzogolopolous, George, The Future of Greek-Israeli Relations, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 8 April 2018

50 Ibid

51 Keinon, Herb, Man set to unseat Greek prime minister is as pro-Israel as predecessor, The Jerusalem Post, 8 July 2019

52 Fleming, op cit

53 Ibid, p7

54 Stavroulakis, op cit, p9

55 EJ, 14:699

56 Elia Matalon, Jewish tour guide Thessaloniki

57 Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, ‘The Book’ A Short History of the 2300-Year Jewish Presence in Thessaloniki, Jewish Community of Thessaloniki,p52

58 Leaflet at Yad Lezikaron Synagogue, Thessaloniki

59 Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, op cit, p68

60 EJ, 3: p817

61 Salvador Levy, Jewish tour guide Athens

62 Fleming, op cit, p8

63 Kourmantzi, Eleni, The Jewish Community of Ioannina, Exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Ioannina

64 Fleming, op cit, p45

65 Peklaris, Achilles, ‘They claimed I was connected to the Mossad’: Meet Greece’s first-ever Jewish mayor, Haaretz, 11 June 2019

66 Kourmantzi, op cit

67 Allegra Matsas, Jewish tour guide Ioannina

68 Ibid

69 Levi, Stella, Historical Background contained in booklet by Hasson, Aron, A Guidebook to the Jewish Quarter of Rhodes, Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, Los Angeles, 2012, p2

70 EJ, 14:145

71 Tudela, op cit, p72

72 EJ, 14:145

73 Franco, Hizkia, The Jewish Martyrs of Rhodes and Cos, Translated by Joseph Franco, HarperCollinsPublishers, 1994, p23

74 Franco, p28

75 Ibid, pp60-61

76 Ibid, p36

77 Ibid, p69

78 Hasson, Aron, op cit, p20

79 Isaac Habib, Jewish tour guide Rhodes

80 Hasson, op cit, p39

81 EJ, 5:1088

82 Ibid

83 Ibid, 5:1089

84 Ibid, 5:1090

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