Jews have left their imprint in Greece in many cities and towns over the 2,000 years of the community’s history. The current centers of Greek Jewry are Athens (3,000) and Thessaloniki (1,000), although the latter is only a remnant of the huge community that thrived in the city for some 500 years. Jews are also present in Corfu, Chalkis, Ioannina, Larissa, Rhodes, Trikala and Volos. Today the Jewish populations stands at around 4,500 people.
The small Jewish community of Greece is the heir to a long history shaped by the development of Hellenism, influences of Rome and of Byzantium, the impact of the expulsions from Spain and Portugal and a continuous tie with the Jews of the Land of Israel.
The first record of a Jewish presence in Greece is found in a 3rd-century B.C.E. inscription. It is likely that the anti-Hellenistic Maccabean uprising, in the second century B.C.E., resulted in the transfer of many Jews—as slaves—to Greece.
Refugees from the Spanish expulsion increased the Greek Jewish population in the 15th and 16th centuries. This wave of immigration helped create the great community of Salonika (present-day Thessaloniki) that, by the end of the 16th century, had reached 30,000—half the city’s population. Over the course of successive centuries, Jews from many countries moved to Salonika, introducing German, French, Flemish, Egyptian and Italian flavors. The city became an important trading port, a center of Jewish learning and one of the places in which the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language flourished. The Jewish presence was so prominent that the city’s port was closed on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, and the city was often called “The Jerusalem of the Balkans.” With the city’s decline in importance, many Jews emigrated and the proportion of Jews in the city declined. Significantly, when the port of Tel Aviv was established at the end of the 1930s, Jews from Thessaloniki were brought in to operate it.
Prior to World War II, over 70,000 Jew lived in Greece. Jewish soldiers and officers fought in the Greek forces that resisted the Italian and later German invasion of the country, and a number fell in battle. However, once the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Bulgaria) divided up control of the country, the fate of the Jews was sealed. Those residing in the German-controlled zone were subject to the most immediate and dire threat. The 49,000-strong community of Thessaloniki, which fell under German administration, was almost totally destroyed in the first few months of the occupation. By the end of 1945, 96.5% of the Jewish Community of that city had been murdered in Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.
In Athens, the community was initially protected by the Italian authorities’ reluctance to enact anti-Jewish laws. After Germany took direct control of Athens, the leadership of chief rabbi Elijah Barzilai and the urging of Archbishop Damaskinos for Christians to protect Jews meant that a considerable number of Jews either escaped or were hidden.
The regions of Macedonia and Thrace were placed under Bulgarian administration. However, in stark contrast to the protection that was provided the Jews of Bulgaria, the Bulgarian occupation authorities deported the 11,000 Jews in their zone to Treblinka. A similar fate was shared by the Jews in the small communities in the Greek islands, including Rhodes, which were initially under Italian control. In the summer of 1944, after the Germans had replaced the Italians, all the Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz, where nearly all of them perished; many did not even survive the 13-day journey from Piraeus in sealed cattle wagons. Some 40 Jews of Turkish origin were rescued thanks to the heroism of the Turkish consul on the island, Selahettin Ulkumen.
In all, some 65,000 Greek Jews were murdered. After the liberation, the Jewish community was reactivated. However, more half of the 10,000 Jews who were in Greece when the Axis occupation ended, including the remnants of Macedonian and Thracian Jewries, made their way to Israel and other countries in the following decades. In recent years, the rise of the neo-Fascist Golden Dawn Party, which is represented in the Greek Parliament, has been especially worrisome to Greek Jews. Golden Dawn has links to other European parties of the extreme right, espouses an openly antisemitic policy and engages in Holocaust denial.
There are a number of Jewish organizations active in Greece. These include B’nai B’rith, Benot Brit, Jewish Charity, Jewish Youth of Athens, and Holocaust Descendants’ Association/ Jewish Education.
The Athens Jewish Community Schoolis a private day school that belongs to the Jewish Community of Athens. The school offers all the subjects taught in Greek schools, according to the curriculum of the Greek Ministry of Education, as well as Hebrew and Jewish history. After finishing the sixth grade, pupils continue their education in Greek public or private schools. There is also a Jewish kindergarten.
There are regularly functioning synagogues in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larissa and Chalkis (Halkida). There are synagogues in a number of other localities as well, including Hania, Rhodes, Volos and Ioannina, which are used only on holidays or occasional shabbatot. All of the synagogues are Sephardic. Chabad also has a presence in Athens and Thessaloniki. In Athens, there is also aRomaniote synagogue called “Etz Chaim”.
Full diplomatic relations were established between Greece and Israel in 1991.
Embassy of Israel, Athens
1 Marathonodromon Str.
154 52 P. Psychiko
Tel: (0030) 210-6705500
Fax: (0030) 210-6705555
The remains of an ancient synagoguewere discovered in 1930 in Agora, at the site of “Metroon,” the registry building of ancient Athens. Part of the mosaic floor has been preserved as well as an inscribed plaque depicting a Menorah with a lulav (myrtle branch) on it. Archaeologists estimate that the findings relate to the 2nd century C.E. and indicate the existence of an organized community.
The Jewish Museum of Greece is also located in Athens and has its own permanent building. TheJewish museum in Thessalonikiis housed in one of the few structures that survived the disastrous fire of 1917 that destroyed most of the Jewish quarter. In former times, the imposing building housed successively the Bank of Athens and the offices of the Jewish newspaper L’ Independent. A part of the exhibition is devoted to the destruction of the Jewish community. The vast Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki was totally destroyed and today the city’s university sits atop the ancient Jewish burial ground. There is also a Jewish museum on the island of Rhodes, in what was once the Kahal Shalom synagogue.
In 1997, a monument to commemorate Thessaloniki’s murdered Jews was erected in the center of that city. In Athens, a Holocaust memorial in the shape of a broken Star of David was unveiled in 2010. Significantly, it is situated close to the synagogue on Melidoni Street where Athenian Jews were lured with the promise of food handouts, only to be trapped and captured by the Germans.
The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece is the representative organization of Greek Jewry.
Address: 36 Voulis Street,
105 57 Athens
Telephone: + 0030 210 32 44 315
Fax: + 0030 210 33 13 852
Locally produced kosher meat is available, as are other kosher products, and Chabad operates a kosher restaurant.
10 Aisopou St. Psiri, Athens
+30 210 32 33 825
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database