According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Greece is home to between 4,300 and 6,000 Jews. Heirs to a long and storied history, the Greek Jewish community has long maintained ties with Jews in the Land of Israel, and while being largely Sephardi, also has a unique Romaniote culture. Today’s community is notably present in the socio-political life of the country and also makes its presence felt in the diaspora. The Jewish community in Greece is represented by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece – the Greek affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.
The history of Jews in Greece may date back thousands of years to the Babylonian exile, around 585-549 B.C.E. When the Persian king Cyrus the Great allowed the captive Judeans to return home, some may have settled in Greece instead. Until around the 3rd Century B.C.E, there were only scattered and isolated Jews living in Greek cities. The establishment of a permanent Jewish community in Greece coincided with Alexander the Great’s conquering of the former Kingdom of Judah and absorption of the territory into his empire. Under his rule, the Jewish communities flourished and many lived a largely Hellenized lifestyle, speaking Greek and not Hebrew. Many Jewish immigrants began settling in Hellenist cities along the Aegean Coast and Greek mainland during this time, and they too became part a growing class of assimilated, pro-Greek Jews.
Despite such developments, a majority of Jews in Greece retained monotheism. In 167-164 B.C.E the famed Maccabean Revolt took place, as a Jewish revolt, led by Judah Maccabee, defeated the Greeks and restored Jewish worship to the Second Temple. After the revolt, many Hellenized Jews left Judea for more Hellenistic destinations, such as Alexandria and Antioch. The people in these communities were called “Romaniote” and translated Jewish prayers into Greek. Romaniote communities developed throughout the Byzantine era and became linchpins in various industries throughout Greece.
Many Jews completely assimilated into Greek culture while others attempted to maintain Jewish traditions, such as Hebrew. As a result of violence due to the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe arrived in North Greece, and found refuge in the city of Thessaloniki. The capture of Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, by the Ottomans in 1453 marked a shift in Jewish communal life in Greece, as the Ottomans governed based off of Islamic law, which afforded Jews religious and (often) legal autonomy over their own communities. As a result of such practices, Greece became a haven for persecuted Jews fleeing the Inquisition. They found Ottoman Greece to be religiously tolerant and extremely welcoming (Ottoman authorities encouraged Jewish immigration because it improved the economy). This signaled the beginning of a Sephardic Jewish presence in Greece.
Greek Jews in the Ottoman Empire were extremely successful, occupying administrative posts and being active in the development of intellectual and commercial life throughout the region. In fact, the arrival of these Jewish refugees also changed the nature of the communities as many of the refugees were leading intellectuals, academics and scientists. by the end of the 16th century the community in Thessaloniki (Salonika) had attained 30,000 members, equal to half the city's population. At first, there was friction between these new Sephardic arrivals and the already established Romaniot Jews, but eventually each group came to accept one another and Ladino, the Sephardi language, became the official language of Greek Jews.
Over the course of successive centuries, Jews from many other countries also moved to Thessaloniki, introducing German, French, Dutch, Egyptian and Italian Jewish traditions. The Jewish community’s existence continued to be largely comfortable, though there were a few disturbances, such as when the Ottoman’s introduced a special tax that affected the Jewish residents of Greece. More profoundly, the general support of the Ottoman Empire espoused by Greek Jews was seen with disapproval by the Christian Orthodox Greeks. During the Greek War of Independence, thousands of Greek Jews were massacred alongside the Ottoman Turks, with the Jewish communities of Tripoli, Kalamata, and Patras completely destroyed. Some of the survivors moved north, to lands still ruled by the Ottomans after Greece gained its independence in 1832.
After the formation of an independent Greek state, trade routes changed and the port of Thessaloniki, once a staple of trade and commerce, began to decline in importance. This, along with a movement towards the “Hellenization,” acceptance of Greek culture and language, of Jews and other ethnic groups in the late nineteenth century, saw fortunes negatively change for the Jews of Greece. Dismal trade and forced assimilation saw many Jews began to leave Greece. Moreover, the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine after World War I saw a number of Jews emigrate.
Yet, the Jewish community still constituted a significant portion of Greek society. In Thessaloniki alone, more than half of the town’s population was Jewish and almost 50 synagogues were located throughout the city. When Greek economic and political life became centered around Athens, many Jews moved there. In 1936, Léon Recanati, member of Consistoire Israelite de Grece represented the Greek Jewish Communities at the WJC founding Plenary in Geneva. On the eve of the Shoah, over 70,000 Jews lived in Greece and were part of the country’s everyday life and culture.
The Holocaust absolutely devastated the Greek Jewish community and after the war, more half of the 10,000 Jews who were in Greece when the Axis occupation ended, including the remnants of Macedonian and Thracian communities, made their way to Israel and other countries. Those who remained found themselves engulfed in violence, as Greece was plunged into civil war from 1946 to 1949. Jews fought on both sides of the conflict, with the British and US-backed Greek government army and the Communist-backed Democratic Army of Greece. When the Greek government army emerged victorious, the supporters of the Communists, including members of the Jewish community, were hard hit by the repression exerted by the government after it had regained control.
Greece was the first European country to return property confiscated during the war to its Jewish community, with a royal decree establishing a foundation for Jewish survivors and their heirs to present claims in court for restitution or compensation in 1949. Property of murdered victims was placed into a common fund to aid Greek Jews impoverished by the war.
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 anti-Semitic policy and engages in Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is legally prohibited in Greece and can incur jail-time. The debt crisis in the late 2000s saw a small number of Greek Jews emigrate, but overall the Jewish community in Greece has remained stable. Today, Greek Jews are well integrated in Greek society, working in a variety of professional occupations and industries. relations between the Jewish community and the state are good, and Judaism is an officially recognized religion.
At the outbreak of World War II, Greece tried to maintain neutrality, but found itself drawn into the conflict after refusing to acquiesce sovereignty to fascist Italy. Jewish soldiers and officers fought in the Greek forces that resisted the Italian and later German invasions of the country, and many of them 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 living in the German-controlled zone were subject to the most immediate and terrible threat. The 49,000 members of the great community of Thessaloniki fell under German administration, and the community was almost destroyed in the first few months of the occupation.
By the end of 1945, 96.5% of the Jewish Community had been murdered in Nazi death camps in Poland. Less than 2,000 of the 50,000 Jews of pre-war Thessaloniki survived. In Athens, the community was initially protected by the Italian authorities' reluctance to enact anti-Jewish laws, but after Germany took direct control of Athens, only the leadership of Chief Rabbi Elijah Barzilai which called upon 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 to the Jews in Bulgaria, largely thanks to Bulgarian civil society, the Bulgarian authorities deported the 11,000 Jews in the Greek zone under their control to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Similar deportations were experienced by the Jews of 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-days journey from Piraeus to Auschwitz in sealed cattle wagons. In Rhodes, some 40 Turkish Jews were saved thanks to the heroism of the Turkish Consul Selahettin Ulkumen. In all, some 65,000 Greek Jews were murdered.
Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that the Greek Jewish community numbered between 4,300 and 6,000 Jews, as of 2000. The majority of Greek Jews live in Athens, followed by Thessaloniki. Jews are also present in Corfu, Chalkis, Ioannina (with the latest Romaniotes), Larissa, Rhodes, Trikala and Volos.
The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece acts as the umbrella organization for the nine Jewish communities throughout the country - Athens, Thessaloniki, Larisa, Volos, Corfu, Chalkis, Ioannina, Trikala, and Rhodes – working to ensure that Greek Jews are well represented and accounted for. It also maintains the preservation of a large number of Jewish sites, including those located in areas where no Jews survived the Shoah.
Jewish life in Greece is largely centered around Athens, where there is Jewish Cultural Center. It hosts activities of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, like its General Assembly, meetings and elections, plus activities of various community organizations which use the center for meetings, parties, and markets. Moreover, the Jewish Cultural Center also hosts various cultural events such as lectures, seminars, and concerts, on an almost weekly basis. The Thessaloniki Jewish Community also has a cultural center for its activities.
A large number of international and local Jewish organizations operate in Greece. This includes B’nai Br’ith, Benot Brit, Jewish Charity, the Holocaust Descendants’ Association/Jewish Education, 2nd Generation of Holocaust Victims, Union of Greek Jewish Veterans of War, and WIZO. In addition, there is the "Saoul Modiano" Old People's Home in Thessaloniki.
There are currently ten active synagogues in Greece, with rabbis serving the communities of Athens, Thessaloniki, and Laris, but available to Greek Jews who may be in need of their services. The Jewish Community of Athens has two functioning synagogues, both on the same street facing each other, in Thission, near the city center. The older of two is the Romaniote one, the second one is Sephardi. Thessaloniki’s Jewish community has three synagogues, including one in the Saoul Modiano Home.
Kosher food is available in Greece and is most easily accessible in Athens and Thessaloniki. The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and Chabad, as well as individual Jewish communities in Greece, provide a myriad of options to get kosher food to smaller Jewish communities in the country.
There are a number of Jewish day schools available to Greek Jews throughout the country, including n Athens, Thessaloniki, and Larissa. This includes the Lauder Athens Jewish Community School, which combines the educational requirements established by the Greek Ministry of Education, while also establishing a Jewish-oriented curriculum that focuses on Jewish history and Hebrew up until the sixth grade. There are also Jewish preschools in Athens and Thessaloniki.
The community’s dedication to education is extended to secondary school pupils and students of universities. Students with inadequate means are supported with subsidies and loans and those who excel receive scholarships. Moreover, there is a chair in Jewish Studies at the School of Philosophy and Department of Philology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
In 2013, an agreement was announced in Thessaloniki to establish the Memorial Center on Holocaust Education Remembrance and Research at the city’s old railway station. It was signed by the Thessaloniki Jewish community, the City of Thessaloniki and the Greek transport ministry.
There are currently no yeshivot or rabbinical studies centers in Greece.
In Athens, as well in Thessaloniki, the community maintains a youth center that organizes various recreational and cultural events such as dances, excursions, congresses and seminars. Summer camps are organized each year for young people in Thessaloniki. Maccabi Clubs are active and the Union of the Hellenic Jewish Students (ENE) is affiliated to EUJS and WUJS.
There are Jewish newspapers published by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and by the local communities of Athens and Thessaloniki, as well as a quarterly magazine, Chronica.
The remains of an ancient synagogue were discovered in 1930 in the place of 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, the myrtle branch on it. Archaeologists estimate that the findings relate to the 2nd century CE and indicate the existence of an organized community.
The Jewish Museum of Greece is also located in Athens and has its own permanent building. A part of the exhibition is devoted to the destruction of the Jewish community during the Shoah.
The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki was established in 2001, in an old commercial arcade which belongs to the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki and has been renovated by funds of the Organization Thessaloniki Cultural Capital of Europe 1997. The main task of the museum is to collect documents and heirlooms which have not been destroyed during the Holocaust, to preserve the remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and to encourage the research about the continuous presence of the Jews in Thessaloniki for more than 2000 years.
The vast Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki was destroyed and today the city's university sits atop the ancient Jewish burial ground. In 1997, a monument to commemorate Thessaloniki's murdered Jews was erected in the center of that city.
In the Island of Rhodes, there is also a Jewish museum close the Kahal Shalom synagogue, open to the public for its architectural interest. In 2002 the Municipality of Rhodes, approved the erection of a Monument of the Victims of the Holocaust in the Jewish Martyrs Square, in the same place where the Jewish quarter used to be. The Jewish cemetery of the island is still preserved. Each year in July a kind of pilgrimage of “Rhodeslis” is done in Rhodes to commemorate the deportation of the Jews of the island. During the event the descendent of the Jews of Rhodes are celebrating in La Juderia, bar and bat mitzvah, concerts of Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew.
Full diplomatic relations between Greece and Israel were only established in 1991. In August 2010, Israeli PM Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Greece officially. In January 2015, a tripartite agreement was announced including Cyprus to build a gas pipeline to export natural gas to Europe, part of a growing trilateral alliance between the three countries.
Embassy of Israel in Greece
1 Marathonodromon str.
154 52 P. Psychiko
Telephone: (0030) 210-6705500
Fax: (0030) 210-6705555