Exploring the Jewish Community in Greece

Greece is a beautiful country with outstanding museums, well-preserved historical remains and tasty cuisine. It is also a country that is trying to revitalize its Jewish community.

Synagogue Scuola Greca in Corfu
Synagogue Scuola Greca in Corfu

The population of the Greek Jewish community before the Holocaust was 77,000. The Genocide claimed the lives of about 65,000 Greek Jews, 87 percent of its Jewish population. In 2002, it was reported that there were only 5,000 Jews remaining in the country. Most of the Jews reside in the capital city of Athens and the remaining Jews reside in seven other communities in Greece.

On my recent visit to Corfu, a city located on an island 330 miles northwest of Athens, there were 120 Jews. The surviving synagogue of Corfu, the Scuola Greca (or Tempio Greco) is one of the most beautiful in Greece and remains substantially as it was prior to World War II. It was built in the 17th century and is currently being used for services and other Jewish celebrations.

Jewish Memorial in Corfu
Jewish Memorial in Corfu

A few blocks from the synagogue in Corfu there is a memorial for the 2,000 Jews of Corfu, who perished in the Holocaust. Some Jews living in Greece survived the Holocaust with the aide of their Christian neighbors who hid them. Many of these Jews were saved with the assistance of the Greek Archbishop who issued them fake identity cards stating they were Christians.

Moses Constantinis, a president of the Central Board of the Jewish Communities of Greece, was issued a fake identity card and with the help of his non-Jewish neighbors went into hiding in several homes during the Holocaust. He said his job is to preserve and promote Jewish life in Greece.

"My job is to preserve the Jewish religion in Jewish communities in Greece and to stop anti-Semitism," Constantinis said. Constantinis meets with government officials on behalf of the Jewish communities and said that relations between the government of Greece and the Jewish community are excellent. He also keeps a watch on anti-Semitic statements by journalists in the Greek newspapers and tries to rebuke these statements.

I also spoke to Abraham Reitan, another survivor of the Holocaust in Athens. He was born in 1941 in Alexandropoulos and his father was able to get false identity cards for his family. Reitan moved to Athens in 1965 and has been volunteering in the Jewish community since 1974. Currently, he is president of the Board of the Jewish Assembly of Athens.

The Assembly meets once a month to discuss the problems of the Jewish community in Athens. The Assembly deals with the issues of Jewish welfare including the finances of the Jewish day school in Athens where 70 Jewish children are students.

"What we are trying to do is to preserve Jewish life in Athens," Reitan said. We have a lot of programs and trips for the Jewish children. We are not many people and we don’t want to lose our Jewish children."

The intermarriage rate is very high in the country and has increased since 1981 when Jewish civil marriages were first allowed in Greece.

Jewish artifacts from Jewish Museum in Athens
Jewish artifacts from Jewish
Museum in Athens

Jewish life in Greece is also being preserved and promoted at the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens. The museum is privately owned and was founded with the aim of collecting, preserving and exhibiting the artifacts which reflect the life, customs, rites and traditions of Greek Judaism.

Zanat Battinou, archaeologist, curator and director of the Museum said the facility also teaches Greek Christian children about the Holocaust. Many school groups visit the museum each year.

The museum also contains more than 7,000 objects of rare art. It has an interesting collection of Torah covers, ancient ketubahs and numerous religious items from Greek Jewry. The first Jews came to Greece in 600 B.C., according to Battinou. The museum also has the remains of a synagogue from Patras.

Remains of Patras synagogue in Jewish Museum
Remains of Patras synagogue in Jewish

"There are less than 20 Jewish families living in Patras so we moved the synagogue to the Museum," Battinou said. Sometimes we have services here."

The Jewish Museum of Greece is located at 39 Nikis Street near the center of Athens and is a interesting place to visit. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and has a website: www.jewishmuseum.gr.