In the Foot­steps of the Jews of Greece: From Ancient Times to the Present Day

  • Review
By – May 20, 2024

In this work of non­fic­tion, French Greek his­to­ri­an Anas­ta­sios Karababas pro­vides a live­ly, com­pre­hen­sive overview of the vibrant yet trag­ic his­to­ry of the Jews of Greece. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Greece was one of the most diverse in Europe and con­tributed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the region’s cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic life.

The first Jews, the Roman­iotes, set­tled in Greece dur­ing the first cen­tu­ry BCE after the Baby­lo­ni­ans destroyed the tem­ple in Jerusalem. They were fol­lowed by the Ashke­naz­im from cen­tral and East­ern Europe, who fled per­se­cu­tion from the eleventh through the six­teenth cen­tu­ry. The Sephardim arrived in 1492 after their expul­sion from the Iber­ian Penin­su­la dur­ing the Ottoman peri­od and set­tled pri­mar­i­ly in the North. Ital­ian Jews, flee­ing the Span­ish occu­pa­tion, also set­tled in the North in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry. Each group arrived with its own lan­guage and cus­toms, cre­at­ing a rich tapes­try of com­mu­ni­ties in dif­fer­ent locales.

Karababas devotes a chap­ter to the his­to­ry and demise of the major areas in which these Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties lived. They include Thes­sa­loni­ki, Mace­do­nia and Thrace, Epirus, Evia, cen­tral Greece and the Pelo­pon­nese, Thes­saly, the Ion­ian islands, Crete, Rhodes, and Athens. He includes pho­tos, archival records, and sur­vivor tes­ti­monies, all of which bring the unique­ness of each locale to life.

Over­all, Karababas’s research reveals that the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties’ rela­tions with the Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties of Greece were rel­a­tive­ly good, although there were anti­se­mit­ic flare-ups dur­ing times of eco­nom­ic duress. The most promi­nent com­mu­ni­ties were Thes­sa­loni­ki and Athens, yet their inhab­i­tants’ his­to­ries and demis­es could­n’t be more different.

Before the Holo­caust, Thessaloniki’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion reached 56,000 — six­ty per­cent of Greece’s total Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. It was a vibrant cul­tur­al cen­ter that, in its hey­day, was known as the Jerusalem of the Balka­ns. The major­i­ty of Jews there were of Sephardic ances­try and spoke Ladi­no and Greek. They were involved in all eco­nom­ic areas, although most came from the low­er socioe­co­nom­ic sec­tors. In May 1941, the Nazis took con­trol of north­ern Greece and, by 1943, deport­ed 49,000 Jews to Auschwitz.

While arche­o­log­i­cal evi­dence indi­cates a Jew­ish pres­ence in Athens as ear­ly as the sixth cen­tu­ry BCE, a robust Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty emerged only after Greek inde­pen­dence in 1834. Athens became a refuge for Jews who faced per­se­cu­tion in oth­er parts of Greece. By 1887, the com­mu­ni­ty had three hun­dred mem­bers. Most were small mer­chants or antique sell­ers. Dur­ing the Balkan Wars, Jews left Mace­do­nia and Thrace for Athens. Before the Holo­caust, many Jews fled to Athens from Thes­sa­loni­ki. In 1943, the total Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of Athens was 3,500.

The Nazis’ attempt to deport Athen­s’s Jews large­ly failed. Athens was the cen­ter of the resis­tance move­ment and the home of Arch­bish­op Damask­i­nos, the head of the Greek Ortho­dox Church. Damask­i­nos was hor­ri­fied by the news com­ing out of Thes­sa­loni­ki. Along with promi­nent Athen­ian artists and aca­d­e­mics, he signed an offi­cial let­ter of protest on the Jews’ behalf. He request­ed that all parish­es issue false bap­tismal cer­tifi­cates and that the police com­man­der dis­trib­ute fake iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards. Due to these efforts, close to two-thirds of the Athens Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was saved.

Before the Holo­caust, over 78,000 Jews lived in Greece; today, just 4,500 remain. Karababas’s fine­ly writ­ten, high­ly acces­si­ble his­to­ry pro­vides an in-depth account of the Greek Jews’ tragedies and triumphs.

Lin­da Kan­tor-Swerd­low is a retired Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry Edu­ca­tion from Drew Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of Glob­al Activism in an Amer­i­can School: From Empa­thy to Action. She is cur­rent­ly free­lanc­ing and reviews books and theater.

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