Detail of stained glass with Magen David on door lead­ing into sanc­tu­ary of Kehi­la Kedosha Janina.

Queens Col­lege Spe­cial Col­lec­tions and Hel­lenic Amer­i­can Project

The Roman­iotes, or Roman­iote Jews, are the old­est Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Europe, dat­ing back at least 2,300 years to the time of Alexan­der the Great. They are Hel­l­enized, Greek-speak­ing Jews native to the east­ern Mediter­ranean. They estab­lished com­mu­ni­ties in many Greek cities, such as Ioan­ni­na, where my par­ents were born. The first clear his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence to the Roman­iotes dates to the 1300s where they were men­tioned in Byzan­tine gold­en bulls (offi­cial decrees). Addi­tion­al­ly, arche­o­log­i­cal remains are evi­dence of ear­li­er com­mu­ni­ties, such as the syn­a­gogues in the Ago­ra of Athens and Delos, dat­ing to the 2nd cen­tu­ry BCE; mosa­ic inscrip­tions found in the syn­a­gogue on the island of Aegi­na are believed to have been con­struct­ed between 300 and 350 CE and used until the 600s CE. The Roman­iotes lived in rel­a­tive peace under Ottoman rule, and by the 1800s were involved in many trades, includ­ing own­ing small shops and fam­i­ly businesses.

On March 25, 1944, the near­ly 1,960 Roman­iote Jews in Ioan­ni­na — includ­ing my mother’s fam­i­ly — were deport­ed by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Only 180 returned. Today, there are very few Roman­iote syn­a­gogues in the world; there are a hand­ful in Greece, one in Israel, and only one in the West­ern Hemi­sphere, the Kehi­la Kedosha Ioan­ni­na Syn­a­gogue and Muse­um in Manhattan.

The Roman­iotes are dis­tinct from the Sephardim who set­tled in Ottoman Greece after the 1492 expul­sion of the Jews from Spain. Roman­iotes tra­di­tions vary from those of the Sephardic Jews. For exam­ple, the Sephardim speak Ladi­no, a Judeo-Span­ish lan­guage, while the Roman­iotes use demot­ic Greek as their every­day lan­guage. Yevan­ic, or Judeo-Greek, was both spo­ken and writ­ten using the Hebrew alpha­bet. A few words that our par­ents taught us appear in my mem­oir, Flower of Vlo­ra.

I decid­ed to write my mem­oir, Flower of Vlora, for my grand­kids; I didn’t know any­thing about my grand­par­ents — espe­cial­ly from my mother’s side — except that they were sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camps from Ioan­ni­na, Greece. The more I wrote, the more I real­ized that this sto­ry would have a larg­er audience.

In Ioan­ni­na, my pater­nal grand­fa­ther, Ilia, and his broth­er, Joseph, had a fab­ric dying busi­ness togeth­er. While the Jews of Ioan­ni­na earned their liv­ings in many trades at that time, they worked pri­mar­i­ly in the cloth indus­try. My aunt Nina was ready to get mar­ried to her future hus­band in Trikalla. Accord­ing to Roman­iote tra­di­tion, her fam­i­ly had to give her a dowry. My grand­fa­ther had no mon­ey and decid­ed to take a loan out against the busi­ness. How­ev­er, he could not repay the loan and the two broth­ers were forced to declare bank­rupt­cy in 1938.

Many of the Roman­iote Jews in Alba­nia were hid­den dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion of the coun­try, and a num­ber of Jews from the sur­round­ing coun­tries also found refuge in Albania.

My grand­fa­ther was a spe­cial­ist in dying fab­rics and was offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty by a Roman­iote friend, also from Ioan­ni­na, in Vlo­ra, Alba­nia. He accept­ed the offer, mov­ing his fam­i­ly to Alba­nia, and ulti­mate­ly helped his friend to save fab­rics import­ed from Eng­land after a flood in the store. Joseph and his fam­i­ly went to Eretz Israel, today Israel.

My grand­par­ents and my father, a young man at the time, met a small com­mu­ni­ty of Roman­iotes in Alba­nia and decid­ed to stay in Vlo­ra. My father even­tu­al­ly returned to Ioan­ni­na, mar­ried my moth­er, and brought her to Vlo­ra in 1942. Many of the Roman­iote Jews in Alba­nia were hid­den dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion of the coun­try, and a num­ber of Jews from the sur­round­ing coun­tries also found refuge in Albania.

After the war, my par­ents came out from hid­ing in Trevl­laz­er, where a Mus­lim fam­i­ly shel­tered them from the Nazis. They could not go back to Greece, even though they were Greek cit­i­zens. We had great Roman­iote friends in Vlo­ra, most of whom had set­tled there before 1900. Dur­ing the inter­minable peri­od of Com­mu­nist rule, the small group of Roman­iotes kept the fam­i­ly tra­di­tions and prac­ticed their reli­gion secret­ly despite the watch­ful eyes of the Sig­uri­mi, the police. There was no way for the fam­i­ly to leave the coun­try, as Alba­nia was under the dic­ta­tor­ship of Enver Hox­ha. They gave up the idea of escap­ing at that time and went on with their lives in Vlo­ra. As years passed, the idea came up again more seri­ous­ly as we kids were old­er; we had to orches­trate a scheme to leave.

My goal in writ­ing the Flower of Vlo­ra was to teach my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren about their ances­tors and their rich her­itage. My hope is that they appre­ci­ate and are as proud as I am to be a Roman­iote Jew.

Dr. Anna Kohen was born in Vlo­ra, Alba­nia, and left in 1966 with sev­en of her fam­i­ly mem­bers and moved to Greece where she com­plet­ed Den­tal School and earned a den­tal degree. In 1991, and with the help of sev­er­al Jew­ish organ­i­sa­tions, she brought 37 of her Alban­ian rel­a­tives to the Unit­ed States. That same year she was invit­ed to Alba­nia to cel­e­brate the found­ing of the Alban­ian-Israeli soci­ety and was appoint­ed Hon­orary Mem­ber. In 2004, the Pres­i­dent of the Alban­ian Repub­lic award­ed her the medal for spe­cial Civ­il Mer­its for Valu­able con­tri­bu­tions in help­ing Alba­ni­ans dur­ing the Koso­var human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis. Dr. Kohen has served the Alban­ian com­mu­ni­ty for over 30 years as Pres­i­dent of the Alba­nia Amer­i­can Wom­en’s Organization.