Seventy-three years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Greece today remembers the victims of the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust and among them the tens of thousands of Greek Jews who were victims of a horrific brutality, the Greek foreign ministry said on Friday.
In its message, the ministry said that the Greek state “explicitly condemns any form of anti-Semitism and exerts systematic efforts against cases of bigotry and racism.”
Among those efforts are the restoration of historic injustices against the Jewish community in Greece and the forthcoming start of construction of the Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki.
Today we take a close look at the history of Jews in Greece
The term “Greek Jew” is predominantly used for any person of Jewish descent or faith that lives in or originates from the modern region of Greece. The oldest, most characteristic Greek Jewish community are the Romaniotes, a distinct Jewish population that historically lived in communities throughout Greece and neighbouring areas with large Greek populations.
Greece once had a large population of Sephardic Jews and is a historical centre of Sephardic life. Thessaloniki is the main city most Jews called home. Greek Jews also played an important role in the early development of Christianity and became a source of education and commerce for the Byzantine Empire and throughout the period of Ottoman Greece. In spite of Greek efforts to save them, the Jewish community was devastated after Greece was conquered and occupied by the Axis powers. After the Holocaust, a large percentage of the surviving community emigrated to Israel and the United States.
The first recorded mention of Judaism in Greece dates from 300-250 BC on the island of Rhodes. Archaeologists have discovered ancient synagogues in Greece, including the Synagogue in the Agora of Athens and the Delos Synagogue, dating to the 2nd century BC.
Over 12,800 Greek Jews fought in the Greek army, one of the best-known amongst them being Colonel Mordechai Frizis, in a force which first successfully repelled the Italian Army, but was later overwhelmed by German forces.
During World War II, Greece was conquered by Nazi Germany and occupied by the Axis powers. It is reported that over 50,000 Jews – Romaniotes and Sephardim – were deported from Thessaloniki alone and murdered. The Greek Jews, especially those in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany and Bulgaria, were massacred despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church and many Christian Greeks to shelter them.
On July 11, 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki were rounded up in preparation for slave labour. The community paid a fee of 2 billion drachmas for their freedom. In addition to the destruction of the old Jewish cemetery, located in the centre of the city. Over 50,000 people were sent to Auschwitz, and most of their sixty synagogues and schools were destroyed.
Thousands of Jews in other areas of Greece were also brutally murdered, however many were also saved by the Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy due to a proclamation by Archbishop Damaskinos, instructing the church to issue false baptismal certificates to all Jews who requested them. Although the Germans deported a great number of Greek Jews, others were thankfully hidden by their Greek neighbours. The Romaniotes were protected by the Greek government until the Nazi occupation. During the German occupation, the Romaniotes’ ability to speak Greek enabled them to hide better from German deportations.
Today, the Jewish community in Greece is estimated as fewer than 8,000 people, mainly in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larissa, Volos, Chalkis, Ioannina, Trikala and Corfu, while very few remain in Kavala and Rhodes. Greek Jews today largely “live side by side in harmony” with Christian Greeks and continue to work with other Greeks, and Jews, to combat any rise of anti-Semitism in Greece and worldwide.