[MGSA-L] Greece’s Romaniote Jews remember a catastrophe and grapple with disappearing

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Wed Apr 2 18:15:31 PDT 2014


Greece’s Romaniote Jews remember a catastrophe and grapple with disappearing

By Gavin Rabinowitz

April 1, 2014 6:28pm

The members of the Ioannina Jewish community, foreign diplomats and local
dignitaries take part in a memorial service inside Ioannina’s Kahal Kadosh
Yashan synagogue to mark 70 years since the Nazi deportations. (Gavin

IOANNINA, Greece (JTA) — When the Jews of Ioannina gathered in their
whitewashed-stone synagogue over the weekend, it was to commemorate 70
years since the Nazis destroyed their community.

But the March 30 gathering also served to highlight a source of present-day
sadness: the withering of the unique 2,300 year-old Romaniote Jewish

Ioannina, a postcard-pretty town in northwestern Greece with a medieval
fortress perched by a bright blue lake and surrounded by snow-capped
mountains, once was the center of Romaniote Jewish life. Today, however,
the community in Ioannina numbers fewer than 50 members, most of them
elderly. The last time the community celebrated a bar mitzvah was in 2000.
The community’s leaders fear for its future.

“It is very difficult,” said Moses Elisaf, the community’s president. “We
try to do our best to keep the traditions, but the numbers are very hard.”
“I don’t like to think about the future. It is very hard to be optimistic,”
he said, standing on the peaceful lakefront Mavili Square, where the Nazis
loaded the town’s Jews onto trucks to be shipped to Auschwitz.
The Romaniote Jews, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, emerged from the first
Jewish communities of Europe. Records indicate the first Jewish presence in
Greece dating back to 300 BCE. A ruined second-century BCE synagogue on the
Aegean island of Delos is believed to be the oldest discovered in the

These Jews became known as the Romaniotes, speaking their own language,
Yevanic, or Judeo-Greek, a version of Greek infused with Hebrew and written
with the Hebrew script.

Romaniote synagogues had a unique layout. They had their own religious
traditions and prayer book, the Mahzor Romania. Much of the worship was in
Yevanic, and the tunes, including for reading the Torah, were heavily
influenced by Byzantine music.

“The Romaniote tradition is hugely important. It is a pre-Diasporic
tradition based on the Talmud Yerushalmi,” said Zanet Battinou, the
director of the Jewish Museum of Greece and herself a Romaniote who grew up
in Ioannina.

But it is a community and a tradition that has long been in decline.
Following the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492, many Sephardic Jews
found refuge in the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece. Soon, major
Sephardic communities sprang up, most notably in Thessaloniki, known as the
Jerusalem of the Balkans.

The preexisting Romaniote communities often were absorbed into the larger,
wealthier Sephardic Ladino-speaking ones that eventually became largely
synonymous with Greek Jewry.

“People don’t know about the Romaniote ancient Jewish community,” Battinou
said. “Thessaloniki was so massive and successful, it overshadowed

It was only on isolated islands and in the rugged mountains of western
Greece that the Romaniotes remained the dominant tradition, and Ioannina
was the largest of these communities.

By the start of the 20th century, some 4,000 Romaniote Jews lived in
Ioannina. But amid the economic hardship and the turmoil that accompanied
the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, many joined their Greek compatriots and

Most went to the United States and Palestine, setting up Romaniote
synagogues in New York City and Jerusalem. Later, a third was established
in Tel Aviv. At the start of World War II, about 2,000 Jews remained in

On March 25, 1944, the German Nazi occupiers rounded up the Jews of
Ioannina. As snow fell, they were put into open trucks and taken to a
nearby city. From there, a nine-day rail journey took them to Auschwitz.
The names of the town’s 1,832 Jews who were murdered are carved on marble
tablets on the walls of the synagogue. Among the dead were more than 500
children under the age of 13.

Only 112 Ioannina Jews survived the death camps. Another 69 escaped the
roundup, hiding with Christian families or fleeing into the mountains,
where some fought with the Greek resistance. When they returned to
Ioannina, many found their properties looted and homes occupied.

But it was not just the people who were wiped out. Centuries of tradition
disappeared, too.
“Oral tradition is very dependent on the third generation — all the
grandfathers and grandmothers disappeared, were murdered, all at once,”
Battinou said. Among the few survivors was her grandmother Zanet, after
whom she is named.
“The youth who survived only perpetuated what parts they remembered,” she

While Ioannina was the largest and the most iconic Romaniote community,
several other small communities that identify with the Romaniote tradition
continue to exist in places like Chalkida and Volos. But today, most of the
remaining Romaniote Jews, like their Sephardic compatriots, live in Athens,
Greece’s largest Jewish community. Athens has one Romaniote synagogue,
built in 1906, but it is used only on the High Holidays.

Meanwhile, the Romaniote Jews who moved to the United States and Israel
have intermingled with the larger Jewish communities.

Several Israeli Romaniotes attended the anniversary commemorations, drawn
by family ties.

Yosef Baruch came with his brother and his uncle at the behest of his
90-year-old grandmother who survived the Nazis and moved to Israel after
the war. Baruch says he has never prayed at the Romaniote synagogue in
“It’s a tradition that was destroyed in the Holocaust,” he said.

None of the American Romaniotes attended the memorial ceremony.
In Greece, with the Jewish community so devastated after the war, there was
no place for separate communities. Most religious services are now held
according to Sephardic rites.

Today, only Cantor Haim Ischakis, who led the memorial prayer service,
knows how to chant the Torah in the Romaniote tradition — something he
learned from his father, also a cantor, who survived the camps.
“I am the only one left,” Ischakis said. He is teaching his two sons, but
if they don’t take up his profession, the only examples left will be
recordings on YouTube.

In fact, the Internet is emerging as the most likely tool for preserving
Romaniote tradition. And the impetus for this online push has come from an
unlikely source.
The Canadian ambassador to Greece, Robert Peck, who was instrumental in
helping organize the commemorations, with Canada heading the International
Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, noted the lack of available information
about the Jews of Ioannina.

At his behest, the New Media Lab at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University
designed a website detailing Ioannina’s Jewish history, and a
soon-to-be-launched app will let people explore Jewish sites in the town
and listen to survivor testimonies.

“I came to Ioannina and visited the synagogue, and I felt it was very
important to carry beyond the borders of Greece what Ioannina represents,
the legacy of the Jewish community here,” Peck said.

Still, the Romaniote Jews hope that through their efforts and dedication,
something of their legacy, their community, will survive in the real world.
“It is very precious to me, and I try to pass it on to my children and hope
they appreciate that from their mothers’ side, they inherit such a unique
tradition,” Battinou said. “It is still alive, it is not extinct, yet.'

Gavin Rabinowitz <http://www.jta.org/author/gavin-rabinowitz> is a
contributing writer to JTA.
June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com
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