The Jewish community of Greece has roots dating back thousands of years, unfortunately, during this time period and up to the present day it has faced difficult challenges. Under the Byzantine rulers Justinian, (482-565 c.e.), Jews were forbidden to hold Passover services and to celebrate Passover at all if it coincided with Easter. It was also illegal to bake matza. Justinian also forced Jews to use the Greek and Latin translations of the Bible in their synagogue services, prevented Jews from reading from the Book of Isaiah, and forbade the usage of the phrase “Our G-d is the one and only G-d” since he perceived it as contradictory to the Christian perception of G-d. Yet, despite all of this brutal oppression, the Jewish community did not cease to exist within the Byzantine Empire. In fact enough Jews remained within Byzantine lands in order to assist the Ottoman invasion, for they adamantly refused to passively accept their fate.
According to the historian Stanford Shaw, the Greek Orthodox Church during the medieval period viewed Jews to be absolute filth, “whose touch was considered contaminating.” Indeed, they were the first to circulate the infamous blood libel accusations against the Jewish people. Once Christianity took over the Byzantine Empire, the Jews were exposed to various persecutions, numerous synagogues were destroyed, countless Jews were slaughtered, the Jewish faith was outlawed during certain periods, and thus numerous forced conversions took place.
During the Holocaust, the Greek Jewish community would suffer even worse persecutions than they had experienced under the Byzantine oppression. Salonika was formerly known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans and in Ottoman times, the city had a Jewish majority and the Jewish community there thrived, experiencing a Golden Age reminiscent of the Jewish experience in Muslim Spain. Yet, the Nazis brought the rich Salonika Jewish civilization to an end when the city’s Jewish population would be sent to Auschwitz starting around the time of Passover in 1943, the liquidation continued throughout Passover and would last three months.
One year later, during Passover, the Jews living in the Italian zone of Greece were similarly deported to Auschwitz. In total, around 65,000 Greek Jews would be deported and only 2,000 of these would survive the war. They would return to a war-torn country. Yet, these Jews would manage to persevere and preserve Greece’s rich Jewish heritage dating back to antiquity. Recently, the Jews of Salonikka commemorated the 70th anniversary since the first group of Jews was deported from Salonikka to Auschwitz. Apparently, 1,000 Jews still live in the city that was one of the main centers of Ottoman Jewry.
Now, Greece’s Jews face a new challenge, with the rise of the Neo-Nazis Golden Dawn Party. For the first time in Greek political history, the Neo-Nazis control 18 seats in the Greek Parliament, thus making them the fourth largest political party in Greece. Thus, in such a political situation, there were worries that the Golden Dawn Party might attempt to cause disturbances during the 70th Anniversary of the Deportation of the Jews from Salonikka commemoration, in response, Jewish community of Greece flew in Jews from around the world in order to protect the Jews who were commemorating the destruction of their community, and this Passover it will celebrate its continued existence and right to practice its religion.
By Rachel Avraham