A Jewish presence has been proven in Athens during the Hellenistic period, just as in Alexandria. It is certain that Paul of Tarsus came here, as elsewhere in Greece, to preach in Athenian synagogues. One of them, dating from the third century C.E., appears to have been identified at the Agora, at the foot of the Acropolis.
However, for several centuries afterward there was no single sign of a Jewish presence in the city. This ancient city was nothing more than a modest village of 4500 in 1833, the year it was declared the country’s capital.
Jews returned here in the wake of the first Bavarian monarchy. After his enthronement, King Otto I confided to a group of notable Jews “that he considered his realm blessed and honored to contain within its borders the biblical race of Israel”.
This laudable declaration of principle, however, could not prevent outbursts of anti-Semitism by the populace. After seeking to put an end to a traditional anti-Jewish ceremony, the “hunt for Judas”, Jewish businessman and British citizen David Pacifico saw his warehouses looted in the mid-nineteenth century. England intervened on his behalf, and went so far as imposing a brief blockade of Greece’s shores as a means of obtaining heavy compensation.
Far less sizable than the one in Thessaloniki, the Jewish community of Athens nevertheless proved to have better relations with both the government and general population.
The city’s seizure by the Germans in 1943 marked the beginning of the terror. Active resistance by the authorities, in particular by chief of police Anghelos Evert and Orthodox archbishop Monsignor Damaskinos, was exemplary.
The ancient synagogue
At the foot of the Acropolis, within the Agora’s vast flied of ruins, archaeologists believe they have identified a synagogue dating to the third century C.E.
The foundations of this ancient synagogue have been unearthed near the statue of Hadrian and the apse of an old basilica. A marble surface has been discovered on which a menorah and a palm branch are engraved.
The modern synagogues
Around 500 yards northwest of the Agora, at the end of Ermou Street near the ruins of the ancient Keramiko cemetery, are Athen’s two modern synagogues. Located in a trendy neighborhood full of bars, the synagogue lie on the opposite sides of Melidoni Street.
Built at the turn of the century, the older of the two, Etz Hayyim, has also been nicknamed Ioanniotiki dur to its popularity among Jews from Ioannina. It is open only during the high holidays.
The other synagogue, Beth Shalom, is a Neoclassical-style marble edifice, dating to the 1930s.
The Jewish Museum
After spending twenty years facing the former royal garden, the Jewish Museum of Athens[/site has recently been transferred to a newly renovated neoclassical house on the Plaka. A large collection of documents, clothing, and religious artifacts from the Romaniote and Sephardic communities is displayed here by theme and by floor.
The former Romaniote synagogue of Patras has been rebuilt here on the first floor.
With the new name of Alka Betz, it was dedicated in 1984 by the grand rabbi of France, Samuel Sirat.
The cycle of Jewish holidays is observed on the second floor; the third floor contains historical documents about the Jewish communities of Greece, traditional costumes, and cultural and domestic objects, as well as an exhibit dedicated to the Shoah.
The museum also features exhibit space, a library, and a souvenir shop on the first floor.
Interview with the leaders of the Jewish Community of Athens
Jguideeurope: How is the Jewish community organized and which changes in its cultural heritage (new places, renovations…) have occured?
JCA: The Jewish Community of Athens, the largest Jewish community in Greece, is a vibrant and dynamic community consisting of over 3.500 members. Its main purposes are philanthropic, cultural, and educational. The Jewish Community of Athens is managed by a 13-member Community Council which is elected by an elected 50-member General Assembly; both groups preside for a three-year term. There are many special Committees, composed of volunteers (over 150), who help significantly in the management of the Community through offering their valuable time and services. All the above is supported by a small professional team.
The Community operates two Synagogues, a fully compatible Mikveh (ritual bath), the Community Center — which hosts a variety of events — and the Jewish Cemetery. An important part of our Community is the Lauder Athens Jewish Community School which consists of a Preschool and Primary Education program. The school’s attendance is more than 100 children per year. The existence of a remarkable social solidarity system for the elderly, the sick, the needy or those in general need, makes our Community very proud.
Within the past years, both of our Synagogues have been renovated. The Beth Shalom is a Sephardic synagogue, built in 1935 and renovated in the 1970s’. It is located right across the street from the Ets Hayim synagogue and can accommodate 500 people. It hosts all bar-mitzvahs and bat-mitzvahs, weddings, memorial services and visits. The Ets Hayim is a Romaniote synagogue, built in 1904 and renovated in 2006. It can accommodate 400 people and is mostly used during the High Holidays, when Beth Shalom synagogue attendance is high. On the ground floor are the Administration offices of the JCA.
Located next to the Synagogues is the Holocaust Memorial. It was inaugurated in 2010 to honor the memory of the 59,000 Greek Jews killed by the Nazis during WWII. The monument depicts a shattered Yellow Star of David, symbolizing the heavy loss to the Jews in Greece. The separated triangles or points of the star are scattered over small irregular distances pointing in the direction of the corresponding Jewish communities carved by name onto the marble. The center of the star is kept whole to symbolize that the core remained to continue the historical course of Greek Judaism.
In the courtyard of Beth Shalom Synagogue is the Greek Righteous Among the Nations Memorial inaugurated in 2016. It pays tribute to the 357 heroes of the German Occupation and their Christian compatriots, who saved Jews by risking their life and the lives of their families.
Who are the contemporary Jewish culture figures in Athens and are there regular events organized to promote the Jewish heritage?
Among the members of the Jewish Community of Athens there are many contemporary Jewish culture figures such as writers, singers, musicians, actors and visual artists. Please find below some of them who contribute by their field of interest to the Jewish life in Athens and in Greece through their art.
Mr. Aris Emmanouil is involved in many communal activities, both as a professional and as a volunteer, who is also the author of an album for the Lauder Athens Jewish Community School on the completion of 54 years of its operation and a Glossary of Hebrew Terms and Names that is given to our members. The book is also distributed to all the girls and boys that have been celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. The former Rabbi of Athens, Isaac Mizan has published an extensive study of Shulchan Arouch. His book was distributed free of charge to all members of our Community and granted the rights to the book to the Jewish Museum of Greece. Other distinguished members of our Community, Mrs. Kelly Matathia Covo is a children’s book writer and has been awarded in the field of graphic design, where one of her books has an indirect hint for the Holocaust and Mr. Iosif Ventura, a poet and the only survivor of the Jews of the Island of Crete who has published – among others – the book TANAIS including poets, which refers to the drama of the extermination of the Jews living in Greece by the German occupiers but also more generally to the historical event of the extermination of the Jews of Europe in the Nazi concentration camps. Following, Mrs. Artemis Alcalay is an artist of modern art and has exhibited her art about Holocaust in the year 2018 on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
For a more realistic aspect on her art, she talked to many Holocaust survivors. Mrs. Alcalay has also launched a bilingual (Greek and English) website, dedicated to the “Greek Jews Holocaust Survivors”, which includes material from her interviews with Holocaust survivors and publications, exhibitions and project presentations. Additionally, Mrs. Odette Varon-Vassard, is a historian and a professor and has given multiple lectures on the field of Holocaust. Mr. Michel Fais, a writer and a screenwriter, with books that have been translated to languages such as in English,
Spanish and French and short stories published abroad. The actor and writer Mr. Alberto Eskenazy and also Mr. Alberto Fais, who is an actor, and presented the ceremony of the Memorial Holocaust Remembrance Day that the Community along with the Municipality has organized this year and volunteers to any event his services are relevant. Last but not least, we would like to mention the Kapon Publications and the Gavriilidis Publications, whose variety of published books include the history of Greek Jews, especially during Holocaust and World War II, hence contributing to the conservation and the transmission of the memory.
Also, professionals from JCA and members, such as the Director of JCA, the Director of JCC and others, who are musicians and singers, always contribute with their knowledges on music to various events by promoting the Sephardic and the Romaniote routs of Jews in Greece. We are happy that our Community is surrounded by many artists who are always by our side to offer their services, thus enriching the cultural side of the Jewish life in Athens.