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Athens museum records the history of the Jews of Greece
By Jacqueline Swartz
ATHENS — Jews have lived in Greece for about 2,400 years, and are one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe.
Known as Romaniot, they inhabited what is now the Greek mainland and islands, as well as places as far-flung as Alexander the Great’s empire. Whether their city was Alexandria or Antioch, their language, customs, food and identity were influenced by Greek culture.
In his book, The Jews of Greece, Nikos Stavroulakis, an Oxford-trained scholar who taught Byzantine history in Israel, writes: “It was within this Greek-speaking, and hence Greek-thinking, world that Jews were forced to re-examine their identity as a people among the nations.”
In the l970s, when the history of Jews of Greece was still largely ignored, Stavroulakis, along with a handful of leaders from the Jewish community, opened a small museum in a back room of an Athens synagogue.
The collection included 19th- and 20th- century clothing, candlesticks, photos, ketubbot and objects seized by the German-allied Bulgarians from the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace who were deported in l943.
After the war, their possessions were returned to Greece.
In 1984, the museum moved to a large apartment in an elegant building, and Jews from Greece, the United States and elsewhere around the world began to donate their heirlooms and artifacts.
In l997, on its 20th anniversary, the museum moved to a neo-classic building situated between Constitution square and the old city of the Plaka.
In the light-filled, state of the art museum are displays on how the Jews of various parts of Greece celebrated holidays, what they wore, how they lived and their deep relationship with Greece.
The museum, considered to be among the best Jewish museums in Europe, has a research library, enough storage space for two-thirds of its collection, an art gallery, and a space designed to house periodical exhibits of painting and photography.
On the ground floor is the restored interior of the synagogue of Patras. There are textiles, the wooden Torah cases particular to the Romaniote tradition and an amulet that was intended to protect baby boys against the wiles of Lillith, Adam’s first wife.
A few steps up, the first level is devoted to Jewish holidays. On display are menorahs, megillot, a seder tray and the traditional Sephardi sugar sweets for Purim, which was an important holiday. Purim plays sometimes drew an audience of non-Jewish Greeks.
The second level displays evidence of the Jewish presence in Greece through documents, books, photographs and military uniforms. As well, there is a display of the Greek-Jewish contribution to Israel.
Another level displays traditional costumes dating from the mid-l8th to the mid-20th century. The striking Spanish-influenced dress of the Salonica Jewish women shows elaborate head-dresses with ribbons, and short jackets with long aprons .The men sometimes wore the Turkish fez. A l9l8 photo of a rabbi shows the typical dress of stripped caftan and flowing coat.
On the fourth level, the exhibits show the history of the Shoah. In Nazi-occupied Greece, 87 per cent of the country’s 78,000 Jews were sent to their death.
The largest mass murder took place in Salonika where 50,000 Jews lived. The Sephardi Jews of Salonika, the city that was once called the Mother of Israel, had fled persecution from Spain and Portugal and settled in the Ottoman-ruled territory in the l5th century. Their language was Ladino and they constituted the most important Jewish community in the Mediterranean.
When Greece was divided among the Axis powers, Salonika fell under German control.
The 3,000 Jews who lived in Athens were under relatively benign Italian control. They had other advantages: they knew of the Salonika transports, they spoke Greek rather than Ladino and were not identifiable. They also had allies: Greek Archbishop Damaskinos, honored at Yad Vashem, issued a statement ordering priests to hide Jews and tell their congregations to help them. He was the only head of a European church to officially demand that German authorities stop persecuting Greek citizens who were Jews.
Left-wing resistance groups welcomed Jews as Greek citizens. When the chief rabbi of Athens was ordered to hand over lists to the Gestapo, he was spirited out of Athens with his family by the resistance group EAM, and stayed with them for the rest of the war.
But in Salonika, there was tragedy at every turn. The Salonika chief rabbi, who had been educated in Germany, gave the Nazis lists of Jews. After the war, he earned the enmity of Salonika survivors.
When Greece awoke from the nightmare of Nazi occupation, two-thirds of the Athens Jewish community were alive. But in all of Greece, only 10,000 Jews remained; more than 8,000 had survived the occupation by hiding or joining the Greek Resistance, and the rest had returned from the camps.
“This is not a Holocaust museum,” emphasizes Zanet Battinou, curator of the museum for the last decade. It celebrates the life of the Jews in Greece from BCE on.
Today, 5,000 Jews live in Greece and intermarriage has reached levels of up to 50 per cent.
Still, the Jewish Museum of Greece continues to be the repository of the history and culture of Greek Jews, including their darkest chapter.
It is the only organization in Greece to teach Holocaust education in the public schools, and its materials are distributed by the Greek Ministry of Education.
Several other ministries co-sponsored a travelling exhibit, “The Holocaust of the Greek Jews: the Persecuted and the Rescuers,” that includes photos and information on the Greek Jews who fought in the national resistance.
After several European stops, the exhibit was scheduled to come to Toronto shortly after Sept.11. It was cancelled and not rescheduled.
One of the museum’s most popular temporary exhibits was “Hidden Children in Occupied Greece.” On large boards were 16 stories of Jewish children hidden by Christian Greeks during the occupation.
Chosen for being representative of various situations, they were accompanied by photographs, street signs, toys and notebooks. The texts are written simply and starkly because the exhibit is shown to schoolchildren.
The museum’s gift shop has an impressive collection of books in English, as well as souvenirs and reproductions. It is on the list of museums of the Greek Ministry of Culture, which provides partial financial support.
The Jewish Museum of Greece is at 39 Nikis Street, 10558, Athens, Greece.
210 32 25 582
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|Print article||This entry was posted by Barbara Kingstone on January 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm, and is filed under Europe. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.|