In Greece, A Cultural Gem Showcases Europe’s Oldest Community
Once the gateway to Europe for Jews, Greece has a rich, two-millennia long Jewish history, much of which is artfully preserved in the artifacts on display at the Jewish Museum of Greece.
BY HARRY D. WALL October 17, 2017, 5:54 pm
In a land teeming with antiquities and ancient civilizations, Greece is also the home of the oldest Jewish community in Europe. That story, and the two-millennia history of the Jews of Greece, is well preserved and displayed in the Jewish Museum of Greece. Located in a small building in Athens only a 10-minute walk from the popular Plaka district, the museum is a cultural gem, well worth a visit.
The museum houses over 8000 artifacts and documents covering the history of Greece’s Jews from around the peninsula and islands – Rhodes, Crete, Corfu and the smaller ones. The collection is spread over four floors, around a central octagonal shaft, which runs the height of the building and topped by a glass dome.
“Greece is the gateway to Europe for the Jewish people,” explains Zanet Battinou, the dynamic director of the museum. “The first Jews to be documented arrived in Greece over 2000 years ago, the most ancient Jews in Europe”
Those Jews, known as the Romaniote spoke a Judaeo-Greek dialect and were spread over the mainland and islands. Battinou, herself a Romaniote is proud to be in a position to preserve the legacy of the Greek Jewish community. A current exhibit is about Ionina, a city in western Greece, once a major Romaniote community of over 4000 before the Holocaust; today only about 50 Jews remain.
The collection is arranged thematically. One section covers Judaica and Jewish holidays, another ethnography and the history of Greek Jews. There is also a dedicated section about the Holocaust, which had a devastating impact on Greece. A synagogue from the town of Patras that was destroyed by the Nazis is also reconstructed and on display in the museum.
Following the expulsions from Spain and Portugal, Sephardic Jews were welcomed in large numbers to Greece, at the time under Ottoman rule. The port city of Salonika, with its large Jewish population, many synagogues, yeshivas, Jewish media, was known as “The Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
The story of the destruction of Salonika’s Jews is one of the most tragic of the Holocaust. Over 95 percent of the community was deported and killed in Auschwitz.
Holocaust education is an important part of the museum’s work. “We have a partnership with the Ministry of Education which results in a series of teacher training programs on the Holocaust,” says Zanet. The most recent one took place while we visited and was guided by educators from the NY-based Olga Lengyel Institute, a teacher training program that promotes social justice education via Holocaust education.
Thousands of schoolchildren visit the museum annually, quite possibly their only time they learn about Jewish life and history. (There are less than 8000 Jews in Greece today.) Temporary exhibitions bring in new audiences, such as a recent one about Greek Jews and the Resistance during World War II, one of the most popular programs by the museum.
“The Museum’s invaluable collection bears witness to a unique Jewish heritage, which flourished in this corner of the world for well over 23 centuries, and was almost wiped out by the Shoah.” says Zanet. “We are a small institute but, I believe, make an important contribution for the Greek and Jewish people, at home and abroad”
Harry D. Wall has a long career in journalism, advocacy and consulting. Most recently, he has taken a late-career move and began making documentary films about Jewish heritage and communities around the globe. His blog, Jewish Discoveries, is a travelogue of Jewish heritage and contemporary life around the world. You can keep up to date with his travels on the blog or Facebook.com/JDiscoveries.