In the early 1920s, the Jewish Community of Ioannina numbered about 3000. The rough mannerisms that were characteristic of the highland people of Epirus also characterised the Jews of Ioannina, who were known as difficult, intransigent people. The inflexible internal organisation imposed even more isolation on the Jews of Ioannina, trapping them in an illusion of local, intra-communal independence, which led to their being almost totally annihilated during the Nazi occupation. In the 1920s, the Community of Ioannina was one of the most conservative and isolated, not only in Greece, but elsewhere too, and this was to have profoundly negative consequences during the Occupation, two decades later.
A large proportion of the Jewish population came from the lower social strata and earned their living in lowly, itinerant trading as travelling pedlars, tinkers, rag and bone men and so on. Their standards of living, education and intelligence were low. The life led by the Jews of Ioannina was very close to that led by people all over Modern Greece and many of the features that typified Greek society in the 1920s were also seen in this Jewish microcosm. In the Jewish Community, the decade was marked by a huge wave of emigration to the USA and Palestine, and by the rise of Zionist ideology, which soon became a movement with a political purpose. In fact, the Zionist movement strongly believed that the founding of a Jewish State in Palestine was the only viable solution to Jewish poverty. Though conservative circles were initially very wary of Zionism, it was not long before they lent it their support.
The Jews of Ioannina were known for their piety and were mindful of their distinctive tradition. ‘Rich and poor, they all congregated around the synagogue; they were all pious and nobody lit a fire or worked on a Saturday,’ says Dimitris Hadjis in his narrative work Sabethai Kambilis. This is the likely cause of the community’s conservatism. Sabethai Kambilis was the epitome of this attitude, one of the most prominent Jewish people in the city and an important figure in the more extended local society. Hadjis depicts this merchant as a deeply religious man who studied the Scriptures and had a simple lifestyle. A conservative introvert who was suspicious of innovation and radical ideas. He had close ties with Joseph Eligia and was one of the first to note his literary talent. He was later to clash with Eligia when the latter became more socially active. Their conflict reflected the antagonism between progressive and conservative forces within the Jewish Community Ioannina.
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