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A Journey to Jewish Greece
By Elias Messinas
08/13/2017
 ‘As you set out for your journey to Ithaca, hope that the road is long, full of adventure, full of discovery’ wrote C.P. Cavafy in his poem ‘Ithaca’. This is how we felt this summer in our journey to Greece, where the context and the content were close to our heart, personal history and memory.

Our journey took us from Jerusalem to Thessaloniki, Veroia, Ioannina, and the island of Aegina. We visited synagogues and reconnected to the family memory to lost communities. Last time I did a similar trip in 1993, I was a young architect in search of Greek synagogues. Along that journey, I visited, recorded and surveyed surviving synagogues throughout Greece. The work of that journey later became the core of my PhD. thesis at the National Technical University of Athens and, was published in two books – ‘The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia’ and ‘The Synagogues of Greece’. 

This time the trip was different. I was joined by my wife Yvette and our three daughters – Maya, Noa and Eden, my in-laws – Iakovos and Elda, my nieces – Iris and Melissa, and my sister-in-law – Annie, with her son Noe. 

The journey started in Thessaloniki. Our first stop was the Yad Lezikaron synagogue. Yad Lezikaron is presently in a process of renovation by myself and the team of KARD Architects, with whom we also restored the Monastiriotes central synagogue last year. 

The centerpiece of the Yad Lezikaron synagogue is the heikhalIt belonged to the Sarfati synagogue dating from 1923. It was moved to the Burla synagogue after WWII when Sarfati synagogue was demolished, and in 1984 moved to Yad Lezikaron after Burla synagogue was demolished. The renovation included the removal of all later additions to the heikhal to bring it back to its past beauty, while respecting the scars in the cracked marble, to remind us of its painful history.

Our second stop was the Jewish camp in Litochoro, where our daughters spend the first part of the summer every year. The tents in the natural grove by the sea are a very familiar sight, as both myself and Yvette spent our summers as children there. 

The Jewish summer camp is a successful tradition supported by the Thessaloniki Jewish Community, where Jewish and Israeli children forge friendships and relationships that last for a lifetime. The closing ceremony is very emotional. This time the older teammates danced on the stage copied by the younger campers who repeated their dancing movements at the back of the outdoor room. It was a powerful moment of ‘togetherness’, where the future of Greek Jewry declared its commitment to continuing this historic, but dwindling community. 

For Greek Jewry, which lost 87% of its Jews in the Holocaust (Thessaloniki lost 96%), the summer camp is a moment of pride. Despite the bleak reality of decreasing statistics, increasing mixed marriages and financial crisis-triggered emigration, the Jewish summer camp is an island of optimism for the future of Greek Jewry.

Joined by our daughters and nieces, our rented van made its way to our third stop: Veroia, a small historic town in northern Greece. Veroia, about one-hour drive from Thessaloniki, is a special site for both Jews and Christians. According to the New Testament (Acts, 17, 10 and 20, 1-3), Veroia was the site where St. Paul of Tarsus taught at the local synagogue in the first century CE. 

The community at the time was Romaniote, similar to the Jewish communities in Aegina, Arta, Corinth, Halkis, Ioannina, Patras, Preveza, Thebes, Thessaloniki, and Volos. Romaniote were Greek-speaking Jews with distinctive cultural features and traditions, who have lived in Greece for more than 2000 years. Romaniote communities were moved from Greek cities to Istanbul in the mid-15th century to strengthen the commerce of the new Ottoman capital. Sephardi Jews arrived to these cities after 1492, following edicts of expulsion. They strengthened the Jewish presence anew.

Jews lived in Veroia in their own quarter Barbouta, a unique example of middle ages Jewish settlement. The houses were densely built on the perimeter of an open courtyard forming a protected quarter, similar to Serres and Komotini, but only surviving in Veroia. The compound gates closed at night. At one end is the synagogue, dating from before 1850, a fine example of traditional snaf architecture.

The synagogue of Veroia is the oldest surviving in northern Greece – following the demolition of the equally historic Beth El synagogue in Komotini in 1993. The synagogue is an excellent example of the ‘Ottoman type’, which developed in Greece and Turkey. The floor plan comprises of a rectangle hall, with four columns in the center. The heikhal is oriented towards Jerusalem and a movable bimah is placed opposite. On one side a raised wooden balcony with trellises served as the ezrat nashim, replacing an earlier structure, which existed on the opposite wall, whose trellised openings are still visible.

Eva Meska and Nikos Dimoliaras greeted us at the synagogue. They are both Christian, but dedicated to explaining the history of the quarter and the synagogue, to both Jews and Christians. They regard them as historic monuments for their city’s rich history. Although the exact site where St. Paul preached is not known, the surviving synagogue - of much later date and perhaps different location - is well accepted as a sacred site for both Jewish and Christian pilgrims. ‘People come to the site and cry. It is a very charged place for everyone. If we managed to turn the ruined house across the synagogue into a visitors’ center, we could serve tourists in the area better, with more accessibility and basic needed services, like bathrooms,’ Meska explains. Inside the synagogue 680 Jews were arrested by the Nazis in May 1943, before being transported. A handful escaped to the mountains or were hidden by neighbors. 

We had lunch near the Jewish quarter by the river Tripotamos. The running fresh water was soothing, refreshing and nurturing. Exactly what we needed towards our next stop: the former site of the Jewish cemetery. Once located outside the city walls, it was surrounded by houses as the city expanded after WWII. Richly decorated tombstones are still scattered along the edges of the site, now a municipal outdoor basketball field. The Hebrew tombstones make a powerful statement in a city emptied of any living Jewish presence - other than temporary guests.

Next stop was the city of Ioannina. Our in-laws had arrived from Athens earlier and expected us. Yvette’s father Iakovos Nahmias was born and grew-up in Ioannina. Not far from his house was the house of Elias Negrin, my grandfather, where my mother Sylvia (Simcha) was born. Both families, the Nahmias and Negrin, left Ioannina together to hide in Athens in WWII. This is how these two nuclear families survived, except for my grandfather Elias Negrin who was given in by a traitor in Athens and transported and killed in Auschwitz. 

Ioannina was a center of Romaniote Jewry for centuries. According to oral tradition, the first Jews arrived in Ioannina shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by a boat that found refuge at the Ionian coast. The Romaniote traditions and prayer rites survived here until the Holocaust. More than 1800 Jews were rounded up and deported by trucks to Larissa, and from there on freight trains to Auschwitz. Very few survived.

Alegra Matsa hosted us at her family house in the extra muros Jewish quarter. Her house is one of the handful of houses that were given back to Jews after WWII. The house has been turned into a very welcoming guesthouse, with three levels and an open courtyard. For us it was a rare opportunity to live in the same area where our families lived before the Holocaust. Indeed, Matsa’s guesthouse on Yossef Elyia (former Max Nordau) street near the castro (intra muros Old City) is only a few steps away from the house where Iakovos grew up before WWII, and a short walk from the synagogue. Matsa lives and works in Ioannina. Most of her time she shows tourists the city and the surviving synagogue. 

Before WWII Ioannina had two synagogues. The intra muros – which survives today, thanks to the intervention of the mayor – and the extra muros. The latter, located at the end of Max Nordau street, was heavily damaged during WWII and demolished together with the adjacent Alliance School. Next to each synagogue stood a minyan (prayer house) for daily prayers. 

The surviving synagogue is an imposing, yet modest synagogue, influenced by the Italian tradition. It is wider than longer, with five rows of columns that divide the interior into aisles with built wooden benches. The heikhal and bimah are in a bi-polar arrangement: the heikhal on the east and the elevated bimah on the west. Along the walls marble plaques commemorate the names of the Ioannina Holocaust victims, a long list of people, families, memories and traditions, lost forever.

We walked the city trying to catch signs of the past – a name here, a Magen David there – to reconnect with what was there and it will never return. We walked near the lake, where Jews used to gather and meet friends and family, and one afternoon we took the boat to visit the island in the lake, a picturesque medieval settlement with Byzantine monasteries.

We left Ioannina on the third day heading south to our last stop: Aegina, an island one-hour boat ride from Piraeus port. With an ancient history dating from antiquity, Aegina had also a Jewish community and a synagogue. The ruins of the synagogue were discovered in 1829 in the capital of the Island, near the ancient military port. The synagogue dated from 300-350 CE and it was used until the 7th century. Today, only parts of the mosaic floor of the synagogue survive, located not far from its original site, at the courtyard of the island's Archaeological Museum. 

Being close to Athens, Aegina has attracted many Athenian Jews who spend the summer on the island. An area in Aegina were several Jewish families have their summer homes, is still called 'ovreika' (Jewish quarter) by the locals. Other houses are scattered throughout the island.

We come to Aegina every summer. Not only for its Jewish past, but mostly because of the family tradition: this is where the family has been spending summers for generations. Parents, children and grandchildren gather here to enjoy a few weeks of the best of Greek simplicity: nature and architecture in harmony, friends, family and a welcoming local community, crystal sea and good food.

Our journey is not over yet. It will bring us back to where we started, Jerusalem, at the end of the month. Until then, we are enjoying the road and learning to appreciate the present as it unfolds – adventurously —on the way of our journey to 'Ithaca.'
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