The museum of one Jewish community: A look at the history of Greek Jews

The Jewish Museum of Greece. Plaka. 

In the winding, and often confusing streets of the ancient Plaka neighbourhood of Athens, not too far from the Acropolis sits an old building that might not seem as different from the countless others around it. The Jewish Museum of Greece, lost in the ‘old city,’ away from prying eyes, is not too different from other such museums in the Balkans. A Greek flag hangs from the front balcony, making it clear at least on the peripheral level that it is first and foremost Greek.

At first sight, one would expect at least a Star of David, or perhaps a more tangible Jewish feeling to the building, but it becomes immediately obvious that it is already fully visible as perhaps the only fully lively marker within the city. The sparse synagogues, community centres, schools, and memorials are infrequent and difficult to come by, which of course is due to the dwindling population which is estimated at around 2,500. Although Athens today holds the largest community still present in Greece, it was once Thessaloniki that was nicknamed the ‘Mother of Israel,’ or a ‘Second Israel’ due to the fact that it was full of bustling and rich Jewish culture.
The entrance which is on the side of the building leads to a completely different world, chronicling centuries of Jewish presence in Greece, from old Torah scrolls to traditional Romaniote costumes. Yet, what truly struck my eye was the beautiful plethora of both Sephardic and Romaniote artifacts dating from centuries ago. Albeit very much different in their past, the current state of the Jewish community reminds me of Romania’s Jews. One that seems to be less visible, but still very much active in the preservation of its rich history.
The history of Jews in Greece, like in a great deal many of places, is one of diversity and overarching complexity. The presence of Jews in Greece dates from ancient times, as made obvious by the discovery of a synagogue in the ancient agora, but also from the account of ancient writers and philosophers. These were most likely the remnants of the roots of the Romaniotes, a distinctive Jewish group that have often been considered to be ‘Greek’ Jews, although that term is increasingly problematic. It was not until the great expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century, that a great deal of Sephardim settled in Greece, namely in Thessaloniki.
However the once rich Romaniote community no longer is what it used to be within Greece itself, as the largest can be found in Israel and the United States. During the Second World War many of the  Romaniotes, along with the Sephardim perished in Auschwitz. Yet, there is also another side to this story that I find most interesting: the large number of Jews that served in the Greek Resistance against the Nazis.
The museum’s most interesting exhibit, the Synagonistis: Greek Jews in the National Resistance, tells the story of how about 650 Jewish women and men took part in various resistance groups in Greece, the largest being the EAM. Most of these people who fought for “Free Greece” did so under overwhelming odds. Many of them joined after escaping from the ghettos of Thessaloniki, and today will be forever remembered as the heroes of Greece, and those of international Jewish Resistance.
Yet beyond the resistance, it is often forgotten that almost 13,000 Jews fought in the Greek army that successfully repelled the Italian invasion of Greece, before Hitler decided to step in and take control of the situation himself.
Founded in 1977, the museum first had humble beginning in small synagogue before moving to its current location. Today it is not just a place of exhibitions, as it also holds a great library of rare books, documents and other archives pertaining to the presence of Jews in Greece.
As a historian of the Shoah in Romania, but also as someone who holds a great interest in the history of Jews in Romania, I visited the museum in Athens with regard to learning as much as I could about a topic that I am not particularly well versed in. Despite of course reading K.E Fleming’s famous Greece: A Jewish History, and other such books, there is an identifiable difference between learning about a community from books, and actually learning its history from those who strive to keep it. 
The myriad of documents, postcards, personal effects available in the museum is absolutely astonishing, especially considering that to view such things in Romania required laborious bureaucratic steps to access them. Yet very similarly in the antique stores in Plaka, not far from the museum, one can find countless Judaica pieces that would be deemed for cultural preservation in other countries, and not be put for sale.
Yannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki recently went on public record expressing his desire to further commemorate the Jewish history of Thessaloniki. Boutaris who self-identifies as Vlach in fact once wore a yellow patch at an event and said that it “was received as a definite position against the Golden Dawn.” He is an example of those today who wish to remember, but also fight the tide of increasing anti-semitism.
It became obvious to me that perhaps visiting Athens is not merely just about seeing the Acropolis, the Olympian, and so on, but it is also trying to learn about the subaltern populations that make up an important part of Greek history. Over the six floors of the museum however, it also crossed my mind that this was not only a testament to the Jews of Greece, but rather also the history of Jews in the Balkans.

Milad Doroudian a writer, historian, and journalist is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University.