Israeli students revive 15th-century Jewish cemetery in Greece

‘Reviving the Jewish area that once thrived strengthens Diaspora Jewry’.

Israeli students from the Ayalim Association fix neglected tombstones at the Ioannina Jewish cemetery in Greece. (photo credit: AYALIM)
Israeli students from the Ayalim Association fix neglected tombstones at the Ioannina Jewish cemetery in Greece.
(photo credit: AYALIM)
“We have to understand history to build our future.”
These were the words of Maya Mizrachi, who was part of a group of 30 students who recently spent time restoring one of Greece’s oldest Jewish cemeteries as part of an Ayalim leadership program.
The Ayalim Association was established in order to consolidate the communal and social involvement in the Negev, Galilee and the city of Lod. Ayalim does so by building student villages in these areas – exposing the young population of Israel to the inherent value in them, as well as encouraging community life and social involvement.
Mizrachi told The Jerusalem Post that “we are big believers in manual Zionism.”
This trip helped her to understand how “the communities of our forefathers began,” and how that led to the building “of the Israel that we have today.
“By going to these Diaspora communities, we can stop and actually see where these people came from,” Mizrachi said.
She explained that, as part of the program, they look for places in historical Jewish communities where they can do some sort of renovation or building restoration, and this led them to the Jewish cemetery in Ioannina in northwestern Greece, which has Jewish roots dating back some 1,300 years. Its history is rich, and because its location was so isolated from other Greek Jewish communities, the Ioannina community developed many of its own traditions and customs. The oldest graves in the cemetery date back to the 15th century.
“Not only was the cemetery in a really bad state, but we realized that most of the people buried here are from before the war [World War II] or long after the war,” she said. “In Ioannina, there used to be a big Jewish community, and 96% of it were killed in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.”
Mizrachi said that the writing on the tombstones was barely readable, “so we went over the writing, we organized the cemetery, the footpaths and gardens, and we also built a stage area where the community can hold commemorative ceremonies.”
She encouraged more Jews to visit this important site because the cemetery stands on a main road, and there are hardly any Jews left in the community.
“There’s not a big reason for it to stay there for many more years if Jewish people don’t revive the place,” she explained. “It’s not a sentimental place for non-Jewish people, so I was very moved by what we were doing.”
Mizrachi made it clear that “this is not only about remembering, it’s understanding the history so that we can build the future, because if I’m building a community in the Negev, I need to understand not only what communities are all about and the practical side of things, but also to have a historical understanding of the Jewish communities that once lived in the Diaspora and wanted to live in Israel to strengthen Israel.”
The group spent a week renovating the cemetery, adding that it’s not a place that many people come to, because most of the community was destroyed during the Holocaust.
Asked about some of the most memorable experiences, Mizrachi recalled a heart-wrenching moment “when an Israeli man arrived at the cemetery with his wife and told us that his grandmother is buried in this cemetery.
“She passed away when his father was very young, before the war, and his grandfather was killed in Auschwitz,” she continued. “Just an hour before he came, we had been renovating her tombstone.”
The group also spent time in Thessaloniki, touring and learning about the once vibrant community that also was destroyed by the Nazis.
Mizrachi said that with antisemitism growing in European countries, including Greece, just going there with our heads held high... and really reviving the Jewish area that once thrived and today has barely any Jews that live there, is [a way of] strengthening the Jewish people all over the world.”