Corfu Jews mourn loss of prayer books in wake of attack

After synagogue on Greek island burned down by arsonists, Jewish community members gathered to weep at the damage.

Greece (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Members of the Jewish community of Corfu gathered at the local synagogue on Wednesday around a pile of ashen prayer books set on fire by vandals the day before and wept.
“It’s very difficult for us,” said Rabbi Shlomo Naftali, an Israeli rabbi who was flown over to Greece to conduct Passover ceremonies. “We stood around the books and cried. Now we’ll have to bury them.”
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On Tuesday morning arsonists broke into the island’s only Jewish place of worship, piled prayer books on the bima and torched the ancient texts, some of which were hundreds of years old.
“They came at 3 a.m., put all the books together and burned them,” said Vino Shoshi, a former president of the community. ”At first I was very upset. I was ashamed that something like this happened here in Corfu, but we have received the support of all the political parties and the archbishop. They all came out in support of us and told us they were our brothers.”
Most members of the Jewish community of Corfu, whose history dates back to antiquity, were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Nowadays there are fewer than 100 Jews left on the Greek island. Their sacred books, however, survived the war thanks to gentiles entrusted with their safekeeping.
“After the war they gave us all our books back,” Shoshi said. “We had books from the 15th, 16th and 17th century from Trieste, Padova and Verona. Now they are gone.”
The Greek government strongly condemned the attack in a press release on Wednesday vowing to stamp out anti-Semitism in the Mediterranean nation.
“The burglary that took place in the Jewish synagogue in Corfu and the destruction of sacred liturgical books is an immoral and appalling act, which the Greek government condemns in the strongest possible manner,” Giorgos Petalotis, a spokesman for the Greek government, said. “I’ve said before and I say once again, under this unfortunate circumstance, that bigotry and anti-Semitism are concepts incompatible with Greek culture and alien to the mentality of the Greek people.
This act cannot overshadow the longstanding tradition of friendship and mutual respect between the two peoples. The Greek authorities have already received instructions to carry out intensive efforts to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”
Meanwhile, local police have started an investigation into the incident. Jewish officials said that while no suspects had yet been apprehended they had faith in the authorities.
“There’s no fear here,” Shoshi said. “There never has been any fear and there never will.
We are well-established in Corfu and nobody will make us afraid.”
Greek Jews living in the US reacted with “disgust and anger” to news of the desecration in Corfu.
Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, president of the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry and director of a museum at Kehila Kedosha Janina in New York, said she deplored the attack but believed authorities were doing all they could to battle hate crimes against Jews.
“Many would probably use this as another example of continuing anti-Semitism in Greece,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Having a very close relationship with many Jewish communities in Greece and with representatives of the Greek government here in the United States, I sincerely believe that the present government is trying to deal with anti-Semitism in Greece“.
As an instance of local pride in Corfu’s Jewish heritage, Haddad Ikonomopoulos cited a series of events planned to take place on May 8 honoring Corfu-born Jewish writer Albert Cohen at the initiative of a local Greek-Christian historian.
She added that the Greek-Jewish community in the US would immediately start a campaign to raise money to replace the destroyed prayer books and repair damage caused to the synagogue.