A journey to Jewish Greece

Last time I took a similar trip, in 1993, I was a young architect in search of my Jewish roots.

THE FLOOR of a synagogue is seen partially damaged after arsonists set a fire inside the building on the Greek island of Corfu in 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE FLOOR of a synagogue is seen partially damaged after arsonists set a fire inside the building on the Greek island of Corfu in 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘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 took a similar trip, in 1993, I was a young architect in search of my Jewish roots. 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; our three daughters Maya, Noa and Eden; my in-laws, Iakovos and Elda; my nieces Iris and Melissa; and my sisterin- law Annie, with her son Noe.
The journey started in Thessaloniki, where our first stop was the Yad Lezikaron synagogue. Yad Lezikaron is presently being renovated by myself and the team of KARD Architects, with whom we also restored the Monastiriotes synagogue last year.
The centerpiece of the Yad Lezikaron synagogue is the heichal (the Sefardi term for the Torah ark). It 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 heichal 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 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 optimism and pride, despite the bleak reality of decreasing statistics, increasing mixed marriages and financial crisis-triggered emigration.
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 a 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 2,000 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 architecture.
The synagogue of Veroia is the oldest surviving synagogue 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 a rectangular hall, with four columns in the center. The heichal is oriented toward Jerusalem and a movable bimah (podium) is placed opposite. On one side a raised wooden balcony with trellises served as the ezrat nashim (women’s section), 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 to 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 needed services, like bathrooms,” Meska explained. 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 Tripotamos River. The running fresh water had a soothing, refreshing and nurturing feel to it that we all needed toward our next stop: the former site of the Jewish cemetery. Once located outside the city walls, it was surrounded by the city as it 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 its 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 – but my grandfather Elias was given in by a traitor in Athens and transported to Auschwitz, where he found his death.