Greece experiences antisemitism ahead of Greek Holocaust Remembrance Day

Greece will commemorate again this year the Memorial Day to the Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust on January 27.

THE EXTERIOR of the synagogue in Trikala was recently daubed with antisemitic graffiti. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE EXTERIOR of the synagogue in Trikala was recently daubed with antisemitic graffiti.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With the new year, the shocking news spread in the social media: on the night of December 31, a night of celebration, antisemitic graffiti was painted on the wall of the Yavanim synagogue of Trikala in central Greece. Then, the next morning, on January 1, the Holocaust memorial of the city was vandalized, for the second time in two years.
“This is like a replay,” explains Iakovos Venouziou the President of the Jewish Community of Trikala. “We experience antisemitic vandalism in Trikala often. Our cemetery was the target of several such attacks in the 1990s that we hardly managed to fix the damage before a new attack took place! In 1999 the attack was so massive, that there was hardly one grave that was left undamaged. The cemetery was restored between 2000 and 2010 thanks to a great effort made by the Jewish community and local non-Jewish support.”
Venouziou was born in Trikala in 1941, just 10 days before Trikala was attacked by the German Air Force, and only 40 days before Trikala was occupied by the Nazis. His family was saved thanks to generous and courageous Greeks who hid them in their homes.
“Jewish snakes out!” was the inscription written with spray on the synagogue wall, according to the Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Humanist Union of Greece press announcement. The Central Board of the Jewish Communities of Greece (KISE) condemned the act and called for the Greek authorities “to take all necessary measures to arrest and punish the perpetrators and for the protection of the Jewish sites in the city of Trikala, which has shown zero tolerance to racism.”
The president of KISE, David Saltiel, who is also the president of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, speaks of “more than 30 instances of vandalism on Jewish and Holocaust monuments, cemeteries and synagogues in the last four years,” supported among others by the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.
With the new year, the Jewish community of Greece can breathe with more relief. In July 2019, after a decade of financial crisis, austerity, heavy taxation and capital controls, the New Democracy Party of Kyriakos Mitsotakis won the elections. The neo-Nazi party of Golden Dawn, once the third biggest party, was ousted from parliament with only 2.93% of the votes. In Trikala, it received a mere 1.82%. Mitsotakis’s promise was to bring back prosperity and among others, to protect higher education and abolish delinquent behavior and vandalism.
Education has an important role to play. Since 2005 Greece has been a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organization that unites governments and experts to promote, advance and shape Holocaust education, research and remembrance. In November 2018, the annual IHRA conference was held in Trikala. The same year, the Music School of Trikala won the first prize of a competition announced by the Jewish Museum of Athens, and its students participated in an educational visit to Auschwitz.
In addition, Greece will commemorate again this year the Memorial Day to the Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust on January 27. It was established by the Greek Parliament in 2004, and includes teaching of the Holocaust in schools.
“The school community is moving in the right direction with Holocaust awareness,” explains Venouziou. “School teachers invite me regularly to speak in classrooms, and we have many schools visiting our renovated synagogue,” he adds with pride.
The Jewish community of Trikala is proud of its history. Travelers mention the Jewish community already in 1420, before the arrival of Jews from Spain, Portugal and Sicily. The community was a Romaniote Greek-speaking community, and was established in the city center. The Jewish quarter (called Ovreika in Greek) was located between the streets Kondyli, Persefonis, Socratous and Ath. Diakou, where the synagogue is located today. Until WWII, Trikala had three synagogues serving a Sephardi, a Sicilian, and a Romaniote community. The Green (Yavanim in Hebrew) Synagogue, which still stands today, was built in the 19th century, and renovated with additions in the 1930s.
THE COMMUNITY suffered in the Holocaust, like the rest of Greece, which lost a total of 87% of its Jewish population. In 1944, out of the 520 Jews of Trikala, 139 were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. After the war, many Jewish families emigrated to the United States, Europe and Israel, and some to Athens. The other synagogues were damaged during WWII or demolished during the reconstruction of post-war Trikala and the widening of roads in the city center. In 1961, Yavanim Synagogue underwent extensive repairs, following an earthquake in 1954.
Trikala also experiences floods. In June 1907, an extreme event caused the death of 100 people, as heavy rain flooded the Lithaios River, one of the four rivers that run through the city. Today, as climate change makes rainfall more severe, and as the underground water levels rise, not only painful memories come to surface, but great damage to historic buildings as well, built in stone and poorly waterproofed.
Yavanim synagogue is no exception. This is the reason why in 2016 the Jewish community, with the support of KISE, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, and the German Consulate of Thessaloniki, embarked on an effort to waterproof the synagogue, repair its roof and restore its interior and exterior. The project was completed in November 2019.
I first visited Trikala in 1994. As a doctorate student, my task was to survey the synagogue, as part of my thesis on Greek synagogues at the National Technical University of Athens. Yavanim Synagogue is a rectangular building with four columns in the center of the hall. Women pray on the second-floor gallery, overlooking the main prayer hall.
What stands out in the interior, are the two bimahs, or podiums. The original one, was a raised balcony against a semi-circular apse against the western wall – according to the Romaniote tradition.
The second, a wooden structure, stands in the center of the hall, according to the Sephardi tradition of Greece. The latter was added to serve the dwindled, yet united community after the Holocaust. In the 1990s, although the synagogue was centrally located, it stood hidden from public view. It was hard to find behind three stores built in the front courtyard after WWII, and tall apartment buildings flanking it from both sides.
I visited the synagogue in Trikala again in December 2017, this time entrusted to lead its restoration with the team of Koufopoulos-Mariantheos and Skaris Architects, engineer Kostas Evagelou, engineer Panos Spiropoulos and Kostas Papadakis, architect Yiorgos Antoniou and surveyor Yiorgos Iliopoulos. The project aimed to primarily waterproof the synagogue from rising underground water and damage from rainwater entering through the roof, and also to restore its interior and exterior to better serve the community and the visitors from abroad.
I arrived to Trikala after a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Thessaloniki, and was greeted by president Venouziou and the workers and engineers. They had already started digging identification sections near the foundations to evaluate the level of dampness and the interventions needed.
The purpose of my visit was also to re-evaluate the visibility of the synagogue before proposing a fairly revolutionary idea: to make the synagogue visible again, and an integral part of the city. The proposal, which was discussed with Venouziou and Saltiel, was to demolish the front stores, keeping only one, as a visitors’ center.
Surprisingly, the proposal was accepted. Due to the financial crisis, the shops stood empty, costing the community significant taxation. Their demolition would both relieve the community of the burden, and would restore the visibility of the synagogue to its original form.
But visibility came with a price. Just two months after the synagogue restoration was completed, it was vandalized. Asking Venouziou about the vandalism, he said, “Certainly the renovation of the synagogue contributed to the attack. An antisemitic person is eager to destroy something new and beautiful, like our synagogue, especially with the Jewish symbols in view in the front façade.”
He added, caustically, “Our renovated synagogue and our Holocaust memorial are finally visible, even if they have become targets for those who cannot tolerate them.”
The writer is the author of The Synagogues of Greece (Bloch Publishing House), and The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia (Gavrielidis Editions), and the head architect for the recent historic restorations of the synagogues of Thessaloniki and Trikala, and the conservation of the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue of Aegina, Greece.