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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens

What’s the Jewish Museum of Greece?

The Jewish Museum of Greece is a collection of over 10,000 artefacts that reflect the life and customs of the Jewish people who have lived in Greece for over 2,300 years.

Artifacts in the Jewish Museum of Greece

Jewish Museum of Greece History

When people talk about Greece’s Jewish history they usually think of Thessaloniki, which was known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans and where Jews once made up half of the population. Athens’ Jewish history is much less well-known and the city has been much less obviously shaped by Jewish presence. But Jews have lived in Athens for at least 2,300 years and the capital is now the centre of Jewish life in Greece.

The Jewish Museum provides an engaging introduction to the main tenets of the Jewish faith, such as the Synagogue, Torah and Jewish festivals. Housed behind the preserved façade of a 19th-century Neoclassical residence, the museum narrates the story of Greece’s Jewish community from the earliest recorded traces in ancient Greece, through the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods, to the present-day Jewish communities across the country. The Holocaust section is particularly powerful, with exhibits immortalising the Greek Jews who fought in the anti-Nazi resistance movement during the Second World War.

Interaction between the Jews and ancient Greece is believed to have begun soon after the 6th-century-BC Babylonian Exile, but little is known about the presence of Jews in Greece until the reign of Alexander the Great two centuries later. The earliest remaining physical evidence of Judaism in Athens can be found hidden away in a corner of the Ancient Agora, remnants of a synagogue believed to date from the 3rd or 4th century AD.

Over the centuries, Jews had a significant influence on the area that’s now Monastiraki and Psyrri. After being previously concentrated around Thessaloniki, Jewish life began to grow and flourish in Athens following the foundation of the new Greek state and the transfer of its capital from Nafplio to Athens in the 1830s. Some Greeks still call Monastiraki’s flea market area Yousouroum; in honour of Bohor Yousouroum, a much-loved Jewish tailor whose second-hand clothes shop opened in 1863 and which is credited with kickstarting the area’s eclectic mix of clothes and antique shops.

The majority of Greek Jews are Sephardic; Mediterranean Jews forced to flee Spain during the Inquisition, when all non-Christians were expelled by Spain’s Catholic monarchy. In the 15th century, the banished Jews settled across the Mediterranean, including Greece, which was then under Ottoman rule. The Sephardic Jews joined the older Romaniote Jews (the oldest recorded Jewish community in Europe) but maintained their Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino, a mixture of 15th-century Castilian Spanish and smatterings of Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and Greek. Over time, the Sephardic Jews largely assimilated the Romaniotes, and it’s the Sephardic culture that remains the dominant influence for Greece’s Jews today.

The Nazis occupied Greece from the Spring of 1941 to October 1944 and attempted to collect, deport and exterminate all of the country’s Jews. While almost all of Thessaloniki’s Jewish population was exterminated, around 50% of Jewish Athenians managed to escape or were sheltered by their neighbours. Both Jewish men and women fought in the resistance, with 63 killed in combat and a further 76 executed in reprisal actions.

Prominent figures in the Orthodox Church worked hard to protect Athens’ Jewish community and refused to cooperate with deportations. The archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos Papandreou – who is commemorated with a statue on Mitropoleos Square – organised a petition condemning the Nazi persecution of Jews and calling for no deportations. He was threatened with death and placed under house arrest. But when Damaskinos learned about the plans for a ‘Final Solution’, he worked with Athens’ police chief Angelos Evert to issue fake identity cards with Christian names and matching baptismal certificates to help Jews evade capture by the Nazis. After the liberation of the death camps in 1945, only 8,500 Greek Jews had survived. Most eventually settled in Athens, while the remainder chose to emigrate.

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