Latest update: May 19th, 2014
The stories in this column are translations by Mr. Nollet from “Die Juden In Der Welt [The Jews in the World]” by Mark Wischnitzer, a long out-of-print book published more than seven decades ago in Germany. The book examines Jewish communities, one country at a time, as they existed in 1935 – a time before the Nazis began their extermination campaign against the Jews and before there was a state of Israel.
The Jews Of Greece
Before the beginning of the Common Era, Jews were known to have lived in Sparta, Sikyon, Delphi, Athens, Patras, Mantineja, Laconia, Corinth, Thessalalonika, Philippi, and Beroa. Due to baptism forced on Jews by some Byzantine emperors, a number of Jews emigrated o southern Italy. Otherwise, there was a line of Jewish communities in the 12th century. By itself Thebes housed 2,000 families, Salonika 500 families, and middle-sized settlements arose in Halmyros, Corinth, Drama, Krisa, Naupactos, Ravnica, Arta, and Lamia.
The Jewish silk weavers of Thebes, the farmers of Krisa, and dyers and leather workers whom one met everywhere, had one calling. Not for nothing did King Roger of Sicily fetch the Jewish silk weavers to southern Sicily. In the 15th century one could encounter Jewish silk weavers in Modon on the Peloponnesos.
Benjamin of Tudela, who traveled through Greece in the 12th century, knew what to tell about the state of learning among the Greek Jews. Certain spiritual streams went forth from them up into the mountains of Albania, which Benjamin observed with admiration. He wrote, “They called themselves ‘Wallachian.’ They are able to race as fast as gazelles down from the mountains, to plunder the land of the Greeks…. they do not confess to the Christian faith, and they give their children Jewish names. Some even claim they descend from Jews. They call Jews their brothers. When they encounter Jews, they rob them but don’t kill them, as they do with the Greeks. They have no beliefs. From there it’s another two days to Gorzy, an abandoned locale with few inhabitants, a few Greeks and a few Jews.”
Gorzy is surely present-day Korica, in southern Albania. Not far from this lay Castoria, a community Benjamin of Tudela also mentioned, which was the eventual home of Tobia ben Eleasar, who had lived through and then reported about the persecutions in Germany during the First Crusade.
There were also communities in Janina, Arta, and Preveza. The Jews here spoke a language which was a mixture of Latin and classical Greek, and had their own unique songs for the Sabbath and Purim liturgies.
In the 14th and beginning of the 15th century, new settlements were built in Modon (Mothoni), in the port city of Coroni, and in Argos, Patras, Lepanto, and Kythera, all on the Peleponesian isthmus. When the Turks conquered this area, they found communities everywhere, and also at Morea, where a section of the city was named “Hebrew Tribe.”
The immigration of Jews from Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and Apulia created tensions between the newcomers and the established Jewish communities. [Translator’s Note: This would have been primarily the result of the mass expulsions from Spain and Spanish-controlled territories to the east late in the 15th century.] The Sephardic element was in the majority and managed to make its Spaniolisch language [presumably Ladino] a general-purpose and business language, though in the 19th century it was forced out by the Greek language and this situation hasn’t changed into our own time.
Salonika was a center of Sephardic Judaism “in the exile.” Due to the establishment of a textile industry, the city grew increasingly important. The city maintained its economic health via foreign trade in the 17th and 18th centuries despite a steady region-wide impoverishment.
At the end of the 19th century Salonika had a population of 130,000, half of these being Jews, and three-quarters of its commerce lay in Jewish hands. One observer wrote, “The people who worked in the harbor were all Jewish, and on the Sabbath steamers could neither load nor offload their cargoes. Carters, cobblers, masons, and silk-workers are all Jewish.”
In Salonika in 1920, there were about 12,000 Jewish factory workers, mostly in the tobacco industry. All the female home-cleaners and general household helpers of the city were Jewish.
About the Author: Ezra James Nollet is a retired U.S. government chemist living in Poland where he is officer of the local synagogue in Legnica. Before the Deluge appears the last week of each month.
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