Jewish History of Greece

The Jewish History of Greece dates back thousands of years and has played a prominent role in the country’s rich, multi-cultural heritage.

As far back as the 4th century BCE, an account by Clearchus of Soli describes an encounter between the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle (4th century BCE) and a Jewish sage while travelling in Asia Minor. According to the story, Aristotle was deeply impressed on meeting the Jewish scholar, who was fluent in Greek language and thought, and remarked on his wisdom, ‘he imparted to us more than we gave him’.

Jewish family of Saloniki in 1917

The first evidence of a Jewish presence in Greece is an inscription from 300-250 BCE, from Attica.

The oldest Jewish group, the Romaniotes, also known as Greek Jews, have lived in the country for thousands of years. Traditionally, the Romaniotes were Greek speaking and well-integrated into Greek culture. Large communities were located in Thebes, Ioannina, Halkis, Corfu, Arta, Preveza, Volos, Patras, Corinth, and on the islands of Zakynthos, Lesbos, Hios, Samos, Rhodes. They wrote in Greek, but used the Hebrew alphabet.

Moshe Pesach, Chief Rabbi of the Romaniote Greek Jewish community of Volos, Greece in 1939.

The Jewish population in Greece increased during the Roman period and held an important position in textiles, textile dyeing and silk-making.
At the end of the 15th Century, when Greece was under the Ottoman empire, the Sultan invited Sephardic Jews, who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal, to settle in Greece. This influx of Jewish people brought their own customs and language (Spanish-Hebrew, called Ladino). Mostly merchants, tradespeople and craftsmen, their assimilation in to Greek life, at that time, offered a welcome stimulus. Arrivals of smaller groups from Hungary and southern Italy followed. Most mainly settled in Thessaloniki, which in future years was eventually named “Mother of Israel”.  The Sephardic Jews were highly regarded for their entrepreneurship and high level of education.

From the 16th to 18th century, the Sephardic Jewish community of Thessaloniki was one of the largest in the world.  However, significant contributions were also made by the Jews of Rhodes and Crete, renowned for the development of Rabbinic philosophy on the island.

Municipal Ethnographic Museum of Ioannina with Romaniote items. By Jean Housen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

With the establishment of modern Greece in 1832, the country’s Jewish communities were recognised as legal entities. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were approximately 100,000 Jews in Greece.

Today there are still functioning Romaniote Synagogues in Halkis, Ioannina and Athens, representing the oldest Jewish congregations on European soil.

During the Holocaust, the Jewish communities of Greece were decimated and losses reached eighty seven percent of Greece’s pre-war Jewish population, the highest in Europe.  After the war many survivors emigrated to Israel, the United States and Western Europe. Today, the Jewish community of Greece represents about 5000 citizens, active in the private sector, commerce and industry, and the sciences.