Greece: A Jewish History

Greece: A Jewish History

Greece: A Jewish History

Greece: A Jewish History


K. E. Fleming's Greece--a Jewish History is the first comprehensive English-language history of Greek Jews, and the only history that includes material on their diaspora in Israel and the United States. The book tells the story of a people who for the most part no longer exist and whose identity is a paradox in that it wasn't fully formed until after most Greek Jews had emigrated or been deported and killed by the Nazis.

For centuries, Jews lived in areas that are now part of Greece. But Greek Jews as a nationalized group existed in substantial number only for a few short decades--from the Balkan Wars (1912-13) until the Holocaust, in which more than 80 percent were killed. Greece--a Jewish History describes their diverse histories and the processes that worked to make them emerge as a Greek collective. It also follows Jews as they left Greece--as deportees to Auschwitz or émigrés to Palestine/Israel and New York's Lower East Side. In such foreign settings their Greekness was emphasized as it never was in Greece, where Orthodox Christianity traditionally defines national identity and anti-Semitism remains common.


On October 26, 1914, Thomas Donnelly, justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, signed off on docket #4979–1914 C, legally certifying the incorporation of the “Jewish Community of Janina, Inc.” a parenthetical note explained the name to the court: “(Janina [is] the name of a town in Greece).” What was being incorporated was a “Greek Jewish group.” These notes were deceptively simple. For Janina (Jannina) had only been part of Greece for one year, and the idea of a “Greek Jew” was all but nonexistent—at least in Greece.

In 1914, Jannina was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe: the so-called Romaniotes, the indigenous, Greek-speaking Jews who had first settled in the south Balkans in the first centuries C.E. At the same time, it was one of Greece’s newest towns: just one year before, in 1913, the town, along with most of what today is northern Greece, had been taken from the Ottoman Empire by Greek forces in the second Balkan War. This “town in Greece,” like many others, had spent the previous five hundred years as part of the Ottoman Empire.

Hundreds of thousands of the region’s inhabitants, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike, were profoundly affected by the transition. the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw massive migration from the Ottoman borderlands to the United States. Between 1873 and 1924, almost 550,000 Greeks from the Ottoman Empire and Greece arrived in America. With them were many Jews, both Greek-speaking Romaniotes from around the south Balkan mainland and Sephardim from the city of Salonika—the descendants of the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula starting in the late fifteenth century. Between 1895 and 1906, up to 30 percent of the total population of the northwestern Greek district of Epirus, of which Jannina was the seat, emigrated. the Jewish Community of Janina, Inc. was made up of recent émigrés who were part of this mass movement.

The corporation’s nine original directors had come together to create a social and religious home for the burgeoning new Romaniote community of New York’s Lower East Side. All recent immigrants, six members of the board were naturalized U.S. citizens while the remaining third were Greek nationals. the new corporation had as its goal “to unite the Jews of Janina for the promotion of their welfare, physically, morally, and intel-

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