Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983: Patterns of Jewish Survival in the Greek Provinces before and after the Holocaust

By Joshua Eli Plaut | Go to book overview

Introduction

ALMOST 500 years ago Isaac Ashkenazi’s ancestors left Spain as exiles and found a haven in a Thracian town called Didimoticho, in the heartlands of the Ottoman Empire. Today this market town sits in a lush, green valley, through which the calm Evros River flows. Four hours to the east lies Istanbul, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, while five hours west is the bustling port city of Salonika. The Evros River has formed the boundary between Greece and Turkey since 1923, placing Didimoticho inside Greece. The town is a mere kilometer from Turkey and twenty-three kilometers from Bulgaria. Five hundred years after his family first came to Didimoticho, Isaac and the other three remaining Jews were considering leaving this home of so many years to join their children who reside in Salonika.

There is no Jewish community left in Didimoticho. Until his recent death, Isaac carefully guarded a reminder of the tragedy that befell his fellow Jews. Inside his store, behind the neatly stacked bolts of cloth and fabric, he kept two precious books in a safe. One book was entitled How We Saw Death, the other The Third Reich and the Jews; these books served as a testament to Isaac that before the Bulgarians deported the Jews of Didimoticho on 16 May 1943, a flourishing Jewish community existed. In the last years of his life, Isaac was frustrated and angry at the prospect of leaving his home forever. He remained helpless in the face of circumstances forcing small-town Jews to migrate to urban centers. Didimoticho is but one of many Greek and Turkish-Jewish communities that struggled unsuccessfully to maintain its age-old existence. Many Greek Jews like Isaac and his family live the drama of being the last generation of Jews to remain in the Greek and Turkish provincial towns.

The presence of Jews in Greece extends back at least two thousand years. The book of Isaiah (24:15) mentions the “isles of the sea,” perhaps, a reference to Jews who inhabited the Greek Isles. Jews have resided in organized Jewish communities in the Balkan peninsula during the Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern Greek periods. Many of the Jews living in the land of Judea during the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman conquests were exiled to Greece, where they came to be known as Romaniot Jews. Although these Jews acculturated with great ease, assuming Greek family names and customs, and introducing Greek

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