Not all Jewish visitors to Greece have the city of Ioanina, capital of the northwestern Epirus province bordered by the Pindus mountain range, in their itinerary, but they may wish to add it once they are aware of its unique Jewish history.
Only 30 kms from the popular Vikos Gorge (the deepest canyon in the world according to Guinness), it is a long drive from Athens, but a pleasant one, by way of the modern highways that cross Greece today. The view from above as one approaches the city, spread out around placid Lake Poamvotida, is breathtaking and seems quintessentially Greek.
Yet Ioanina was also a welcome refuge for Jews in ancient times. The first Jews, labelled Romanioti, came to the city from the Holy Land after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E by Rome. Greece is a relatively short distance from Israel, and Ioanina, inland from the Ionic sea coast, was possibly a good place for the defeated Jews to look for some tranquility in a land that also did not see the Romans as friends. The city was not too isolated, as it was situated on the ancient road from Rome to Constantinople, a route the modern highway follows to a great extent.
This traditional account of Jewish history was scoffed at by Greek scholars who dated the city's existence from a later period. However, recent archaeological excavations in the city, now a tourist attraction, show that the Jewish tradition was correct and the city did exist during Temple times.
Allegra Matsa, a vivacious and charming resident of Ioanina, is the daughter of a pillar of the once-thriving Jewish community. She is fiercely dedicated to preserving the historic remains of Jewish life in the city.
Allegra beamed as we sang while removing the Torah from the ark for the Rosh Chodesh reading. She pointed out the "Sha-daiot", large silver medallions customarily donated for special occasions and hung on the side of the ark.
It was heartening to see in the guest book that a group of "religious scientists from the Weitzman Institute", as they called themselves, had preceded us by a day.
Arutz Sheva's talk with Allegra shed light on Ioanina's Jewish story and even revealed a little known Israeli heroic-diplomatic adventure in which she took part.
How did you get to be the guardian of Ioanina's Jewish past?
I was born here in 1950 to Joseph and Anna Matsas. My father had a household utensils store which provided for our family, but his real love was Jewish history and tradition. He especially loved to trace Jewish customs through the ages. It was natural for me to follow in his footsteps.
How many Jews live in the city?
Before WWII there were 2,200 Jews in Ioanina, some of them quite wealthy, some impoverished, but all of them very religiously observant. Many were weavers and all had a friendly relationship with their non-Jewish neighbors.
They cherished the historical tradition, handed down from one generation to the next, that the first Jews reached Ioanina from Jerusalem in 71 C.E. after the Second Temple was destroyed.
On March 23, 1944, the Nazis rounded up the Jews, including 531 children aged 0-13, and took them across the lake, bussing them to Larissa and eventually sending them all to Auschwitz.
Sadly, there are only 35 Jews who survived and make up the Ioanina Jewish community today – but five of them are university professors!
However, the entire community celebrates holidays together. For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we invite guests so as to have a larger congregation.
What remains of the community besides the synagogue?
When you walk just outside the wall here and turn right, you reach what was once the Jewish neighborhood, a picturesque and now trendy row of town houses. If you look carefully, you will see the faint Hebrew letters Bet"Heh (for Baruch Hashem, blessed is the Lord) engraved in the stone lintel of a townhouse, above the name of its current non-Jewish owners.
Around the corner, there are houses with a Magen David over the windows and on the entrance gates, and you can still see the large homes of some of the wealthier Jews, one named Levy, who did not return from the camps.
The Holocaust Memorial to Ioanina's Jews is in the Jewish neighborhood and we gather there on Holocaust Memorial Day to remember the tragedy of European Jewry and especially that of our city.
What is a Romanioti Jew?
I myself am a Romanioti Jew, a direct descendant of the Jews who came here straight from Jerusalem in the days of the Romans and spoke Greek with a distinct accent (called yonitika), giving rise to their name, thought to be a combination of their Roman citizenry and yonitka – that is, their specially accented Greek.
Romanioti have our own customs and our own siddur which is considered closest to the ancient service of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.
We are neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi, names that have geographic associations, although the Ionina Romanioti synagogue in the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, Beit Avraham Ve'ohel Sarah liKehilat Ionina, has retained only some of our piyyutim and tunes and mostly prays according to Sephardic custom.
There is another Romanioti synagogue, in Chinatown, New York which has a museum containing artifacts of the Jews of Ionina. We are in contact with both communities.
Tell us more about the synagogue? What makes it Romanioti besides the siddur?
Note the way the synagogue is built with an ark at the front and a wide aisle leading from the Ark straight to the back of the synagogue, where there is a small bima for Torah reading, facing Jerusalem, behind which are steps to a gallery opposite the ark for the important members of the community. The Torah was removed from the Ark and brought joyously down the aisle to the bima.
Our Torah is in a wooden case similar to the Sephardic custom, but we put in on an angle to be read, not straight up as they do. You did not read it quite our way.
Worshipers sit in back-to-back rows along the length of the aisle, with the Ark on one end and the gallery on the other, with the front rows facing each other, I think to keep them from talking! The rows of benches each have a low step, used as seats on Tisha b'Av when halakha calls for sitting on low seats like mourners. The women's section is upstairs.
The synagogue was built in 1826 on the site where there had been an 8th century synagogue that was destroyed by an earthquake. In the 1800s, when it was built, there were 5000 Jews in the city.
The Nazis did not destroy this synagogue, but did destroy the other one that was outside the old city walls. The bishop of the city saved the Jewish books and returned them after the war, a good deed which is remembered in a plaque on the wall near the Holy Ark.
The well in the courtyard is ancient and dates from the original building. It has always been used for Tashlich on Rosh Hashana. I still remember my father, who was also the cantor of the synagogue, telling us the story of Jonah and the whale as we stood near it.
What is the state of Jewish life in Ionina and in Greece?
Jewish life here is very weak, especially in Athens, because the Jews have distanced themselves from Jewish religious practice and there is a good deal of marrying out. Saloniki has a larger community, but not in comparison to what it was before the Nazis. The further one is from the big cities, the better it is. In the outlying cities, Jews still hold fast to their Judaism.
However, we take care of each other and our elderly live in one building to make it easy to be sure they are cared for properly. After a legal fight, we received control of the ancient Jewish cemetery.
Is there anti-Semitism in Ioanina?
We do not suffer from anti-Semitism in Ioanina. In fact, the city's residents consider us just another group of citizens.
What about aliya?
Not many Jews were left in Greece after WWII and some of those moved permanently to Israel. Israel is close by, however, and I lived there myself from 1968-74. Lots of Israelis tour Greece, they love the mountains and the Mediterranean climate, the music and the proximity to home. It is also not as expensive as other countries.
How do you see the future?
I take care of the Beit Haknesset (synagogue) while I still am able to. There were others before me, but they are elderly now and cannot leave their homes. I see it as my mission to tell visitors about our community because in a few more years, there will be nothing left of us. I am trying to establish a small museum that will tell the rich history of our community and preserve its memory.
What is the story you hinted about, concerning Albanian and Greek Jews – and the Israeli government?
Epirus borders on Albania and in fact, some of the province is now part of that country, as borders change in this part of the world. In 1991, after the fall of the Albanian dictator Hoxha, there was a civil war there and the Jewish population there was in grave danger.
There were 200 Jews there, many of them Greek Jews who had moved there due to employment opportunities and they were in the worst position of all. The government of Israel negotiated the clandestine escape of these Jews late one night for a ransom of $200 per Jew.
I travelled to the border that night along with the Israeli ambassador to Greece, as a translator, since I speak Hebrew and Greek, and witnessed how a fleet of taxis brought all of the Jews to the port of Athens where ships waited to bring them to Israel. Am Yisrael Chai!