From Babylon to Saint Petersburg and from Cordova to Bukhara, the Jewish diaspora is an admirable continuum of tradition and diversity. Indeed, there is no fear of overuse these two terms concerning Jewish diaspora.
One unique diaspora community is that of the Romaniote Jews, or Greek Jews. This community has a history that potentially starts as early as the times of Alexander the Great. The multiple versions of its history are also an indication that it developed gradually and that it has ancient roots, not medieval. Their history is a study in perseverance, since their land’s sovereignty changed hands several times and the peace was never long or safe. Moreover, the various regimes were not particularly friendly.
Romaniote Jews always distinguish themselves from the Sephardic Jews, who came later in the area from Spain or other places. They make this distinction not at all with tension towards other Jewish groups but rather to preserve their tradition. They speak Yevanic, which is a Judeo-Greek dialect and, most of them, speak also modern Greek in the same way with all the other Greeks. In many places, as on the island of Corfu, the Romaniote Synagogues coexisted with the Sephardic Synagogues of the Ladino speakers. The Jewish Museum of Greece presents both Romaniote and Sephardic artifacts and costumes.
For a long time the major center of the Romaniote community before the war was the city of Janina, at the northwest side of the country. According to the “Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece”, the population on the eve of the war was approximately 1900 people. On March 25 1944, the German army arrested 1850 and only 163 returned after the war. Nevertheless, on the island of Zakynthos all of the 275 Jews survived thanks to the brave mayor and bishop, who refused to collaborate with the Germans and helped the people to hide in different villages all over the island. At the city of Volos, it was the smart and timely action of the Rabbi that saved most of the community’s people, who helped by the resistance fighters on the mountains.
This is a translated very short video about the most successful case. 100% of the Jewish people escaped the prosecution on Zakinthos island. They were only 275 people:
This is a wonderful video with many moving moments. By 2:17:50, the old gentleman is one of the Jews who survived on Zakinthos:
Today the Janina community has approximately only fifty members, who continue to keep their Synagogue alive. Most of the survivors of the war moved to Israel or the USA. In New York there exists the only Romaniote Synagogue of the western hemisphere.
In this video we can see the central, historical Synagogue of Janina today:
The Synagogue of Broome Street:
Members of the community who survived speak about their experiences (see below for short translations):
(On this last video, by 7: 32, the narrator says: “meanwhile the Germans move on towards the registration of the Jews, with the aid of the Police.”
The lady who speaks then, by 7:41, is Stella Coen. She was sixteen years old when they call her to make ID. She says that “Before they arrested us, they already occupied our nursing home. Inside its office there was a German and two Police officers [Greek] at the door. When I passed this door, the officer said [to the German] “Juda”. That was the marking. I didn’t know that “Juda” was the Jew and that this person has to be different from the others.”
By 8:21 the narrator says: “The Germans decide finally to strike on the March 25 1944”.
[This is the day of national independence in Greece, the greatest holiday of the year.] “It was Sabbath and most of the Jews were still at their beds.” By 8:35 she says “I step down, I open the door and there was a Police officer. Collect your belongings he said, you depart in two hours”.
[The German propaganda service made these photographs. Moreover, on this video, the narrator repeats that the Jewish population was 2,000 and the whole population of the city was 15,000.])