The Jewish Museum of Athens: Recalling the Past

In a small, privately owned building just at the edge of Athen’s old Plaka district, all that is left of Greece’s Jewish heritage is displayed with artifacts that have been collected and restored since the 1970’s by tireless museum curators and volunteers. It is because of their dedication that the Jewish Museum of Greece now ranks among the top Jewish Museums in Europe.

Ethnic Costumes - Jewish Museum in Athens

Ethnic Costumes – Jewish Museum in Athens

The idea of a museum was first conceived in the 1970’s by members of Athens’ Jewish community. From 1977 to 1993, one of the co-founders and director of the museum, Nicholas Stavroulakis, began collecting and conserving these religious, ethnic and historical artifacts. Today they are presented in a remarkable display representing the relatively unknown and undocumented history of Greek Jews. The museum was originally in an old building nearby, but by 1998 it moved into the present address. Visitors are met at the door by a congenial docent who will direct you to the various areas.

I began my tour on the ground floor. This is a restored interior of the old Romaniote Synagogue of Patras which features a special display of embroidered textiles and traditional gilded and painted wooden cases (tikim) used for the Sefer Torah which originates from the Romaniote Greek-Jewish tradition.

Torah

Torah

The Jewish communities of Greece were founded during the third to the first centuries BC. The synagogue was not only a place of worship but a centre for community affairs, social services and education. The oldest known synagogue in Greece was on the little island of Delos, a sacred island in antiquity, a short boat trip from the more popular island of Mykonos. These early Greek Jews were known as Romaniotes. They were mainly urban, agrarian people who spoke Greek. It wasn’t until the late 1400’s, following a massacre of Jews which took place during the Spanish Inquisition, that the first Sephardic (Iberian) Jews began to arrive, settling mainly on the island of Crete and in the north as far east as Constantinople in Asia Minor. Thessaloniki, where the majority of Greek Jews lived, took on almost a totally Jewish character and became known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans.

On the first level of the museum is a display of artifacts used for Jewish holidays. Especially intriguing are the array of colorful, embroidered prayer cloths and wall hangings. One table cloth, embroidered with pictures of the Jerusalem gates and flowers, dates to about 1865.

Needlework at Athens' Jewish Museum

Needlework at Athens’ Jewish Museum

“Whenever Nikos (Stavroulakis) was given a rag to use as a duster or to wipe something clean, he would examine it,” explains the volunteer guide “Often he would find it was a piece of valuable Ottoman fabric, perhaps an intricately embroidered table cloth.”

Mr. Stavroulakis also compiled a cookbook of the Jews of Greece, available in the museum shop, which includes menus for family festivals, Jewish holidays as well as recipes for daily cooking.

Several Oil lamps, kerayia, which were hung over the Sabbath dinner table, are displayed as well as hametzitika, the utensils used throughout the year, and the paskalitika, utensils used for Passover which were kept in special chests. The displays also include Hanukkah menorahs, scrolls, traditional Sephardic sweets made for Purim, Seder trays and the ram’s horn Shofar used in the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and  Yom Kippur.

Altar from Synagogue

Altar from Synagogue

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks took control of Greece, Jewish families from Asia Minor and Thrace were invited to settle in various port cities, encouraged by the Ottomans to participate in trade. This enabled them to establish stable communities.

The exhibits in the museum cover all the early history of the Romaniote and Sephardic Jews. On the top level, traditional costumes of the 18th to 20th centuries depict both Romaniote and Sephardic dress including elaborate wedding dresses, jewelry, children’s clothing and toys as well as other items used in their domestic and religious life.

During the early years of the Greek War of Independence in the 1890’s, almost all the Jewish communities in the Peloponnese were destroyed and the few survivors moved north to areas such as Volos and Ioannina. On the second level of the museum, to show the contribution Greek Jews made in the struggle for Greek Independence, there are showcases of documents and books as well as photographs, military uniforms and medals.

Greek Jewish Resistance Fighters

Photo of Greek Jewish Resistance Fighters

The most heart wrenching exhibit, the last stop on my museum tour, is the one dedicated to the tragedy of the near extinction of the Jewish population of Greece during the Holocaust. Here I pause the longest to reflect and like other visitors, to weep. It is a small showcase, but includes a collection of the few treasures that have been salvaged from that time.

Concentration Camp items

Concentration Camp items

When the Germans invaded Greece on April 6, 1941, it began the almost total destruction of the Jewish communities. In 1939 there were over 70,000 Jews living in Greece. By the end of the war, the total Jewish population was only 10,000. Those who had survived the camps or emerged from hiding returned to find their old communities non-existent, their homes destroyed and their synagogues in ruin. In Thessaloniki, a memorial to the Jewish Martyrs commemorates the once thriving community there.

Shaddoyoth Torah from Ioannina

Shaddoyoth Torah from Ioannina

The museum offers an opportunity to study the rich and multi-cultural history of the Jewish people in Greece.Visitors come from all over Europe and North America. In addition to the exhibits, the museum participates in historical research projects. An extensive library is available for research and studies. One of the most important goals is to show to all Greek Jews their rich and proud inheritance and to give visitors the opportunity to come into direct contact with Greek Judaism.

Each time I have visited the museum I have come away feeling enriched, and even though I am not Jewish, appreciative of the history and rich legacy of the Jews of Greece.

The Jewish Museum of Greece
39 Nikis Street in central Athens – not far from the Acropolis, Plaka and Syntagma Square.
Open Monday to Friday from 9 am – 2.30 pm; Sundays 10 am – 2 pm and closed Sundays.
Admission: Adults 6 euros, students 3 euros.

Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com

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