Small-town municipal elections may seem like an unlikely way to make history after 2,300 years of history, but that’s what happened in June when the Greek city of Ioannina elected a Jew as its mayor – the first in Greece, despite a large majority anti-Semitism.
The elected mayor of Ioannina, originally from a region subject to the Ottoman Empire until 1913, his name is Moses Elisaf. He is 65 years old and a Romaniote Jew, a descendant of Europe’s oldest Jewish diaspora, founded by Jews receptive to Greek culture who built their first known synagogue in the 2nd century BC.
Despite the community’s long history and, in Elisaf, the political victory of a native son, the question of how long Ioannina will remain the home of Jews is still present.
“We must work to preserve the traditions, the monuments. I now have many obligations to honor the citizens of my city, but also as a Jewish leader,” Elisaf said, adding, “I’m not sure this community can hold on for long. »
Ioannina is a bustling university town located on the edge of a mountain lake; its landlocked charm is one of Greece’s best-kept secrets, famous for its telegenic Aegean islands. The acropolis rises on the walls of a Byzantine castle, near the square where the Nazis deported the Jewish population on March 25, 1944. The town hall only recognized these facts in 2006, when research carried out headlines.
Indeed, voting for Elisaf does not mean a declaration in favor of multiculturalism. He is a doctor and professor of medicine; financially and politically independent. People voted for him to oppose corruption, and even then his victory was close – with 200 votes out of 40,000 cast. Elisaf is married and has no children.
“People know who they voted for. I was elected despite growing anti-Semitism across the country. It is well known that Greece is a country with high anti-Semitism, but it is verbal. It’s not violent,” said Elisaf, relieved not to have heard any insults directly during his campaign.
Elisaf, who served on the city council twice in 2006 and 2014, is openly Jewish. He does not separate his Greek and Jewish identities, nor does he see a conflict in remaining president of the Jewish community, a position he has held for nearly 20 years.
A week after the election, Elisaf sat confidently in his community’s old synagogue, saved during World War II by an Ioannina mayor who convinced the Nazis it was a library. Sunlight fell on the empty wooden benches of the oldest and largest synagogue in the Balkans, full only once a year now for Yom Kippur. A Romaniote cantor named Haim Ischakis arrives from Athens, proud of his Ioannine roots.
A series of marble plaques around the arch and bima commemorate the 1,832 victims of the Holocaust, whose names are engraved in the stone. There is a good chance that the interior will be transformed into an exhibition space. The remains of the city’s second synagogue, ruined during World War II, are on display thanks to community efforts organized by Greek-Jewish museologist Esther Solomon.
Despite the decline in attendance at the synagogues of Ioannina, Greece is at the center of a little-known Jewish history, that of the Romaniotes: they speak Greek and descend from an indigenous group from Hellenic lands before Christianity. “Romaniote” is a scientific term that evokes their influence on late Roman culture.
Relatively speaking, then, Ioannina is a young Greek Jewish community, although legends say that Jews have been drawn to its mountains ever since the high priest of Judea met Alexander the Great, whose mother was from Epirus. The first written evidence of the Jewish presence in Ioannina dates from 1319, during the Byzantine era. The oldest grave dates from 1427. While the cemetery is overgrown, the Brotherhood of Ioannina in New York finances the cleaning. There is a vibrant Romaniote community in the New York area.
Ioannina was the heart of the Greek Enlightenment and preserved Romaniote cultural identity into modernity, notably through the poetry of Joseph Eliyia and the scholarship of Rae Dalven. Elisaf will be in office during the Greek bicentenary in 2021.
“We are now in a good position in Ioannina. We are not losing this Jewish community so quickly,” said Marcia Haddad Ikonompoulos, who first visited Ioannina in 1973 and who currently directs the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue Museum in Manhattan, the base of Greek-American-led support by Jews since the community was established as a Jewish community. a legal body at the Supreme Court in 1914.
“My regular trips have let them know (in Ioannina) that we are not leaving. The eyes of the world are now on them,” said Ikonomopoulos, who plans to visit Ioannina three times this year, encouraging the Jewish community’s diaspora. Thousands of people proudly identify themselves as Ioannina Romaniotes in America and Israel.
Yet the shadow of Jew hatred hangs over even the optimistic Elisaf. In the 2000s, members of Golden Dawn desecrated his mother’s grave by repeatedly vandalizing the Jewish cemetery in Ioannina.
Local journalist Alekos Raptis, who won a state award for his reporting on the 1944 deportations, investigated the vandals and took Golden Dawn to court. Christos Pappas, the party’s number two, is languishing under house arrest in Ioannina.
In 2009, residents of Ioannina formed a human chain around the cemetery in solidarity. That year, after the city installed lights and motion-sensing cameras, the vandalism stopped. Anti-Semitic vandalism persists outside the Old Synagogue.
While nearby Larissa closed its Jewish school last year for its community of 300 residents, Ioannina’s few young Jews are choosing emigration and intermarriage. The cemetery and the old synagogue are in the hands of the Byzantine archaeological authority for posterity.
“Our idea with Moses is just to be able to leave something, not erase the past, and try to persuade Ioannina to keep it,” said John Kalef-Ezra, professor of medical physics and colleague of ‘Elisaf at university. The University of Ioannina, along with three other members of the Jewish community, has an impressive ratio of local Jews among the professional elite. “In Greece, only two (Jewish) communities can survive: Athens and Thessaloniki. »
Matt A. Hanson is an Istanbul-based journalist originally from Massachusetts. He himself is of Romaniote origin; his grandfather’s parents immigrated to New York from Ioannina.