A week before what is arguably the most lucrative and religiously important event in the Christian calendar, hundreds of Christians in a small Greek town turned out in the winter cold to express support for their Jewish neighbors.
Joining hands in a "human chain against racism and violence," Christians in the small northwestern Greek city of Ioannina, surrounded the city’s Jewish cemetery to protest repeated acts of neo-Nazi vandalism there. In the past 12 months Ioannina, not far from the Albanian border, has seen a rise in anti-Semitic incidents perpetrated in the Jewish cemetery by neo-Nazis in town – a trend the protest organizers decided was intolerable.
‘Duty of Every Citizen’
"The Jewish cemetery is not only the religious space of the Jewish community but also a cultural monument of our city, the protection of which, like other historic monuments of our city, is the duty of every citizen… Let the world know that we value our Jewish presence, one of the oldest in Greece, and will not allow callous, hateful acts to define us as a community or as a people," the organizing committee said in a statement.
"Letters and emails of anguish, hurt and recrimination" were sent to local and national Greek authorities over the incidents, said Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, president of the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry and director of the Kehila Kedosha Janina Museum. "Our intention was to bring to worldwide awareness what had happened."
That appeals succeeded brought immense joy to the community, she said. "Our pleas did not fall on deaf ears… What then can be more emotionally rewarding than to pass on the news of a recent mass demonstration against anti-Semitism?" Ikonomopoulos commented.
Many of those who showed up for the demonstration held public office, she noted. Organizers stressed that politics was not the issue, and public officials were not identified by their political parties. "All major parties were represented," she noted. "Let us all applaud the good citizens of Ioannina who organized and took part in this historic event."
Ancient Jewish Community Dates Back to Second Temple
The Jewish presence in the small Greek town goes back thousands of years, to the destruction of the Second Temple, according to the Kehila Kedosha Janina Museum web site. Those who lived in the city were Greek-speaking Jews who had absorbed the Hellenistic culture of the time.
The community was not a wealthy one; sons succeeded their fathers in their trades, and daughters married and became wives and mothers. If they worked at all, it was in the professions deemed acceptable for the women of the time, such as seamstresses. Education ended at high school or even earlier.
Approximately 2,000 Jews lived in Ioannina at the beginning of World War II, but it came under direct German control in September 1943. The Nazis, on Greek Independence Day just before Passover in March 1944, rounded up the community’s Jews and deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, almost all of whom were murdered.
Their names are engraved in stone on the walls of the community’s synagogue.