We shall begin with the fascinating collection of the Jewish Museum of Greece (JMG) in Athens, where documented Jewish presence dates back to the 3rd century BCE. The Museum’s artefacts reflect the history and traditions of the Romaniote and Sephardic Jews of Greece.
The collection of photographs and personal testimonies offer interesting vistas on Jewish life in Greek cities. There have been Jewish residents in Ioannina as early as 9th century CE; the presence of a significant community dates back to 1611 when Jews were settled by the Ottoman authorities in the city’s fortress. In 1912, the community welcomed liberation from Ottoman rule. The Romaniote Jews of Ioannina achieved notable levels of cultural and economic development. Megali Rouga (the Main Street), next to the fortress, became the largest of the Jewish neighbourhoods with a prominent New Synagogue and a school. Today the Main Street is renamed after the poet and Talmudist Yossef Eliya and only traces of this neighbourhood remain after its population was decimated by the war.
Zanet Nahmias was born in Ioannina in 1925, the fourth of the six children of Haim and Rebecca Nahmias. Her father was one of three Jewish tavern keepers in the town. She paints a picture of a happy childhood:
“Our home was in the fortress and most people in our neighbourhood were Jews. We had a great school, the Alliance [Israélite Universelle], and we learned three languages: Greek, Hebrew and French. I went to school until the fifth grade; I never finished it because my mother fell ill. Saturdays were always great, beautiful. The houses were clean, the yards, the pots of flowers were all whitewashed and gleaming. We had cooked on Friday – on Shabbat we did no chores.”
“It was necessary to have a pie for the Sabbath. Sometimes it was with cheese, sometimes with spinach – we called it a vegetable pie back then. In the morning the men would go to the Synagogue, and when they came back we ate the pie. We always had a dish with meat. We used to light the oven – houses had built ovens back then, [...] in those days women made everything themselves. Fridays and Thursdays were really tiring. They had to make ready for the making of the bread. My mother used to get up at four in the morning to knead the dough and let it rise until the oven was hot enough to put the bread in. She then made all kinds of things; she made cookies and in the end she even roasted nuts and chickpeas for us children.”
“We, the girls, helped our mother at home. We washed the clothes, and on Fridays when she had to bake and cook, we cleaned the house ourselves. The boys went to help my father who had a tavern. This tavern was for men only, women never went there; it was forbidden.”
When Italy invaded Greece in 1940, many Ioannina Jews fought on the Albanian front as officers, ordinary soldiers or ancillary personnel. When the Axis forces gained control, Ioannina came under Italian administration. In July 1943 the Germans took over the city. On 25th March 1944, the remaining 1,870 Jews of Ioannina were taken through the snow in covered trucks to Larissa, and from there they were crammed onto trains and transported to Auschwitz. 92% of the Romaniote Jews of Ioannina were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. This long-established community counts at present fewer than 40 people.
Zanet Nahmias and her brother Michael were the only survivors of her family. She returned to Ioannina and rebuilt her life.Today Zanet lives in Ioannina, widowed, mother of two, grandmother of three and great-grandmother of three. Her full testimony has been recorded on video by the Jewish Museum of Greece.