The Jewish Community of Ioannina
The Jewish Community
The Jewish community of Ioannina has always been the indisputable center of Romaniote tradition. In the 8th and 9th century CE, Ioannina began to develop from a small lakeside hamlet to an urban center, which attracted Jews, among others, probably from nearby locations. Life became difficult for a long time, as the area was repeatedly invaded by foreign armies; at the same time, due mostly to domestic issues, the policies of Byzantine emperors towards the Jews fluctuated. Occasionally, detrimental imperial decrees were issued, although they only had a temporary effect. The earliest historic mention of the presence of Jewish residents in the city of Ioannina dates from the early 14th century, during the reign of Andronikos II Palaeologus, when two chrysobulls were issued under his name.
The history of Jewish community
The first dates from 1319 and grants a number of rights to the Jews of the city while stating that they should enjoy “freedom and security from any threat”. The second chrysobull (1321), confirms the existence of permanent Jewish residents in the city, as it promises them protection by the city. It seems to make a distinction between old residents, who enjoyed ancient privileges and were obliged to serve the bishop of Ioannina, and new arrivals, who lived in the city under a new status. It also contains a special mention of three members of the community who appear in the document as “the children of [Rabbis] Lamer, David and Shamaria (or Shemaria)”.
From October 1430, Ioannina belonged to the Ottoman Empire, within which Jews, as non-Muslim subjects, acquired some degree of autonomy. They could freely practice their religion and had administrative autonomy in all intra-community affairs, while enjoying some commercial and occupational privileges. After the arrival of Sephardic Jews in the Empire, at the end of the 15th century, many small Romaniote communities were assimilated by the newcomers; but this was not so for the Romaniote communities of Epirus (Arta, Preveza, Ioannina), where the Romaniote element prevailed until World War II.
The Jewish community of Ioannina saw its heyday in the early days of the 19th century when the city was under the authority of Ali Pasha (1788-1822). Many members of the community worked in administration offices, trade flourished and manufacturing was promoted. The Jewish population increased in number, as did the city’s population in general, and the habitation was also expanded to the area outside of the city’s fortification. The Romaniote Jews of Ioannina created what is possibly the most significant community of Greek-speaking Jews in Greece, and reached notable levels of cultural and financial development. The Jews of Ioannina mostly lived in the old neighborhood within the fortress walls, in the Megali Rouga (Big Street), next to the fortress (later renamed after Max Nordau and now known as Yossef Eliya Street) in Koundouriotou Street and the lanes leading to it, and in Leivadioti Street, which is now known as Soutsou Street.
The fate of this ancient community was sealed on the snowy day of March 25th, 1944, when the 1,870 Jews of the city were deported to Auschwitz. Ninety-two percent of the Romaniote Jews were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. After the end of World War II, the Jewish community of Ioannina numbered a mere 181 members. Many of the survivors emigrated to the USA and Israel, but still maintain contact with their home city. Today there are fifty Jews left in Ioannina, though many live in Athens. Romaniote Jews, whose ancestral home is in Ioannina, still maintain links with their past and keep alive the awareness of their unique heritage.
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The Synagogue is located inside the Castle (15 Ioustinianou Str.)