Ioannina before the Holocaust
In the Beginning
The Jewish community of Ioannina, the capital of the administrative region Epirus in northwestern Greece, and one of the most ancient cities in Greece, was a Greek speaking Jewish community – as opposed to the Jews of Salonika and Larissa, who spoke Ladino. According to ancient legends, the first Jews settled in Ioannina as early as the reign of Alexander the Great, in the fourth century B.C.E., or after the destruction of the second temple in the first century of the current era. However, the first written sources documenting the presence of Jews in the city are from the 14th century. The edicts of Andronikos II Palaiologos, mention Jewish vassals who were under the emperor’s protection, although some of them were required to render services to the Bishop of Ioannina.
After the expulsion of the Jews from, Spain at the end of the 15th century, Spanish and Portuguese Jews also settled in Ioannina; however, the original community retained its distinctive identity. Some of the deportees integrated into the local Greek speaking Jewish community, and some of them established the Sephardic synagogue outside of the city. During the 17th century, the Christian residents of the city rebelled against their Turkish rulers and were expelled from the city’s fortress, in which many of Ioannina’s inhabitants lived. In this manner the city’s Jews were separated from the Christian community until the end of the Turkish occupation in 1913.
Between 1788 and 1822 the region was controlled by the Albanian Ali Pasha, who established Ioannina as his capital. A double wall was built around the city’s fortress, which stands to this day. The Jews of the city enjoyed financial prosperity, and made their living from commerce, industry and craftsmanship, as well as from banking and public service. Jews were also employed as weavers, painters, goldsmiths and metalworkers, while others worked in the clothing and food trade. However, the Jews of Ioannina were taxed heavily, and forbidden to leave the city without permission from the ruler. At this time the community began burying its dead in the cemetery which is in use to this day.
During the Greek revolt against the Turks in 1821, the city was destroyed, but thanks to the assistance the Jews gave the regime, the Jewish community was not harmed, and even took in Jewish refugees from the south of Greece. The city underwent a construction boom, and in 1824 a new synagogue was build on the foundations of the old synagogue within the Byzantine fortress; the new synagogue was named “Kahal Kadosh Yashan” (“Old Holy Community”) and it stands to this day. A Beit Medrash was built adjacent to synagogue. In 1841 the “Kahal Kadosh Hadash” (or “New Holy Community”) was built over the foundations of the old synagogue in Ioannina.
In the middle of the 19th century the Jewish community of Ioannina was one of the central Jewish communities in Greece, with some 2,400 Jews who comprised some 15% of the city’s population. At this time a local committee of the Kol Israel Haverim (the Alliance Israélite Universelle) was established in Ioannina, in order to promote Jewish education and culture.
In 1869 two large fires broke out in the city. Extensive parts of the city were burned, including the local market, whose buildings were made of wood. More than 500 shops and 500 private homes were burnt. The fur industry, which employed some 2,000 workers, was particularly severely affected. All of the Jewish shops were burnt, and hundreds of Jews were left homeless. Some of the Jews were forced to emigrate to Egypt, the Land of Israel and the United States, primarily to New York. The chief rabbi of Ioannina turned to the Jews of Alexandria to seek assistance.
Three years later antisemitic uprisings targeted the Jews of Ioannina. One Jew was killed and many others wounded.
The Turkish authorities tried to prevent a recurrence of such events, but in fact they became more and more commonplace, particularly during Passover, which was a time when blood libels were most common. In addition, one of the two Jewish cemeteries was confiscated by the Ottoman authorities. During this period many of the Jews of Ioannina left the city, and some of them made aliyah to the Land of Israel.
At the end of the 19th century, several educational initiatives took shape among the Jews of Ioannina. The Baron Hirsch allocated funding to “Beit HaOmanut” (The House of Crafts) to provide professional training for Jewish youth who were also pursing religious studies at the same time. A new “Society for Torah Studies” was established, to promote Jewish education; this institution was funded on the basis of a membership fee. The connection to Kol Israel Haverim was renewed and a KIH committee was established, which became central in promoting educational institutions in Ioannina, particularly during the 20th century. In addition to these initiatives, the local Talmud Torah was reinstated. Most of its 350 students came from low income families. Finally, a “Fraternal Association” was established with the aim of establishing a school for girls; this association continued to function into the early part of the 20th century.