Silver_Tetradrachm_of_Antiochus_IV_EpiphanesThe first historical reference on the establishment of Jews in Greece is made on an inscription found at Oropos, Attica (dated between 300 and 250 BCE) and refers to the Jew from Biotea, Moshos Moshionos. It is said that the first Jews who came to Greece were slaves, who were sold by the various conquerors of Judea to neighboring peoples. Among other Jews, the name of the high priest Jason the 3rd is mentioned as going to Sparta during the reign of King Antiochus IV (who was enthroned on 175 BCE).

In the book of the Maccabees is included a list of cities, dated from 142 BCE, which compared to the list composed by the historian Philo Judeus, refers to the existence of Jews in various areas of Greece such as Sparta, Delos, Sikyon, Samos, Kos, Crete, Thessaly, Biotea, Macedonia, Aitolia, Attica, Argos, Corinth as well as Cyprus.

When the Apostle Paul visited Thessaloniki (52 B.C.E.) he found there an organized Jewish community and preached in the Synagogue Etz-Hayim. He also discovered Jewish Communities at Philippoi, Veroia, Corinth and possibly in Athens.

The Jewish population in Greece increased during the period of the Judaic Wars (66-70 CE). The testimony of the historian Flavius Josephus mentions that 6000 Jews were sent by Vespasianus to Nero to work at building a canal at the Isthmus of Corinth. The ancient Jewish core which existed in Greece constituted the base of Jewish communities during the Byzantine era (from 330 CE) when the capital of the Roman Empire was transferred to Constantinople.

During the 12th century C.E., the well-known Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions that he met Jews in Corfu, Arta, Patras, Nafpaktos, Corinth, Thebes, Chalkis, Thessaloniki, Drama and elsewhere. Jews were also living in the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Cyprus. The largest Community visited by Benjamin of Tudela was that of Thebes, which numbered 2,000 whereas in Thessaloniki lived 500 Jews. In the remaining cities the number varied from 20 to 400. Their main occupations were weaving, textile dyeing and silk industry. These Jews, called Romaniotes, were fully incorporated into the Greek culture and it is characteristic that they were writing Greek texts using the Hebrew alphabet.

A massive wave of immigration occurred during the 14th century and mainly during the 15th century when Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal settled in the Greek region. These Jews were called Sephardic Jews (Sepharad = Spain). They mainly settled in Thessaloniki and in towns of Thessaly where the Sephardic Jews introduced the Ladino language (Spanish-Hebrew language) and their own customs and tradition. Approximately the same time, Jews from Hungary after the occupation of this country by the Turks, during the reign of Sultan Murat, settled mainly in Kavala and Sidirokastro. The same happened during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. Moreover, during the 16th century, Italian-speaking Jews from Apoulia (Southern Italy) settled in Corfu.

From the 16th till the 18th century the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki was one of the largest Jewish communities in the whole world. Other significant ones were the Jewish Community of Rhodes and of Crete which was famous for the development of Rabbinical Philosophy. After the establishment of the Modern Greek state, in 1832, the Jews were granted equal civil rights to the other Greek citizens, from the first Constitution in 1844. During the time between 1882 till 1920, the Jewish Communities were acknowledged as legal bodies.

In the beginning of the 20th century, approximately 10,000 Jews were living in Greece. After the Balkan wars (1912-13) and the liberation of Northern Greece, Epirus and the Aegean islands, and of Crete and Chios, the number of Jews increased to approximately 100,000.

During World War II, when the Italians (1940) and the Germans (1941) attacked Greece, 12,898 Jews fought in the Greek army. Out of these, 343 had the rank of officer or non-commissioned officer, whereas more than 200 fell in the battlefield. After the end of World War II less than 10,000 Jews existed in Greece. During the Nazi occupation the Jewish Communities in Greece were decimated by the transportation of the Jews to concentration camps in Poland and Germany or by their execution. The losses reached 87% of the Jewish population in Greece, one of the highest percentages in Europe.

A number of Jews, who managed to avoid arrest, entered the resistance, fighting in the mountains, or in the secret cities war against the conqueror. The Jewish population decreased more during the years after the war due to the immigration of numerous Jews to Israel and to the U.S.A. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Greece organized into eight communities.

Source: Jewish Museum of Greece. (p. 31-32)