28 April 2023

Italian-era synagogue on
Greek island of Kos is
restored after 80 years

The exterior of the synagogue in Kos … the building is to be rededicated next month as an active house of Jewish worship (Photograph: Elias Messinas/JHE)

Patrick Comerford

I have been to the Aegean island of Kos on a number of occasions, on family holidays and, in 1990s, working as a journalist with The Irish Times at the height of tensions between Greece and Turkey over the tiny islet of Imia.

During those visits, I have visited the village of Platania, 2 km from Kos town, where the gates of the Jewish cemetery have been locked since the last remaining Jew of Kos was buried there many decades ago: he was the only Koan Jew to survive the transportation of the local Jewish community, along with the Jews of Rhodes, to Auschwitz in 1944.

Back in Kos town, close to the ancient Agora, I was sad that I could not visit the former synagogue at the time. It is a beautiful Art Deco building but had been disused since 1944 and it stood locked in bleak isolation in the midst of the bustle of ‘Bar Street’.

So, it was good news to read in a recent report from Jewish Heritage Europe (JHE) that the building is to be rededicated next month (May 2023) as an active house of Jewish worship.

References to Jews on Kos date back to the 3rd century BCE. Throughout the ages, Jews fleeing persecution, the Spanish Inquisition and conflicts in the Mediterranean region ended up on the.

Graves in the Jewish cemetery show a significant presence of a Jewish population until the Byzantine era. Jews continued to live on the island during era of the Knights of Saint John, although there are reports that Jews were expelled in 1502 by the Knights of Saint John and took refuge in Nice. Jews resettled in Kos when the island was captured by the Turks in 1523.

During the second half of the 19th century, there were 40 Jewish families living in Kos. Those numbers fell to 20 in 1880, to 10 in 1901 , and to three or four in 1910. In the years 1918-1923, and after the occupation of Kos by the Italians, Jews from Asia Minor and Rhodes settled on Kos and the community reached a total of 166 persons just before World War II.

During the early days of Italian rule, the Jews communities of Rhodes and Kos thrived, excelling in the textile trade, banking, including the Bank of the Alhantef Brothers, foodstuffs, haberdashery and the export of grapes and raisins to Egypt and Europe.

After the racist laws voted by Mussolini in 1938, 2,250 Jews fled the Dodecanese to the US, Palestine, South Rhodesia (Simbabwe), the Belgian Congo, and Argentina.

When the Germans moved into Kos, the Jews are relentlessly persecuted and their houses were ransacked and looted. On 23 July 1944, all the Jews of Kos were assembled with their meagre possessions in the courtroom facing the Lotzia Square. Due to the intervention of the Turkish Consul in Rhodes, 39 Turkish citizens from Rhodes and 13 from Kos were released. But the Germans confiscated all the belongings of the remaining Jews and sent them through Athens to Auschwitz.

Of the 1,767 Jews who were seized, only 163 survived: 151 from Rhodes and 12 from Kos. Another 10 Jews from Kos who were not present in Kos when the population was assembled and sent to Auschwitz also managed to survive.

After the Italian surrender on 8 September 1943, British troops landed on Kos on 3 October 1943.

The new ark and bimah in the synagogue in Kos (Photograph: Elias Messinas/JHE)

The synagogue was built during the Italian occupation of Kos (1912-1943). An older synagogue was destroyed in an earthquake in April 1933, and it was replaced by a newer synagogue built in the mid-1930s.

The Jewish community in Kos at the time numbered about 120 people. But the Jewish community in Kos was almost totally wiped out during the Holocaust and the synagogue was abandoned in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The synagogue was bought by the Kos Municipality around 1984 and it was used for some years as a local cultural centre. But the local municipality and the Greek Central Board of Jewish Communities agreed last year (2022) to bring the synagogue back to its original use and to serve the growing number of Israeli and other Jewish tourists in Kos.

A new Ark and Bimah and other interior furnishings have been installed in the synagogue and it is to be rededicated next month as an active house of Jewish worship.

Elias Messinas, the architect who oversaw the project, is the leading expert on Greek synagogues. For decades he has been involved in the survey, study and restoration of synagogues in Greece.

‘Given that there was no evidence of the pre-World War II state of the synagogue, the design is based on historic examples in Italy and also on the reuse of older furniture in order to raise their sanctity and to address the principles of circular economy,’ he told JHE.

‘The budget is quite limited,’ Elias Messinas said last year. ‘We have been searching in several directions, first to secure reused older furnishings from Israel, Italy, Turkey or Greece, but without success.’ The search was then extended to the US and Europe.

Because the synagogue was built during the Italian occupation of Kos, the project was looking for an Italian tradition synagogue.

The furniture modification was designed by Manos Tsiaousi in Serres and the project was co-ordinated by Dimitris Geroukalis, director of Ippokratis, responsible for the upkeep of the historic synagogue.

Elias Messinas said the restored synagogue will be used as a synagogue mainly in the summer months, but it will also continue to serve as a local cultural centre throughout most of the year.

Shabbat Shalom

An artist’s impression of the interior of the synagogue in Kos (Courtesy Elias Messinas)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (20) 28 April 2023

The Bethlehem Chapel in the Old Town in Prague is closely linked with Jan Hus and the Bohemian Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are still in the season of Easter, and this is the Third Week of Easter. Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship commemorates Peter Chanel, Missionary in the South Pacific, Martyr (1841).

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. Following our visit to Prague earlier this month, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a church in Prague;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside the Bethlehem Chapel in the Old Town in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Bethlehem Chapel, Prague:

The Bethlehem Chapel (Betlémská kaple) is a mediaeval chapel in the Old Town of Prague, and is closely linked with the origins of the Bohemian Reformation, especially with the Czech reformer Jan Hus (1370-1415).

The chapel was named after the Holy Innocents, massacred in Bethlehem by Herod the Great in his attempt to kill the new-born Christ Child (see Matthew 2: 13-18).

The Bethlehem Chapel was founded in Prague in 1391 by Wenceslas Kříž ‘the Merchant’ and John of Milheim. The only language used in sermons in the chapel was the Czech vernacular, breaking with German domination of the mediaeval Bohemian Church.

Bethlehem Chapel was founded in 1391 in Prague by a shopkeeper Jan Kříž and a courtier Hanuš of Műhlheim. Kříž donated a garden of about 800 sq m for building the chapel. The land included a well, and a cottage and acellar that later became the preacher’s and the custodian’s house. The front part of Kříž’s house, which fronts Dominikánská Street, now Husova Street, was used to establish a student college called Nazareth.

Bethlehem was only ever a chapel and was never officially called a church, although it could hold 3,000 people. Indeed, the chapel was withing the boundaries of the Parish of Saint Philip and Saint James, and Hanuš of Milheim paid the rector of that church 90 grossi in compensation.

In the Bethlehem Chapel, ideas found expression that previously then were only heard in debate at Charles University. Jan Hus became the preacher in the chapel in March 1402, and his sermons addressed many of the questions raised by Milič of Kroměříž, Matěj of Janov and the English reformer John Wyclif.

His sermons drew large numbers, and Queen Sophia, the wife of King Wenceslas IV, attended some of them. It is said that she would sit in an oratory built by Kříž by the east wall of the chapel and connected by a passageway to his house.

After the excommunication of Hus in 1412, the Pope ordered the Bethlehem Chapel to be pulled down, although this action was rejected by the Czech majority on the Old Town council.

Hus served in the Bethlehem Chapel until 1412, when he was excommunicated and forced to leave Prague. He was executed in 1415. Hus’s successor, Jakoubek of Stříbro, introduced Communion in both kinds.

The chapel was transferred by the university in the 17th century to the Jesuits, who reinstated Catholic liturgy. The Jesuits were expelled in 1773, the Bethlehem Chapel was linked with Saint Giles Church for a short time, and it then became the property of the state. It fell into disrepair, dangerous cracks appeared, and there was a danger of the vault falling.

The chapel was partly demolished in 1786, and the surviving masonry was incorporated into an apartment building that was built in 1836-1837 and that stood until 1949.

After World War II, the chapel was restored to its state at the time of Hus, using all the surviving materials and engravings. Most of the exterior walls and a small portion of the pulpit date back to the mediaeval chapel.

The renovated Bethlehem Chapel, including the house of the preachers, reopened to the public as a National Cultural Monument in 1954. The wall paintings are largely from Hus’s time there, and the text below is taken from his work De sex erroribus, and contrast the poverty of Christ with the riches of the Church in Hus’s time.

In 1993, the Bethlehem Chapel became the ceremonial hall of the Czech Technical University in Prague, which continues to maintain the chapel. It is the venue for graduations and an annual ecumenical meeting takes here on the anniversary of the execution of Jan Hus on 6 July 1415. The chapel and house of the preachers are open to the public.

Queen Sophia, the wife of King Wenceslas IV, attended some of the sermons by Jan Hus in the Bethlehem Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 6: 52-59 (NRSVA):

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 53 So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

The Bethlehem Chapel ibcludes an exhibition on the life of Jan Hus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Praying for Peace.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Anglican Chaplain in Warsaw, Poland, the Revd David Brown, who reflected on peace in the light of the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace earlier this week.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Friday 28 April 2023):

Let us pray for families hosting refugees. May their homes be a place of refuge and warmth and may host and hosted be recipients of grace and blessing.


Almighty Father,
who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples
with the sight of the risen Lord:
give us such knowledge of his presence with us,
that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life
and serve you continually in righteousness and truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Living God,
your Son made himself known to his disciples
in the breaking of bread:
open the eyes of our faith,
that we may see him in all his redeeming work;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The well in the Bethlehem Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Bethlehem Chapel was restored after World War II and reopened to the public in 1954 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)