24 August 2019

Corfu’s only surviving
synagogue is a reminder
of a vibrant community

Inside the synagogue in Corfu, looking towards the Aron Hakodesh or Holy Ark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

In the past, I have written about the Jewish communities in Athens, Thessaloniki, Rhodes, Rethymnon, Chania, and Zakynthos. So, the first place I visited in the old town of Corfu on Friday [23 August 2019], was the only remaining synagogue on this island.

The remnants of the former Jewish Ghetto are beneath the walls of the New Fortress, a stark reminder of the once vibrant community that lived in Corfu Town for almost a millennium. All that remains of the vital Jewish presence in Corfu today is a small and highly assimilated community, numbering about 80 Jews, most survivors of the Holocaust, and La Scuola Greca Synagogue, built in the 18th century and still standing in what was once the ‘Jewish Ghetto.’

The first written evidence of Jews in Corfu is found in the Itinerary of the Spanish Rabbi Benjamin Ben Yonah or Benjamin de Tudela, who wrote that during his visit to Corfu in the 12th century he met a lone Jewish dyer named Joseph.

The first Jews in Corfu came from Romaniote or Greek-speaking communities in the Balkans, and Corfu became a centre for study of the Torah in the 13th century. In 1267, ‘numerous Jews lived in the island.’ Corfu was conquered that year by the House of Anjou (1267-1336), which passed decrees to protect the Jewish community.

At times, the Jews of Corfu were persecuted by both Byzantine and Angevin rulers, but in the 14th century they obtained some rights, including documents of protection and exemption from most taxes.

Since the earlier years, the native ‘Romaniote’ Jews of Corfu lived on Kambielou hill, later called Ovriovouni, Ioudaico Oros, or Hebraida (‘Jewish Hill’ or ‘Mount Judaic’). It is still known by this name today.

The Venetians occupied Corfu from 1387 until 1797. In 1425, they forced the Jews to live among the Gentiles in Corfu. Some of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 settled in Corfu, and they were joined in 1494 by Jews who had been expelled from Apulia in Italy.

A street sign in the former ghetto in Corfu pointing towards the synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The first synagogue built by these immigrants, Kahal Kadosh Italiano Corfiato, or Poulieza, was destroyed in 1537. Another synagogue, Vecchia or Midrash, was built in the Jewish quarter on Palaiologou Street.

The new immigrants wished to integrate into the local Romaniote or Greek-speaking community. However, the Romaniotes feared they would lose the privileges they had gained under Venetian rule, and the immigrants formed the new ‘Apulian’ community in 1551. They lived within the citadel and had their own synagogue and cemetery.

When the Venetian State decided to expel the Jews from its territory in 1571, the Jews of Corfu were exempted because, according to the resolution of the Senate, ‘this Jewish Community has proved beneficial to the city and to the island.’

Some former Marranos from Portugal, led by Don Samuel Senor, also settled in Corfu in 1589.

The Venetians passed a decree in 1602 imposing a ‘badge’ on Jews – a yellow cap for men and a yellow head cover for women, or a round yellow badge.

Some Jews on Corfu owned land, including vineyards. Others prospered under Venetian rule, lending money to the Venetian rulers, supplying provisions to the army and even joining the ranks, while others financed public works, including building a bridge.

A window in the synagogue in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The ‘General Pronoitis of the Seas’ imposed a harsher decree in 1622, forcing the Jews to move permanently to a ghetto that today includes Vilissariou Street, Aghias Sophias Street and Palaiologou Street.

In this densely populated area with many shops, Jews began developing their religious life and professional activities, but additional decrees were introduced in 1707. Yet Jews played a leading role in the financial, social, spiritual and patriotic life of the island.

Jews contributed to the Venetian war effort during the Turkish siege of Corfu in 1716, Isaac Abdelah fought against the Turks, Daniel Bessos fought in the Battles of Bizanio and Solomon Mordos fought on the Albanian Front. The date the siege ended, 6 August, was celebrated in the synagogue.

The Romaniote cemetery was on Avramiou Hill, towards the slope of the new citadel. This area was donated by Marshal Scholemburg ‘as a gesture of gratitude to the Jews for their bravery and gallantry during the Turkish siege in 1716.’ The Sephardic cemetery was in the Saroko area, near the Monastery of Platytera. It was ceded by the Venetians in 1502 in a return of land.

The Venetian decrees were abolished when the Democratic French occupied Corfu in 1797-1799. More Jews came from Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and by 1802 the Jewish community had grown to 1,229, out of a population of 45,000 on Corfu. The new privileges and freedoms were still valid when Napoleon occupied the island in 1807.

The Nuova or New Synagogue in Corfu was built during British rule (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The British seized Corfu and the other Ionian islands in 1814, limiting some of the Jews’ privileges. A ‘blood libel’ in 1856 led to continuing attacks on Jewish homes and businesses. The fate of the 4,000 Jews rapidly worsened, due to a series of discriminatory measures, including the loss of the right to vote.

When the Romaniote Jews left the Kahal Kadosh Toshavim or ‘Greca’ Synagogue on Ovriovouni, during British rule, they built the Nuova or New Synagogue, which remains open today on 4 Velissariou Street, and which I visited yesterday.

Jews supported the integration of Corfu and the other Ionian islands into the modern Greek state on 2 June 1864, and the Greek state granted the Jews of Corfu equal rights with the rest of the population. Since then, the once separate Romaniote and Apulian communities have integrated. At least three Jews joined the city council, and Eliias da Mordo became a deputy mayor and in 1870 the Mayor of Corfu.

The Jewish population of Corfu numbered almost 5,000 people in the late 19th century. Most of them were poor, some worked in menial jobs, and they spoke a mixture of Greek, Hebrew and Pugliese Italian. The wage earners among them were porters, street vendors and the owners of small shops. Education was minimal, with most young men leaving school to help their parents raise large families, and most young girls never attending school.

Inside the synagogue in Corfu, looking towards the ‘tevah’ or ‘bimah’ or reading platform (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This is the community that produced Lazarus Mordos, a prominent doctor, the Olivetti family of typewriter fame, Albert Cohen, the famous poet and the grandparents of George Moustaki, the internationally acclaimed French singer.

In 1891, the Jewish Community – then about 5,000 people – suffered another series of attacks stirred by a second ‘Blood Libel,’ and fuelled by religious superstitions, commercial competition and political interests.

Ironically, the young murdered girl, Rebecca Sardas, was Jewish. But the mob attacked Jews and looted houses and shops. Over half the community moved abroad, mainly to Egypt, but also to France, Italy and England. Those who were left behind were the poorest and the least able. Two further ‘blood libels’ in 1915 and 1918 caused further emigration, and some Jews left for Palestine.

Despite the community’s financial difficulties, the Talmud Torah school continued holding sessions until the early 20th century. In 1915, the Chief Rabbi, Abraham Schreiber, assisted by a teacher, Moissis Haimis, founded an evening school for needy Jewish pupils who were offered free meals. The number of pupils rose from 30 to 230. Rabbi Schreiber founded a Rabbinical School in 1925.

The subjects in the Jewish school included Hebrew, Italian and Greek language. In 1939-1940, 208 boys and girls were at the elementary school and 76 at the kindergarten.

A plaque commemorates the novelist and playwright Albert Cohen (1895-1985) who was born in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The novelist and playwright Albert Cohen (1895-1985), who lived most of his life in Geneva and wrote in French, was born Avraham Cohen in Corfu in 1895. The family left for France in 1900. A large plaque on the outer wall of the synagogue bears the inscription: ‘A child was born in this neighbourhood and here he took his first steps. That child was Albert Cohen.’

He is the author of a trilogy about the Jews of Kephalonia, but his masterpiece is Belle du Seigneur, set in Geneva in the 1930s and published in English as Her Lover .

The French singer and songwriter Georges Moustaki was born in Alexandria to parents from Corfu. Two of his songs became hymns of resistance hymns to the Greek military junta.

Lawrence Durrell, his brother, Gerald, and other members of their family moved to Corfu in 1935. Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra is Durrell’s coming-of-age memoir. He married Eve Cohen, of Alexandria, and later married Claude-Marie Vincendon, a descendent of the Montefiore family.

Prayer shawls for visitors to the synagogue in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

At the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish community of Corfu numbered around 2,000, most of them elderly or young children.

After the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, the Nazis took control of the island and Corfu’s mayor at the time, Kollas, was a known collaborator. The Nazis formed the occupation government, and additional anti-Semitic laws were passed. By April 1944, the Germans had lists of all the Jews, who had to attend frequent roll calls on the Spianada or esplanade.

The last rabbi to hold office in Corfu was Rabbi Yakov Nehama (1931-1944), was arrested by the Nazis and was deported to Auschwitz, where he died on 8 June 1944.

In early June 1944, the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the Normandy landings. The end of World War II was in sight. But on 8 June 1944, two days after D-Day, an ordinance was passed ordering all Jews to remain in their homes.

On 9 June, about 1,800 Jews were brought to the Kato Plateia (lower square) and were then held in the nearby Old Fortress, where they were forced to hand over their valuables. On 10 June, the Nazis prepared to deport the men, women and children to extermination camps and slave labour camps.

About 200 Jews managed to flee, and many local people provided them with shelter and refuge. But the rest were held at first in the Old Venetian Fortress in dank, cramped quarters. By 17 June, all had been taken in small boats to Athens to begin a long overland journey by train. The final destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1,600 of the Jews of Corfu were immediately sent to the gas chambers.

The mayor of Corfu issued a proclamation, thanking the Germans for ridding the island of the Jews so that the economy of the island would revert to its ‘rightful owners.’ Their homes and shops back on Corfu were looted.

Farewell My Island, a brief documentary by Isaac Dostis, relates the roundup and deportation of the Jews from Corfu and includes survivor testimonies in Greek, with English subtitles. It is 22 minutes long, precisely the time it took to get from the roundup area to the deportation barges.

The Aron Hakodesh or Holy Ark inside the synagogue in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The losses were significant on islands like Corfu, Crete or Rhodes, where most of the Jewish population were deported and killed. In contrast, larger percentages of Jews were able to survive in places where the local population was helpful and hid persecuted Jews, including Athens, Larissa and Zakynthos.

Of the 1,900 Jews of Corfu, about 180 survived the Holocaust. Many of them emigrated to Israel or settled in big cities. The Jewish community of Corfu had 140 members in 1946, and the synagogue and the school were almost ruined. In time, the community re-formed and resumed normal life.

The few survivors were joined in Corfu by survivors from other places, in total 185 people. By 1948, there were only 125 Jews, and by 1958 only about 85.

Corfu has about 60-65 Jews today, including doctors, engineers, mathematicians and business figures. Only a few Jews live in the former ghetto, an area still known as Evraiki (Jewish). The community celebrates Passover together with a Seder and services, and a cantor from abroad leads High Holiday prayers in the synagogue, but there is no regular minyan. The last Jewish wedding was in 1993.

A prominent area in the old town is known to this day as Evraiki, meaning the Hebrews’ or the Jews’ suburb, recognising the Jewish contribution and continued presence in Corfu city. But little is left of the Jewish quarter today: the shells of bombed-out buildings, former shops, and one active synagogue, the only one of the three synagogues at the time of the Holocaust.

La Scuola Greco on Velisariou Street is the only survivor of three synagogues in Corfu before the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Greek synagogue or La Scuola Greca is on Velisariou Street, next to the former Talmud Torah. The synagogue (open daily from 10 to 4) is a yellow stucco, two-storey building with a gabled roof, dating from the 18th century.

In Venetian style, it dates back to the 17th century. The prayer room is located on the second floor, with a section for women on the mezzanine. The tevah or bimah (the reading platform) and the aron ha kodeshor Holy Ark holding the Torah scrolls, made of wood with a Corinthian colonnade, face each other to the west and east, in a style similar to the synagogue in Chania in Crete.

The monument in the synagogue to the families who died in the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

There was a special kaddish for the Jews of Corfu, followed by a candlelight procession, at a reunion of Corfiote Jews and their descendants on 10 June 2002, 58 years after the deportation of the Jews of Corfu. A memorial plaque with the family names of those who died in the Holocaust was installed in the synagogue.

The family names on the plaque are: Aaron, Aboaf, Akko, Alchavas, Amar, Asias, Asser, Balestra, Bakkolas Baruch, Belleli, Benakim, Ben Giat, Besso, Cavaliero, Cesana, Con, Dalmedigos, Dentes, Etan, Elia, Eliezer, Eskapas, Ferro, Forte, Gani, Gerson, Gikas, Haim, Israel, Jessula, Johanna, Kolonimos, Koulias, Konstantini, Lemous, Leoncini, Levi, Mandolin, Matathias, Mazza, Minerho, Mizan, Mizrahi, Mordo, Moustaki, Nacamouli, Nahmias, Nacson, Negrin, Nikokiris, Osmo, Ovadia, Perez, Pitson, Politi, Raphael, Razon, Romano, Sardas, Sasen, Serneine, Sinigalia, Sussis, Shoel, Varon, Ventura, Vital, Vitali, Vivante, Zaccar.

The synagogue remains open every weekday to visitors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In an arson attack on the synagogue at Passover in 2011, some prayer books were destroyed.

Despite attacks like this, the synagogue remains open every weekday to visitors. I have visited at least ten synagogues this year. As two of us were leaving the synagogue in Corfu on Friday, we lit two small candles at the end of the stairs by the door, and moved on to see two other monuments in Corfu that are reminders of the Holocaust.

It is important that places like this remain open to the curious, the casual visitor, and to a younger generation, particularly in a time when antisemitism and racism are on the rise, and a new generation needs to be reminded of the beautiful mosaic that is European identity, and to need to ensure that we keep alive a memory that allows us to say that what happened to the generation before me of Jews of Corfu and the Jews of Europe must never happen again.

Candles lighting in a bowl of water at the end of the stairs in the synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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