10 June 2022
‘Something is changing’ in
the synagogues and Jewish
sites throughout Greece
A number of new books dealing with Jewish heritage have been published in recent months, in several countries and in several languages. One of these books highlighted in recent weeks by Jewish Heritage Europe is Η Συναγωγή (The Synagogue) by the architect and urban planner Elias Messinas, published in April by the Infognomon publishing house in Athens.
Elias Messinas undertook the first ever architectural survey and study of the synagogues of Greece in 1993. Inspired by earlier researchers, he felt the need ‘to document the small number of synagogues that survived the destruction of the Shoah.’
His new book, The Synagogue is his third book on the synagogues of Greece, following two previous books, The Synagogues of Greece (Bloch, 2011) and The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia (Gavrielides, 1997).
On this Friday evening, his new book and his lifetime passion brings to mind my visits to synagogues and Jewish sites throughout Greece, including Athens, Thessaloniki, Crete, Rhodes, Kos and Corfu.
Unlike Messinas’s previous books, his new book presents the historic and architectural background of the synagogues, and also describes his experience of travelling from city to city, and his effort to preserve the Jewish memory, through surveys, interviews and meetings with local people and Jews, some of whom have since died. He also includes his actual surveys of the synagogues of Greece, some of which have been demolished since he first surveyed them.
The Romaniotes or Greek-speaking Jewish communities have been in Greece since antiquity, in cities such as Ioannina and Halkis. Sephardic communities were established after 1492 in important Jewish centres such as Thessaloniki, and throughout Greece – from Corfu and Rhodes to Crete.
In the Holocaust, 87% of the Jewish community in Greece died were murdered, and the destruction took a heavy toll in Jewish heritage as well. Synagogues, libraries, community buildings, Jewish schools and Jewish clubs were demolished or taken over by other organisations. In Thessaloniki, important synagogues were demolished, and in November 1943, the ancient Jewish cemetery of the city was plundered, valuable marble tombstones were purloined for building material, and some tombstones are still found in private courtyards.
Kanaris Konstantinis of the Hellenic Post and a representative of the newly established Central Board of Jewish Communities, travelled throughout Greece in the mid-1940s and documented the state of the Jewish communities in the early years of reconstruction after the Holocaust.
Nicholas Stavroulakis, former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, and photographer Timothy deVinney undertook the first survey of Jewish sites in Greece in the 1980s, and documented the synagogues and Jewish sites, some of which have since been lost.
Elias Messinas graduated from the Yale School of Architecture and spent two years in architectural practice in New York. Then, in 1993, he undertook the first-ever architectural survey and study of the synagogues of Greece.
The project began as a private endeavour but has become an important historic resource, described very vividly in his new book. He describes the historic and architectural background of the synagogues and his surveys of the synagogues.
The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki decided in 2014 to renovate the city’s two remaining synagogues, Monastirioton (1926) and Yad Lezikaron (1984). The renovations included the restoration of the interiors and exteriors, new furnishings, upgrading systems and improving accessibility.
The reinstallation of the Ten Commandments in marble at the top of the arch of the front façade of Monastirioton was a renovation highlight, thanks to earlier research on historic synagogues. In Yad Lezikaron, the highlight was restoring the historic heichal dating from 1921 and belonging originally to the Sarfati synagogue demolished after World War II.
Through his initiatives, synagogues have been restored in Komotini in northern Greece and in Trikala in central Greece, where two bimot survive, a unique example of two traditions surviving side-by-side in the same synagogue: the Romaniote bimah against the western wall, and the Sephardi bimah in the centre.
He was also involved in preserving and protecting the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue, dating from the 4th century CE and still standing in the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum of Aegina.
Messinas was consulted on the restoration of the synagogue on the island of Kos, north-west of Rhodes last year. The synagogue was built ca 1936 under Italian rule, after the older synagogue was destroyed in an earthquake in 1933. The synagogue was abandoned after the deportation of the Jewish Community in 1944, and was later bought by the city council and turned into a cultural centre.
Until recently, the closest functioning synagogue was the 16th century Shalom synagogue in in the Jewish quarter of the old city in nearby Rhodes. But as Kos became popular with a growing number of Jewish tourists choose Kos, the growing need for a functioning synagogue was identified. Now there are plans to adapt the interior of the synagogue to use for Jewish worship once again.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post recently, Elias Messinas says ‘something is changing in Greece.’ He says ‘Jewish heritage sites once abandoned or demolished or serving other uses, are now slated for reconstruction and reuse as synagogues, nearly 80 years after the Holocaust.’