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)

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