Tiny Greek Community of Ioannina Struggles To Keep Romaniote Traditions Alive

70 Years After Nazis, Only Dozens of Jews Remain

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By Gavin Rabinowitz

Published April 05, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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The preexisting Romaniote communities often were absorbed into the larger, wealthier Sephardic Ladino-speaking ones that eventually became largely synonymous with Greek Jewry.

“People don’t know about the Romaniote ancient Jewish community,” Battinou said. “Thessaloniki was so massive and successful, it overshadowed everything.”

It was only on isolated islands and in the rugged mountains of western Greece that the Romaniotes remained the dominant tradition, and Ioannina was the largest of these communities.

By the start of the 20th century, some 4,000 Romaniote Jews lived in Ioannina. But amid the economic hardship and the turmoil that accompanied the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, many joined their Greek compatriots and emigrated.

Most went to the United States and Palestine, setting up Romaniote synagogues in New York City and Jerusalem. Later, a third was established in Tel Aviv. At the start of World War II, about 2,000 Jews remained in Ioannina.

On March 25, 1944, the German Nazi occupiers rounded up the Jews of Ioannina. As snow fell, they were put into open trucks and taken to a nearby city. From there, a nine-day rail journey took them to Auschwitz.

The names of the town’s 1,832 Jews who were murdered are carved on marble tablets on the walls of the synagogue. Among the dead were more than 500 children under the age of 13.

Only 112 Ioannina Jews survived the death camps. Another 69 escaped the roundup, hiding with Christian families or fleeing into the mountains, where some fought with the Greek resistance. When they returned to Ioannina, many found their properties looted and homes occupied.

But it was not just the people who were wiped out. Centuries of tradition disappeared, too.

“Oral tradition is very dependent on the third generation – all the grandfathers and grandmothers disappeared, were murdered, all at once,” Battinou said. Among the few survivors was her grandmother Zanet, after whom she is named.

“The youth who survived only perpetuated what parts they remembered,” she said.


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