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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While Ioannina was the largest and the most iconic Romaniote community, several other small communities that identify with the Romaniote tradition continue to exist in places like Chalkida and Volos. But today, most of the remaining Romaniote Jews, like their Sephardic compatriots, live in Athens, Greece’s largest Jewish community. Athens has one Romaniote synagogue, built in 1906, but it is used only on the High Holidays.

Meanwhile, the Romaniote Jews who moved to the United States and Israel have intermingled with the larger Jewish communities.

Several Israeli Romaniotes attended the anniversary commemorations, drawn by family ties.

Yosef Baruch came with his brother and his uncle at the behest of his 90-year-old grandmother who survived the Nazis and moved to Israel after the war. Baruch says he has never prayed at the Romaniote synagogue in Jerusalem.

“It’s a tradition that was destroyed in the Holocaust,” he said.

None of the American Romaniotes attended the memorial ceremony.

In Greece, with the Jewish community so devastated after the war, there was no place for separate communities. Most religious services are now held according to Sephardic rites.

Today, only Cantor Haim Ischakis, who led the memorial prayer service, knows how to chant the Torah in the Romaniote tradition – something he learned from his father, also a cantor, who survived the camps.

“I am the only one left,” Ischakis said. He is teaching his two sons, but if they don’t take up his profession, the only examples left will be recordings on YouTube.

In fact, the Internet is emerging as the most likely tool for preserving Romaniote tradition. And the impetus for this online push has come from an unlikely source.

The Canadian ambassador to Greece, Robert Peck, who was instrumental in helping organize the commemorations, with Canada heading the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, noted the lack of available information about the Jews of Ioannina.

At his behest, the New Media Lab at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University designed a website detailing Ioannina’s Jewish history, and a soon-to-be-launched app will let people explore Jewish sites in the town and listen to survivor testimonies.

“I came to Ioannina and visited the synagogue, and I felt it was very important to carry beyond the borders of Greece what Ioannina represents, the legacy of the Jewish community here,” Peck said.

Still, the Romaniote Jews hope that through their efforts and dedication, something of their legacy, their community, will survive in the real world.

“It is very precious to me, and I try to pass it on to my children and hope they appreciate that from their mothers’ side, they inherit such a unique tradition,” Battinou said. “It is still alive, it is not extinct, yet.”


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