Greek-synagogue-Ioannina-anti-Semitism by the Forward

Pfizer’s CEO is a Greek Jew. Here’s a look at his world.

Image by Matt Hanson

Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, is a native of Thessaloniki and a member of a Jewish community that’s ancient, storied — and still plagued by antisemitism.

A Greek newspaper, whose publisher was recently convicted of antisemitic defamation, called Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine “poison” and paired a photo of Bourla with that of Dr. Josef Mengele, an infamous Nazi, JTA reported.

On Nov. 20, Pfizer and a partner company became the first to seek emergency authorization for a coronavirus vaccine in the United States.

Here’s more about Jewish Greece.

Salonika, the Mother of Israel

Bourla’s hometown of Thessaloniki, or Salonika, as it was known to Greek Jews in Ladino, was once one of the most Jewish cities in the world. At the turn of the 20th century, Jews made up more than half the population of the city, earning it the Ladino title, la madre de Israel.

During the Holocaust, the Jewish community of the Thessaloniki was almost entirely wiped out. Some 54,000 Jews were shipped from the city to concentration camps, most to Auschwitz. About 90% of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community perished during the war. The only place with such a similarly high death rate was Poland.

A Sephardic homeland far from Spain

Most Greek Jews today are Sephardic, whose ancestors arrived in the country thanks to the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II. He ferried them over from Spain following their expulsion in 1492.

Greece became a major center of the Sephardic tradition, and was home to rabbis, artists and intellectuals — not to mention the ancestors of comedian Hank Azaria, the grandson of Thessalonikan Jews on both sides.

Home of Romaniotes, Europe’s oldest Jews

Yet Jewish history in Greece didn’t begin with the Spanish expulsion. The country is also home to the Romaniote Jewish community, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe.

The Romaniotes, which literally means Romans in Greek, earned the name as the Jewish community of the Byzantine Empire, which saw itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire, and referred to themselves as Romans.

However, the Romaniote’s ancestors had lived in Greek-speaking lands long before the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, moved his capital to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. There is evidence of Jewish settlement in Greece and Western Turkey as early as the late biblical period.

The Romaniote community historically spoke a Judeo-Greek language called Yevanic. While it has mostly disappeared, some members of the Constantinoplian Karaite community in Istanbul speak a dialect of Yevanic called Karaitika or Karaeo-Greek.

They call a national hero their own

One of Greece’s national heroes is military officer Mordechai Frizis, who has been memorialized with a statue in Athens’ war museum.

Frizis was a Greek Jew from a Romaniote family, who served in the Greek army in World War I, The Russian Civil War, the Greco-Turkish War and World War II.

During the Greco-Turkish war which followed World War I, Frizis was taken prisoner along with his unit by Turkish troops. As the only non-Christian among them, he was offered freedom. Frizis refused and elected to stay with his countrymen through 11 months of captivity.

He ultimately fell in battle fighting the Italian invasion of Greece during World War II. After his death, he was eulogized by both Greece’s king, George II, and prime minister, Ioannis Metaxas.

“Please be assured that the protection of Greece will never leave you or your children. The children of Colonel Frizis will be revered by our nation’s youth. With feelings of honour and love,” wrote Metaxas to Frizis’s widow.

Greece’s first Jewish mayor, elected last year

Moses Elisaf, a Jewish doctor from the city of Ioannina, won the city’s mayoral election last year with 50.3% of the vote, on a centrist and pro-development platform. He’s the first Jewish mayor of Greek city in modern history.

Elisaf is the child of Holocaust survivors who lived through the deportation of the city’s Jews to Auschwitz. Before becoming mayor, Elisaf served as both head of Ioannina’s Romaniote Jewish community and the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

Pfizer’s CEO is a Greek Jew. Here’s a look at his world.

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Pfizer’s CEO is a Greek Jew. Here’s a look at his world.

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