With the outbreak of world war two the Greek Jews, including the few remaining Romaniotes families, faced a daunting task of surviving. On 6th April, 1941, the Nazi army invaded Greece. By the end of 1942 the well-known cemetery in Salonika was destroyed. The first transport of Jewish deportees left Salonika on March 1943 for the gas chambers of Auschwitz, followed by further transports at quick intervals from the port city as well as from Didimoticho, Nea Orestias, Naussa and Katerini. At the end of the war nearly 90 per cent of Greek Jewry had been murdered in many cities where prosperous Jewish communities existed. Out of 77,377 Greek Jews, only 10,000 survived the Holocaust.
In 1945 not a single Jew remained in Chios, Crete, Naussa, Katerini and Soufli. When the survivors returned from the concentration camps or from their mountain hiding places, they faced a very different world: their homes were occupied by neighbours, their businesses taken over by strangers. Twenty years after the Holocaust, such former centres of Jewish life as Ioannina numbered fewer than 90 Jews and Rhodes fewer than 40.
Interior of Kahal Kadsh Yasan synagogue, Ioannina in Manhattan.
Ioannina, the centre of Romaniote Jews for over 2,000 years, has experienced the most tragic decline. Although the assimilation into the Sephardic community over years diminished the uniqueness and vibrancy of Romaniote culture, the second world war sealed its fate almost irreversibly. The community in Ioannina numbered 4,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century, mostly poor, conservative Jews engaged in trade and crafts. Immigration for economic reasons depleted their numbers and at the dawning of world war two there were only 1,950 Jews living in the city. Of them, 1860 were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April, 1944, most never to return. Before the Holocaust there were two synagogues in the city, one (Kehila Kedosha Yashan) inside the Kastro, the fortified part of the city where the Jews lived for centuries, and one outside the Kastro walls. Only Kehila Kedosha Yashan remains. The present community numbers 50, most elderly, and the synagogue is locked, only open for viewing on request.
Today only around 5,000 Jews live in Greece of which 3,500 live in Athens and perhaps 1,000 live in Thessalonica. In central Greece, only Larissa supports a viable little community of some 400 Jews. Jews are only a memory in Thrace and the Peloponnesus. Some Macedonian towns may still have a family or two.
The already largely unknown and much forgotten community of Romaniote Jews is nowadays on the verge of extinction, a dying breed whose collective memory and unique Hellenistic traditions are soon to be lost to the vicissitudes of history.