Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Jewish Corfu

On the outskirts of Corfu Old Town, nestled in the area around Velissariou street in the shadow of the fortress wall, there's a neighbourhood called Evraiki. The name is a tribute to one minority and pays homage to their long presence on the island and the role they've played in defending her.

Today the number of those people can be measured in mere tens and in addition to some peculiar street names there's only one building that tells of their existence. Even that building is easy to miss as it's only the symbols in its windows and doors that reveal its nature. Welcome to Evraiki, the Jewish part of Corfu and the location of the old Jewish ghetto.

First records of Jews in Greece are from 300-250 BC. In Corfu there have been Jews at least in 1160. Quantity: One. 

The number started to go up in 13th and 14th century as more people moved here from the continent. Newcomers weren't exactly welcomed with open arms and the following centuries brought with them various degrees of persecution and discrimination. Acquiring and possessing land was effectively impossible and the arrival of 15th century saw Jews being forced to wear a specific yellow symbol to identify them as Jews (as we know now, far from the last time in the history...)

The Jewish population of Corfu consisted mainly of Romaniot Jews that spoke Greek and came form the mainland and Puglian Jews who spoke Italian. They fled the persecution from South of Italy in 16th century and quickly became the majority.

In 1522 there were 200 Jewish households, by 1558 the number had doubled. In 1663 the number had gone up to 500.

Under the Venetian rule the situation of Corfiot Jews was in many ways better than the situation of the Jews in Venice. They took part in defending the island against various invaders, most significant of which was the Ottoman attack of 1716.

The Venetian rule was followed by the French one (1797-1799 and 1806-1815) and now even Jews were granted an equal status with the rest of the population. The British era from 1815 onwards however, made things worse again.

AT the end of 19th century the number of Jews on Corfu was estimated to be 7000. Less than 100 years later the number had dwindled to 2000. The reason? Series of blood libel cases against the community.

A young Jewish girl was murdered in 1891, but soon false rumours started circulating claiming that the girl had in fact been Christian and had lost her life in Jewish sacrificial ritual. (The ability of the Corfiots' of the time to exercise common sense, source criticism or any kind fact checking seems to have been right on par with the trolls of the Internet era: it really wouldn't have taken much work to find out Jews don't have that kind of rituals!

Most of the Jews no longer felt safe in the unrest that followed and almost 5000 of them emigrated elsewhere in Europe and Alexandria in Egypt.

New tragedy hit the community in September 1943 as the Nazi Germany occupied the island. More than 90% of the Corfiot Jews were rounded up and deported. Destination: Auschwitz. After the war the number of Jews was down to 170. In 1968 they numbered at less than 100.

And the beginning of 21st century the estimated number of Jews was about 50. Today there are about 60 of them. Last time the synagogue saw a Jewish wedding was 1993. Same with brit milah

In its heyday Corfu had 4 synagogues. 3 of them wer built my the Puglian Jews and located in Paleologou street, a couple of street away from Velissariou. First was built in 1550.

This, Venetian-style synagogue of Velissario street was built in 18th century and is the newest. And the only one still operating today. 

Weekly Shabbat service is held on Saturday mornings, on other days the synagogue is open to visitors 10am-4pm. No entrance fee, donations welcome. 

Interested in Jewish Europe? For scenes of the Riga ghetto and their (equally tragic) history please see here.




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