Corfu, Greece, and its Jews

Corfu, Greece, and its Jews 150 150 Sarity Gervais

I have a deep connection to ancient Greece…not unlike my esteemed ancestors I always had great admiration for the cultural contribution of the ancient Greeks to humanity, in all forms of progress and evolution. There is something romantic and deep about many of the Ionian famed figures, their amazing innovations and creations. I think of sculpture, poetry, mythology and storytelling, geometry, politics, theater, and the list is endless. When one combines this, with their wonderfully long, and mostly peaceful history with the People of the Book, we discover how mutually elevating and creative the interaction between these two Mediterranean people was. Despite one being monotheistic and the other polytheistic, Jews and Greeks held each other in such high esteem, that for over 2000 years they managed to create, by mutual influence, the highest forms of intellectual, political, artistic, and respectful, spiritual expression. From all my research, I found that this had a vast influence on the world at large, and despite what seemed like a sort of infatuated assimilation into Hellenistic culture, Jews stuck deeply to the core of their identity. (Re: Jewish Heritage In Greece, @www.

Well, Corfu, the stunningly beautiful, second largest Greek Island, with it’s satellite white washed islets, seems to have a different story to tell, regarding the People of the Book.

I have to admit that out of 20 sources of research, all respectable and usually in agreement with one another, I found highly confusing discrepancies as to the subject of Jewish life in Corfu.

It was the only area in the whole of Greece, which escaped the invasion and conquest of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman government was generally populated by highly open minded, intellectually and spiritually permissive leadership, who gave Jews, as it did other ethnic groups, complete autonomy.

They accepted refugees ravaged by tragedies such as the Crusades and the Inquisitions, and had put Jews in positions of leadership and power, using their great intellect to their benefit.

Unfortunately, Corfu, which was a Venetian run island state, was run by the Catholic Church, and when Benjamin of Tudela arrived in the island in 1160 C., he found only one Jew in the whole exquisite place.

It must be added that the place has the most breath-taking natural landscape, surrounded by crystal clear seas, plus, ancient, stunningly elaborate Byzantine castles and churches, Venetian fortresses and whitewashed houses. The exquisitely preserved &quotOld Town&quot, a UNESCO world heritage site, is full of samples of the best in the Baroque, Renaissance and Classical traditions, where Palaces, fortresses and public buildings, beautifully intermingle with washing hung out to dry, in the tiny alleys. The cobbled streets and stairways are a thing of beauty, reminding one of Genoa or Naples, with their vaulted passages.

Most importantly to me, the island is teeming with culture, and history. Homer’s Odyssey refers to Corfu in numerous tales, and it makes me sad to observe the harsh contrast between the elevated, rarified, cultural atmosphere, and the ignorantly cruel treatment of an innocent People, persecuted merely for being Jewish. For me, this was a shocking reawakening to reality.

I always held a belief that ignorance breeds hatred, and that highly educated intellectuals would be rarely among those who would close their minds to the desire to comprehend, to want to know before they judge, and thus accept and appreciate their fellow human beings, regardless of race, color or creed.

My belief was that the uneducated masses, especially if bereft financially, were more likely to look for a scapegoat they could blame for their misfortunes.

Following power hungry leaders, whose control manifested in pulling as many people together, united under the common umbrella of hatred (re: Crusades. Inquisitions, Hitler’s Aryan Nation-born devastation), comprised mainly of the unwashed masses, nary a deep thinking philosopher, very few intellectuals among them.

I had to take a deeper look, in view of my visit to this exquisite island, this place that inspired legend and mythology, by some of the greatest Greek poets, my much admired Homer.

I had to make sense of it all:

Corfu is also the birthplace of the first Greek University (the Ionian Academy), of the first Philharmonic orchestra, and the first Academy of Fine Arts. The residents of the island are known to have a fervent appreciation of Italian Opera, and the first Opera House was erected here during the Venetian Period. There was and is a fascination with Chinese and Japanese Art, and Corfu has the only unique Museum of Asian Art. It also has three Philharmonics, a Theater and to top it all off, a climate, which could cheer up the most sour, embittered person, with beauty to inspire great art.

Then there is the other side: From the beginning of Jewish presence on the Island of Corfu, the community has seen more than its fair share or hatred, violence and persecution.

I’ll be going back from present day atrocities: 4 years ago, on April 19, 2011, the first day of Passover, two men broke into the only remaining synagogue on Corfu, piled up 30 sacred books and set them on fire: this was the third Anti-Semitic attack on the pitifully tiny remainder of the once vibrant community, in two years.

Attacks on Jews were common in the 13th and 14th centuries: they were forced to row on galleys, summoned on Sabbath, made forcibly to act as public executioners (&quotThou shalt not kill&quot), and in 1406 were forbidden to acquire land and were humiliated by having to wear distinguishing yellow garments, a &quotbadge of Caine&quot of sorts.

Later, in 1622, all Jews were confined to a Ghetto.

During the 16 to early 17th centuries the community was divided into two distinct, rather un-peaceful groups: The Romaniot, who like in Athens observed local customs, called here Minhag Corfu, based on ancient Byzantine rite, and the combined Italian and Iberian community who observed the Sephardic Rite. Don Isaac Abarvanel, who lived briefly in Corfu, to finish his commentary on Deuteronomy, found the spiritual state of the community devastatingly poor, and was only too happy to leave and rejoin his wife and family. The community hasn’t done much to elevate their spiritual depth: The infighting between the two rivaling groups, combined with the oppression and limitations put on them, kept them in a rather sorry state, very different from that of their fellow Jews in Athens or Salonika. On the whole despite Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela’s report of finding only one Jew, the community grew, at times so rapidly, it reached 6,000 for a time. They arrived first from the Balkans, from Greek speaking communities. Despite persecution by both Anjou and Byzantine rulers, they found Corfu a better place than the ones they fled. In the 14th century, they started obtaining some rights, such as documents of protection and exemption from most taxes. They even became land and vineyard owners.

During the Venetian rule (1386-1748), they actually prospered, lending money to the Venetian rulers, contributing to public works and even joining the ranks. Despite all that, the local inhabitant kept attacking them, and in 1622 the doge ordered them to move to their own Ghetto, for their safety. Yet Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, chose Corfu as a place safer and kinder to them than their places of origin. Venetian Jews were certainly treated worse than Corfu Jews under Venetian rule.

I must pause here for my own observation: my theory about the more enlightened being less likely to engage in acts of hatred born of ignorance…does it hold water? Is it the influence of the Church, (which, depending on its current leader could promote hatred) at this time was greater in Venice than in Corfu? They were forbidden though to worship within the Old Fortress, as did other residents, and all newcomers had to live outside the fortress, at the area called Jews Mountain. For a short while Corfu became a center of Torah learning and liturgical composition, with most of the Rabbis hailing from elsewhere.

With the Napoleonic conquest, they enjoyed a brief period of equal rights, some of the leaders of community even becoming key players and figures of influence.

Some of the most magnificent buildings were erected by this time, one of which, the Scoula Greca, is still glowingly visible and active, a testament to this vibrant flourishing period. In one blog it was described as simplistic: I found it incredibly beautiful, with such a draw, I found it hard to leave.

With the British invasion all has changed. In 1891, resentment about the Jew’s newfound prosperity and their political activity, caused a horrible blood libel, in which a little Jewish girl, Rubina Sarda, was murdered by some Anti-Semites, who then spread the rumor that the Jews had slain a Christian child for ritual purposes. A massacre that lasted three weeks killed many, causing many Jews to immigrate to Palestine.

The remaining Jews were poor, working as porters, street venders, small shopkeepers and such. With education reduced to a minimum, the remaining Jews at the end of the 19th century were engaging in humble occupations, which barely supported them.

Many of their rights were taken: the right to own land, to appear in court as lawyers among many, and still they continued to live, safely, until the worst atrocity took place: with the Allied Invasion in 1944, the Island was bombed to divert attention from the landing in Normandy. The Germans had control of the Island since 1943, and Corfu Mayor Kollas, was a known collaborator. After the said bombing, German SS and local Greek police forced the Jews in Corfu out of their home, and imprisoned them in the Old Fort. Of the 2,000 Jews in Corfu, 1800 were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most perished. The Mayor sent a telegraph to Berlin, thanking the SS for ridding the Island from the pestilence of the Jews.

There were some people of note, who acted nobly, with an open heart and in accord with my theory.

200 Jews found refuge with Christian families.

Famous personalities, such as Greek Queen Alice, mother of England’s Queen Elizabeth’s consort, Prince Philip, hid a Jewish girl from the Nazis, and the beautiful Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had a life size sculpture the famous Jewish romantic poet, essayist and literary critic, Heinrich Heine, in her palace on Corfu. Upon her assassination the statue was removed by her enemies, bought by an admirer of the great intellectual and donated eventually to the city of New York. It has found a final resting place, gracing the Grand Concourse Boulevard in the Bronx, with a touch of class.

All in all, a visit to Corfu is an experience not to be missed. It reflects a part of our heritage, and must be seen, the still prominent Jewish section and synagogue visited, and embraced. We owe our brethren that honor.