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Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Religious Dialogue in Greece

Antisemitism Greece
Credit: Interorthodox Church of Greece

The Interorthodox Center of the Church of Greece has worked to bring Greek Jews and Orthodox Christians together to help combat antisemitism in Greece.

By Evan Bourtis

Last October, primary and secondary school teachers from across Attica and Chalkida gathered in a synagogue with white arches, crystal chandeliers, and parchment texts dating back to the 13th century.

Jewish residents of Chalkida, on the island of Evia, welcomed the teachers into the synagogue and shared stories about the city’s 2,500-year-old Jewish history. Chalkida – with a Jewish population of around 60 – has possibly the oldest continuous Jewish presence of any European city.

The guests spoke with Jewish elders who, during the Nazi occupation of Greece, survived with help from the city’s Christian residents, said Kalloipi Mavraga, a theologian for the Interorthodox Center of the Church of Greece.

The religious educational organization, chaired by Greece’s archbishop, arranged the event for 24 teachers to understand different religious traditions and to cultivate coexistence through their classrooms. A European-wide fellowship for supporting interreligious understanding, the KAICIID Fellows Program, helped to fund the visit.

During the one-day trip to Chalkida, participants visited the synagogue, a Byzantine-era Orthodox Church, and a mosque that had been used during Ottoman times.

The Interorthodox Center, one of many organizations using inter-religious dialogue to foster coexistence in Greece, aims to create an entire society that rejects hate.

Jewish communities in Greece

jewish greece greek christian
Credit: Interorthodox Center of the Church of Greece.

On the trip, teachers spoke with the Metropolitan of Chalkida, His Eminence Chrysostomos, about how Orthodox Christian leaders protected the city’s Jewish community when Nazi soldiers arrived in March 1944.

During the Holocaust, 59,000 Greek Jews were killed, including 22 residents of Chalkida itself. Fewer than 17% of Greece’s Jews survived the occupation, during which Nazis captured entire Jewish communities and forced them on trains, by which they were transported to concentration camps.

Unlike other cities in Greece, however, the vast majority of the Jews in Chalkida, 94%, survived the War.

The Nazi invaders demanded that all Jews assemble at the Synagogue of Chalkida but when they opened the door there, they found only a rabbi. Many Jews escaped to more mountainous parts of the island with the help of its Orthodox Bishop of the time, Gregorios. Christian families in central Evia provided them shelter and the bishop hid the scrolls and other precious materials belonging to the synagogue in a church.

Respect between religions helped to save lives during the occupation, said Dr. Christos Nasios, a theologian at the Interorthodox Center who has taught religion for 23 years.

“We have to use these examples as educational materials in our schools in order to show that this is the Christian way of life,” he said.

While most Greeks are Orthodox Christian, around 5,000 today are Jewish, with Athens containing the largest community. There are half a million Muslims living in Greece along with much smaller Sikh, Hindu, and Catholic minorities.

Athens City Hall is illuminated with the message “#WeRemember”. Credit: Athens Municipality.

During this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, the facade of Athens City Hall projected the message “#WeRemember” to honor the Greek Jews who were killed eight decades ago.

On Facebook, Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis wrote that the day of remembrance should “…be the lighthouse that will show the path of our daily action against racism and antisemitism.”

In Greece, antisemitism manifests itself in vandalization, discriminatory language, and neo-Nazi ideologies, reported the Anti-Defamation League, a global leader in documenting antisemitic hate crimes.

In many Greek regions, vandals have desecrated Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials. This included the 2018 destruction of Jewish headstones in Athens. The ADL also reported that members of the Golden Dawn, a Greek neo-Nazi group and criminal organization, have promoted Holocaust denial and Islamophobia.

Recently, people in Europe protesting the coronavirus vaccine have employed symbols used during WWII, such as the yellow Star of David, which they sew to their clothing. Jews were forced to do this in Europe under Nazi rule.

Zanet Battinou, the director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, said learning about other religions and cultures can help to counter hateful beliefs that lead to antisemitism.

The museum in Athens – which displays artifacts documenting 2,300 years of Greek Jewish history – holds guided tours for children in public and private schools to learn about Jewish traditions.

Some tours are specifically organized for unaccompanied children who migrated from Asia or Africa, who are typically members of religious minorities in Greece. The tours help them to draw connections between different traditions.

“They find some connection to their own culture and to their own religion. That is a very precious moment,” Battinou said.

For one program, students learn about the use of oil lamps in the synagogue by decorating a lamp and asking questions about Judaism. Battinou said the program creates dialogue between students, fostering respect for religious traditions that differ from their own.

Battinou, a Romaniote Jew and an archeology enthusiast, said she loves to share the history of the Jewish community where she grew up, in the city of Ioannina, with anyone who is curious.

“I love the fact that I am Greek and Jewish and it’s hugely important to me. I try to realize it and celebrate it in any way I can,” she said.

Ioannina historically had Greece’s largest populations of Romaniotes – Jews who combined elements of the Greek language with Hebrew in speaking their own dialect. Romaniotes first settled the northwestern city in 400 B.C. and lived alongside Christian neighbors.

Last March, Battinou spoke about the Romaniote culture of Ioannina in a presentation now on YouTube, hosted in part by the United States Embassy in Athens. She described the prayers and religious songs that Romaniote Jews wrote in their own dialect, which they documented in booklets with unique artistic designs which also showed a melding with Greek culture.

The lecture showed examples of the Romaniotes’ master craftmanship in silver, including cylinders that hold Torah scrolls and the plaques for dedicating synagogues.

Learning about elements of the Jewish culture, like food, can help to support interreligious dialogue, said Rabbi Mendel Hendel of the Chabad of Athens, a Jewish religious organization with branches worldwide.

The synagogue runs a restaurant, called To Gostijo, that serves Sephardic Jewish cuisine – the traditional food of Jews expelled from Spain in the 1400s. Sephardic people blended cuisine elements across Europe and the Middle East to create distinct dishes, like fried fritters with leeks and cooked salad with eggplant.

Hendel said non-Jewish people have come to the restaurant to learn more about Judaism. Before the parishioners of an Orthodox church in Athens went on a trip to Israel, the priest took them to the restaurant. At the dinner, Hendel answered their questions about the Israeli culture and Jewish traditions.

“The more we learn about others, we realize that we are all humans and we all have many shared values,” he said.

Promoting interfaith understanding

People in Athens sometimes look to community events to learn about religious traditions that they don’t learn about in schools.

Students in Greek public schools must take a religion class during seven out of their 12 grades to earn a diploma, with some exemptions allowed. However, religion classes, which typically last for two hours per week, sometimes focus entirely on the Eastern Orthodox religion, reported a 2015 study from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Over the past ten years, textbooks have mentioned the principles of other religions more, including Judaism, but students rarely learn about religious holidays outside of Christianity, Battinou said.

Rabbi Hendel noted that non-Jewish people have learned about the holiday of Hanukkah by watching the candle lightings on a giant outdoor menorah, at Athens’ Beth Shalom Synagogue.

The menorah – a lamp with nine candles – symbolizes a miracle that Jewish warriors witnessed in 164 B.C., where a one-day supply of oil lasted eight days. The holiday commemorates religious freedom, after the defeat of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned from 175–164 BC, who demanded that Jerusalem’s residents worship pagan gods.

Hendel participates in the annual candle lighting, where people meet outside of the synagogue near Monastiraki during the eight days of Hanukkah.

Because of the pandemic, many synagogue services have been held virtually. The 2021 outdoor observance of Hanukkah, concluding on Dec. 6, allowed the members of Athens’ Jewish community to safely connect.

“It was very special and emotional because you meet people that you didn’t see in person for a long time,” Hendel said.

Sometimes non-Jewish people who walk by become curious, inspiring them to join the event and speak to members of the Jewish community, Hendel said. Hanukkah has themes that other religious groups can relate to, like using light to overcome darkness.

One way to support coexistence is educating students about the Holocaust, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Holocaust education shows students the dangers of discrimination and staying silent when there is injustice. It can also motive students to advocate for human rights.

During the Nazi occupation, the archbishop of Athens helped Jewish residents to hide their religious identity by issuing Orthodox Christian baptism certificates. The city’s police chief also protected Greek Jews by issuing false identification cards – as Nazi forces sought to capture Athenian Jews and send them to concentration camps.

Teaching students about the Greeks who saved lives during the Holocaust can give students examples of the power that interreligious respect can have, said Nasios.

The Interorthodox Center’s three members – Dr. Christos Nasios, Kalloipi Mavraga, and Sergios Voilas – have helped to organize lectures for teachers about Holocaust education.

In the Greek upper school curriculum, January 27 is an annual day to learn about the Holocaust. Not all schools use the day effectively, said Nasios, since many teachers don’t have the training needed to teach students about the genocide.

Mavraga said the Holocaust and Nazi occupation are emotional subjects for many teachers, which could make it difficult to discuss in classrooms. Some teachers may have relatives who were among the at least 578,000 to die during the occupation, in a war that killed 13% of the country’s population.

“It is a very painful subject for all of us, the Nazi occupation,” Mavraga said.

In November, the Interorthodox Center collaborated with the France-based organization Yahad In Unum to help Greek educators improve their teaching about the 1940s mass killings of Jews in Europe.

During the center’s fourth annual lecture on Holocaust education, teachers learned how their lesson can incorporate tools from the website of Yahad In Unum. One tool is an interactive map showing Nazi Germany’s shootings of Jews in the Soviet Union, with locations and quotes from eyewitnesses that Yahad In Unum has cataloged since 2004.

For learning about the Nazi occupation, nothing can compare to speaking with a witness, Battinou said.

In 1944, Nazi soldiers captured nearly all Jewish residents of Ioannina, sending 1,870 people on trains to Auschwitz. Only 8% of those survived the camps, with survivors either returning to their Ioannina homes or moving to other nations.

When Battinou grew up in the 1980s, she heard stories from family members who survived the Holocaust, which made her interested in researching the Jewish community’s history.

“It was far enough from the war to be safe and happy, but also close enough that I heard all the stories from my grandmother,” she said.

To help students understand what life was like during the occupation, people who hid from Nazi forces in their childhood visit schools, for a program arranged by the Jewish Museum of Greece. The survivors speak about their experiences during World War II and students ask them questions, including about their lives today.

To preserve stories, the Jewish Museum has collected almost 150 recordings from Greek Jews or their non-Jewish allies who survived the occupation. Some of the video or audio testimonies recall life in concentration camps or in hiding, along with people’s accounts of rescuing families from Nazis.

Some of the video or audio testimonies of Greek Jews recall life in hiding, forced labor, and witnessing the mass deportations to concentration camps.

In some schools, students are leading efforts to educate their classmates about the Holocaust and starting discussions about combating hateful rhetoric.

Annually, students across Greece produce short videos with themes relating to Holocaust remembrance, for a competition held by the Jewish Museum and the Greek Ministry of Education & Religious Affairs.

Judges select five regional winners, whose videos appear on the YouTube channel for the Jewish Museum. Many students who submit videos also visit the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial.

Hundreds of students in Lykeio, which is the final three grades before earning a diploma, have submitted videos. One award-winning video, announced in August 2021, was an interpretive dance with piano playing, set to a narration about what people experienced in Auschwitz.

Battinou said schools still need to improve their teaching about the Holocaust, minority religions in Greece, and interreligious understanding – but they’ve made huge progress over the decades.

“It’s a long road ahead but we are already walking on it. …I’m optimistic,” she said.

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