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Moses Elisaf, First Ever Jewish Mayor in Greece Dies

Moses Elisaf
Moses Elisaf, the mayor of Ioannina, and the first Jewish mayor in Greece died on Thursday. Credit: AMNA

Moses Elisaf, the first ever Jewish mayor in Greece, died on Friday, February 17. He was 68 years old when he passed away.

Elisaf served as mayor of Ioannina from September 2019 until the day of his death. In addition to his political service, he was a doctor and academic.

Before entering politics, Elisaf graduated from the University of Athens School of Medicine in 1979. He worked in medicine and academia in both Greece and Israel.

The Life of Moses Elisaf, Greece’s first Jewish mayor

Moses Elisaf was born in Ioannina, the capital of Epirus on July 17, 1954. He was the son of Romaniote Jews and Holocaust survivors who narrowly escaped being sent to the Nazi concentration camps. Only a very small proportion of Ioannina’s Jewish population managed to avoid deportation to Auschwitz and other camps.

Elisaf studied Medicine at the University of Athens where he specialized in Pathology. After graduating in 1979, he worked as a pathologist and professor of internal medicine at Ioannina Medical School. He then became the director of the school’s Lipids, Atherosclerosis, Obesity, and Diabetes Department.

Later, between 1993 and 1994, Elisaf worked at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University in Israel. He had family in Israel as well as in Greece.

During his medical career, he was an active participant in 27 scientific societies. Elisaf also served on multiple occasions as president of the Hellenic Atherosclerosis Society and as a member of the Board of Directors.

Elisaf was also vice-president of the Board of Directors of the Study, Research, and Education Institute for Diabetes Mellitus and Metabolic Diseases and vice-president of the Board of Directors of the Hellenic Society of Pathology of Northwest Greece.

The late mayor also participated in many clinical studies examining risk factors for cardiovascular disease including hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and diabetes.

Political career

In 2019, Elisaf ran as an independent for the position of mayor in Ioannina. He won with a 50.33 percent share of the vote in June of that year. The election was a close run affair, with his opponent, the former mayor Thomas Begas collecting a 49.67 percent share of the votes.

Wen Elisfa took office in September, he became the first Jewish mayor in the history of Greece. “Today, Ioannina made a huge change, a big leap of progress. I feel deep emotion and heavy responsibility towards all my fellow residents,” he said after winning the election.

Shortly after his electoral victory, Elisaf was congratulated by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

“For the Greek Jewry,” the board’s announcement said, “the success of Moses Elisaf signals a very important cornerstone for the history of the Jewish presence, both in the city of Ioannina, as well as in Greece, since it is the first time a Greek Jew has been elected as mayor.”

Ioannina’s Jewish community

Ioannina’s Jewish community numbers just some 50 people today, but was once the center of the unique 2,300-year-old Romaniote Jewish tradition.

The Romaniote Jews, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, emerged from the first Jewish communities in Europe. Records indicate the first Jewish presence in Greece dating back to 300 BCE.

These Jews became known as the Romaniotes, speaking their own language, Yevanic, or Judeo-Greek, a version of Greek infused with Hebrew and written with the Hebrew script.

By the start of the 20th century, some 4,000 Romaniote Jews lived in Ioannina. But amid the economic hardship and the turmoil that accompanied the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, many joined their Greek compatriots and emigrated.

Most went to the United States and Palestine, setting up Romaniote synagogues in New York City and Jerusalem. Later, a third was established in Tel Aviv. At the start of World War II, about 2,000 Jews remained in Ioannina.

On March 25, 1944, the German Nazi occupiers rounded up the Jews of Ioannina and sent them to Auschwitz. Only 112 Ioannina Jews survived the death camps. Another 69 escaped the roundup, hiding with Christian families or fleeing into the mountains, where some fought with the Greek resistance.

Only some 5,000 Jews remain in Greece today, with around 90% of Greek Jews having been killed in the Holocaust.

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