The Jewish Community of Volos

 
 

A brief historical overview

 

Ancient historians and writers mention, in their texts, that Jews have een established in the Almyros rergion

since the first century A.D., due to the importance of the harbor there. This is comfirmed many centurles later by

the "travelogue" of the Spanish Rabbi Benjamln of Judela, who states that in his travels around Greece in the

12th century A.D., he met 400 Jews in the Almyros region, and that their religious leaders were Chief Rabbi

Shiloh Lombardo and Rabbis Joseph and Solomon.

Moreover, in the nearby city of Volos, in the ancient "Fthiotides Thives" (modern Nea Anchlalos) excavations

which took place in 1930 Anchialos, near the city of Volos (of revealed ancient funerary inscriptions from

jewish graves on the period between 325 and 641 A.D. The contemporary historians, N. Yiannopoulos,

concludes that there was also a synagogue on the site.

Historlans have also established that there were Jews, Egyptians and others in the ancient city of "Dimitrias",

present day Volos, from the time of King Philip the Fifth (second century B.C.) The presence of Jews in the city

continued during the period of the Turkish occupation, in the 16th century, and is referred to in diplomatic and

other documents. Later historians describe the life of the Jewish people in the area of the Turkish fortress, which

was located in the western district of the city "Palea".

After 1881, when Volos was freed from Turkish domination, there was a strong Jewish presence in the city, and

the Jews played an active role in the social and commercial life of the city. They comprised an organized

community under the leadership of their president, Gullielmo Fortis.

 

THE SYNAGOGUE

In the center of the Jewish neighborhood, where there had been a building which served to house religious

gatherings, the construction of an imposing new synagogue began in 1865, and the building was completed in

1870. Its site was at the junction of Molseos and Platonos - Xenofontos Streets. This synagogue was destroyed

by the Germans in March 1944, after they had looted all the religious objects.

When the second world war ended, a new synagogue was erected on the site of the previous one. However, it

was destroyed in the earthquakes of 1955, which inflicted great damage on the city. In 1960, a new earthquake

resistant synagogue was built on the site, and it has been in operation ever since. Significant contributions to the

building fund were made by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, the American Joint

Distribution Commitee, and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, as well as by the members and friends of

our own Community. From 1892, Chief Rabbi Moses S.Pessah officiated as rabbi of the congregation, assisted

by Isaac Sakkis and Aaron Bourlas.

After the death of the Chief Rabbi on November 11, 1955 Joseph Vital, from Corfu, Succeeded him as Rabbi of

the congregation, serving until his death on October 13, 1985. Today religious services are conducted by Mr.

Morris Frances. while a rabbi from abroad is called in to officiate on high holidays. Services are held every

Friday night, as well as on religious holidays.

 

THE CEMETERY

Until the end oft he nineteenth century, the cemetery was located on Filikis Eterias Street, in the district of

"Neapolis". Later on, an area of four thousand square meters, adjoining the Christian cemetery in the

municipality of Nea Ionia, was set aside for the purpose, and this cemetery is the one still in use today. It is

situated at the intersection of Taxiarchon and Paraskevopoulou streets and contains 700 graves and the

monument to the victims of the Holocaust.

 

EDUCATION

 Upon completion of the synagogue, a Jewish Primary School was established on the first floor of the building. In

1878, the Alliance Israelite Universelle School, which was attended by the majority of the Jewish young people

of the time, was opened. From 1894 until 1900, a Yeshiva for the training of clergymen and cantors was in

operation. The schools mentioned above functioned under the supervision of Chief Rabbi Pessah. A large

number of Jewish young people attended Greek State Schools. After 1920, many Jews from Volos distinguished

themselves as professionals both in Greece and abroad. Many young people studied at the conservatories in

Volos and participated in musical and other cultural activities.

 

PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES

 The Jews have participated actively in the financial and commercial life of the city. They have played a leading

role in activities which have become landmarks in the contemporary history of the area, such as founding of the

Labor Center and the industrialization of the region. They have established factories and a large number of shops

and small industries. A note worthy example is the "Mourtzoukos" factory, which was founded in 1908 and

employed over 600 workers. The textiles produced by the factory soon became well known for their excellent

quality.

Samuel Amon and Joseph Azouz founded a factory which produced beds, and the Levy brothers, a spinning -

mill and dye - works. The tobacco merchants Zak Saportas, Herman Spirer and Ilias Koen established large

tobacco warehouses employing an extensive labor force. The Varouch Bank ( 1904 - 1930) and a large number

of Jewish - owned shops played a significant part in the commercial life of the city. In addition, there were many

manual and white - collar workers, several of whom played a pioneering role in the labor movement, such as

Sawas Rafael and Joseph Kostis. After 1920, the Jews served on the Boards of Directors of charitable institutions

as well as on those of other associations which they were instrumental in founding.

Some people who distinguished themselves in this field were Sarina Mizrachi and David Levy.

It is also important to mention the participation of Jews in the local goverment. as city councilors. A noteworthy

example is Dr Morris Kofinas, an outstanding personality who was elected city councilor and later became a

Mernber of the Greek Parliament. Many members of the Jewish Community had positions on the governing

boards of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and in other professional associations.

 

COMMUNITY ADMINISTRATION AND SOCIETIES

 Since the liberation of Volos from Turkish domination on November 2, 1881, the Jewish Community has

functioned according to the laws of the Greek State, and it's governed under Articles of Association approved by

the Ministry of Education and Religion. It is a non - profit organization, comprising a Legal Entity under Public

Law. Its goals are religious and charitable, and it strives to raise the moral and social standard of its members. It

is governed by a five - rnember board elected by a Community Assembly, whose fourteen members serve three

year terms. The present council, which has been re - elected continuously since 1975, is made up of the

following members: Rafael Frezis; President; Ilias Kones; Vice President; Marcel Solomon, Secretary; Chaim

Maisis; Treasurer, and Menachern Moisis, Member.

Within the framework of the community, charitable and other associations have been formed. In 1900, the first

Jewish Youth Society, "The Future", was founded. In 1907, the charitable association "AAVATH REIM" was

established, followed in 1920, by the "AGOUDATH AHIM" association. In 1910 the women's benevolent

society "OZER DALIM" was founded, as well as the Zionist Society "POALE ZION", which was very active

until 1948. "POALE ZION" maintained a club and a well - equiped library. hosting dances, lectures. social

gatherings and many other events on its premises. All of the societies operated under Articles of Association

approved by the Greek State.

In 1927 the athletics team "HATIKVA" was formed, followed by the "HAKOAH" team, and in 1933 the first

boy scout group, "MACCABEE" was established.

Various committees such as "BIKOUR CHOLIM" and "HEVRA KADDISHAH" assisted the work of the

Community. After 1948 the new athletics team "HATIKVA" and the women's singing group were created.

 

STREETS

 In Volos, the synagogue in located on Moiseos street. The street was named by the municipal government in

honor of the great leader of the Jewish people. Another street near the synagogue was named Palestine street in

1922, after the Balfour Declaration, concerning the creation a Jewish state in Palestine, which was accepted by

the Greek Government. A street in the

"Chryssoholdl" neighborhood of Volos bears the name of Avraam Benaroya, one of the leaders of the labor

movement and founder of the Labor League " Federation". Recently a street in Volos located near the railway

station was named Chief Rabbi Moses Pessah Street. In this way the municipality honored the contribution of the

Jewish religious leader.

 

THE WAR YEARS

1940: During the Greek - Italian war, the Jews of Volos took an active part in the military efforts for the defence

of the country. 71 Jews served in the armed forces, while older men and women served in auxiliary units, in Air

Defence and fire-fighting units, in hospitals and other services. The Community was united in its efforts to assist

in the financial support of the war effort, as well as in its moral support of the wounded, the disabled, and the

poor.

During this period, our fellow Kambellis was killed during the bombing of Volos by enemy aircraft, the soldier

Anselmos X. Mourtzoukos was killed in infantry warfare, while five soldiers were injured and two were

permanently disabled. It should be mentioned that the names of the Jewish soldiers Rafael Amar and S. Koen,

who died fighting

for Greece in the previous war, are inscribed on the War Memorial of Volos.

In 1941 Greece was occupied by the Axis forces, that is, by German and Italian troops.

At that time. the Jewish comunity numbered 900 menbers, including a small nunber of refugees from the Jewish

communities of Macedonia and Thrace who had succeeded in escaping. During the dark years of the German

occupation, the Community tried to meet the great needs of its poor members with respect to food, heating and

medical care.

When the national resistance movement began, many of our young people joined in, fighting for the deliverance

of our country. Two of these people, Leon Sakis and Savvas Iakov, who served in the armed resistance units,

were killed in skirmishes with the Germans.

In September, 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies. The Italians withdrew from the city and the German forces

took over the administration. Among the German priorities was the rounding up of the Jews and their

transportation to the death camps. However, it was necessary for the Germans, to acquire a list of their names

and addresses. Therefore, the German commander Rikert summoned Chief Rabbi M. Pessah and demanded that,

within three days, he should submit a list of the names, addresses and property of the Jews of Volos. The Chief

Rabbi stated to the German commander that he was unable to submit such a list as the details required were not

available. Commander Rikert then threatened the Chief Rabbi with death if he did not produce the information

that had been demanded.

The chief Rabbi then turned to Ioakim. the Bishop of Dimitrias, with whom he had long maintained a friendship

and related to him what was going on, asking for his advice and assistance. Bishop Ioakim asked Helmut

Scheffel, the German Consul in Volos, who was well - known for his love of Greece, to advise him in confidence

as to what the Intentions of the German Commander were Mr. Scheffel recommended that all the Jews of Volos

should leave the city as soon as possible, as they were in danger of being arrested. Bishop Ioakim gave the Chief

Rabbi an Introductory letter addressed to the priests of the villages, in which he urged them to help the Chief

Rabbi and his congregation. He recommended Chief Rabbl Pessah that he and his family should leave at once for

the nearby villages, as he would find a safe refuge there. The Chief Rabbi then lnformed the Governing Board of

the Jewish Community, and the following day, with the assistance of members of the Resistance, he managed to

escape from Volos. The leaders of the Jewish Community took quick and effective action, and as a result most of

the Community members were able to escape to the villages of the surrounding area.

It is important to mention the significant part played in the salvation of the Jews by the Mayor of Volos,

Nicholas Saratsis; the Municipal Official, Zissis Mantidis, the police Chief, Ilias Agdiniotis; as well as by many

other lesser - known residents of Volos. We would also like to emphasize that the work of the Greek Resistance

Movement was crucial both to the salvation of the Jews and to their uneventful stayin the villages of Pelion and

the area.

In October,1944, when Volos was liberated, the Jews returned to the city to find their homes looted and

destroyed. The Community had lost 155 of its members, who had been arrested and killed in the Nazi death

camps. Immediately, the Governing Board of the Jewish Community reformed, and addressed itself to the task of

looking after those in need. In cooperation with the Central Jewish Council of Athens, and with the assisance of

the American Joint (A.J.D.C.), quantities of food, clothing medicine and other supplies were received, and

distributed to people in need. Simultaneously, in Athens, various organizations such as "The Esther Orphanage"

and "The Shelter for Girls" were set up to provide shelter and any other possible form of aid to those who needed

it. Thanks to this substancial support, the Jewish Community of Volos soon returned to normal.

 

In April, 1955, powerful earthquakes struck Volos and destroyed most of the buildings. Many residents of the

city, among them menbers of the Jewish Community, were left homeless. As a result of coordinated efforts on

the part of the Governing Board of the local Jewish Community, in cooperation with the Central Jewish Board in

Athens, it was possible to secure substancial aid for, and rehabilitaUon of the earthquake victims. Jewish

organizations abroad, especially those in America, such as the American Joint (A.J.D.C.).

The Claims Conference and The Jewish Colonisation Association (J.C.A.) made particularly generous

contributions. At the same time, the Hias Service ensured immigration to the United States for those who desired

it.

The membership of the Jewish Community is much smaller today. After a long and active presence in the city,

and with the contribution of the Jews to its social, cultural and economic development, the harmonius

coexistence of the Jews with the rest of the populaUon of Volos continues, despite whatever professional rivalry

may exist, which, in any case, has never been a source of conflict, prejudice or bad feeling.

The population of the Jewish Community has fluctuated in numbers from time due to various circumstances. For

example, in 1865 there were 100 members, in 1907, the population increased to 885, and in the period between

1920 and 1930, there were approximately 2.000 members. In 1945 the figures were reduced to 850 people, and

in 1985, the number reached 145, while today it is 104. This significant reduction in the Jewish population is due

to emigration (to the U.S. and Israel), to the fact that families have moved to large cities such as Athens and

Thessaloniki, and to the deaths of old people.

 

The Governing Board of the Jewish Community 1s particularly committed to the cultural and religious education

of children and young people, and to this end. finances various cultural programs. The development of closer

relations among the members of the Jewish Community, as well as between the Community and our fellow

citizens in Volos, is one of our main priorities, as in maintaining and reinforcing the long - standing bonds with

the authorities and other municipal organizations, Charitable works, both within the Jewish Community and

through Municipal organizations, are among our community activities.

Despite the fact that we have few members, the Governing Board concentrates its efforts on maintaining

religious life and Jewish traditions, thus continuing the historical role oft he old but active Jewish Community of

Volos.

 

Edited by RAFAIL FREZIS

Translated by ANITA COOPER-TSAMAKIS

 

 
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