According to tradition, after Patriarch Gregory and other Orthodox prelates were cut down from their place of execution soon after the outbreak of the Greek Revolution, the Ottomans ordered that the Jews of Constantinople dispose of the bodies. In Greek school books and beyond, the general narrative is as follows: the Jews, eager to revenge themselves on the Christians, gleefully dragged the bodies of the martyred prelates through the City, down to the shore, where they threw them in the sea.
Historian and former prime minister of Greece, Spyridon Trikoupis, recounts: “Then the Jews came to the executioner, and with his permission and after bribing him, tied the legs of the body, dragged it from the Patriarchate to the coast of Fanar mocking and swearing, and threw it in the sea.”
Just how the historians of the age gauged the Jews’ intentions and were thus able to dismiss any element of coercion on the part of the authorities is unknown, and in the case of the popular discourse, is deemed irrelevant. After all, there is ample historical precedent to establish a mens rea. The very first book published by the short-lived press set up by Patriarch Kyrillos Loukaris was the “Short Essay Against the Jews” written by Nikodimos Metaxas in 1627. More subtle was Grand Dragoman Alexandros Mavrokordatos’ “History of the Jews in Antiquity”, published in 1716, used to surreptitiously target contemporary Ottoman Jewish communities.
In the hagiography of Saint Kosmas the Aetolian, considered a forerunner of the Revolution, martyred half a century before its outbreak, written by his disciple, Zikos Bistrekis, the Jews, incensed at his preaching against Christians shopping from Jews on a Sunday, are held responsible for his death, having allegedly “betrayed” him to the Ottomans, ostensibly motivated by the desire to exact revenge for the financial damage he supposedly caused them. Such sentiments lie embedded within the Judeo-Hellenic discourse to the present day. For example, in the opinion of Professor Kalliakmanis of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki: “The damage to the Jews is obvious. This is probably why the Jews hated him and why they must have played a part in his murder.”
According to the same Professor Kalliakmanis, the roots of the unquestioned by the narrative, animosity between Jews and Greeks at the time of the Revolution, can be ascribed primarily to factors of class and economics: “They were economically and socially more powerful and the Greeks were weaker. It has also been claimed that since they also acted as loan-sharks, they had brought a lot of people to the brink of despair.” Religious differences seem to be of lesser importance, although Professor Kalliakmanis states that many Greeks of the time were: “deeply upset by the dismissive attitude [the Jews] held towards the sacred figures of the Christian faith.”
It is this mixture of opportunism and purported hatred that provided, in the popular consciousness, the supposed motive for Jewish involvement in the Ottoman reprisals against the Greeks of Naoussa and Salonika, where they allegedly plundered Greek houses and killed 3,000 Christians, according to French travel writer Francois Pouqueville: “I heard… [an informant says]… some time after these massacres, a Jew boasting that he beheaded in a single day sixty-four Christians.” Indeed, in the Greek consciousness, as chronicler A Koutsalexis relates, the Jews were considered the willing collaborators and enforcers of their Ottoman overlords: “The Turks did not condescend to slaughter the Christian Greeks. They assigned this task to the Jews. A tall Jew executed the command of the bloodthirsty authority. I saw with my own eyes this Jew having the blade ready and the naked victim waiting, on his knees and tightly ties up, to lose his head.”
The first major success of the Revolution, the capture of Tripolitsa, saw the Greek insurgents engage in a wholesale massacre of its Muslim and Jewish population. According to one account: “For three days the miserable inhabitants were given over to lust and cruelty of a mob of savages. Neither sex nor age was spared. Women and children were tortured before being put to death. So great was the slaughter that Kolokotronis himself says that, from the gate to the citadel his horse’s hoofs never touched the ground. His path of triumph was carpeted with corpses. At the end of two days, the wretched remnants… were deliberately collected, to the number of some two thousand souls, of every age and sex, but principally women and children, were led out to a ravine in the neighbouring mountains and there butchered like cattle.”
Kolokotronis was particularly incensed by Jews who fought alongside the Ottomans. When he came across an armed Jew among a group of surrendering Ottoman soldiers, he was outraged, shouting: “Bah! An armed Jew! That’s not right.” Indeed, while the Greeks reached agreement with some Albanian fighters to allow them to depart with their weapons, Kolokotronis stripped the armed Jew of his weapons and refused to allow the Jews of the city safe passage.
Slaughter in Tripolitsa
All in all, some 5,000 Jews are held to have been slaughtered at Tripolitsa. While some modern historians, eager to deny any specific intent to harm the Jews by the Greeks ascribe their fate to ‘collateral damage’, contemporary revolutionary leader Fotakos in his memoirs suggests otherwise, offering the following justification for the deliberate targeting of Jews:
“The Jews of Tripolitsa perished along with the Turks, and were killed with greater hostility, because the Greeks despised this Nation from ancestral tradition for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and for their more recent insults to the Greeks in Constantinople… and for other things they did. In Koroni they committed ten thousand evils to the head priest of that place and his assistant and after they killed them both, they threw the dead bodies outside the fortress from the top of the wall and with great contempt and mockery, said to the besieging Greeks to take this meat if they have any need… These are the Jews, incompatible with the Christians.”
In Vrachori, also known as Evraiovrachori because of its Jewish population, Muslims and Jews surrendered to the revolutionaries under negotiated terms. According to Trikoupis, some accounts maintained that while the Muslim population remained unmolested, “the Jews suffered the worst and most were killed without pity.”
While the prevailing mores and prejudices constituted Jewish communities ‘fair game’ for marauders, there is no evidence for a master plan to cleanse the Greek lands of their Jewish inhabitants. Indeed, Pouqueville records occasions when leaders of the Revolution such as Dimitrios Ypsilantis attempted to limit or stop the massacres. Be that as it may, by the end of the Revolution, no Jews remained in the Peloponnese and few remained in Central Greece, primarily in Euboea, most fleeing to Volos, Smyrna and beyond. By 1833, there were less than a thousand Jews living in the Kingdom of Greece.
In attempting to downplay the violence between Jews and Christians at the time of the Revolution, some historians have sought to draw a distinction between Sephardic Jews, emigrants from Spain, and the ‘native’ Romaniote Jews who are considered more sympathetic to the revolution, the Cohen and Crispi families from Chalcis being cited as examples of Jews who actively participated in the revolutionary struggle. While it is arguable that the realisation of a state of the Greek people inspired liberal Jews in Europe, as did also the Polish revolt in 1830, providing the precedent for the ultimate establishment of the Jewish state, there is a dearth of sources regarding active Jewish participants in the Greek Revolution.
Massacres and mutual suspicion notwithstanding, from the promulgation of the Provisional Constitution of the Greek State in 1822, and even though being Greek is defined therein along sectarian lines, there emerges a distinction between citizenship and nationality that allows for Jewish people to considered Greek citizens. Thus, from a position of revolutionaries considering the Jews as ‘outsiders’ or as the ‘enemy,’ Greece becomes one of the first European states in the world to grant legal equality to Jews. Even so, Jews will often be met with suspicion and the accusation that they are acting against the interests of the Greek State, culminating in the 1847 Don Pacifico Affair, where the Athenian home of the former consul of Portugal, the Jewish Don Pacifico was attacked and vandalised by the mob after the government banned the annual Easter Sunday burning of the effigy of Judas Iscariot, for fear that this would displease Lord Rothschild, visiting Greece in order to discuss a possible loan. This proved the catalyst for a British naval blockade of Greek ports and for the slow and often tempestuous assimilation of Jewish communities into the expanding Greek State.
Just how firmly the Jews of Greece identified with that State by the 1940s can be evidenced by the heroic manner in which soldiers such as Mordechai Frizis, veteran of the Greco-Turkish War, sacrificed their lives to defend the territorial integrity of their country. Such selflessness can be juxtaposed against the Greek government’s August 1949 announcement that Jews of military age would be allowed to leave for Israel on condition that they renounced their Greek nationality, promised to never return, and took their families with them. Today, the Jewish community of Greece numbers six thousand members. The mayor of Ioannina, a town with a historically important though much diminished Jewish community, is a member of that community. Although anti-Semitism persist in popular culture and among the extreme right, writers such as Misha Glenny have observed that Greek Jews have never “encountered anything remotely as sinister as north European anti-Semitism. The twentieth century had witnessed small amounts of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks… but it attracted an insignificant minority.”
READ MORE: Greeks and Jews: a shared history
Highlighting the progress that has been made since 1821 and 1949, the Greek Parliament has voted to restore Greek citizenship to all Holocaust survivors who lost their Greek citizenship when leaving the country, a fitting way to embrace a people that have made Greece their own for millennia.