At the Crossroads: The Jewish Community of Corfu

Τhe temporary historical exhibition under the title: “At the Crossroads: The Jewish Community of Corfu”, was created by the Jewish Museum of Greece to frame the memorial events organised by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Athens, on the occasion of the Presidency of the Federal Republic of Germany of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The exhibition constitutes a historical and cultural flashback in the life and traditions of the Jewish Community of Corfu. The unique geographical position of the island, at the point where the Western world meets the East, endowed the community with special characteristics of multiculturalism, rarely found elsewhere. These found expression in the language, traditions and customs of the community, as well as the liturgy, architecture and decoration of its Synagogues. All eras of the community’s centuries-old history have left their tangible marks in all these aspects of its life.

After the community’s near destruction in the Second World War, very few elements that remind us of its erstwhile multicoloured past remain. This exhibition by the JMG hopes to constitute a small reminder of a world now lost…

Historical background

Despite Corfu’s proximity to mainland Greece, where Jewish communities have existed since ancient times, the Jewish presence on the island was first recorded by Benjamin of Tudela in 1148 and the reference involved just one person, a dyer, named Iossif. Corfu was at the time under the rule of King Roger of Sicily, before briefly passing to the despot of Epirus, Michael I Komnenos Angelos, in 1214 and then the Angevin king, Charles I of Anjou, for the next 120 years (1267-1386). At that time the first mass settlement of Jews on Corfu took place. In 1267 there already were a few hundred present, hailing from the lands of the Byzantine Empire as well as from Apulia (Puglia) in Italy.

The local population was quite disturbed by their presence, as can be inferred from a series of decrees (1317, 1324, 1370) that sought to protect them from the violent attacks and frequent humiliations at the hands of locals. Although Angevin rule was in principle benign, it was largely absent, which left the Jewish community vulnerable to petty harassments by the local magistrates. It was in this period that a Jewish neighbourhood was first mentioned. However, the community enjoyed a much better situation than those in Central Europe at the same time. Jews even managed to reach high administrative positions, especially under the reign of Charles III, when they were granted certain privileges. Some members of the community even participated in official delegations from the island to the kings in Naples. When, in 1386, the Corfiots, tired by the constant dynastic struggles for the throne of Naples, sent a delegation to Venice to submit a request for annexation, the Jew David Semos was one of its six members.

Historical background

In 1387 Corfu fell under Venetian domination. In 1492 expelled Jews from the Iberian Peninsula arrived to the island, while in 1494 more came from Naples. The population significantly decreased during the Ottoman siege of 1537, when thousands of prisoners were carried away. In 1540 Jews hailing from Italy formed the majority and imposed the Apulian dialect. Two separate communities emerged, the Greci (Greeks) and the Pugliesi (Italians and Spaniards), each with their own synagogue. In 1589 Marrano newcomers from Portugal augmented the Apulian community. In 1622 a decree established the boundaries of the neighbourhood that is, up to this day, known as the Evraiki (Jewish) or, previously, the “Yetto”. The neighbourhood, however, was not a closed ghetto, but more of a natural agglomeration of Jewish dwellings that had developed in a specific area over time.

Particularly noteworthy was the difference in the treatment of the Jews of Corfu compared to those of Venice itself. Any jealousy was outweighed by the necessity to conciliate the financially very strong community on an island that would serve as a bastion of Venetian commercial interests in the Mediterranean and the trade routes to the East. A fortnight after the surrender of the island to the Venetians, the doge issued a decree confirming all the preexisting rights and forbidding any kind of discrimination. Thus, when in 1571 the expulsion of all the Jews of Venice and its dependencies was proposed, the Jews of Corfu were exempted. It is also noteworthy that minimal restrictions were imposed on Jews in terms of real estate ownership or professional activity. There were, for example, Jewish lawyers on Corfu, which was absolutely forbidden in Venice itself. On the other hand, the preexisting obligation of Jews to wear a distinctive yellow mark was maintained.

Historical background

In June 1797, after 411 years of Venetian rule, Corfu came under rule of the Republican French of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the spirit of the French Revolution, the Jewish community was granted equality, which again led to the resentment of the Christian population. The rabbi of Corfu was even granted the same standing as the heads of the other religions. The same applied during the rule of the “opponents” of the Republicans, the Imperial French. On 2 October 1808, Corfu’s police commissar determined that “some bad people of bad ways […] attempt to carry out bad deeds against the Jews” and ordered that “no one from now on shall dare attempt to anger, either with deeds or actions, the peace and the security of the people who profess the Jewish religion”.

In 1814 the British occupied Corfu, which remained under their rule for the next 50 years. While this period constituted an era of progress for the island on nearly all fronts, for the Jewish presence, which numbered around 4,000 people at the time, it brought the reversal of the rights they had enjoyed up to that point and the introduction of prohibitions and restrictions, after relevant laws were passed by the Ionian Parliament and ratified by the British Commissioner. Jews were thus deprived of their political rights and forbidden to exercise the legal profession, being limited to appearing in courts only as “sub-attorneys” (intervenienti). Despite these setbacks, a new synagogue was built, named the Nuova (“New”), which, however, was to be destroyed in the German bombing raids of 1943.

Historical background

The Treaty of London (29 March 1864) recognised the Ionian Islands as a greek province. The High Commissioner officially proclaimed the Union of the Islands with Greece on 21 May 1864. Initially, the position of the Jewish community improved significantly. The island’s Jews were granted full political and civil rights, as Greek citizens. They could henceforth take part in community matters, run for election and actively participate in social and political life. These new conditions led to a flowering of the community, culturally and financially. Most families were now pretty affluent and the community boasted a number of schools, as well as a nursing home for the elderly. In 1925 a rabbinical school was founded, while a Talmud Torah school operated until the beginning of the 20th century. Rabbi Abraham Schreiber and the teacher Moissis Chaimis founded a night school for destitute pupils. Despite this good atmosphere, the traditional discord between the Greci and the Pugliesi, though muted, continued to burn underneath, despite the best efforts of Rabbi Schreiber, as well as those of his successor, Rabbi Yaacov Nechama. The two communities even maintained separate benevolent institutions.

Historical background

After the union of the Ionian Islands with Greece, the constantly improving of the standing of the Corfiot Jews, both financially and culturally, irritated the island’s Christians. The most pronounced expression of those tensions were the antisemitic disturbances of 1891, the “Jewish Events”, or “Ghezera de novant’ un’” as they were called by the community’s members, the antisemitic disturbances of 1891. Sparked by the murder of an eight-year-old Jewish girl on 13 April of that year, the “blood libel”, a medieval slander that unfortunately had still persisted, was resurrected. The Jews were accused of killing the young girl, who was supposedly not Jewish, but Christian, as a human sacrifice in order to use her blood in rituals. The fact that Greek Orthodox Easter was approaching, a time when antisemitic outbreaks were common, and the matter of Jewish emancipation and civic rights had been raised in the upcoming elections, stoked tensions. An incensed mob invaded the Jewish quarter, burning some houses. The rabbi’s home was pelted with stones, while the cemetery was desecrated as well. The police cordoned off the whole quarter but the situation became so terse, that it took a British fleet, anchored off the island, to persuade the government to send in troops from mainland Greece to restore order. This was achieved over a month later, on 20 May. These unfortunate events, which claimed the lives of between 17 and 22 local Jews, and also spread to the island of Zakynthos, where five Jews were killed, marked a turning point for the Jewish community, which began to decline. By the end of the year, many families had moved to the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Italy and France. The community, once 6,000 strong, would go on to dwindle to around 2,000 people by 1941.

Historical background

During the Second World War, the Ionian Islands were initially under Italian occupation. After the Italian surrender in 1943, the Germans, having destroyed many historical buildings, including two of the synagogues, the Pugliesa and the Nuova, in its bombing of Corfu town on 13 September, finally occupied the island on 27 September. Although some news of the deportations of their coreligionists had reached it from Thessaloniki, the community did not realise how grave the situation or contact communities outside Corfu to seek a way out due to the continuing animosity between the Greci and Pugliesi.

Delayed for logistical reasons, the deportation of the island’s Jews did not start until 9 June 1944, when all the Jewish families were forced to gather on Army Square. They were then corralled into the Old Fortress, where they were made to surrender all their valuables, as well as the keys to their houses, which were plundered the very same day. Indicative of the prevailing mood was the local authorities “greeting” the expulsion with announcements plastered on the city’s walls. Approximately 200 Jews, mostly women, managed to avoid the German roundup and escaped to villages in the island’s interior.

On 11 June, 300 Jewish women were transported on a towed barge to Igoumenitsa and thence on trucks to Athens. On 14 June, all the Jewish men, together with the rest of the women, were sent, again on barges, to Patras, after a brief stop on the island of Lefkada. From there, a boat took them to Piraeus, whence they were taken to Haidari concentration camp. After a few days there, they were crammed into cattle cars, without any water and just with some onions and beets for food. Thus the 1,800 members of the community reached the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp after a horrible nine-day journey. Straight away, 1,600 of them were sent to the gas chambers and the crematoria, while only 200 were selected for work. Very few of them survived until the end of the war.

Religious life

Information on the Corfiot synagogues is scarce, unclear and often contradictory. We know there were three synagogues on the island, as well as one midrash (oratory), which was probably situated on the top floor of one of them.

As the two communities, Romaniotes (Greci) and Sephardim (Pugliesi, Spaniards and Marranos), remained apart, their synagogues were also apart. When the first Sephardim arrived on the island, the reaction of the Romaniote community, which feared being assimilated and losing its particular traditions, led to the foundation of a separate Sephardic synagogue, since the two communities used different languages, liturgical traditions and ritual objects. By order of the Venetian authorities, the newly arrived Marranos were included in that synagogue. The names of the two Apulian synagogues are not clearly known; the few sources give them as Tempio Maggio[-r/-re?] (“Big Synagogue”) or Vecchio (“Old Synagogue”) and Tempio Nuovo (“New Synagogue”). It is known that one was situated on present-day Solomou Street, while the other was on Palaiologou Street.

Both synagogues show a strong Venetian baroque influence in their interior architecture, layout and decoration. The furnishings were, similar to Venetian synagogues, set in a bipolar axial layout, with the benches for the congregation arranged lengthwise along the room. They were provided with two rows of windows and high ceilings decorated with floral paintings. The women’s balconies, lightened by the upper row of windows, were reached by an external staircase.

Romaniote influence in both Apulian synagogues can be discerned in the use of shaddayot, that is, silver dedicatory plaques, to decorate Torah ark curtains and the wooden cases in which the Torah scrolls are contained according to the Romaniote tradition. A particular feature of the Torah ark in the Old Apulian Synagogue was directly adopted from the Greci Synagogue: seven pairs of rimonim, that is, silver Torah finials, were attached on both sides of the Torah ark doors, one on top of the other.

Both Apulian synagogues were unfortunately destroyed in the German bombardment of 13 September 1943.

Religious life

The Romaniote community used the Scuola Greca or Tempio Greco Synagogue. It can be dated to the beginning of the 17th century and, the only one to have emerged unscathed from the 1943 bombardments, remains in use. It is built in the Venetian manner, with the ground floor reserved for community offices and auxiliary spaces, while in the courtyard there is provision for a communal sukkah (for Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles) and a room for washing and preparing the deceased for burial. The synagogue itself is on the first floor with a high ceiling. The balcony comprising the women’s gallery, which is no longer accessible, had an entrance from a separate, external staircase. The interior is open, without columns with a bipolar axial plan: The Ehal is on the eastern and the Bimah on the western wall. Both are made of wood, provided with columns decorated in the neo-Corinthian style. The domed Ehal is a hexagonal structure and is surrounded by a railing, while access to the Bimah, a raised platform with the reader’s desk and a wooden, golden-sculptured canopy, is by steps from the two sides. The opulent decorative style of the furnishings is clearly influenced by the interior of the Baroque synagogues in Venice, and creates an appealing contrast to the plain decoration of the prayer room. The seats for the men are in bank form, running the length of the building along the axis. The Sephardic influence is manifested in the use of an inner Parohet, hung behind the doors of the Ehal, a characteristic normally not found in Romaniote synagogues. In February 2020, the well going down from the ground floor of the synagogue to the Mikveh (ritual cleansing bath) was cleaned and opened up.

Religious life

Only a small number of ritual objects and textiles from Corfu’s synagogues is still extant, but archival photos of the synagogues’ interior can give a clue regarding their syncretic style. They displayed a harmonic combination of Italian baroque and Ottoman visual art motifs, and show a close adherence to both the Romaniote and the Sephardic rites as well.

The wooden Torah cases and the doors of the Torah arks of the Corfu synagogues were covered with elegantly patterned Italian brocades. The Sephardic custom of using two parohot, or Torah ark curtains, to be hung in front of and behind the ark doors, was maintained. The outer parohet was provided with a horizontally running, braided band, to support the shaddayot. These silver dedicatory plaques, designed in various shapes, were dedicated by community members, for example for the cure of a sick family member or in remembrance of the deceased, and represent a centuries-old Romaniote custom.

The Jews of Corfu all cultivated another Romaniote tradition: storing their Torah scrolls in wooden polygonal cases. They adorned these colourfully painted tikim with sumptuous, gold painted woodwork in Venetian baroque style and an imposing gold coronet, which is provided on the inside with metal supports for flowers or ears of wheat, to decorate the tikim during the Simchat Torah and Shavuot festivals. Other unique characteristics of the Corfiot tikim are the inner gold canopy and the decoration of the upper part of the tik with three pairs of rimonim. These Torah finials from Corfu, usually spherical or bulb shaped with baroque decorative elements, reflect in a distinctive manner the centuries-long history reciprocal cultural influences between the Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta and the Near East.

Religious life

The lack of archival material leaves many questions unanswered on the history of Corfu’s Jewish cemeteries, especially concerning modern times.

The old Pugliesi cemetery was located in the Sarokou area, near Platytera Monastery. The Venetians transferred the property to the Sephardi community in an exchange of land in 1502.

The Greci cemetery was situated on Avramis Hill, towards the New Fortress. It had been granted to the Romaniote community by the Venetian Field Marshal Johann Matthias Reichsgraf von der Schulenburg, in recognition of their contribution in repelling the Ottoman siege of 1716.

The fact that relations between the Greci and Pugliesi were not always harmonious was also reflected in the use of the separate cemeteries, with the members of each community being exclusively interred in their own cemetery. A disagreement from 1897 is quite characteristic. The body of a Jew from Edirne, named Eliaou Menachem, was taken to the Greci cemetery for internment, but the Pugliesa cemetery maintained it had the right to bury him as he was a foreigner. A special agreement was subsequently negotiated, according to which all Jews from the West would be considered as Pugliesi and those from the East as Greci and, accordingly, would be interred in the respective cemeteries.

By 1930 only the Avramis Hill cemetery was still functioning. According to a testimony, it remained in operation until at least 1949. It was finally destroyed in the 1950s when a hospital, a kindergarten and some schools were built on the site. How exactly it was “transferred” by the community to the municipality remains unclear. Similarities, however, with the Jewish Cemetery of Thessaloniki are evident, given the strong antisemitic current in both cities and the efforts of local authorities to Hellenise them under the pretexts of “health” and “beautification”, a fact supported by the few existing archival sources.

Religious life

Some of the Jewish customs of Corfu comprised specific characteristics, owing to the multicultural environment of the island and the close cohabitation of various communities of different roots and religions.

On the festival of Purim, liturgical poems, the piyyutim, were recited in the local idiom or even sometimes in Aramaic. Then the Megillah, the biblical story of Esther, was read. The silver Esther scroll cases from Corfu have a particular shape, with a short cylindric body decorated with filigree, probably a Venetian influence. According to another custom, the bride presented the groom with a Megillah on the first Purim after their marriage.

Another particular custom was the baking of “matzot” (unleavened bread) during Pessach in different shapes and lace patterns. Frosa, a sweet of Western origin made of honey, eggs and almonds, garnished with meringue, was also prepared. After the Pessach celebrations were over, another sweet was made of dough and almonds, named pisti, this one being of Ottoman origin (tezpişti).

Among the customs peculiar to the Jews of Corfu was the celebration of the third night after a birth, when the Three Fates were believed to visit the child and pronounce its destiny. Gold coins and rue sprigs were placed in the baby’s crib, and visitors were treated with kukkudi, a dish of boiled wheat, pomegranate and currants. This feast was called the Moirai (“Fates”). The game of knucklebones (“astragali”) had also survived in its ancient Greek form among Corfiot Jewish children.

Corfiot Jews were particularly progressive in the 1930s and under Rabbi Yaacov Nechama, they started holding bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls, corresponding to the boys’ bar mitzvah. According to the testimony of Nata Gattegno-Osmo, this was performed as an equivalent to the confirmation ceremony of Catholics, so that young Jewish girls wouldn’t feel different.

Everyday life

The Jews of Corfu initially resided on Erisvouni (“Jewish Hill”), which is now known as Campiello Hill. In 1425, with the erection of the new fortifications by the Venetians, they spread out across the town, residing alongside Christians and sometimes close to churches. This development elicited complaints from the Christians, who, from 1524 to 1622 repeatedly requested the Venetian authorities into delimiting the area from the Royal Gate to the Spilia (“Cave”) Gate and from the eastern ramparts of the New Fortress to Palaiologou street. This area has more or less remained the Jewish Quarter. The neighbourhood seems to never have functioned as a ghetto in the conventional sense, but was more of a defined residential area. The perimeter of the outer walls of the densely built houses offered a degree of separation. Every night the main roads were closed, giving some additional sense of safety to the inhabitants.

Besides, the existence, apart from the synagogues, of five churches indicates that Christians also lived there. The high population density did not favour hygiene, at least until the time of British rule, when an aqueduct and the first sewers were constructed.

The neighbourhood is densely constructed, with characteristic narrow streets and the absence of any squares, apart from some wider spaces in front of some churches and the Scuola Greca Synagogue, on present-day Velissariou street. Palaiologou street was the location of the Scuola Pugliese Synagogue.

During the German bombardment of 13 September 1943, the Scuola Pugliese was destroyed, as were almost half of the buildings of the quarter. Despite the existence of a comprehensive rebuilding plan, the inability to actually apply it and the planless reconstruction of the postwar decades have detracted much from the neighbourhood’s erstwhile character.

Everyday life

Corfu, being a bridge between the Balkans and Italy, was bound to become a place of mixed cultures and, therefore, languages. Romaniote Jews in Greece spoke the same language as their Christian compatriots, as proven by their non-biblical and, therefore, liberal translations as well as by their original written works. The term Judæo-Greek is used to denote this dialect, which was written in Hebrew characters. The Greek as used by the Jews on Corfu scarcely differed from that employed by the non-Jewish inhabitants. They also used a special minhag (rite), the Corfu Minhag, that was a variant of the Minhag Romania.

The Romaniotes spoke Judæo-Greek until other Jews slowly but steadily joined them between the 12th and 14th centuries from the Angevin possessions of southern Italy. Later, after the island became a Venetian province, the Venetian dialect also took root. “Judæo-Italian” refers to these dialects. The higher classes of Corfu’s Jewish community spoke the Venetian dialect with some modifications, due to the influence of Greek, from which it borrowed some vocabulary and syntactic peculiarities. The Apulian dialect, in supplanting the Greek of the original community, took more material from it than the Venetian dialect did. However, its original vocabulary was impoverished and deprived of its finest elements. A Corfiot Jew visiting any part of Apulia would find it difficult to understand the spoken vernacular or the songs of the natives, although the grammatical structure was exactly the same. Another sign of cultural syncretism was the use of polyphonic music in Corfu’s synagogues.

With the destruction of the community in the Holocaust, these two traditional dialects disappeared; the few remaining Jews of the island speak almost exclusively Modern Greek.

Everyday life

Until the 19th century many of the Corfiot Jewish families did not have the means to provide proper education for their children. At most, they were offered some religious education. By 1906 two community schools for girls and boys were in operation, the expenses for general instruction being covered by the government and those for Hebrew by the community, the rabbi himself conducting the advanced class in this subject. At that time so many families were enrolling their children that the education inspector had to intervene and ask them “to moderate their enthusiasm”. The children of the well-to-do class attended the public high school and some private schools.

According to the testimony of Nata Gattegno-Osmo, in the 1930s the 5th Primary School, housed in the Talmud Torah building, provided Jewish elementary education, with both Greek and Hebrew used as a language of instruction. Most of Corfu’s Jewish children were its pupils. On Sundays, when the Christian teachers had the day off, classes were conducted in Hebrew only.

Subjects included Greek language and writing, Hebrew language and writing in the Rashi script as well as grammar. Halacha (religion) was also taught, together with piyyutim (short liturgical poems, mainly in the Greek Corfiot dialect), psalms and the perassot of the week. Modern Hebrew, poetry and theatre were also taught.

Jewish children were loved by their Christian teachers. When the few survivors from the Nazi concentration camps returned to Corfu, the teachers were waiting to meet their former pupils in the port.

Everyday life

Admittedly, relations between the two Jewish communities of Corfu, the Greci and the Pugliesi, were never harmonious. When, at the time of the settlement of the Apulians and later the Spaniards and the Marranos in Corfu, they asked to join the preexisting Romaniote community, the Romaniotes refused, fearing that they might lose the privileges they already enjoyed, especially political equality. Thus in 1551 a separate community and a new synagogue were founded, called the Kahal Kadosh or Italiano-Corfioto or Pugliesa. The opposition between the two Jewish communities was such that even marriages between Greeks and Apulians were avoided.

Each community had its own separate cemetery and a Hevra Ghemilut, a voluntary communal association that took care of burials. As far as their financial situation allowed, their activity extended to other areas as well, such as providing dowries to needy girls, care for the poor and financial support for the community.

When, after the antisemitic events of 1891, the two communities were united at the instigation of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the two hevrot, still at odds with each other, remained separate. In fact, in order to avoid the control of the now united community, in 1932 their administrations resorted to registering as independent bodies under Greek law. This move had a detrimental effect on the unity of the island’s Jews, despite the reconciliation efforts of rabbis Abraham Schreiber, who was forced to leave his post after only two years, and his successor, Yaacov Nechama. Free of all control, both bodies financially sabotaged the community, making it ungovernable.

Everyday life

The Jews of Corfu were distinguished by their urban character as well as their professional occupations, which were mainly focused on trade, manufacturing and various financial activities. The majority of Jewish inhabitants of Corfu were traders and artisans. They excelled as export brokers for olive oil and cereals as well in textiles. A unique agricultural product traded through Corfu was the citron fruit (etrogim), used in for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which were exported all over Europe. However, unfounded allegations that they were not kosher, coupled with competition from Palestine, contributed to the decline in their export.

Corfiot Jews also established small industries, like the Ferro umbrella factory and the L. Dente varnish factory. Of course, the traditional Jewish occupations of stevedore and silversmith were also common in Corfu. Jews were also successfully active in shipping and shipping insurance. These wealthy traders contributed, with their donations, to the upkeep of the community’s religious and educational institutions while also securing influential administrative positions. Corfu also represented a unique exception in that, contrary to other places where professional restrictions on the Jews existed, its Jews were allowed to practice medicine and the law. Medical training usually started with an apprenticeship to a local physician, before progressing to the University of Padua, from where 30 Jews graduated between 1617 and 1816. Some of them even served as surgeons in the Venetian army.

A number of Jews also served as lawyers. Twice, in 1637 and 1774, the Venetian authorities tried to prohibit Jews from practicing law, but both times the edicts were rescinded. Only during the brief period of British rule was such a prohibition applied: Jews were allowed to appear in court only as “sub-attorneys” (intervenienti).

Intellectual life

The Jews of Corfu made an important contribution to intellectual life. A characteristic expression of their progressive thought and contribution to the letters is the fact that the first known and complete text in demotic (modern) Greek language and literature is a translation into the vernacular of the Book of Jonah for use in the synagogue of Corfu.

In the 1860s, Iosif Nachamoulis founded a publishing house and set up the Korais printing press, where he started printing the Cronaca Israelitica between 1861 and 1863 in Greek and Italian. Its many interesting texts demonstrated an intellectual and political maturity. From 1864 to 1879 he published the Famiglia Israelitica and from 1878 to 1885 the monthly Mosè: Antologia Israelitica, in Italian only. Through these publications, the Jews of Corfu could keep themselves informed about Jewish life on the island and in overseas communities.

In 1877 Nachamoulis brought Hebrew movable type from Livorno and started printing prayer books for Pessach, the Haggadah, one siddur (daily prayer book) and many other books. Nachamoulis’ printing press, which produced a considerable number of books in Greek and Italian, was awarded the first prize and a silver medal at a national exhibition in Athens. He died in 1866, but the press continued operating, primarily serving the needs of the island’s Jews.

In 1940 a Haggadah for Pessach with a Greek translation by Avraam Moshe Nikokiris was published, containing an introduction by Rabbi Yaacov Nechama and some drawings. As the Hebrew movable type no longer existed, the Hebrew text was handwritten and then lithographed. This was the last book printed by the Jewish community of Corfu before its destruction during the German occupation.

Intellectual life

Giulio Caimi was born in 1897 in a mansion near the Greca Synagogue, son of Mosé Caimi, publisher of local newspaper The Jewish Chronicler.

The family moved to Athens, where his father published the Jewish Review newspaper. Giulio, a staunch supporter of the vernacular, wrote articles in the main demoticist journal O Noumas and consorted with writers of that era. As opposed to the majority of his coreligionists, politically he was a supporter of the liberal statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, who sent him to Thessaloniki as the first representative of the Greek state in order to influence the staunchly royalist Jewish community of that city.

He studied in the Fine Arts School of the Athens Polytechnic and in the 1920s travelled to Rome, where he succeeded his father in the newspaper La Tribuna. He befriended almost all Greek writers and artists of the time. He translated into Greek works from Αncient Greek, French, Italian and Sanskrit. He was the first Greek to systematically conduct research on Karaghiozisthe Greek shadow theatre. In 1935 he published his most renowned work Karaghiozi ou la comédie grecque dans l’âme du théâtre d’ombres.

In 1934 he travelled to Palestine, Syria and Yemen, mostly on foot, recording his impressions and painting some of his best watercolours. An important part of his work was his engagement with Jewish tradition and the Kabbalah.

The progressive deafness that plagued him since an early age contributed to his isolation and impoverishment. Like the painter Theophilos, he had at times to pay for his austere meals at the small tavernas in Plaka with some of his sketches. When he died a pauper in 1982, his work was largely unknown. His first retrospective exhibition took place in 1994, while in a host of publications the writer Michel Fais delved into his works and commented on them. He also curated the two exhibitions of Caimi’s works at the JMG in 1998 and 2003.

Intellectual life

Born in Corfu in 1895, Albert Cohen immigrated with his family to Marseilles in 1900. He would not return to Corfu but once, for his bar mitzvah in 1908. In Marseilles he experienced social isolation due to antisemitism, as well as linguistic “exile”, which he battled by learning  french so well that he was awarded by the Académie Française.

In 1932 he settled in Paris, where he remained until 1940, just before the German occupation of the city. He escaped to London, thus avoiding deportation by the Nazis. For the most part, the remainder of his life was spent in Geneva, where he died in 1981. Alongside his literary exploits, he also worked as legal advisor to international organisations, as well as a diplomat, in close cooperation with Chaim Weizmann, for the foundation of a Jewish state.

His first novel, Solal, published in 1931, was followed by another three featuring the same literary heroes: Mangeclous (1938), Belle du Seigneur (1968) and Les Valeureux (1969). The two essential themes recurring in this tetralogy are the quest for perfect love and the question of Jewish identity and assimilation in western societies.

The second, pointedly autobiographical part of his oeuvre consists of Le livre de ma mère (1954), Ô vous, frères humains (1972) and Carnets 1978 (1979). The first is an expression of mourning for his mother, who died in 1943, thus avoiding deportation by the Nazis. The second is based on an earlier text of 1945, named Jour des mes dix ans, where he recounted the first verbal antisemitic attack he experienced from a French pedlar on exactly the day of his tenth birthday.

Only part of his work has been translated into Greek.

Intellectual life

Lazarus Menahem Belleli, the polyglot writer and classical scholar, was born in Corfu in 1862. In 1877 he edited Aṭṭeret Baḥurim (The Crown of the Young), a Hebrew-Greek vocabulary for the Book of Genesis, which was supplemented by a sketch of Hebrew grammar. Later contributed to the Vessillo IsraeliticoFamiglia Israelitica and Mosè newspapers.

He enrolled at the University of Athens, but a controversy of an antisemitic character caused him to leave for Italy in 1883. While a student in the Istituto di Studi Superiori at Florence, he was appointed principal of the Jewish school at Livorno.

In 1890 he earned his PhD in Hebrew and Aramaic. He paid a lengthy visit to Paris, from where he returned to Greece after having contributed the “Deux versions peu connues du Pentateuque” to the Revue des Études Juives, and “Une Version Grecque du Pentateuque du Seizième Siècle” to the Revue des Études Grecques. Shortly after his return to Greece, he served as secretary of the Corfu chapter of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, in which capacity he reported on the 1891 antisemitic events on Corfu and the consequent trials at Patras criminal court.

The spread of antisemitic literature induced him to undertake the translation into Greek of Théodore Reinach’s Histoire des Juifs, first publishing it in Corfu in 1892. In 1895 he resigned his post in Corfu and settled in England. In 1897, while in England, he published an article in the Revue des Études Juives severely criticizing D. C. Hesseling’s transcription of the Constantinople Pentateuch. In 1899 he represented the greek government at the 12th International Congress of Orientalists. In 1929 he moved to Thessaloniki to teach Jewish Studies at the city’s university. He retired in 1936.

Intellectual life

The doctor-philosopher Lazzaro de Mordo was born in Corfu in 1774, the scion of an old medical family, his grandfather, Lazarus, and father, Sabbetai, also being doctors. In his writings he refers to the traditional medicine practiced in years past on the island by folk healers. It seems that on Corfu at these times traditional medicine was widespread and people would only resort to “learned” doctors if the malady was acute and painful. Corfiots believed the old saying that “the patient is the doctor” and thus consulted mainly with other patients to find a cure.

He studied medicine at the University of Padua and practiced in Corfu from a young age, being highly esteemed by his compatriots. He wrote tens of medical, philosophical papers and papers on literature, as well as epigrams. He served as professor of obstetrics in the Tenedos Monastery Higher School in 1803 and was a founding member of the Corfu Medical Association, founded in 1802 on the initiative of distinguished doctors of the island, as well as the later governor of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias. He was a member of many European academies and associations and a delegate to the first Ionian Academy. He also served as a rabbi and domestic chief medical officer of the administration.

He was the first doctor to recommend to the Medical Association the introduction of vaccination for Corfiots against smallpox and was a member of the first vaccination committee. Following the principles of modern medicine, in his work Admonitions for the inhabitants of the country and the medicines for them […]”, published in Corfu in 1818, he devotes the first chapter to the prevention of disease, characteristically writing the Hippocratic “I want to reveal to you, that it is easier to prevent them, than to cure them”. He then gives practical advice on prevention. His work Nozioni Miscellanee Intorno a Corcira, dedicated to his friend Emmanuel Theotokis, offers important testimony on Corfu in 1808.

Exhibition Contributors

Zanet Battinou

Christina Meri
Alexios Menexiadis

Alexios Menexiadis

Alexandra Patrikiou
Damian Mac Con Uladh

Hayia Cohen

Victoria Kosti

Elisa Solomon

Leonidas Papadopoulos

Stavros Belessakos, Photosynthesis

The Jewish Museum of Greece would like to kindly thank Mr. Spyros Gaoutsis, for providing us with photographs from his personal archive.