The Jews of Ioannina
History and Heritage
Ioannina, a small city in northwestern Greece near the Albanian border, was home to Jews for more than 1,300 years from the eighth century until the present. Due to its location west of the Pindos Mountain Range, the community was isolated geographically from the mainstream of Judaism, even that within Greece. Consequently, the community developed its own traditions, customs, and minhag, (prayer rites), and remained Greek-speaking even after most other Jewish communities on Greek soil were absorbed into the traditional Sephardic world following the post-1492 influx of Spanish-speaking Jews. Yanniote Jews, as they called themselves (only the scholars used the term Romaniote) remained a small community throughout its existence, probably never numbering more than four or five thousand at its peak.
About half the community (an estimated 2,000) immigrated to the United States between 1902 and 1924. Most settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan not far from the present site of Kehila Kedosha Janina. Their reasons for leaving were political upheavals in the Balkans, economic instability, antiquated inheritance laws and the dowry system, and, of course, the desire for a better life for themselves and their children. Lured by the possibility of educational and economic opportunities, they made the long and arduous journey to the New World. Because of the small community size and closeness of its members - most married within the community - after immigration to the United States the community in Greece never lost touch with the community established in New York.
For genealogists, certain source material, such as cemetery, immigration and census records, and, when available, community archival material, has considerable value. For communities devastated by the Holocaust, lists of victims typically add pertinent genealogical information. Some of our source materials have been invaluable; other materials were confusing initially and only after further investigation yielded interesting insights into the community. The Jewish cemetery in Ioannina, although overgrown, still exists, and with the unearthing of tombstones and documentation, substantiating genealogical data has become accessible. Recently revealed tombstones may date back to at least the 15th century.
Birth and census records housed in Ioannina’s municipal archives have become part of our database at Kehila Kedosha Janina. These records have been translated and computerized so that we can document the birth and residence of those researching their family roots. The database has been supplemented by additional data received over the years and our recently established genealogical database.
Unique Naming Practices and Customs
Prior to World War II, Yanniote Jews were traditional, observant Jews who named their children according to their time-honored customs. First sons and daughters were named after the father’s parents, and second sons and daughters named after the mother’s parents. Subsequent children would often be named after aunts and uncles or others whom the parents wished to honor.
Traditional "Alef" which is a Brit Milah amulet made for males to protect them from the "evil eye" for 40 days after the Brit. The baby's name, along with that of the father and grandfather would be listed. KKJ is proud to have the largest collection of Alefs in the world.
The typical surname of a Yanniote Jew derived from masculine Hebrew first names, such as Solomon, Matathia, Moses, Israel, Samuel, Barouch, and Naphtali. Naming as traditional Yanniote Jews do, if, for example, Samuel had a son and he named him Solomon, the son would be called Solomon ben Samuel. With the naming practices of this community, when Solomon had his first son, that son was named Samuel ben Solomon.
This changed in the 17th century, when the ruling Ottoman Turks demanded consistency in surnames for tax purposes. The Ottomans, confused by what they thought was a change in surname from generation to generation—which actually was simply the traditional naming practices of observant Jews—demanded that all in the family have the same “surname.” Outwardly, the Jews of Ioannina acquiesced by seeming to follow the Ottoman requirements — but then they proceeded to name their children as they always had.
To further complicate Yanniote naming, there were some Jews who inscribed their sons’ names in the municipal archives in the same way as they did when giving their sons their names at the Brit Milah (the father’s name, followed by the father’s father’s name, and then the name of the baby boy). Therefore, what should have been Matathias Kalchamiras (a nickname that became a surname), the son of Asser, was inscribed as Matathias Jessoula, the son of Asser (Jessoula was the grandfather of Matathia and the father of Asser). The child’s name was Matathia Kalchamiras but was transcribed as Matathias Jessoula.
Emigration and census records have aided in genealogical research, but they also reflect the naming idiosyncrasies of Yanniote Jews. The name of the father was of paramount importance, more so than the surnames the Yanniote Jews had reluctantly assumed. When completing ship manifests, the information that would form the basis for entry at Ellis Island, the father’s name often would be entered in the space reserved for surname. To complicate matters, most Yanniote Jews, up until 1913 when Ioannina became part of modern Greece, wrote their Greek language with Hebrew letters and could not read written Greek. Verbal communication was necessary, therefore, and errors often appeared in documents requesting written Greek, including birth registrations and ship manifests.
These errors continued in the United States in census records. An example of this practice is noted in the records of Leon Joseph, who was listed on his emigration passenger manifest as Leon Joseph. He also was listed as Leon Joseph in the 1910 and 1930 US censuses, but appeared as Leon Ezra in the 1920 U.S. census (Ezra was Leon’s father’s name.) Burial society lists also offer a glimpse into the world of Greek-speaking Jews. The lists include many typographical errors; obviously, the scribe recorded the names by listening to them orally, but was not familiar with the names of Ioannina Jews.
A Traditional Yanniote Family at turn of the 20th century
The Holocaust in Ioannina and the Community Today
At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish community of Ioannina numbered about 2,000. Most were small business owners. Many were poor. Families were large and patriarchal: marriages were arranged. The community was conservative in nature and religiously observant. Their daily life revolved around their synagogues and the Jewish religion. There was little upward mobility: young men automatically entered the professions of their fathers, almost none continuing their education after high school. Young women ended their education even earlier and remained at home until married, with only a handful actually working outside of the house, usually in domestic occupations, such as seamstress.
War hit the community in 1940, as Greece entered World War II fighting off the attempted Italian invasion on the Albanian Front. The young men of Ioannina served their country with pride, some sacrificing their lives for their country. As of April of 1941, Ioannina was in the Italian Zone of Occupation, as the Germans divided Greece among their allies. Comparative calm set in and life went on as usual.
Marriages took place and babies were born. Some, very few, sensed danger, especially after word of the deportation of the Jewish community of Salonika reached the small city of Ioannina, and fled the city for Athens. Most stayed. It was not easy to leave. There were many young children to think of. A few young men went to fight with the Resistance Movement in the mountains, but many returned when the Germans entered the city during the summer of 1943 and threatened reprisals against their families. With the capitulation of Mussolini in September of 1943, Ioannina came under German control. The days of the community were numbered.
Now, it became almost impossible to escape. The end would take place on a cold March day, March 25th, Greek Independence Day, which that year also coincided with the onset of Pessah. In the cold of the morning, with snow on the ground, only given time to gather a few possessions, the community was roused out of their beds and gathered together on the shores of the lake they loved so much. The Jews of Ioannina would then be placed on trucks and taken to Larissa, where they would be kept for over a week before being placed in cattlecars and sent to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. They would arrive on April 11, 1944. Most would go directly to the gas chambers.
Some of the survivors immigrated to Israel, others chose to move to the United States, and a few returned back to their homeland and to the traditions they once knew in Ioannina. Although many were murdered in the horrors of the Holocaust, this once vibrant Jewish community still exists in Greece today, albeit a fraction of its former self. Now, there are only around 50 Jews left in the city of Ioannina, many of them survivors of the Holocaust. Yet in the face of tremendous struggles, their perseverance has continued to help preserve some of the unique traditions and heritages of this once florishing community of Romaniote Jews.