The Cradle of Western Civilization
Home to Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, Athens is widely regarded as the birthplace of democracy and “the cradle of Western civilization.” Scholars have found information about a Jewish community in Athens as early as the beginning of the first century, some celebrated Judeo-Hellenistic literature even dates back to this era. Jewish Athenians were active in Palestine under Alexander the Great and the Midrash contains references to Jerusalem Jews having a greater wit than Athenian Jews! After the Turkish conquest of Athens (1456), Muhammad II the Conqueror allowed a number of Jewish exiles and their descendants to take refuge here following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. In 1834, Athens was established as the capital of independent Greece, and immediately Jews with business interests, including the Rothschilds, began to establish themselves in the city. The next wave of Jewish immigration was from the Salonika Jews, many of whom moved to Athens after the great Salonica fire of 1917.
Under Italian control for most of the war, Jews were safer in Athens than their counterparts under Nazi occupation. However, after the fall of Mussolini in September 1943 the Germans decimated the community. Some were saved by the communist Greek Resistance movement or by fleeing on small boats to the shores of Asia Minor, making their way to Palestine.
Upon the liberation of Greece, a few thousand Jews emerged from hiding. There are about 3,000 Jews living in Athens today. Many of those who returned were able to integrate themselves in business, industry, and other professions. A “Tree of Life” pre-war synagogue Etz Haim can be visited, as well as the postwar community run Beth Shalom synagogue. There is a Jewish cemetery, a club and an elementary school, as well as an ORT vocational school and welfare institute. In the 1970s the Jewish Museum of Greece was founded, which has since expanded and now features excellent educational programming. In Melidoni Street, under the shade of the Acropolis, you can visit a moving Holocaust Memorial with geometric marble blocks depicting a broken Magen David. Our guides will help you navigate the complex millennia-long history of the Jewish community in Athens, and introduce you to the breathtaking general-interest sites of ancient Greece!
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