יואנינה שלי – My Ioannina
In August 2016, I received an email from the Head of Ioannina’s Jewish community inviting anyone born in Ioannina, Greece and their children, to attend Yom Kippur services there.
This invitation triggered all sorts of emotions. I decided to go, and was thrilled when my eldest son agreed to accompany me. We had not spent four contiguous days together in 30 years.
Unlike most other cities in Greece where the Jews are the descendants of those expelled from Spain in 1492 and speak Ladino, the Jewish community of Ioannina was established 300-400 years after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). Thus, the community is 1500 years old; they know Greek and Hebrew, but not Ladino, and are called Romaniots. After the expulsion from Spanish, many Spanish/Portuguese Jews arrived in Ioannina, but were not warmly received and left, going on to establish communities elsewhere, the largest being Thessaloniki (Salonika).
Most of Ioannina’s Jews were religious and did not work on Shabbat. In the 1920s new regulations forced them to refrain from work on Sundays, too, which diminished their income. In addition, there were anti-Semitic rumblings and half of the 4,000 strong community immigrated to the U.S.A.
Ioannina at Synagogue in Castro, left Rosa Isaacs, Eftichiya (Emily) and Matilda Besca, 1951
On the eve of WWII, there were roughly 2,000 Jews in Ioannina. Some were able to flee but most were rounded up at 3-4am on Shabbat, March 25, 1944. The entire community was ordered to Lake Pomvotis. They were trucked to the city of Larissa, which had a rail line. From there they were transported, via Budapest, to Auschwitz. Among the Jews on this train were my mother Rosa Besso (b. 1918), her parents Annetta (b.1889) and Michael Besso (b. 1876), and Annetta’s sister Reveka (b. 1887). My father's parents, Mazel Tov (b.1883) and Haim Isaak (b. 1872) and his sister Anna (b.1913) and brother Avramaike (b.1910) were also on the train. Only my mother survived. Annetta, Michael, Reveka, Mazel Tov and Haim went to the gas chambers and the crematorium upon arrival at Auschwitz. Anna died the day before liberation and Avramaiki was in the Sonderkommando, who were periodically killed so they could not bear witness to the horrors. Only 168 Jews returned to Ioannina after the war.
The survivors came back to find strangers living in their homes and wearing their clothes. They were shocked to realize that so many of their loved ones were gone forever. They clung to one another, and seeking to start new lives, many marriages were arranged. But where to live? The outer synagogue (to exo to synagoy) had been destroyed by the Nazis who used it as horse stables. Since the property on which the synagogue had stood belonged to the Jewish community, they were able to utilize the plot to build a complex of apartments for the survivors. Fortunately, the Inner Synagogue built in 1829 and situated near the lake and within the Castro (the Ottoman walls) was intact.
Ioannina – Matilda Besos & Sam Besca Wedding, 1947
Ioannina – My parents – Rose and Yacov Isaacs newly married, 1947
My parents – Rosa Besso and Yaakov Isaak were married in 1947 and I was born in 1949. In 1951, we sailed for New York, where my father’s older brother, had immigrated in the 1920s. He had arranged our visas for the United States.
Ioannina, departing for the U.S. Matilda Besca and Jesse Besca seeing us off 1951
Yom Kippur 2016
My son and I arrived in Ioannina the day before Yom Kippur eve. Seeing the city through my son’s eyes was fascinating. I was surprised at how much he had learned from my parents. He noticed things that I did not, such as Hebrew etched above some doorposts, and how similar I looked to Ioannina’s Jewish women. He even understood the Greek conversations fairly well. The city was reminiscent of the 1970s, yet there were also lovely new pedestrian malls. There was an old-fashioned cafenio (you just can't call it a coffee shop) with the most divine kaddafi and baklava, but all the patrons appeared to be in their eighties or nineties. Walking down the main street, we wondered how all the gold and silver shops remained in business since no one seemed to enter any of them. Yet even though it was all very pleasant and it was 2016 the Holocaust hovered over us. You could not look at the lake without thinking that this is where they had gathered our families.
Ioannina, Yacov and Rosa holding Eftichiya, 1949
We arrived early at the Inner Synagogue for the Kol Nidre service and were happy to see it all lit up and meet the cantor who had come from Athens. I had no idea how many people would attend as there are only 35 Jews left in Ioannina and many are in their nineties. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large group of well-dressed, middle aged people flowing into the synagogue and hugging one another. There were over 150 people, mostly from Athens. This was very heartwarming since on my previous visits there had barely been a minyan.
The closing service, Ne'ila, stirred us. The cantor blew the shofar so beautifully that it brought many people to tears.
And so despite the near destruction of this ancient Jewish community, my son and I were able to pray in the same synagogue where my father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had prayed.
Ioannina – Rosa Bessos Isaacs, 1948
עם ישראל חי – The Jewish People Live
* I was named after my paternal grandmother Mazel Tov (in Hebrew), Eftichiya (in Greek) and when we got to New York my Uncle Irving said Eftichiya won’t work in NY – so for no good reason I became Emily.
"התיישבות היהודים ביואנינה, כמו בערים יווניות רבות, החלה כבר לאחר חורבן בית המקדש השני. הם דברו בניב רומניוטי המכונה יווניטיקה והיה להם נוסח תפילה משלהם. עם גירוש ספרד הצטרפו לקהילה אך מעט דוברי לדינו, והקהילה, בניגוד לקהילות אחרות ביוון שמרה על הנוסח הקדום שנהגו בו יהודי ביזנטיון. בניגוד לנוסח התפילה בשאר קהילות יוון, שנבלע בנוסח הספרדי בימים שלאחר גירוש ספרד, נוסח יואנינה נותר רומניוטי ייחודי והיה היחיד ששימר את הנוסח הקדום…." (ויקיפדיה)
I was named after my paternal grandmother Mazel Tov (in Hebrew), Eftichiya (in Greek) and when we got to New York my Uncle Irving said Eftichiya won’t work in NY – so for no good reason I became Emily.
מצורפת הכתבה שפורסמה בג'רולזם פוסט – The Jerusalem Post – 2.12.2016
This story has been included within the framework of a project sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Education called ”Rav Dorot”. It’s purpose is for grandparents to tell their grandchildren their stories and thus to preserve them. It is a very successful enterprise presented within the Diaspora Museum.
תרגום לעברית: יואנינה שלי – My Ioannina
יואנינה (ביוונית: Ιωάννινα) או יאנינה, היא העיר הראשית במחוז אפירוס ואוכלוסייתה מנתה 112,486 תושבים בשנת 2011. העיר שוכנת 450 קילומטר צפונית-מערבית לאתונה, על גדותיו של אגם פאמבוטיס. במרכזו של האגם שוכן האי "ניסאקי" (ביוונית; "אי קטן"). היהודים, מעדיפים את השם "יאנינה".