Monday, July 20, 2009

Greece: Third Attack on Ioannina Jewish Cemetery This Year

Ioannina, Greece. Grave desecrated on June 2, 2009. Photo: KIS

Greece: Third Attack of Ioannina Jewish Cemetery This Year
by Samuel D. Gruber (Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulis contributed to this post)

(ISJM) The International Survey of Jewish Monuments has been engaged for several years in the project Before the Flame Goes Out to document the Jewish sites, community and ceremonies of the Ioannina, Greece, and of the Romaniote Jewish community in New York that originated in Ioannina. ISJM is especially concerned about continuing attacks on the historic Jewish cemetery of Ioannina.

The cemetery, which has endured much over the past century, was attacked again by vandals on July 9th, the third time the cemetery has been desecrated this year, and the fourth time in two years. Despite widespread knowledge of the likely perpetrators of the act, local officials continue to take no action to apprehend them, according to members of the local Jewish community.

Two tombstones were vandalized in the most recent attack. While the most recent attack was not as severe as that on June 2nd, nor the one that took place in January of 2009, the fact that there have been four such anti-Semitic desecrations in the last two years has caused alarm in the Jewish Community of Ioannina and in other Jewish communities in Greece, and also among Yanniotes in the United States who have family members buried in the cemetery.

On June 2nd three recent tombstones directly to the right of the Holocaust memorial inside the cemetery were brutally smashed. Other tombstones further in the cemetery have also been specifically targeted. The Holocaust Memorial was also damaged in the attack, and turtle was slaughtered, and its blood deliberately splattered on the memorial.

Local sources have no doubt that the desecrations are acts of anti-Semitism, as there is a local network of neo-Fascists who had publicly demonstrated in the the city. To date there has been little outrage at or condemnation of the most attack in Greece or from abroad. Representatives of local political parties denounced the June 2nd attack but to the knowledge of ISJM, Jewish and human rights organizations that routinely denounce such vandalism in Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere have been silent. ISJM encourages individuals and organizations to contact Greek embassies to alert them of international concern about the continuing vandalism of Jewish sites in Greece.

Though the local police have now increased security at the cemetery since the attack, local Jewish community representative are doubtful this will have more than a temporary effect, especially since protests after the June 2nd attack did nothing to stop the attack just one week later. They have proposed that either the police commit themselves to 24-hour security, as is now provided for synagogues in Athens and Salonika, or they assist in increasing the the height of the cemetery protective wall.

History of the Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina

Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director at Kehila Kedosha Janina (New York) has provided the following account of the cemetery's history.
The Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina is situated in what was once an eight-acre field bought by the community from the Ottoman Turkish Despot, Ali Pasha, in the early 19th century. The history of a burial site for the Jews of the city has been one fraught with ceaseless obstacles. The original cemetery was outside the walls of the fortified city (the Kastro), near the market place. Nothing remains of that cemetery but it is believed that tombstones, many going back to the 13th century, were transferred to subsequent cemeteries. In 1892 a later Jewish cemetery was desecrated by the Ottoman authorities and the main site of Jewish burial was transferred to the outskirts of the city, in an area called Kalkan. This later cemetery was leveled in 1922 to build homes for Greek refugees from Asia Minor. It was then that the tombstones were transferred to the field known as Gem, the site of the present Jewish cemetery. At the entrance to he new cemetery is the inscription (translated from the Hebrew):

"The Almighty Who dwells among us has allowed us to erect a wall around this field so they (the deceased) may repose in the land of the living; for the consecration of the Society of the Righteous (Hevra Hesed) and with the notables of the day."

Ioannina, Greece. Older tombstones in Jewish cemetery.
Photo: Marcia Haddad Ikonomopulis

The present cemetery originally encompassed over 25,000 square meters and, as was the custom, the older burials were towards the rear of the cemetery. Much of the area remained unused and, after the loss of over 90% of the Jewish Community of Ioannina in the Holocaust, the cemetery fell into disrepair. According to Greek law, burials cannot take place within the city limits and the City of Ioannina tried to expropriate the Jewish cemetery land which, although originally outside the city limits, with the growth of the city, now found itself within the city. In the 1990s, as a gesture of good will, the community ceded a plot of unused cemetery land, located on the far right of the cemetery, to the municipality to be used as a park.

The cemetery has been subjected to acts of vandalism and, after years of legal battles, the Jewish community was finally issued a permit to raise the height of the protective wall around the cemetery. Funds were raised by Yanniote Jews in the United States ($15,000) for the erection of the wall and the work was completed in the spring of 2002. The Central Board of Jewish Communities (KIS) also contributed. The municipality had the responsibility of erecting the wall separating the cemetery from the land donated for the park but did not make it high enough to keep out vandals, the results being that the cemetery was vandalized in April of 2002; five tombstones severely damaged. The municipality has taken responsibility for this and was to repair the damage along with increasing the height of the protective wall. The wall is still insufficient to prevent vandals from entering.

According to the oral history of the community, and archival material attesting to the transporting of tombstones from former cemeteries, it is believed that tombstones dating back to the 13th century are buried under overgrowth in the far rear of the left side of the cemetery. If this is the case, the Jewish cemetery of Ioannina might hold some of the oldest Romaniote Jewish tombstones in Greece. Only with complete cleanup and expert assessment will we be able to determine what can be restored. To date, documentation has not been completed.
For more information about the Jewish Community of Ioannina and the Jewish cemetery contact

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