Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Greece: Ioannina Jewish Cemetery Designated Protected Historic Site

Ioannina, Greece. Views of Jewish cemetery. Photos: Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos
Greece: Ioannina Jewish Cemetery Designated Protected Historic Site
by Samuel D. Gruber 

(n.b. this article contains information provided by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, President, Association of Friends of Greek Jewry  and the late Vincent Giordano)

(ISJM) Last summer, Congregation Kehila Kedosha Janina (KKJ) in New York announced that the Jewish Cemetery in Ioannina, Greece, the ancestral home of the Lower East Side congregation, has been designated an historical landmark.  KKJ submitted photographs of gravestones of the cemetery identified as dating from the early 15th century to the Jewish Community of Ioannina, who then submitted them to the Municipality of Ioannina (see the website for photos) and these helped secure the designation by the municipality. The oldest gravestone discovered thus far is that of Rabbi Aaron Matathia Halevi and is dated 1426.  A second gravestone of similar style is for Matathia Joseph Halevi.  In 2009, when I wrote about this cemetery, and reported the prediction that such gravestones (and maybe even older ones) would be discovered.
On behalf of the Jewish Community of Ioannina and its president, Moses Eliasof, KKJ now plans to move ahead with a fund raising effort to enable a cleanup and restoration of the cemetery.

Tradition has it that gravestones were moved from Ioannina's oldest cemeteries, which no longer survive, to the present cemetery which was founded in the early 19th century on land purchased from Ali Pasha.

The Zosimaia School now stands on this site of a former Jewish cemetery, but it is not known from when it dates.  At some point after 1892, another cemetery was opened by the community in the Kalkan area of the city.  In 1922, a portion of this property was used to build homes and at that time, the community began to use a field known as Gem for their new cemetery; today's  Bet Chaim Jewish Cemetery.   It is not known if bodies were exhumed and moved, but gravestones of rabbis were moved and some of these are the ones recently discovered.

Over the gate to the cemetery is the Hebrew inscription:

"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."

During the junta of 1967-1974, the military wanted to take the unused property over. The Jewish community protested; since the deed no longer existed, a legal battle followed and the community prevailed. As part of the legal decision, it was stated that should the Ioannina Jewish community cease to exist, the field would be turned over to the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Athens.

In 1999 the local Jewish Community transferred an area of 6,000 sq. m. of the cemetery to the Municipality of Ioannina.  The Municipality (claiming the change of the city plan) then trespassed on a large part of the cemetery, and tried to expropriate the area.  The Central Board of the Jewish Communities of Greece, with the cooperation of the local Jewish Community, strongly reacted, setting in play a series of events that has led to better documentation and appreciation of the site. The community in New York has acted as a strong lobbying force for the community in Ioannina, making its presence known annually and assuring that the municipality knows that the remaining Jewish Community of 32 does not stand alone.  
The cemetery was been vandalized several times, most recently in 2009. The construction of a protective wall around the cemetery in 2009 is designed to protect the cemetery and clearly demarcate its boundaries.  

The Jewish sites and community of Ioannina  have long been of special interest to the international Survey of Jewish Monuments, which sponsored the documentary work of the late Vincent Giordano.  Despite Vincent's death, ISJM still plans to proceed with completion of his Before the Flame Goes Out project.

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