On Friday 17 February, 2023, a few hours before the start of Shabbat, the Greek Jewish world was shocked to learn of the death of Moses Elisaf, the Mayor of the city of Ioannina and President of its historic Jewish community. In Greece, from the Head of State to members of the government, parliamentarians, foreign ambassadors and the general public, they all expressed their grief at the news and large crowds attended the funeral. Everyone expressed their admiration for the man’s achievements. Leon Saltiel, who interviewed him for K. a few months before his death, talks about the career and role played by this key figure of Greek Jewish identity and the void he leaves behind.
The death of Moise Elisaf at the age of 68 is a great loss for Greece and the Jewish world. He was a beloved mayor, a renowned physician, an intellectual and a Jewish leader. He was the first Jew to be elected mayor in Greece. By all accounts, committed to the good of society as a whole, he had all the qualities one expects of a great servant of a healthy and modern democracy. When K. magazine asked me to interview him, I sent him some questions in writing and he replied in August 2022. Later, in October, I went to his hometown of Ioannina, to speak at a conference – called “Combating Antisemitism, Holocaust Distortion and Denial on the Digital Battlefield” – organised by the municipality and the Greek delegation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in which I have the honour of representing the Greek Jewish community. On this occasion, I saw how proud Moses Elisaf was to welcome a large group of delegates from all over Europe. He was a generous host, making a point of being a guide to his city himself. Regrettably, he was hospitalised soon after in December and gradually lost his battle with cancer.
The words I will quote from him here come from his last interview, which we did not have time to complete. I wish to faithfully render the meaning of his message as the traces of a testament to his achievements and his vision of Greek Judaism.
Elected as Mayor in 2019, Elisaf’s ascension to the leadership of the municipality of Ioannina was, in his eyes, concrete proof that traditional antisemitic stereotypes and intolerance towards Jews had been put to rest in Greece. The fact that his fellow citizens chose to evaluate the mayoral candidates on the basis of objective criteria, without emphasising their religious beliefs and origins, was for him a strong sign of this evolution. He was committed to fulfilling his duties as ‘First Citizen of the City’ to the best of his ability, focused on living up to the expectations of the voters.
Known for his continued involvement in Jewish communal life and his fight for Jewish representation in politics, he said he never felt he was looked down upon because of being Jewish: “I don’t feel any difference in the way I am treated by the overwhelming majority of people. There are always, of course, malignant people, nostalgic fanatics of hate and intolerance, but they are a tiny minority and are completely isolated from my fellow citizens,” he replied.
No one can forget the election of a neo-Nazi group like the Golden Dawn to the Greek Parliament. About the antisemitism that still exists in Greek society, Mayor Elisaf confided in me that he felt “uncomfortable”, admitting that “stereotypes still resonate with many Greeks today. Stereotypical conspiratorial antisemitism, for example, is widespread in the country. Ideas are circulated but few acts are committed, he said. He could not imagine real violence occurring, especially because of its “incompatibility with Greek history and traditions” and “the strong condemnations issued by the official Orthodox Church” when antisemitism arises.
Moses Elisaf was not only the mayor of his city but also the president of its Jewish community – a community with a long history of Romaniote Judaism, of which Ioannina is the capital and which is perhaps the oldest Jewish community in the Diaspora, dating back to Alexander the Great. The Romaniotes are Greek-speaking Jews, whose existence as a group predates the designations Ashkenazi or Sephardic. They form a unique community, with their particular architecture, with their particular customs and totally distinct from the other Jewish population in Greece. Their traditions are manifested in their own rituals, specific dietary habits, festivals not found elsewhere, and unique music and folk songs that Elisaf strove to preserve. As mayor and president of the community, his unique position was a source of honour and an additional challenge for him, because during his term of office he always tried to keep alive the Romaniote traditions, the heritage of all the inhabitants of Ioannina. We worked hard to safeguard the city’s Jewish monuments, such as its imposing synagogue and cemetery.
While many Jewish community leaders in Greece are reluctant to run for office, Elisaf did not hesitate to become mayor. During his long career as a doctor and university teacher, he had always been an active citizen, participating in the political, social and cultural life of his city. He had previously served several terms as a member of the city council, president of the Cultural Centre of Ioannina (2011-2014) and, above all, vice-president of the Circle for Political and Social Issues of the city, an active group from civil society. He managed to put aside divisions, ideologies and petty interests, which earned him great recognition among the population. In his answers to my questions, he said he had to “serve his fellow man selflessly and with unrelenting love.” Heir to a strong democratic culture, he considered it the duty of all citizens to participate in civic life in order to contribute, in their own way and according to their possibilities, to the common good.
Historically, the Jews of Greece formed several communities throughout the country. The Jewish population evolved and grew significantly after the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of 1492, when thousands of fleeing Jews found refuge in what is now Greece, notably in Thessaloniki, turning the city into a famous centre of Jewish learning and achievement. Under the Ottoman Empire they lived in relative peace under the millet system, which granted them autonomy in their internal affairs and exemption from military service, provided they paid their taxes.
In the 19th century, as the Ottoman Empire retreated, the young Greek state acquired new territories that included Jewish citizens. These Jews enjoyed equal rights, but their population remained relatively small. The situation changed in 1912, when Thessaloniki – of which the 80,000 Jews then formed a majority – became part of Greece. In the inter-war period, the state’s efforts to assimilate this population, the great fire of 1917 and the economic crisis of 1929 caused many Jews to leave the city. Only 50,000 Jews remained on the eve of World War II.
During World War II, approximately 85% of the Jewish population of Greece, which was then divided into 28 communities, was deported and perished in the Nazi death camps. 92% of the Jews of Ioannina were deported and murdered during the Holocaust, one of the highest percentages in Europe. With this disappearance, much of the city’s rich Jewish culture evaporated. Today, the city is home to a small community of 40 people “fighting against time for survival,” as Elisaf said. Keeping alive the memory and traditions of this community was a gruelling job, he wrote to me. He always had in mind the goal of making the city aware and proud of its rich Jewish cultural tradition and the decisive role of the Jewish presence in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the city through the centuries. “We are happy that the history of the Shoah now becomes a heritage of all the inhabitants of the city and especially of the new generation.”
Today, some 5,000 Jews live in Greece, divided into nine communities, mostly in Athens and Thessaloniki. They are very well integrated into the modern Greek state, have various professions and are very present in public life. Athens and Thessaloniki each have a Jewish primary school and a Jewish retirement home. In addition, there is a summer camp for all Jewish children in the country and many cultural, educational and social events with Jewish themes are organised every year. Greece has recently announced that it is developing – and will soon launch – a National Action Plan against antisemitism, in order to systematically tackle a long-standing and persistent concern of the Jewish community, which also undermines the rule of law and democratic institutions in the country. At the same time, the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens, the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki and the future Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki offer important educational activities throughout the year, while ensuring that Jewish traditions are documented and that the Holocaust is not forgotten.
His reply to my last question can be understood as a form of Jewish political testament. Regarding young Jews around Europe and who would be interested in being active in public life, he answered with unambiguous clarity. “My election has amply demonstrated that all citizens can run for any office, regardless of their religious or other convictions. And I want to use your question here to encourage our young co-religionists in Europe to participate in the political, social and cultural events of their countries, to be active citizens, to try to transmit the unique cultural characteristics of Jewish culture to the societies in which they live, without any attitude of either overreach or self-exclusion. Jewish communities need to see that society is open to them, and to set their sights on meaningful interaction with the multiple identities that make up today’s Europe.”
It is clear that with the passing of Moses Elisaf, Greece, Europe and the Jewish world are now orphaned. He was a beloved visionary, a bridge-builder, a Jewish activist — a man of many identities who symbolised the civic duty of citizens in today’s unified Europe. His hard work to preserve the unique heritage and traditions of Romaniote Judaism must continue so that they can be passed onto future generations, beyond those of the … 39 last Jews of Ioannina.
Leon Saltiel is a historian, specialising in the Holocaust in Thessaloniki. He is currently Director of Diplomacy, Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and to UNESCO, and Coordinator on countering antisemitism for the World Jewish Congress.