The Sephardic Community of Chios
(Kahal Kadosh Chios)
by Shelomo Alfassa
Historical population figures and Jewish political infrastructure for the period after the Iberian diaspora are not very common. However it is known that in 1566 Rabbi Jehiel Basan was called upon to settle a question of Jewish law. At the time of his decisions upon the matter the Jews numbered at least 300. In 1549 Calueran Albanell (a variant of the Jewish name Abravanel) was chosen as the Catalonian consul, and in 1566 Barcelona established a consulate on the island. By 1681 it was described that Spanish was the best known language of the Jewish population; and in this same year Aaron ibn Hayyin became their Chief Rabbi. In the Synagogue they read and chanted the Torah in Greek, but all writing on religious matters were written with Hebrew letters using Rashi script. These island Jews had their own cemeteries; many of the Jewish names written in Hebrew and Ladino on the headstones are still visible today.
Figure 5. Photograph of Chios demonstrating proximity to the Turkish mainland.
Many Jews who were headed east from Spain and Italy towards the Turkish mainland, ended up remaining on Chios. They took up residence in the fortress, and proceeded to expand the Jewish population; their community thrived over the next 300 years. In 1821 Chios participated in the revolt of Greeks against the Ottoman Turks, and the next year the Sultan gave orders to attack the island. An estimated 25,000 Greeks were killed and over 80,000 were enslaved. Those who escaped went to other islands or on to major cities around the world. Later, Jews, who supported the Turks, moved back into the fortress, and occupied it until a tremendous earthquake struck the island in 1881.
After the Turkish attack, and subsequent earthquake, most Jews fled the island for surrounding islands such as Levos, and Rhodes where they made their new homes. Chios was taken from the Turks by the Italian Army in 1912, and subsequently reunited with Greece a few years later. It was told that at the start of World War II, there was only one Sephardic family left, and they soon migrated to Palestine. The few families living on the island during World War II were deported.
Figure 6. Part of a document signed by the members of the Chios Jewish community in May of 1913 CE, shortly after the annexation of the island by Greece. It records a decision to nane the Christian governor of the island, Dimitrios Theodorakis, as honorary president of the Jewish Community. The seal is attributed to the Jewish Community of Chios: text in both Osmanlica (A) and Hebrew (B). Document source: Jewish Museum of Greece; overlay source: Auction catalogue, David Feldman, Zurich Switzerland.
End of a Community
The Jewish museum in Athens, as well as the Chios Byzantine Museum have some relics of the Jewish culture that once lived on the island. They also have many of the tombstones for the former Jewish cemetery, but nothing more. The cemetery was given to the Jews of Chios by Turkey in 1823, but by 1923 most of the Jews had left the island, and the cemetery was abandoned. During WWII many of the stones were removed and used as building material, however considerable number of them still remained. In 1957 the stones were presented to the Chios museum by the chief Rabbi of Athens.
Chios tombstone presented to the Chios Museum by the Athens Rabbinate in 1957 CE.
Inscribed on both sides (Hebrew and Spanish [shown])
Source of Hebrew Inscription: Argenti.
Translation Courtesy of Al Passy and Roz Drohobyczer Photo Source: CAHJP
It was at this same time the cemetery was deconsecrated and abandoned, as there was no Jews left on Chios. In 1960 the graves were removed, and all remains sent to Athens. The final location of these remains has not been located, but this is being researched at the time of this writing. There was a jail built over the cemetery grounds, and as of 1970 CE there was only one wall of the former cemetery fence, a small ruined chapel, and a couple of small stone monuments still standing. Today there is no Jewish community living on Chios (see figure 5.).
Figure 8. Letter dated July 5, 1999 from the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece confirming there is no current Jewish community in Chios.
Continue to Part 3.