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01 December 2014

The Jews of Zakynthos

Zakynthos, or Zante as it is sometimes known, is located at the southernmost tip of the Ionian Islands, off the western side of Greece. The Jewish history of the area most likely dates at least into the late 15th century. We do know for sure that when visited in 1522, the Island had over 30 Jewish families and its own synagogue.
In the 1560's, visitors to the island found 20 heads of families, most of either Sicilian or Portuguese origin on the island. They were for the most part wealthy merchants who were heavily involved in the maritime trade that was happening between Venice and Constantinople. These Jews appeared to live under some form of restriction, as
they were forced to live in a ghetto and as early as 1518, had to wear a Jewish identification badge.
The first known Rabbi of the community was Joseph Forman who was from Seres, in Macedonia. By 1686 the population of the Jewish community was a little more than 1,000 people.
By 1700, there were 2 synagogues in the city of Zante, the first was the Zante Synagogue and the second, built in 1699 was the Candia Synagogue. Over time, the area was under the control of other groups which led to various restrictions put upon them, such as being forbidden to participate in the politics of the island or not being allowed to join guilds or trade associations. By the early 1890's the Jewish population had dropped to about 150.
Zakynthos would also become a place known for the historic act to protect the Jews.  At the outbreak of World War II, there were about 275 Jews in the community. The Nazi's occupied Greece and requested a list of all the Jews in the community for deportation to the camps. The mayor, Lukas Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos refused to provide the names. Instead,  they hid the Jews in the rural areas outside the town. Because of their heroic actions, every Jew of Zakynthos survived the war. Statues of these two brave men stand on the site of the that first synagogue, and in 1978, Yad Vashem, honored them with the title of "Righteous among the Nations".

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