The jewish community of Volos, Greece, by Dr Ilan Karmi with Elias Frezis

Out of Jewish Communities of the Balkan : a series of reports edited by Dr Ilan Karmi, Saloniki.

On 22/11/92, the Jewish Community of Volos conducted a special event on the occasion of the 500th anniversary for the arrival of Spanish Jews to Greece. The program was held in honour of the Jewish Community of Saloniki, attended by many members of the Saloniki Community as well as members of other Jewish Communities from all over Greece. The program, directed by Mr Elias Frezis, included the following : Introductory remarks by the community President, Mr Raphael Frezis, the Vice President, Mr Elias KOnes, greetings by Mr A. Sefiha on behalf of the Saloniki Jewish community, lecture about the Jewish Community of Saloniki by Mr Alberto Naar, and a slide presentation about Jewish monuments of Saloniki by Dr Ilan Karmi. In addition, there was a presentation of photos describing the Saloniki Jewish Community borrowed from the moving exhibition on The Jews of North Greece, first presented in Saloniki in April 1992. Concluding remarks and greetings were made by representatives of neighbouring Jewish communities as well as central Greek-Jewish organizations.

This event served as an opportunity to introduce the small, yet vibrant Jewish Community of Volos. Located on the sea shore of Thessalia, surrounded by beautiful mountains and charming bay, the Jewish Community of Volos has always been known for its contribution to Jewish cultural and spiritual life, setting as a model of Orthodox-Jewish peaceful coexistence. The community's members have always been deeply integrated within the local cultural and economic life. Side by side with their Orthodox neighbours, they experienced the various political and natural disasters which the city underwent. And, it was thanks to their fellow-citizens' support, that they managed to survive.

Jewish presence in Volos is dating back to the 6th century A.C., as recorded in various sources, such as Greek accounts and ancient gravestones discovered in the vicinity of the city. Jewish sources from the Hasmonean period (200-135 BC) refer to this area as one of the Greek regions settled by Jews. The 12th century traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, found there about 400 Jewish families. Under the Ottoman rule (16th-18th centuries), the local Jews were prosperous financially and culturally, setting as a model of a successfull community for other Jewish communities in the area. Volos, too, got its share of Sephardim, though the Romaniot element remained dominant up to our days. The 1881 taking over of the city by the Greek army further strenghtened the local Jewish presence, now taking active part in the city's commercial and social life.

A good example was that of the Levy Textile Factory, the largest factory of its kind in the Balkan - as we learn from a 1324 report of a Keren Le'Israel delegation who visited Volos. The visitors expressed their admiration of the community members' commercial and philanthropic activities.

By that time, the local Jewish communities was organized as an official body under the Presidency of Gullielmo Fortis. This development was followed by the formation of several associations, including the 1910-formed Zionist Association, "Poalei Zion", "Ahavat Reim" (formed 1907), "Ozer Dalim" (1910) and "Agudath Ahim" (1920). In addition, the community set committees in charge of the functioning of its institutions : the 1870-established Synagogue, the cemetery which was erected in the late 19th century, and so on.

A local Jewish school, initiated by the local community and sponsored by the Alliance IsraĆ©lite Universelle, started its operation in 1864. Not only that this school was attended by many Orthodox children, but it was also requested to unite both schools, the Jewish and the Ortodox, into one institution. The progress of the Jewish students was so remarkable, that - as recorded by the Alliance headquarters - the Jewish community of the neighbouring city of Larissa demanded the transfer of the Volos Jewish school into its locality, together with its teachers and the director! A further Jewish school, as well as Yeshiva were established in 1894, under the direction of Rabbi Pessah. In 1930 and 1933, the sports team "Hakoah" and the scouts club "Maccabee" were founded respectively. ÂÂ. All these institutions andassociations ceased to operate in the Holocaust.

The harmonious picture was interrupted with the starting of WorldWar II. Like the rest of their co-religionists, Volos Jews too took an active part in the resistance efforts, offering their services to the Greek army. Not a few of them were killed and injured in the front. The actual persecution of the local Jewish population started with the fall of the city in German hands, following the surrender of the Italian forces who controlled the area up to October 1943.

Thanks to the support of the local Orthodox population, authorities and church, the majority of the Jews managed to save their lives, taking refuge in the surroundings villages. 136 members of the community were, nevertheless, caught by the Nazis and sent to death camps. Several more were killed in the course of military actions and hardships. Most young Jews joined the Greek underground, contributing much to the resistance efforts.

With the liberation of Greece, October 1944, the Jews of Volos returned to their city, facing the plundering of their businesses and the destruction of their Synagogue. Supported by local and external Jewish organizations, assistance was supplied to the sick and the needy. The Synagogue was restored and the community life was revived. The 1948 establishment of Israel brought about a massive immigration to the Jewish State. Once again the community was shocked with the severe 1955 earthquakes wich destroyed the Synagogue, the comunity offices as well as many houses and shops. Though this time too all was restored, many members chose now to leave for other destinations, mainly for the United States.

Of the distinguished members of the Volos Jewish Community the following should be mentioned : the late Chieh Rabbi Moshe Pessah ( 1869-1955), a legendary figure who served as a spiritual leader during the difficult years. For his services, Rabbi Pessah was awarded with medals by King Georges II (in 1939), by the British Allied Headquarters (1945) and by the Greek State (1952). Rabbi Pessah was replaced by Rabbi Joseph Vital, who served in his post until his 1985 demise. Also to be mentioned are Moyse Koffinas who served as President of the city's Municipal Council and a member of the Greek Parliament, the banker Varouch, and the educator Sarina Mizrahi. Presently, the strong-135 membered community is directed by an Administrative Board headed by the President Raphael Frezis. Regular services are conducted in the ornament synagogue. Various social and cultural activities are taken place in the attached club. Though no longer having a local Jewish school, the Jewish children are being given weekly Hebrew lessons by Mrs Allegra Frances, a teacher at the Jewish school of Saloniki.

The community members are well involved in all activities maintained by central Jewish organizations. Following the example set by their parents, the Jewish young generation is renowned for its involvement in national-based Jewish cultural activities. Thus,the President's sons, Victor and Elias, are active in the Greek "Jewish Youth Organization and the Hellenic-Jewish Chorus. Often,the generous local Jewish community hosts meetings held by GreekªJewish Youth Organization.

The community operates a cemetery containing few hundreds gravestones, including ancient ones which were transferred from the old cemetery. Two streets are bearing Jewish names : Moisseos St, to honour to the area where the Synagogue is located, and Palestine St, named after the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

(Note : Special thanks to the members of the Jewish Community of Volos for their assistance, and particularly to the President, Mr Raphael Frezis, and the Vice President, Mr Elias Kones, as well
as to Mr Alberto Naar of the Jewish Community of Saloniki).

The restoration of the Synagogue in 1945 Chief Rabbi Moshe Pessah (1869-1955) The Board of the Jewish Community of Volos (1992)

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- Copyright © 1993 Moïse Rahmani - Institut Sépharade Européen