The Jewish Quarter
During the Turkish siege of 1716, Jews contributed to the Venetian war effort and two were noted for their bravery. August 6, the date the siege ended, was celebrated in the synagogue. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, some settled in Corfu. They and Jews expelled from Naples joined the small Italian community, which was mainly from Sicily and Apulia. Until World War II, there was constant friction between the Romaniote and Italian Jews in Corfu; they even maintained separate cemeteries. The two joined forces only for a few charitable or economic causes, for example, redeeming Jewish captives held for ransom in Malta. Until the 15th century, Jews lived within the Old Fortress, as did other residents, but later were forbidden to worship there. Newcomers lived outside the fortress in an area called Jews’ Mountain. During the Venetian period, Jews exported cotton, salt, wine, olive oil, etrogs, silk and gold fabric and works of art. They were also bankers, doctors and clerks.
Jews had close ties with the Land of Israel; in the 19th century, they collected money to buy land near Hebron. Corfu was a center of Torah learning and of the composition of liturgical poems, but most of the leading rabbis originally came from elsewhere. When Napoleon conquered Corfu in 1797, he gave the Jews equal rights. More Jews came from Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and by 1802 the community had grown to 1,229 (of 45,000 inhabitants).
But when Corfu became a British protectorate in 1815, though cultural life blossomed and magnificent buildings were erected, the Jews lost their civil and political rights. In 1856, a blood libel led to continuing attacks by Greeks. Nevertheless, Jews supported the unification with Greece in 1864, following which they received equal rights. Three Jews joined the city council, one became a mayor and one became a deputy mayor. But the new prosperity and political activity of the Jews aroused resentment, and a second blood libel was spread in 1891. A month-long pogrom ensued, which the authorities tried to control by keeping the ghetto under curfew. After this, about one-quarter of Corfu’s Jews immigrated to other parts of Greece and to Turkey, Italy, Egypt and England. Two blood libels, in 1915 and 1918, caused additional emigration. In the early 20th century, Zionist organizations were established and some Jews left for Palestine.
Of the four synagogues that existed in the ghetto before World War II, only the Greek one (La Scuola Greca) remains. The synagogue (open daily 10 to 4; Velisariou Street) is a yellow stucco, two-story structure with a gabled roof, built in the 18th century. In June 2002, 58 years after the deportation of Corfu’s Jews, a memorial plaque that bears their family names was placed inside the synagogue.
Several street names record the Jewish past. To the east of and parallel to the synagogue is Alvertou Koen Street (the Greek form of novelist Albert Cohen’s name). The next street, Lazarou Mordou, is named for a prominent Jewish doctor (Lazar Shabbetai de Mordo). And the next street after that is named Evraion Thymaton Nazismou—“Jewish Victims of Nazism.”
The Jewish Quarter is signposted and can be accessed either from the Old Port / New Fortress area or from the main street linking San Rocco Square and the Old Town.