The Jewish Quarter, Corfu

The Jewish Quarter

Jews have lived in Corfu since at least since 1160. They were persecuted by both Byzantine and Anjou rulers, but in the 14th century they obtained some rights, including documents of protection and exemption from most taxes. They owned land, including vineyards. They prospered under Venetian rule (1386-1797), lending money to the Venetian rulers, provisioning the army and even joining its ranks. They also financed public works, including construction of a bridge. But the local inhabitants kept attacking them and in 1622 the Doge ordered the Jews to move to a ghetto for their protection.

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.

On the eve of World War II, Corfu had 2,000 Jews, two-thirds in the Italian community and one-third in the Romaniote. Under the Italian occupation, from April 1941 to September 1943, the Jews were relatively safe. But then the Germans invaded. By April 1944, they had lists of all the Jews, who had to attend frequent roll calls on the Spianada (esplanade). On June 9, some 1,800 Jews were brought to the Kato Plateia (lower square) and then held nearby in the Old Fortress, where they were forced to hand over their valuables. By June 17, all had been transported by sea and land to Athens. From there they were taken by train to Auschwitz, where 1,600 were immediately sent to the gas chambers. The few survivors were joined in Corfu by survivors from other places, in total 185 souls. By 1948, there were only 125 Jews, and by 1958 only about 85.

Close to the entrance to the New Fortress stands a bronze Holocaust memorial consisting of a nude group: a woman cradling an infant and a man seemingly helpless to protect a boy who hides his face in the man’s thigh. This sculpture, by Georgios Karahalios, on a stone base was erected in 2001 by the city and the Jewish community. A plaque on the memorial states “Never again for any nation.”

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.

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