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Remembrance of a forgotten community

Mishel Sarfatis

Translated by Norbert Porile

“We were all like brothers” exclaimed my parents in unison, referring to the Jewish community of Florina, located in northern Greece near the border with the former Yugoslavia.

The Encyclopedia Judaica mentions that in the 16th and 17th centuries there were Jews already living in Florina. Most of them came from Spain following their expulsion in 1492. The modern Jewish community was established in 1912 with several hundred Jews who came from the nearby Yugoslavian town of Monastir, now known as Bitola. They came in search of a better life.

Most of these Jews engaged in the sale of fabrics, clothing, and shoes, including the “charuji”, typical shoes worn by farmers in the Greek mountains. Others were artisans, carpenters, day workers, etc. There is no record of Jewish farmers, or beggars. Among the poorest Jews, one can mention a middle aged man who sold pistachios, which he weighed on a home made scale also used in the sale of eggs and roasted potatoes.

There were also itinerant salesmen who sold eggs, which they used to put in mud pots so that they could be roasted in the oven. Others sold the delicious “Kibapes”.

The Jewish quarter and its customs

The Jewish quarter of Florina was located in the river section of the town, specifically along Ipiru Street, to its South, along both banks of the Saculeba River, and along narrow alleys in that neighborhood.

The synagogue (Kahal), a small and old building, where the rabbi or Hochem officiated, was located on the banks of the river on Aberos street. The cemetery was located outside the town, in the foothills. Besides his religious duties, the rabbi also doubled as Mohel and Shochet. As if this wasn't enough, he also acted as school teacher, chiefly teaching reading and writing both in Greek and in Hebrew. Until 1925 he was in charge of nearly all primary education.

In the 1930's the community consisted of approximately 450-500 persons. They followed both the traditional religious observances as well as the traditional social customs in their lifestyle, hierarchy, and mutual aid. For example, in case of a wedding involving a poor bride, who typically worked as a maid in a Christian home and could not provide a dowry, the Hochem called on the rich Jews in town to underwrite the wedding.

A typical custom of the newly wed couple was to move their household and other trousseau items to their new home by horse drawn carriage. They were accompanied by musicians playing their mandolins and other instruments, and by other townsmen, who engaged in singing and dancing.

The economy and communal tasks

To support the charitable activities of the Jewish community, families were assessed contributions which varied with their economic status. Additional funds were raised at Saturday morning services by requesting donations for the privileges of being called to the Torah, carrying the Torah, and putting on the Rimonim.

Different groups were assigned the various tasks of aiding the needy. The Ozer Dalim were in charge of providing food to the poor, the Malbish Arumim collected clothing and shoes, and the Bikur Jolim visited the sick and the housebound.

In 1924-25 the civil authorities instituted the five day work week. This turned Saturday into the main shopping day of the week. Since the Jewish shopkeepers did not work on Saturdays their businesses suffered and many moved elsewhere.

Jews and Gentiles generally got along well in Florina. They lived in harmony and mutual respect. One unfortunate incident did occur in the 1920's. An anti -Semitic town official accused the Jews of having kidnapped a Christian child in order to use his blood to make Passover Matzohs. However, once the child was found near the town the Greek authorities fired the official in question.

Jews served in the Greek army to the same extent as the rest of the population. In the Monument to the Fallen in 1940-41, located in the main town square, the names of four local Jews are listed: Menajem Aharon, Testa Bension, Menachem Iosef, and Isaak Rajamin. It is worth noting that many Jews participated in social and political conflicts, and belonged to various political parties and partisan groups.

The end of the Jewish community

The Jewish community of Florina lasted until 1943. That is when the German occupying forces acted in the same way as they did against other Jewish communities in occupied Europe, deporting the Florina Jews to concentration camps and crematoria in Poland and Germany. Exactly ten days after the end of Passover (April 30, 1943) the Germans rounded up the Jewish inhabitants in the yards of schools No.1 and No.2 from where they were taken to the trains which carried them to their death. Some of those who realized what was about to happen to them fled to the mountains and saved themselves after many harrowing moments.

One member of the Jewish community collaborated with the Germans in an attempt to save lives. He convinced some Jews to tell the Germans where they had hidden their valuables. However, once this was done he was loaded on the same train as everyone else. All personal belongings were confiscated by the Nazis and Jewish homes and businesses were looted. Some of the local inhabitants participated in the looting. The few members of the Jewish community who managed to save themselves from the Holocaust subsequently left for different countries: Israel, United States, Brazil, and Chile. Only one Jew, Jacob Cohen, returned to Florina after the war. He later moved to Bolos, another Greek town, where he died after some years.

At the end of the war the buildings belonging to former Jewish residents were turned over to the Jewish Community of Greece. With a few exceptions, they were then sold at auction.

Today there are virtually no signs that Florina once had an active Jewish community. No street names or other public indications exist to mark their former presence. Only an occasional older resident remembers that Florina was home to a Jewish community, with its distinct practices such as the eating of Matzohs at Passover.

“Women, men, the old and the young, even babies, all were taken”. These terrible images persist in the eyes of my parents.

Table of Contents Spanish Text

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