The Jewish Community of Arta was one of the oldest in Greece, as was the case with all the Jewish communities of Epirus. Their settlement in the area dates back to the Hellenistic years, that is, the 3rd century BC, a period when the Jewish communities spread throughout Greece. They were integrated into the Greek city, linguistically and culturally, and were called “”Romaniotes”” and constituted the vast majority of the Jewish element until the end of the 15th century when the Sephardi Jews arrived from the Iberian Peninsula, after the persecutions of Portugal and Spain. Although the Romaniotes were assimilated by the Sephardic element in most cases, in Epirus (Ioannina, Arta, Nikopolis (Preveza later)), the Romaniote, ancient communities were in the majority until World War II.
The first written testimonies about the Jewish community of Arta come from the “”Book of Travels”” of Rabbi Benjamin ben Jonah, a Jew from Spain who traveled to Greece in 1173. Ben Jonah wrote that 100 Jewish families, who developed wonderful spiritual and religious activity, lived in the city.
This activity intensified during the “”Despotate of Epirus”” period, during which Michael II Komnenos Doukas (13th century) granted the Jews freedoms to develop economically and culturally. At the same time, the Synagogue, the so-called “”Greka”” was built. The Jewish cemetery started operating at “”Petrovouni,”” an area of 10.000 m2 on the Peranthi hill, which was granted to them by Theodora, wife of Michael II Komnenos and later a Saint.
The Jewish community continued to grow economically and be a powerful part of the Byzantine society of Arta until 1346, when Stefano Dusan, the ruler of Serbia, first persecuted these people.
After the conquest of Arta by the Turks in 1449, the Jewish community was privileged after being granted religious and economic freedoms. Shortly afterwards, between 1480 and 1494, Jews from Puglia and Calabria arrived in the city, as well as exiled Sephardi from Spain (1492). This contributed to the increase in the Jewish element, although the local Romaniotes did not integrate with the newcomers. The latter formed a separate community, founded the Synagogue “”Pouglieza”” (from Puglia), a Jewish school and charitable associations while creating a “”noble competition”” with their local compatriots.
The Jews lived in three separate neighborhoods that developed in the center of the city, “”Ochtho””, “”Tsimenta””, and “”Roloi””.
During the Ottoman rule years, the “”Evraika”” (Jewish in Greek) was one of the three main markets in the city, along with the Romiopazaro (Greek market) and the Turkopazaro (Turkish market), and extended from Monopolio Square to the castle. In fact, it was adjacent to the district of Monopolio. In 1777 riots broke out between Jews and Christian residents of the city over the weekly farmer’s market day, which took place every Sunday in Monopolio Square. Christians argued that Sunday was profitable only for the Jews, who ensured continuous earnings from the market every day, and demanded a change of day, which they achieved.
The testimonies about the number of Jews in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are probably not enlightening. The French architect-engineer Fusero mentioned when he visited Arta in 1780 that there were 200 Jews in the city. In 1806 Puckeville raised their number to 1,000, while Lick claimed to be just 50 people a year later.
After the city’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire, on the 23rd of June 1881, the Jews maintained their religious and economic freedom. A census of that period states that there were 800 people.
The Jews of Arta were pious, deeply religious, law-abiding, and coexisted peacefully with their fellow Christians. In 1881, a journalist’s comment in the newspaper “”Μη χάνεσαι”” is typical of this connection. He states, among other things: “”Apart from Christians, many Jews live permanently in Arta, willingly and faithfully fulfilling all the obligations of the law for the citizens. In these Synagogues, I saw praying evzones (soldiers), elegantly and casually wearing fustanella (traditional military kilt-like garment). They were Jewish soldiers… Hence and from personal experience later, the great sympathy that prevails between Christians and Jews in the city is clearly testified. The business acumen of the latter is widely known.””
The journalist’s comment agrees with the general behavior of the Romaniotes Jews, who, living for centuries with the Greeks, had adopted the language and cultural and traditional elements.
The most common surnames in Arta were Mionis, Johannas, Sampas, Ieremias, Mizan, Eliezer, Politis, Koulias, Ganis, Sousis, etc.
The professional interests of the Jews in Arta varied: There were 5 to 6 large and other small shops, such as leather and glass shops. Some were professional lamp makers, milkmen, butchers, peddlers, and seamstresses. There were also two teachers, a doctor and a civil servant. In 1911 a large commercial S.A. was founded under the company name “”Iohanas – Ganis – Chatzis & Co.””, which dominated the market for many years.
The Community maintained a Jewish school, on Filellinon Street, in the Jewish quarter. It had two large rooms. The first functioned as a food warehouse, mainly for wheat, distributed to the impoverished in winter. The other was divided into two smaller spaces. The first served as a classroom and the other as a meeting and cultural center. Two teachers taught Greek and Hebrew, while Jewish and some Christian students attended the school. Later, another school was established for the needs of the Community. During the Asia Minor catastrophe, the two Jewish schools housed refugees.
From 1920 the Jewish Community of Arta was recognized as a “”Legal Entity under Public Law”” and participated in all the public events of the city. According to the 1939 census, the Community had about 500 members, while during the German Occupation, it had 384.
On the night of the 24th of March 1944, the Nazis arrested most of the Jews of Arta and deported them to Hitler’s death camps. Few were able to escape. The fate of a Jewish family hiding in the village of Kommeno in Arta was also tragic since the Germans slaughtered them along with the village’s 317 inhabitants. These people were the 42-year-old Zakino Ieremias, his 37-year-old wife Eftychia, and their 5-year-old daughter Keti.
At the end of the war, 30 people returned from the camps, and 28 Jews managed to escape to the surrounding villages. The Community had lost 84% of its population. The old Romaniote Synagogue “”Greka”” was almost destroyed, as were the other community buildings. The Community was disorganized, and care was non-existent. The surviving Jews began to settle in other cities in Greece or emigrate abroad. In 1959 the Community was dissolved, and a little later, the Jewish cemetery was expropriated, while the Synagogue’s land was given to the Municipality.
Today, the Municipality of Arta organizes events in honor and memory of the historical course of Arta’s Jewish Community on the 24th of March, the anniversary of the arrest of the Jews of Arta.