History

The first written testimony of the Jewish presence in Corfu is found in the "Itinerary" of the Spanish Rabbi Benjamin Ben Yonah, who wrote that, during his visit to the island of Corfu in1160, he met a Jewish dyer named Joseph. It is not until the next century, however, that a Jewish presence of importance is recorded for Corfu. That community seems to have been made up of Romaniote Jews from the mainland or from Anatolia.

Corfu was taken by Charles I of Anjou in 1272, who gave it to his son Philip I of Taranto shortly afterwards. He carried on a lenient and somewhat protective policy towards the Jews: Shabbat was to be respected, Jews were no longer required to act as public executioners, or to do forced labor on galleys. These laws remained in force until 1368, when the island was seized by Venice.

Venetian policy, however was less lenient: By 1406, a ghetto was established, and Jews were required to wear a yellow badge. Nonetheless, by the end of that century, there was a large influx of Jews to the island in wake of their expulsion from Spain. Sephardi Jews settled in, as did a significant number of Italian-speaking Jews from Apuleia. These new arrivals formed a distinct congregation and built their own synagogue, name the “Puliezi”.


By 1524, the Sephardi-Italian community had become quite large, and when the Venetians decided to enlarge the fortifications of the city, the ghetto was moved to the site it now occupies.
The two congregations, Romaniote and Sephardi, remained distinct: in fact, the Romaniotes never came to term with the new arrivals, and jealously protected their traditional rights and privileges, and it was not until 1662 that these were extended to their Sephardi brethren.
Despite both inner and outer pressures, the community continued to grow: it is estimated that by 1522 there were over 1000 Jews here, and by 1663 a reliable census put their number at 2500. By this time, the majority of the Corfiote Jews were Italian, and an Apuleian dialect heavily laced with Greek was the common language.

During the 18th century, Jewish fortunes improved and many rights of considerable importance were achieved. Jewish were especially active in both the medical and legal professions. Much of this change of attitude on the part of the Venetians was the consequence of the active role played by the Corfiote Jews in the defense of the island against a Turkish attack in 1716.

In 1797, following the dissolution of the Venetian Republic, Corfu was taken by the French, and their occupation lasted until 1815 (with a small break). During this period the Jews enjoyed the rights of complete emancipation that were part of the ideological framework of the French Revolution. Christians, both Greek and Italian, considered it as a humiliation that Jews were on equal footing with them and this gave rise to many serious anti-Jewish incidents.

In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, Corfu was ceded to Great Britain, and almost immediately Jewish fortunes declined. For reasons that are unclear, the British took a very severe position against the Jews, supporting the Greek Christians in their antipathy toward them. Jews were forbidden to serve at the bar, and neither allowed to run for, nor to hold public offices of any sort. Further restrictions curtailed their public appearance in cafes and clubs. The pent-up frustrations of the Greek Christians were unlashed once again during the Holidays in the form of riots and public humiliations.

By 1831, Corfu had some 4,000 Jews. Regardless of the restrictions put upon them by the British, the community maintained its schools and produced a number of prominent individuals.
In 1863, Great Britain ceded Corfu to Greece. Even though some leading families preferred to emigrate (mostly to Trieste or Italy), the community continued to develop. Joseph Nahmuelli established a printing house in Corfu at about this time and began the publication of the Chronika Israelitika. He brought out a good number of bi-lingual books in Greek and Hebrew, as well as a Siddur.

Corfu was not saved from the pernicious blood libel attacks that broke out throughout Greece from the mi-part of the 19th century onwards. The violence that struck against the Jews let over 1500 of them to leave Corfu in a matter of days. At almost the same time, the community was struck by a serious economic blow: for centuries the Jews of Corfu had exported fine Etrogim (cedar for the celebration of Sukkoth) to all of Europe. But questions were raised about the purity of these etrogim by several Eastern European Rabbis, and this led to an economic disaster, which resulted in further emigration.

In 1941, with the Axis occupation, Corfu was put under Italian occupation and the Jews fared neither better nor worse than the Greek Christians. But in 1943, Germans assumed control of the island. The 2000 members of the Jewish community for the most part were living within the confines of the old ghetto. In June 1943, the Jews were arrested suddenly and all but about 200 people (who managed to find refuge among Christians in surrounding villages) were sent to Auschwitz. Almost all of them ended their life there. Those who did survive returned to re-establish some sort of community after the war. But it has functioned without a resident Rabbi since that time.

Based on Jewish Sites and Synagogues of Greece -

Nicholas P. Stavroulakis and Timothy J. DeVinney - Talos press