Jews have been living in Serres since the early history of the city; it would be even more appropriate to say that Jews met the history of Serres while the city was growing and was established as the largest commercial center of Eastern Macedonia.
A Greek-speaking Romaniote Jewish community existed in Serres since the Byzantine era. Rabbi Benjamin Ben Jonah, from Tudela, Spain, who visited the region of Eastern Macedonia around 1162, noted the existence of Jews. In the middle of the 15th century, part of the community resettled in Balat, Istanbul, motivated by Mohammed the Conqueror who sought to enrich the populationwise devastated Istanbul with healthy and flourishing elements. The Synagogue of Serres remained in Balat until it was destroyed in a fire in the end of the 19th century.
These were the Romaniote Jews whom the Spanish speaking Sephardic Jewish refugees met when they came from the Iberian Peninsula and settled in large cities of the Ottoman Empire and consequently in Serres.
The Sephardic Jews soon absorbed the Romaniote community, imposed their own culture and brought economic development and spiritual glamour such as the Kabalistic tradition to the Jewish community. They built the magnificent Great Synagogue, Ka'hal Gadol, as well as a Rabbinical library, a religious school and a primary school.
There was a period of decline until 1896; then the city was connected to the railway and this resulted to a period of prosperity and development for the city of Serres and consequently for the Jewish community.
The Balkan wars crippled Serres. The city was burned and ruined. The Jewish community started dwindling, its members dispersed. Many of them moved to Drama and Kavala.
In the period between the two World Wars, in spite of its decrease in population, the Jewish Community of Serres remained active. It is worth mentioning that the first importers of cinematography in the city were businessmen Simantov, Ovadias and Kabilis.
Generally, in the modern times, the Jews of Serres were proletarian tobacco workers, shop owners, tobacco merchants and wealthy businessmen.
The next turning point for the history of the Jewish community was the Bulgarian Occupation between 1941-1944. The Jews of Serres refused any kind of collaboration with the Bulgarians when they were asked for it. As a matter of fact, the reply of the Community Board was as follows: "We were born in Greece. Greece is the land of our fathers. We are Greek. We will not take another nationality for any reason and for any reward".
The last turning point was the terrible night of March 3rd 1943, when the Bulgarians assembled the Jews in a tobacco warehouse, just outside the city. A few days later they began the one-way journey. Many of them drowned in Danube when the boats that carried them turned over. Those who did not perish in the river were turned into ashes in the death camp of Treblinka. The few Jews of Serres who survived owe their lives to the forces of the National Resistance.
At this point, the exemplary humanitarian attitude of the people of Serres must be mentioned: None of them showed up to buy the Jews' belongings in the auction that the Bulgarians had organized.
After the War only 3 Jews lived in Serres. What is left today to remind of the passage of Jews in the city? What is left today in order for the residents to be able to explain why their Jewish fellow citizens left and what happened to them?
The old Hebrew school is still standing there. Once, the Synagogue was standing in its backyard. Today it is a primary school, known in the city as "the Jewish school". Some people still remember Alberto - Reuben Priznalis, a well-known merchant of the city who survived by joining the guerillas in the mountains. Priznali's daughter, a pharmacist, is still there, the last member of a lost community. A marble signpost was hung by the Municipality of Serres in the former Jewish school, in a special ceremony that took place on March 5th 2000, to honour the 476 Jews of Serres, "FOR THE UNJUST AND INHUMANE EXTERMINATION OF THE FLOURISHING GREEK JEWISH COMMUNITY OF SERRES BY THE FASCIST BULGARIAN OCCUPATION FORCES". The Municipality took one more initiative, which was to hold special events annually to commemorate the Holocaust of the Jews of Serres.
Memorial plaque hung in the former Jewish school of Serres, today
housing the 6th and 16th Municipal Primary schools of the city
The resolution passed by the Municipality, defining
March 4th as the Annual Memorial Day for the Jews of Serres