Chalkis is the capital of the island of Evoia, one of "The large islands" (Evoia, Cyprus, Crete) according to Prophet Joshuah and (one of the most distinguished), according to Philon of Alexandria. The Romaniote Jewish Community of Chalkis may not be the oldest one in Greece, but it is the only one in Europe that has been living in the same city for 2,500 years without interruption. It is active in the city's life and has therefore naturally written a history of its own.
It is said that the name of the city derives from the Semitic root "chalek", which means "to split up". It also means gravel or piece of land, as Professor Eleftheriadis argues.
The Jewish presence in Evoia and especially Chalkis goes so far back that it is assumed that the first Jews arrived after 586 B.C. It was possibly the pirates who followed the Phoenicians as merchants, when the latter came to Greece and passed by Evoia on their way to Thebes. During the Hellenistic period the Jews were no doubt settled and organized in communities mainly in Chalkis, according to the authors G. Fteris, Papakyriakou, Philippopoulos and Metropolitan Bishop Themelis.
Travellers also testified on the Jewish presence and a Jewish community in Chalkis during the Byzantine period, during the Venetian domination (1205-1470) and during the Ottoman Occupation (1470-1833).
In 1159 the Spanish traveller Rabbi Benjamin Ben Yonah of Tudela visited the city and wrote in his itinerary that 200 Jews (some say 200 families) lived in Chalkis. He discovered that there was no anti-Semitism in Greece, the Jews of Chalkis had always lived within the fortress, they only spoke Greek and it was hard to distinguish them from the other inhabitants. They had even organized a settlement of their own with a Synagogue in the middle. He met with three Rabbis, Rabbi Elijah Valteri, Rabbi R. (maybe Raphael) Emmanuel and Rabbi R. Kalev, head of the settlement.
While Venetians and Lombardians inhabited Chalkis, at that time called negroponte, the Jewish Community flourished and its members were involved in business, wine export, industry; some were artisans, dyers and silk manufacturers.
Unfortunately, however, by the end of the Venetian domination, wars, famine and heavy taxation had impoverished the Community. Jews were still involved in trade, but had no civil rights, did not participate in the administration and were forced to act as executioners. The Turks had the same policy in store for them.
In 1470 the Fortress was seized by Mohammed the Conqueror. A terrible massacre followed. The Janissaries helped people escape in exchange of gold and many Jews fled to Thebes that had a very large Jewish community. As of that time, Chalkis, including the Jewish Community, went through a period of decline, hard exploitation, brutality and terror, in addition to being inflicted by a merciless plague.
The 1821 Revolution and the idea of the Revolution, matured in the land of Evoia. The Jews followed the fate of all other residents of the city.
G. Fousaras and G. Philippopoulos mention that two Jewish families, the COHENS and the KRISPIS became members of Filiki Etairia (the Society of Friends). These were great, powerful and highly educated families. A member of the Krispi family was Kriezotis' chieftain, who fought on the side of Theodoros Kolokotronis.
In 1840, when Evoia was part of the Greek state, the first urban chart of the Fortress was drawn. 455 real estate properties were listed, 51 of which belonged to Jews. The Community numbered 400 members.
In 1894 the Jewish Community had 52 families and 284 members, according to a document letter that the Community had sent to the American Jews asking for assistance. The reason for this appeal was the big destructive earthquake that demolished almost the entire city. During that period many Jews moved to other communities such as Volos and the Community was reduced to 170 members.
In 1940, in the Greek - Italian war one of the first Greek officers who fell heroically in battle was a Jew from Chalkis, Colonel Mordechai Frizis. We are one of the few communities that lost only 22 out of 327 members. We owe this to the protection we were given by our fellow citizens, the National Resistance Fighters and by the Metropolitan Bishop Grigorios, who hid sacred objects belonging to the Synagogue inside the Metropolitan Church.
JEWISH QUARTER - SYNAGOGUE - JEWISH LIFE
When the Jews arrived in Chalkis they settled in the Northeaster part of the Fortress (that was inhabited from 500 B.C. until 1890 when it was torn down), near Ano Pyli (Upper Gate) that was named Pyli ton Ioudaion (Gate of the Jews). Ano Pyli Street (today called Kotsou Street) ran through the Jewish quarter down to the crossroad between Papanastasiou Street and M. Frizi Street.
View of Chalkis. The arrow points at the spot where the
Synagogue is located. It can be seen through the tops of the tall,
perennial cypresses that dominate in the synagogue's yard.
The Synagogue is on Kotsou Street. It is unknown when the first synagogue in Chalkis was constructed. In 1854, during the Holy Week a great fire destroyed the synagogue. In 1855 it was re-constructed in the same size with funds offered by the Duchess of Plaisance (Sophie de Marbois).
Throughout the centuries, every time the synagogue was burned down a new one was immediately reconstructed on the same spot. However, the 1854 fire destroyed all of the Community's archives, library, a large number of poetry manuscripts and a large number of invaluable relics and donations. Only three old Scrolls were rescued due to superhuman efforts. The votive steles that are built in the walls of the synagogue provide the most important data related to it.
Synagogue of Chalkis.
Painting by N. Engonopoulos
The Synagogue of Chalkis today
The old and the new cemeteries of Chalkis are located in the same area, in a space of 17,000 m2 (about 4 acres), on Messopion Street (which the Municipality of Chalkis has lately renamed Ellinon Evraion Martyron (Greek Jewish Martyrs') Street.
Jewish Cemetery, graves after the re-construction works
Between 1990-2000 about 600 old graves underwent restoration and conservation works. Through the tombstones, most of which belong to rabbis, one may discover that the Community had been a spiritual center, justifying the name it was given, 'little Tsfat' (a spiritual and Cabalistic center in Northern Israel). This title was also given to communities such as Thessaloniki and Patras.
The tombstones of the Jewish cemetery also prove the presence of a large number of Spanish Jews who settled in the community of Chalkis but did not assimilate to the Romaniotes. However, they certainly contributed to the greatest possible extent to the spiritual and economic prosperity of the Community.
From the findings in the Jewish Cemetery, the tombstone of Rabbi Maltis
The cemetery includes a hall for funeral services, a washroom, the guard's house, and an old building which was renovated and houses the findings of the cemetery, like a museum. This was originally the guard's house. Its construction was sponsored by Ferdinand Rothchild in 1897 when he visited Chalkis. In the Fall of 1999 the ceremony for the placement of the Mezuzah was held in the renovated building.
A Memorial in the memory of the victims of the Holocaust has been erected in the same area. The busts of the late Metropolitan Bishop Grigorios and Colonel Frizis stand on each side of it. The memorial and the busts were unveiled in June 2000 in a ceremony in which the Municipality of Chalkis, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and the Jewish Community of Chalkis participated. At this point we have to underline that one more bust of the War hero M. Frizis is erected on a square near the old bridge of Chalkis. In addition, a section of Siokou Street is called M. Frizis Street and a square opposite the Fire Brigade building bears the same name.
THE COMMUNITY TODAY
After the liberation, in 1945, many Jews left and settled in Athens, Israel and the United States. In spite of this, the Community was re-organized and functions normally. Unfortunately today it only has 66 members.
It is a legal body under state law of religious and charity nature and administered by a five-member board elected every three years.