First Ever Jewish Mayor Elected in Greece

A Jewish candidate has been elected on Sunday mayor of Ioannina, the main city in the region of Epirus, making him the first Greek-Jewish mayor in the country.

Running as an independent Moisis Elisaf won 50.3 percent of the vote in the second round of the local and regional elections.

Elisaf, a professor of pathology at the local university, has been the head of the local Jewish community for 17 years, and formerly also served as the head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

“Today, Ioannina made a huge change, a big leap of progress. I feel deep emotion and heavy responsibility towards all my fellow residents,” he said.

Ioannina’s Jewish community numbers just some 50 people today, but was once the center of the unique 2,300 year-old Romaniote Jewish tradition.

The Romaniote Jews, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, emerged from the first Jewish communities of Europe. Records indicate the first Jewish presence in Greece dating back to 300 BCE.

These Jews became known as the Romaniotes, speaking their own language, Yevanic, or Judeo-Greek, a version of Greek infused with Hebrew and written with the Hebrew script.

By the start of the 20th century, some 4,000 Romaniote Jews lived in Ioannina. But amid the economic hardship and the turmoil that accompanied the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, many joined their Greek compatriots and emigrated.

Most went to the United States and Palestine, setting up Romaniote synagogues in New York City and Jerusalem. Later, a third was established in Tel Aviv. At the start of World War II, about 2,000 Jews remained in Ioannina.

On March 25, 1944, the German Nazi occupiers rounded up the Jews of Ioannina and sent them to Auschwitz.

Only 112 Ioannina Jews survived the death camps. Another 69 escaped the roundup, hiding with Christian families or fleeing into the mountains, where some fought with the Greek resistance.

Only some 5,000 Jews remain in Greece today, with around 90% of Greek Jews having been killed in the Holocaust.