First Person: An incredible historic find: The Jewish Museum of Greece

by | Oct 1, 2018 | Uncategorized


One of the great things about being a journalist is traveling the world on story assignments. But it’s the remarkable people I meet, during my journey abroad, that fuels my passion for my profession.

I enjoy, for example, meeting people from diverse cultures and perspectives, and learning how their society has shaped their lives and culture. I especially admire visionary people, who have overcome great challenges and yet still carry hope in their hearts and a strong desire to leave posterity a proud legacy.

The Jewish Museum of Greece is one such special place.

The story

The Jewish Museum of Greece (JMG) is located in historic hub of Athens in the voguish Plaka District. The privately-owned, two-story, neoclassical building is easy to find. Its signature rose-pearl colored facade is reminiscent of a hybrid Spanish tea rose.

The museum, which was established in 1977, was initially housed in a room next to Beth Shalom Synagogue on Melidoni Street. The multi-talented Nikos Stavrolakis was one of the museum’s founders and its director, 1977–1993.

Stavrolakis is credited with creating and preserving the museum’s core collection of ethnic, religious, and historical documents and artifacts.

The first wave of donated memorabilia was painstakingly salvaged after World War II. New acquisitions such as religious vessels and exquisite jewelry, seized from the Jews of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace in 1943, also found refuge at the Jewish Museum.

The Jewish Museum was founded with the goal of collecting, preserving, studying, and exhibiting memorabilia. The Jewish heirlooms, made by artisans living in a world that no longer exists, are on display and profoundly touch one’s grateful heart.

“The Jewish Museum of Greece is not a Holocaust museum,” says Zanet Battinou, its current director. “It is a repository of historical and living memory—and of the religious practice of the Jewish communities of Greece.”

As precious donations continued to flow in from Jewish communities throughout Greece, the need for more museum space grew. With considerable financial support from the Greek Ministry of Culture (and the Associations of its Friends—including many other staunch supporters), the interior space was completely rebuilt into a 10-level structure. What resulted was a world class museum.

The interior design is an architectural wonder. A shaft covered by a glass dome wisely allows natural light to beam-in throughout the museum. Along the central axis of the skylight, a collage of intriguing angular shapes and structures are visible. With walls painted in soothing tones of offwhite and pale peach, the floors are covered with gorgeous natural wood and snowy white marble.

On March 10, 1998 the new museum was inaugurated.

The museum has also expanded its educational programs via more extended activities, more temporary exhibitions, creating special publications, and a strong focus on international relations and activities.

“We now have the most important Judaica library in Greece,” says Battinou. “It is extensive, with over 3,500 titles, in eight languages, and it’s open to the public to read at the museum.”

Today, the Jewish Museum of Greece is home to more than 8,000 artifacts and documents. And the dream of one-day giving back to posterity has become a reality.

If you go

The Jewish Museum of Greece Nikis 39, Athens 105 57, Greece website: Telephone:+30 21 0322 5582.

Did you know?

• The Hebrew name for Greece is Yavan.

• It is estimated that the earliest Jews arrived on the Greek mainland in the third century B.C.E.

• There’s a high probability that Jews traveled, or were forcibly transported to Greece via Cyprus, Ioninia, and the Greek Islands.

• The first Greek Jew known by name is “Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew,” a slave mentioned in an inscription dated 300-250 B.C.E.

• When Germany invaded Greece, on April 6, 1941, there were approximately 70,000 Jews living and thriving in Greece. At the end of the war, the Jewish population plunged to 10,000 broken souls.

Three Ways to Help the Greek-Jews

Greece is experiencing a sharp economic downturn and recovering from raging fires. Supporting the Jewish community of Athens will help maintain two magnificent synagogues, help the needy within the Jewish community and assist with the cost of armed security on Shabbat. 1. Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price of a purchase when registered at smile. Name a charitable organization (American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece) and shop like always. 2. Join the Jewish Museum of Greece online: 3. Become a member of the Sephardic synagogue, Beth Shalom, or the Romaniote synagogue, Etz Hayyim. Both synagogues and the Jewish Museum of Athens, are in the same eruv.

— Devorah Ben-David Elstein