Text by Filia Xilas Pattakou
and Alexis Menexiadis
The First Cemetery of Athens is comprised of an Orthodox section (by far the largest part of the cemetery), a Protestant section, an Armed Forces section, and a Jewish section that is rarely used today.
The Jewish section occupies about two thousand square meters in the south west corner of the cemetery. It is protected with walls and has its own separate gate on Ilioupoleos Street. Today it is not open to the public and serves mainly as a place of religious pilgrimage.
I had the good fortune to meet Alexios Menexiadis at the Special Civic Registry where I work. He was conducting a survey to locate records of the names of Greek Jews who perished in concentration camps during the German occupation. Mr. Menexiadis made it possible for me to visit the cemetery along with Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, Seçil Öznur Yakan, the historian Eleni Kouki, and epigraphist specialist Anastasia Loudarou.
A Short History
The first Jewish community in Athens was well established by 1890. A significant number had come to Greece with King Otto. Romaniote Jews and Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal also came to Athens. Others came from Crete, Thessaloniki, Ioannina and Chalkida.
From 1884 to 1919 the Jewish cemetery expanded under the tenures of mayors Dimitrios Soutsos, and Spiros Mercouris. It expanded once more in 1916 and again in 1920 when Avraam Konstaninis and Anastasios Pappou brought adjacent property and donated it to the cemetery.
Some names from King Ottos’ era are Rothschild, Eskenazy, and the well known Yussurum family (an area near Monastiraki took their name). Also buried in the Jewish cemetery is Joseph Eliyia (or Joseph Kapoulia) an intellectual, poet, and member of the workers’ movement from Ioannina who had been brought to Athens in 1931 because of typhoid fever. He succumbed and was subsequently buried in the First Cemetery.
The poet Joseph Eliyia
Most of the graves have the Star of David and names etched in Hebrew. On many graves there are Hebrew epitaphs as well.
The text of the epitaph reads: 'This is the end/ be afraid of God and/ guard his commandments/ because this is everything for / man'.
The fact that there are tombs with palmettes, stelae, and small classical temples on pediments, all motifs common in the Orthodox section of the cemetery, shows that the Jewish community felt included in Athenian society.
Sculptor: Nikolaos Georgantis
Today the Jewish cemetery accepts very few new burials. One exception was Minos Matsas, the founder of the record company Minos EMI.
The 27th of January has been designated as the Day of Commemoration for the Greek Jews who were victims, Heroes of the Holocaust. In all of Greece, there were 59,000 victims.
In Athens the commemoration takes place in the forecourt of the Athens Synagogue near the site of the Keramikos Archaeological site. Nearby, a sculpture by Deanna Maganias was placed in 2010 on the site where the Athenian Jews were gathered together before deportation in 1944.
It consists of 7 marble pieces: six triangles and a large hexagon. (1)
It is a tombstone as well as a monument– meant to give a place of eternal rest to those who were not able to have their own graves.
(1) For more on the memorial, see https://www.koshergreece.com/templates/articlecco_cdo/aid/2217393/jewish/Holocaust-Memorial.htm