The north of Greece is full of tourist attractions with stunning views like Switzerland, just about two hours flight from Tel Aviv, and with very low airfares and hotels. There are beautiful trekking in all levels of difficulty in forests alongside many streams and springs. Jewish travelers might be very interested to visit the town of Veria, which is about 30-40 minute drive from Salonika.
In the towns close to Mount Olympus there were once many small Jewish communities of Romaniotes. The first Romaniotes arrived in the region some two thousand years ago during the period of the destruction of our Temple. They were healthy and strong Jews from the Land of Israel who had been taken by ships to Rome to serve as slaves. At that time the ships sailed near the coastline. Some of the ships ran aground or sank, and some of their Jewish passengers jumped into the water and swam to the shore. They gathered together and joined up with other exiles from the Land of Israel who had wandered to the Balkans, and established small Jewish communities. The Jews of Thessaloniki said that the descendants of the Romaniotes are not Jews, because the original Romaniotes had married local Gentile wives, and therefore their children are not Jewish according to Jewish law. In contrast, the Romaniotes say that their ancestors converted their wives properly, and therefore they are kosher Jews.
The largest Romaniotes community was in the beautiful town of Yoanina, where some 2,000 Jews lived. In Veria there were 700 Jews. But all the local Romaniotes communities in the mountains of Greece were destroyed in the Holocaust, and there is no trace of the synagogues of those communities. 50 Jews returned from the Holocaust, but they all rushed to leave and moved to Israel and France. Today there is no Jewish resident in the town of Veria. In Jerusalem, in the Ohel Moshe neighborhood of Nachlaot, there is a synagogue of Romaniotes from Yoanina named "Beit Avraham and Ohel Sarah for the community of Yoanina".
Veria lies at a mountain surrounded by forest and woodland. When you approach Veria, it looks like Tiberias. The ancient Jewish quarter of Veria is called "Barbota", and some Greeks call it "Hevra", perhaps the preservation of the Hebrew name. Barbota is located on the bank of a river called Triputamus, which means "three rivers". The Jewish women of Veria used to dip in the stream. For their sake, a dressing and rest room was built on the steep bank, where they could change clothes, warm up a little, and drink hot tea or ouzo. They called it “The Mikvah”, even though the bathing itself was in the waters of the stream.
Years later, they built the second floor on top of the Mikvah, which served as a synagogue for generations. The synagogue was destroyed in an earthquake, and rebuilt in 1850. When the Nazis arrived, they destroyed this synagogue too. After the Holocaust, a few survivors returned to their homes and discovered their synagogue destroyed, except for the eastern wall and the Holy Ark that have remained intact.
Twenty years ago, the Greek government received a budget from the European Union for renovating historical sites. In this framework, the synagogue of Veria was also reconstructed and repainted in the exact original colors. The inner walls are painted a bright blue color. On the ceiling above the “Teva” table are the names of the four holy cities in the Land of Israel – Jerusalem, Tiberias, Hebron, and Safed. A testimony to the strong connection between the Veira’s Jews and the Jews of Israel in previous centuries. It is interesting that on the eastern side of the ceiling, in the direction of the Holy Ark, is not written "Jerusalem" but "Tiberias". Apparently the rabbis of Veria also noticed in their time the similar sound of the names of the towns.
The Holy Ark (Aron Kodesh) is painted in bright colors in shades of yellow and bright orange with green and blue stripes. At my request, the synagogue's keeper, Mr. Ezra Bakola, opened the Holy Ark with trembling hands of excitement. The “Aron” is empty and there are no Torah scrolls in it. Ezra Bakula says that before the Holocaust there were several Torah scrolls in the Holy Ark, and in the synagogue library there were many holy books; some were very rare. Two days before the Germans arrived in the town, the Gaba'im removed the holy books and hid them in a hiding place in the city. But they did not return from Auschwitz, and to this day no one knows where the books are.
From the window of the synagogue you can hear the water flowing in the stream about twenty meters below the wall of the synagogue, but you cannot see the water pouring down the slope because the thick trees hide it. You can breathe in clear mountain air deeply and smell the Palanatos trees. In the across the river we can see above the treetops floors of colorful houses of the Jewish neighborhood. I stood there and remembered the verses of "Barchi Nafshi": "Who sendest forth springs into the valleys; they run between the mountains… Let sinners cease out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the LORD, O my soul. Halleluya!”
In the corner of the synagogue there are two small benches and small tables that once belonged to the Jewish school in Barbota. On the wall behind them hung Greek letters in a childish writing. Crosses, hearts and children are also painted on few of them. I asked Ezra what this was.
He says that in 2013 Yad Vashem leaders organized a world campaign of "Every man has a name", in which people around the world read the names of those who perished. The municipality of Veria also received from Jerusalem a list of names of the local victims, and the mayor handed it over to Ezra, the synagogue keeper. Ezra recounts: "I wondered who would say aloud the names of 700 Jews of Veria who were murdered in the Holocaust?
"I saw on the list the names of 65 young children, and I went to the local school and told the teachers that the Holocaust was part of the history of the city, not just of the Jews. I invited them to a memorial service in the synagogue in two days. Each pupil was given a note with a name of a child who was murdered in the Holocaust, so that he can read his name aloud.
"At the end of the ceremony when they returned the notes, I had an idea: I told the students to take home the notes with the names of the children, and I asked each child to adopt the murdered child whose name he had read as a ‘pen pal’ and to write him a personal letter. Two weeks later, one of the teachers came here and brought me these letters, and I hung them on the wall."
Ezra Bakola maintains the synagogue voluntarily. He pays the electricity bills and cleaning materials from his own pocket and from tips of tourists visiting there. I left a nice tip there, and I recommend that all of my readers do the same.
And what will happen in the future?
"No Jew wants to come and replace me in maintaining the place and guiding the tourists. I am already 70 years old and I do not know how much long I can continue,” he tells me, his voice choking with tears.
The Greek Ministry of Tourism and the Municipality of Veria turned the Jewish neighborhood of Barbota into a tourist site, and they even printed a colorful booklet on the synagogue and the neighborhood. The synagogue is located on Olganou Lane. In order to reach the nearest parking lot, we have to tap on Waze: 10 Merarhias Street.
After visiting the synagogue, it is worthwhile to go wandering around the narrow streets. The Jewish neighborhood of Barbota is colorful and very picturesque, and its narrow alleyways and streets remind you of the alleys of ancient Safed. The renovation of the houses in the neighborhood has continued in recent years. The people of Barbota had the habit of painting a poster or a verse on the upper exterior wall of the house, under the gutter of the roof. For example, on the wall of the former rabbi's house, I saw a painting with the inscription "Remembrance of the destruction of 1882, 5642".
On the wall of another house in Barbota I saw a poster: "If I forget thee Jerusalem." Other houses also have posters in Arabic. Ezra says the renovators did not know what they were reconstructing. They treated the Hebrew text like a painting, and copied it in its exactly.
Across the river, about 10 minutes’ walk from the synagogue, there was a magnificent Jewish cemetery in an area that was once outside the city. Because of the town's expansion, today it is near the center of the city. On that location were built basketball and soccer fields, and the tombstones were moved and placed with dignity on the turbines surrounding the fields. The visit between the tombstones is very touching. I wandered among them and loudly read every deceased name that could be read of the tombstones. Then I stood and said Kaddish aloud to honor the souls of the Jews for those who no longer come to visit their graves. My escorts from the municipality and the Greek Tourism Ministry (non-Jews) answered "Amen" in the appropriate places.
I did not notice that a few children were playing. When they saw me saying Kaddish aloud, they stopped playing and answered "Amen!" after each verse from the Kaddish. When I finished, I approached them and asked if they were Jewish, and they said no. They understood that I was praying in a foreign language, and only absorbed the word "Amen," which they shouted after me.
The town of Veria also has two museums, one for archeology and one for the Byzantine period.
Veria's tourist authorities are proud of the many cathedrals and churches in the town. The city representative took me to visit some of them. The most important tourist site in the town is the Astropole Staircase. St. Paul, an apostle of Jesus, arrived in the year 50 AD, and above this staircase he delivered sermons to the inhabitants of the town and preached to them to convert to Christianity. An elegant wall with a golden mosaic was built around the Astropole stairs. The site is situated in the heart of a beautiful little park. Many Christians come from all over the world to visit.
I used to think that the “Shtibels” were invented in Poland and in Borough Park neighborhood of New York, but I discovered that the Christian inhabitants of Veria were ahead of us. About 600 years ago, the Muslim Ottomans conquered Greece and destroyed most of the churches, turning some of them into mosques. When the people of Veria heard that the Ottomans were approaching their town, they built houses close together in the form of a closed circle. In the combined back yard they built small churches for the families who lived there, hoping that the Ottomans would not notice these mini-churches. Some of these small "Shtibels" exist to this day and are still used for services.
When we’re leaving the town of Veria, it is recommended to continue west for about 10 minutes to Mount Olympus to the town of Vergina. The king of Greece, Alexander the Great, began here his conquests in the world, during which he conquered the Land of Israel in 332 BCE. Alexander the Great and his soldiers passed through the Land of Israel on their way to conquer Egypt, and returned via the coastal plain to Tire, where he established his headquarters.
In the Talmud (Yoma page 49), a dramatic encounter of Alexander the Great with Rabbi Shimon the President of the Jews is described:
On the twenty-fifth of Tevet, the day of Mount Gerizim was not a day of eulogy, the day that the Kutim (Sameritans) asked Alexander the Great to destroy the house of our God, and he gave it to them. The Jews informed Rabbi Simon the tsaddik. What did he do? He wore priestly clothes and all the night the Jews went from one side of the river, and these Greeks went on the other side. As the dawn rose, Alexander asked, "Who are these?" The Kutim said to him, "Jews who rebelled against you." When they arrived to Antiparos the sun shined. When Alexander saw Rabbi Shimon, he got down from his chariot and bowed before him. Rabbi Shimon said to him, “A great king like you will bow to this Jew?” He said "The image of this man wins me in a war house." Alexander said to them, "Why did you come?" Rabbi Shimon said, "Can a house where people are worshiping for your successes and survival of your kingdom, you will be mislead to destroy it? He asked, “Who is misleading me?” Rabbi Shimon replied, “The Kutim next to you.” Then Alexander declared, "Behold, they are devoted to your hands.” And that day was made a holy day.”
The historian Josephus Flavius also describes this encounter in his book The History of the Jews. There is also a famous painting by the painter Sebastiano Concha describing Alexander the Great in Jerusalem.
Alexander the Great's parents' graves were discovered in the birthplace of Alexander in Regina. The burial place of Alexander the Great himself is unknown. At that time, the dead were buried with a "way out" for the world to come, which included food and clothing and jewelry. Rich families buried their loved ones with expensive gold jewelry and tools. Thieves would dig in the graves for gold and valuables. When a king died, his wife and horses were buried alongside him.
The family of Alexander the Great set up a large high hill above the family tombs to hide the graves and to make it harder for the robbers. Archaeological excavations that were conducted there in the middle of the last century revealed the tombs that were identified as the graves of Alexander's father and mother. Today there is an impressive underground museum inside the hill, where the tombs and some of the gold treasures found there are displayed. The site was declared a UNESCO site.
From there you can continue to Olympus or go back to Salonika.
Many thanks to Mr. Charisaos Kalipidis, Director of the Greek Tourism Bureau in Israel, GNTO, and to Mrs. Patoulidon of Salonika for their assistance in researching for this review.