Romaniote Memories: A Jewish Journey from Ioannina, Greece to Manhattan: Photographs by Vincent Giordano

Bet Chaim Jewish Cemetery in Ioannina

The Jewish cemetery in Ioannina is entered from Mega Alexandros Street in the Agia Triada section of the city. It is the most recent of several Jewish burial grounds and the only one still identifiable.

The graves are like Greek Christian burials with raised stone tomb-like markers. But unlike some Christian burials where remains are entombed above ground, Ioannina Jews scrupulously follow Jewish burial custom of inhumation (full burial). The above ground tombs are just markers above the graves.

The original cemetery was outside the walls of the fortified city (the Kastro), near the marketplace. Though nothing remains of that cemetery, it is believed that at least some of the gravestones, perhaps going back to the 13th century, were transferred to subsequent cemeteries. In 1892, a later Jewish cemetery was desecrated by the Ottoman authorities and the main site of Jewish burial was transferred to the outskirts of the city, in an area called Kalkan. This later cemetery was leveled in 1922 to build homes for Greek refugees from Asia Minor.  Gravestones were then transferred to the field known as Gem, which is the site of the present Jewish cemetery. This was an eight-acre field bought by the community from the Ottoman Turkish Despot, Ali Pasha, in the early 19th century that is now the walled Bet Chaim (House of the Living) Jewish Cemetery owned the Ioannina Jewish Community.

At the entrance to the new cemetery is the inscription (translated from the Hebrew):

The Almighty Who dwells among us has allowed us to erect a wall around this field so they (the deceased) may repose in the land of the living; for the consecration of the Society of the Righteous (Hevra Hesed) and with the notables of the day.

Only part of the cemetery area has been used for burials because so many of the community were killed at Auschwitz and elsewhere during the Holocaust and never received burial. There is a marble memorial for those victims of the Holocaust, erected in 1999 by the Council of the Jewish Community of Ioannina and sponsored by the Kabili Leon family.

As was the custom, older burials were towards the rear of the cemetery. Tombstones from former cemeteries are set in the far rear of the left side of the cemetery. The oldest gravestone discovered thus far is that of Rabbi Aaron Matathia Halevi and is dated 1426. A second gravestone of similar style is for Matathia Joseph Halevi. These stones were not yet rediscovered when Vincent Giordano last visited Ioannina.

The area of the cemetery was originally outside of the city, but Ioannina has grown and expanded its boundaries over the years. Because under Greek law, burials cannot take place within the city limits, the City of Ioannina tried unsuccessfully in the 1960s to expropriate the Jewish cemetery land. In the 1990s, as a gesture of good will, the community ceded a plot of unused cemetery land at the far right of the cemetery to the municipality for use as a public playground and park.

The cemetery was vandalized in 2002 and 2009 and at other times. The community then raised the height of the surrounding wall. 

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