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

The Old Synagogue

The Kahal Kadosh Yashan Synagogue on Justinianos Street in the city of Ioannina, in Northern Greece, is located inside the walled Kastro, near the Big Gate.  

The Levy, Negrin, and Koffina families, among others, worshipped here.  Amongst Ioannina Jews, they were called insiders (mesinoi), because they lived and/or worshipped inside the Kastro.

The synagogue property is enclosed by a stone wall, and this complex probably replaced an earlier synagogue on the same site. The synagogue has a square plan, that is divided by eight interior columns connecting with arches. At the eastern end is a neo-classical ehal (ark) and opposite, at the western end is an elevated bimah (reading platform). The original women’s section (mechitzah) is a balcony on the northern side. The devan-like benches are parallel to the central axis of the building. A box behind each seat would have held a congregant’s prayer shawl, prayer book, and tefillin (for the men’s morning prayer). Along the walls of the interior are a series of plaques inscribed with the names of those Ioannina Jews killed in the Holocaust. This interior design conforms to the Romaniote tradition (with some Venetian and older local influence).

The building retains its original form, though it was restored in 1881 and in 1987. The synagogue survived the German occupation because of the efforts of then-mayor Demetrios Vlachides, who persuaded the Germans that the building would be used as a library and that the sacred materials would be removed to the municipal museum. A plaque inside the synagogue honors Mayor Vlachides.

The Germans took synagogue furniture, decorations, and chandeliers, but other items were returned to the Jewish Community after the war. Ioannina Holocaust survivors sent Torah Scrolls and tiks to Kehila Kedosha Janina in New York. Other items from Ioannina are now housed in the Jewish Museum in Athens. 

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