Antisemitic Rumours and Violence in Corfu at the End of 19th Century
by Maria Margaroni
At the beginning of April 1891 a Jewish girl was found murdered on the ground floor of a Jewish residence in Corfu. Rumours raged on the island: Was this about a love story or, with a stretch of imagination, a story about sex and crime? Or was this murder evidence of the culmination of a family drama which unfolded at the girl’s house, committed by her-supposedly-adoptive parents? Perhaps she was not Jewish, but Christian, and was murdered by the Jews in order for them to fulfil their religious needs? Upon discovery of the body the local police began spreading the rumour of ritual murder, while the first coroner's report confirmed it. Local and Athenian newspapers spread it beyond the island’s community, while local politicians maintained it for their own political agenda. On the other hand, judicial authorities upheld the innocence of the Jews accused. Military forces sent by the government desired to protect the secluded Jewish district. Not only did the antisemitic sentiment go beyond the borders of the island, but it also led to the migration of a large portion of the most important Jewish community of the Ionian islands and to its final downfall wrought by the unheard of local violence, bringing death, injuries and material destruction.
“A Jewish Maiden massacred in Corfu"
A colourful collective imagination or the diversity of rumours
Ritual murder accusation: religious, financial and political aspects of the issue
The subject of the present paper is inspired by the blood libel that took place in Corfu at 1891, which constitutes one of the most significant antisemitic events in Greek history.1 To begin with, this paper briefly discusses the long term representation and the social position of the Jews on the island of Corfu, taking into account the various persons in power. Continuing, after a brief outline of this specific blood libel, using primarily the long and analytical report of the prosecutor Theagenis Kefalas, this paper examines the factors that contributed to corroborate the rumour of ritual murder (amid numerous other rumours) of a young girl by the Jews of the island and to its development into antisemitic violence of such proportions. This rumour – aside from causing deaths, injuries, moral and material degradation – led to a complete breakdown of the Jewish community.
Therefore, this paper examines the reasons for which the “good Corfu, the sweet island, which is admired by all those who visit for its nature’s beauty, for the serenity of its customs, for its civilization and its humanitarianism which render the island an exceptional place to live” is transformed into a “theatre of a real civil war.”2
The oldest testimony about the Jewish presence on the island comes from Benjamin of Tudela, who in 1147 visited the island and met a Jewish inhabitant, when the island was under the rule of King Roger of Sicily.3 During the 13th century, when Corfu was under the rule of Charles I of Anjou, many Jews already resided in Corfu.4 During the rule of the Angevin (1267-1386) the Jews’ position was “pitiful and tear-provoking” according to the historiographer of the island Ioannis Romanos, although less so than that of the rest of the Jews in Europe.5 The Angevin rulers made public numerous statutes (1317, 1324, 1328, 1332, 1365, 1373, 1380) to defend the Jews and partly relieve them from their hardships.6
To continue, for more than four centuries (1386-1797) Corfu was under the rule of the Venetians, who were characterized by an equivocal and erratic behavior towards the Jews, depending on financial circumstances.7 In cases of serious financial difficulties, they would lax the often severe and frequently inhuman measures, to achieve financial assistance by the Jews in numerous occasions, but also their support during the siege of the island by the Ottomans in 1716.8
During the Venetian rule, a large group of Jews was added to the ‘Greek Jews’ of the island. This group had been persecuted in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Another, even larger group of Jewish refugees who had been expelled from Apulia in 1540 by Don Pedro of Toledo, viceroy of Naples, was also added. The newly arrived Spanish and Italian Jews built their own synagogue, in which the Italian element was predominant. The two synagogues, the old Greek one and the newly founded one, were in permanent conflict.9
The ‘privileged’ attitude of the Venetians towards the Jews, though totally circumstantial, displeased the Christians. The latter demanded and succeeded in making the Venetians establish tough statutes for the Jews of the island; these included making them wear a discernable sign abreast and forbidding them to own or purchase land.10 Indeed, they tried to ghettoize the Jews, without much success, since the Jews of Corfu never lived in a ghetto in the strict sense of the term.11
The community of Corfu continuously and persistently made petitions to the Venetian authorities to spatially restrict the Jews, because “the establishment of the Jews among the Christians and indeed close to churches causes great discomfort to God and loyal subjects.”12 In the end, the Christians’ petition was accepted. Indeed, in 1622 a statute was made public according to which the Jews could abandon their district only with a written permission.13 From the above, the adverse attitude that the Venetian authorities had towards the Jews is apparent. The tension that characterized the communal and inter-religious relationships with the Orthodox population of the island also becomes evident. Even so, the Jews of Corfu, as those of the rest of the Jews of the Ionian Islands during Venetian rule managed not only to survive but some of them also managed to thrive in financial activities as businessmen, particularly as usurers.14 In that way they contributed, to a degree, to the development of the financial life of the island.15
Only under the rule of the French (1797-1799 and 1806-1814)16 did the Jews acquire equal political rights, along the lines of the French Revolution. However, they lost these privileges once again during the British rule (1815-1864). The Jews were excluded from holding public offices and the right to vote and speak in court, while in 1852 it was decided to exclude the Jews from politics.17 Living at the social margins they frequently were on the receiving end of disdain and hatred from the Christian majority.18
A short report from the Occident and American Jewish Advocate19 in November 1845 on the Jews of Corfu, described this specific situation very clearly: “The Greeks hate them, and seize every opportunity for injuring and ill-treating them; so that their situation would be very pitiable, if the English did not take them under their protection. Twenty years ago no Jew dared show himself in the streets during the holy week; but things have changed since that time.” 20
George Fitzmaurice’s, Earl of Orkney, impressions about the hostile attitude of the Orthodox Christians of Corfu towards the Jews are similar. Some were considered descendants of Judas Iscariot, whose house and country villa was still thought to exist in Corfu. Thus, it was customary that Christians throw great quantities of crockery onto the roads from the window and the top of all the houses in Corfu. This practice was considered similar to stoning Judas.21
This hate was also partly based on the stereotype of the Jew usurer, because the privilege of money lending was granted to some rich Jews with a high concentration of money in their hands.22 In addition there were also rich Jew merchants,23 involved in the wealthy commercial activities of the Ionian Islands.24 They contributed to the stereotype of the “rich Jew”, which would have serious repercussions until the end of the century but also until 1944.
In 1864, after the great efforts especially of the young educated Ionians,25 the Ionian Islands were added to the mainland of Greece. Already since the period of the Ottoman ruling, tensions and animosity were evident in the relations of the Greek Orthodox population with Jews.26 Nevertheless, according to the Greek Constitution, the Jews had equal rights with the rest of the citizens of the state, a fact applauded by the Jewish population of the island.27 King George of Greece was characterized by tolerant attitude towards the Jewish population of Corfu and had a particularly warm relationship with the archi-rabbi Moise Levy.28
However, three decades after the unification of the Ionian Islands to Greece, the political equality that was given to them did not seem to have materialized. The newspaper Estia dedicated a coversheet article in which the situation of the Jews in Corfu was analysed. According to that article, “their social position as citizens did not improve at all.” Specifically, it was upheld that while we frequently and boastfully declare political equality the Israelites in our country, as things are today, are truly Greek citizens only in burdens that are enforced by the state. Regarding the issue of rights that title is for them completely useless, or to be honest, sometimes brings forth danger”.29 According to the writer, in the past thirty years there was no Israelite in the Greek Parliament, nor were there Israelites that had even low public positions. For the Jews of Corfu even the right to vote was totally useless, since they became victims of threats made by political clans.30 In particular the fact that the Jews of Corfu has voting rights caused threats and outbursts of rage from the Orthodox who refused to come to the electoral centers.31
Taking into account the political, social and historical context of the Jewish community in Corfu as described so far let us now move on to the events of 1891, which shocked the whole of Corfu, which, according to the Government Gazette (n. 313, 1889), had 82.853 inhabitants at the time.32 The Corfu town itself had around 17.000 souls in 1865.33 Concerning the Jewish population of the town and the surrounding districts, the demographic and non-demographic sources vary between 2384 and 6000 inhabitants, including foreign Jews.34
“A Jewish Maiden massacred in Corfu”35
Vita Sarda, Solomon’s son, was born around 1840 on the island of Corfu. He was a tailor and lived with his wife, Loukia Eliezer, on the third floor of a building in an alley in the Jewish quarter.36
On the 1st of April 1891 his 8 year old daughter, Rubina, left the house to play and she didn’t return. After an absence of numerous hours, the worried parents went to the police station to report her disappearance. Kangas, the public teller of the island, disseminated the news of the day; namely the disappearance of Rubina, Sarda’s daughter. Most town residents initially believed that the news was an April fool’s day joke, but it was soon proved that the disappearance of the girl was a true fact.37
According to the prosecutor Kefalas’ report entitled “Regarding the behaviour and actions of the Police and its affiliated institutions and persons in Corfu during the Jewish incidences”,
once the news of the maiden’s disappearance was disseminated the whole Jewish (district) was mobilized in and outside their district in order to find the youngster (...), an immense crowd of Christians was coming into the Jewish district for the sake of curiosity, police officers were also looking for her, while relatives and friends of the Sardas’ family were coming into their house awaiting news about the lost Rubina…38
It is clear that the calm life of the town at this point started to get disrupted completely.
According to the same prosecutor’s report, shortly after midnight on the 1st/2nd of April Vita Sarda together with some other Jews went to a café meeting point. Οn his way behind the partly ajar door of a Jewish house, he found a bloodstained sack with Rubina’s dead body, which he moved to his house. Police constable Michael Kouvaras, seeing Sarda run, carrying the bloodstained sack with the girl’s dead body, immediately disseminated that “they are the murderers”. Kouvaras testified exactly that to the investigators (judicial magistrate) who, however, not having been convinced of the father’s and the other accused Jews’ guilt regarding the murder of Rubina did not proceed to incarcerate them. That was enough for the police officers to disseminate to the whole town that “the Jews had murdered the youngster, that they had caught the murderers red handed, that they had delivered them to the investigating (judicial) authorities but that these authorities turning a blind eye had set them free”. The police officers in fact wrote Kouvaras’ text before the interrogating authority, after he dictated it, and gave copies to Christians in order to “scandalize and irritate them towards the Israelites.”39
This specific blood libel,40 as any blood libel within this complex symbolic context,41 had already obtained the metaphor of a sacred drama, where everyone had to play their predetermined roles: The innocent Christian martyr42 as a sacred offering, the Jewish assassin and the conscientious representative of authority, who took on the role of the avenger and who, in this case, was the whole body of police officers.43
To continue, Vita Sarda and her son, Solomon, were arrested and interrogated. The whole Sarda family was kept under house arrest. Konstantinos Zavitsianos, at that time a lawyer and later the head of the Greek parliament, together with the prosecutor Theagenis Kefalas, asked for further in-depth investigations to be carried out. Despite the opposition of the police, they order their release.44
These rumours, spread by the police all over the town, were backed by the medical report of doctors Elias Politis, the police doctor Demetrios Papanikolas and the municipal doctor Frankiskos Thermoyannis, in which it was certified that the fatal wound was “that on the neck” and that “in the body of Rubina there was not a drop of blood”.45
According to the prosecutor Kefalas
from that moment on, those who had the most to gain by stirring the whole city against the Jewish element, shouted that the murdered girl was Christian, that her blood was drawn by the Jews, to be used for their Mazot, without which they could not celebrate Easter, that the judges and prosecutors and all military authorities were bribed to take care of the Jews, setting the murderers free for the sake of future elections.46
All this turned the city’s Christian population against the Jews, even when the aforementioned medical report was revoked by a famous doctor and other scientists from Paris, who certified that
there was no doubt that Rubina did not die of bleeding, i.e. by the shedding of blood, but by wounds that she had suffered on the head by a blunt object (a stick or something), not a sharp one. They also certified that the wounds around her neck occurred after her death and that the blood could have flowed only minimally or not at all.47
The now apparent clash of the city’s official authorities, i.e. the police, on the one hand, and the judicial authorities, on the other, led the latter to proceed to interrogations of the police officers… “in complete secrecy”, from which it was confirmed that “they were the main force behind the dissemination of the above false rumours.”48 For this reason, police constables Christos Lavranos and Dimitrios Agathos were convicted to incarceration by the court. While up to that time the interrogations were led by the interrogator in the Jewish district, in the presence of the prosecutor and the police officer Napoleontas Pierris, the deputy police officer Nikolaos Alavanas and the chief constable Antonios Pilos, from that moment on every interrogation occurred in ignorance of the aforementioned officers, which consequently gave an impetus for new defamations against the interrogatory and judiciary authorities that they were covering up for the guilty Jewish murderers.49
Since the aforementioned hearsay was coming from an official source it had prestige and power. To continue, it was repeated by various individuals of any class, some in a gullible manner, some on purpose, from the upper to the lower class, doctors and lawyers, landowners, merchants, tranters particularly in politics re-circulated the above-mentioned rumours, which being considered useful in serving their personal aims, and used their aims to eradicate Jewish elements from Corfu from which they had much to gain.50 Ιmmediately, violence against the Israelites began, which was secretly encouraged by the political party of the opposition (the Liberal Party):
Groups of citizens came into the Jewish district injuring, beating, calling the Israelites names or shooting them. Others (Christian citizens), when coming across others (Jews) outside the Jewish district, would threaten them and hitting them with any object spreading fear and terror which caused despair to the Israelites and forced them to abandon their homeland.51
Other Christians threw the Jews boarding ships to depart for foreign lands into the sea, destroyed their monuments – in that sense also practising symbolic violence – others publicly advocated against the Jews in squares, coffee houses, taverns, and wherever there were groups of citizens, where those belonging to the opposition has a primary role. Such individuals, twisting every governmental effort to keep peace, and adopting every false rumour that could ignite the spirit of the people, regularly sent texts and short articles to Athenian opposition newspapers in order to create a general evil mood. All these anti-Jewish actions occurred “before the eyes of the police officers” who were inside the Jewish district (at least in theory) in order to defend the Jews and apprehend guilty individuals, but who covered for the actions of the latter, encouraging them with such an attitude. Despite powerful military forces patrolling the Jewish district, assaults against the Jews continued.52
The local and Athenian press had frequent, if not daily, correspondence on the Jewish affairs of Corfu, which expanded to include neighbouring areas, particularly Zakynthos. The plethora of (usually) contradicting information about the Corfu blood libel contributed to the reinforcement of the rumours of R. Sardas’ ritual killing by the Jews, as it will be shown later on in this paper. However, these rumours were not the only ones initially circulating around the island, and later on around the whole of Greece.53
A few days after Rubina’s death, the journalist Nikolaos Spandoris from Athens was sent to Corfu “to research the authenticity” of the story and to “fully report” to the whole Greek population, because of the measure that the government had taken to forbid news by telegrams from Corfu54 in order to stop misinformation and panic.
The rumour of the ritual murder was not the only one. There were many other rumours, especially because a murder is always a fascinating story, and the murder of a child even more so. Regarding the various rumours and “theories” circulating at the time, there is no way of assessing in which order they started, which fact is less important.
The first array of rumours was connected to “stories of love” or with even greater imagination to “sex and crime”: that a young man was in love with Rubina but it was not reciprocated and that he murdered her in revenge. Another version was that Rubina would tease men sexually and that an egg-seller tried to have full sexual contact with her and, in rage at her refusal, he killed her. Or that she had been, unwillingly, taken to a brothel, had resisted and was subsequently killed.55
A second array of rumours surrounded the family drama of Rubina. She was reported as having “bad morals”; being “locked in” to an order of Sisters of Mercy;56 had been beaten by her father (or by her mother)57 until she was unconscious; and finally killed in error.58 Or, alternatively, she was rumoured to have been the family Sardas’ unloved stepdaughter and that the father murdered her out of pure hatred. Newspapers reported a wide variety of theories.59
The third array of rumours was around the accusation of ritual murder: that the murdered girl's name was in fact Maria Desylla and she came from Ioannina; that Vita Sarda employed her as a maid (the Jewish master exploiting a defenseless Christian girl syndrome); that his plan from the beginning was to ritually sacrifice her at a later date;60 or that Rubina, with the permission of the Sardas’ family, was sacrificed by the Jewish community for ceremonial reasons; or, a daring and even more absurd version, that Rubina as a Jew was murdered by Christians with the aim of making it seem as if the Jewish community at Corfu had committed a ritual murder.61 The detailed description of the injuries in such a way as to evoke ritual murder intensified; indeed, it was this version which monopolized attention relatively quickly.
In one of the initial relevant articles that were published in an Athenian newspaper about Rubina’s murder we read:
The dead body has many injuries incurred by a sharp object on the chest and the arteries, by a needle on the forehead, while some injuries on the face and the hands are covered with lime. It is indeed difficult for one to explain the reason why the despicable malefactors used such ways to kill the young innocent girl. The mystery becomes more obfuscated when it is taken into account that while the Jew, to whom it is said that the massacred maiden belongs, said that he had 5 children, while from the official announcement of the rabbi it results that he had 4. Consequently, the murdered maiden is Christian, going by the name Maria Dessyla, orphan of father, kidnapped in Ioannina in order to be mercilessly sacrificed; a tradition which is considered by many to be a custom of the Jews. But that rumour is falsified by the announcement of the mayor of Corfu, which certifies that the maiden is Jewish, as can be seen from the archives of the arch-rabbi.
The editor of the article continues by saying that he cannot believe that “a religion, even Judaism, allows such garish customs and that the race of Jews cultivates such customs in Greece” concluding that even that specific superstition is that the Israelites partake of the Christian blood of a boy, never a girl.62
Of these three different categories of rumours (sexual topics, family drama, and ritual murder accusations) it was the third that dominated. Apparently – at that time – there could not be any other rumour more interesting. Family drama as a motive was just too private and could not have interested the mass of the society a lot. In the late 19th century sexual affairs were a real taboo and did not matter as a topic for the large society of a Greek provincial place. On the contrary, the rumour about a possible ritual murder had the best characteristics for a rumour to be spread out quickly for several reasons, as detailed below.
The whole issue initially took on huge proportions against the Jews of the island. An initial attack on the Jewish district on the 3rd of April ended up in an uprising, resulting in the Jewish district being closed off by military forces after the order of L. Vlachos, mayor of the city. This exacerbated the already tenuous situation, since the Christians started to have the impression that the government was protecting the guilty Jews.63
After a month of repeated disruptions and the renewed invasion of Christians into the Jewish district, military forces were sent from Patras, supervised by Notaras.64 The Prime Minister himself, trying to appease the people, ordered Corfu’s newly appointed prefect, G. Bouklakos,65 to appeal to the people to maintain peace66 and urged him to work towards preventing the emigration of the Jews.67
However, the emphasis given to this issue outside Corfu’s society was also noteworthy. Indeed, there had been reactions in other Greek places, mainly on Zakynthos, where there was also a strong Jewish community.68 In Zakynthos, in spite of the Greek military assistance ordered from the Peloponnese – there was spreading agitation, on Good Friday (19.4.1891). During the traditional procession of the Epitaph, an event which assembled approximately 7000-8000 Christians (including politicians and military authorities) several different groups of “fanatic city dwellers” tried to break into the Jewish district. In panic, the responsible military guardsman ordered guns to be used. Due to this, five Christian citizens were killed, five were hurt and property damage,69 vandalism and terror.70 According to the letter found in the Deliyannis archive, which describes the incident in detail,
three classes of the people were involved in the vandalisms of Good Friday. The first, and greatest, part was organised by the opposition, the second by thiefs and robbers and the least part was organised by those who were religiously spurred by honesty and stupidity and helping the offenders without realising what they were doing.71
The Zakynthos events, and particularly those of Corfu, caused a general outcry against Greece from abroad. Governments of European States sent statements to the Greek government expressing their grave concern about the turbulent situation in Corfu and about the tragic living conditions of Corfu’s Jews, because of their confinement in the ghetto for more than 3 weeks.72 In those statements it was requested that the government intervene immediately and effectively to rescue the Jewish population.73 The violence against the Jewish community caused ardent protestations evident in the European press, for which, Nikolaos Spandonis upholds that “it becomes an abhorrent force, a force that kills the truth and justice, carried out because of the power of Jewish gold.”74 In that way, he directly states the purposefully skewed presentation of Corfu’s situation by the “Semitic leeches, which fattened up by feeding on the blood of Europe.” 75 To appease the negative opinion about Greece76 the then ambassador of Greece in London, Ioannis Gennadios, condemned the behaviour of Corfu’s inhabitants in an article, entitled “The Greek Ambassador on the Jews in Greece”, published in the Daily News on the 13/25 May 1891.77 Gennadios spoke with disdain about the Ionians
who reminded us that the medieval Venetian tradition has not been eradicated on Ionian Islands. Even if the incidences, which sadden us all, could be seen as a burst of popular sentiment, we strongly believe that they could not be found in any other part of Greece.
Finally, he upheld that the greater part of the Greek people was innocent, while - along the same lines - they felt outraged and ashamed of the occurrences on the Ionian Islands.78 Polylas demanded that the government retract the statements made by Gennadios, to restore the reputation of inhabitants of Ionian citizens,79 which never happened.
These kinds of rumours and accusations towards Jews were not unknown in the Greek-orthodox community, especially during the last quarter of the 19th Century and well into the 20th century. The soil was always fertile. The history of different European countries80 and of the Greek population in Greece and especially in the Ottoman Empire)81 always proved it. Taking the bloody events of Corfu as an impetus Petros Kassimatis published an antisemitic work82 in the same year which (mainly is based on the book of Henri Desportes83), set out to prove the veracity of the ritual murder accusations against Jews. Among the numerous cases of presumed ritual murder in Greece and in other places he mentions two more almost unknown blood defamations on the island, aside from the blood defamation of Corfu in 1891. The first is dated from 1812 during French rule, when three Jews were condemned to death after being charged with performing human sacrifices of Christian children,84 and the second is dated from 1815 “when a youngster becomes a victim in the temple of the Jewish Moloch.” 85
This specific book is dedicated not only to “the souls of the numerous victims of Jewish fanaticism and superstitions”, but also “to the strength of the truth of the fighter, Ioannis Martinos, archimandrite.” From the introduction of the work we see that Martinos was “the first from the clerics of the Free Greece that had the noble courage to fervently and publicly denounce the religious and bloodthirsty orgies of the Jews”, honouring the whole body of clerics.86 Martinos was not only using the ordinary religious arguments (Jews as god-murderer), he was also fighting against them, against the “humanlike tigers” and “Antichrists”, as he characteristically called them as enemies of the Greek nation and the whole mankind: “Ιf these monsters could rule the whole world, they would transform the planet into a massacre.” 87
In this antisemitic frenzy there was also the other side, not only in publishing circles but also in the Orthodox Church. The works of Georgios Zavitsianos88 and Spyridon Papageorgiou,89 as well as the pro Semitic stance and effort of Dionysios Latas, archbishop of Zakynthos during 1884-1894,90 constitute characteristic examples. Zavitsanos dedicates his work “to the souls of the martyrs of fanaticism and bigotry, with the belief that this work contributes to eradicating this wound from the world to allow brotherly affection to take over”. His work was written due to the examined blood defamation of Corfu. “Even though Corfu is characterized as the most civilized of the Greek provinces because of the mildness of its inhabitants’ character and their relevant tolerance towards religions,”91 Corfu was perturbed by the latent passions of Christians, which were misrepresented by “the foreign governments which governed the place for centuries.”92 As such, it is explicitly declared that antisemitism in Corfu’s society is foreign, and not a product of the Greeks, and particularly the Ionian, thought and tradition. In the pages that follow the author endeavors to collate arguments, documents and statutes that prove the false and unsubstantial nature of the accusations of human sacrifice against the Jews.
Almost a decade after the Jewish incidences in Corfu, Papageorgiou published (1902) the speech he had given at the Athenian literary association “Parnassos” in 1901, which also aimed at disproving the defamations regarding the Jewish human sacrifices. This aim seems to have been achieved to a large extent, since -as the speaker himself noted in the preface of his published text- many members of the audience discarded their mistaken perceptions about the Jewish human sacrifices, while the beliefs of others were – if not totally discarded – but significantly shaken.93
Dionysios Latas is an example of a high ranked cleric who fought against the defamations that those of similar religion to his (Christianity) spread against the Jews, because of the Jewish affairs of Corfu. Convinced of the contribution of the Jewish people to global cultural heritage,94 he often posed the rhetorical question to his co-religionists: “is it correct and just that the sons of this nation, which has offered so many services to humankind, to turn against others, hate and persecute?”95 Along the same line, as the editor of the religious newspaper Sion (1881-1891), he published articles defending the Jews,96 while he participated in the international religious conference in 1893 in Chicago, USA, as a representative of the Greek Orthodox Church where he publicly denounced the accusations of human sacrifice against the Jews; such accusations were prevalent in Europe and the East. He clearly declared that “spreading such defamations against followers of a monotheistic faith is against Christian teachings.”97 In addition, he explicitly condemned the custom of setting Judas on fire on Easter day; “setting an effigy of a human on fire, an effigy which is on purpose made disproportionately to ostensibly satisfy the passions of Christ”, a process which often came with foul words and brutal abuse of the Jews, characterising it as “cruel, barbaric and despicable custom” and an act of passion against the Jews.98
Indeed, the personality of archbishop Latas and his persistent fight against antisemitic practices in Greece constituted a notable exception at that time. Despite the official published condemnation of the ritual murder accusation from the official Greek church,99 after the beginning of the Corfu affair, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the low ranks of the clergy in particular were harboring an intense anti-Jewish mood and in essence left the path open for the manifestation of anti-Jewish popular traditions in the halls of the Church;100 such as the widely spread (until recently in many areas of Greece) practice of burning an effigy of Judas that they used to
construct a day or two before, using a sack full of hay or old clothes to which they gave the form of a human body and on the top put a pumpkin most frequently filled with gun powder. They hung this effigy on a tree outside the temple or on a gallow which was raised in a way as to allow them to work off their hatred in various ways. Unfortunately, this hate was fed by church psalms against the “betrayer” of Christ. They threw stones at the effigy, they beat it with sticks, they spat curses and foul words at it, and the most restless would stab it, making sure to make it as despicable as they could.101
However, there were, aside from the religious aspects not of the murder per se, but of the emphasis given to it, also financial and political reasons that pushed antisemitic manifestations to the edge.
A telegraph to the French newspaper “Liberal” mentioned that a large part of the lower class spurred on the uprising against the Jewish population in the hope to drive them away and take back the jobs that had been given to them because they worked at lower rates.102 The content of this telegraph is particularly understandable if we take into account the poverty and the particularly difficult financial situation103 in basically rural104 Greece which led to bankruptcy in 1893.
However, Corfu’s politician Georgios Theotokis holder of an important position in the “Neoteric Party”105 who was known for his antisemitic attitude during the Corfu incidences, did not concede the importance of the financial aspect of these incidences for his co-religionists. In one of his interviews to Nikolaos Spandonis he declared that his “co-citizens are noble and would never humble themselves to persecute the Jews for such unworthy reasons”. Furthermore, he upholds that the “Jews are not so rich, neither are they noteworthy as land owners nor do they harass us as businessmen in the exporting trade”. He concluded by saying that “the inhabitants of Corfu, in whom the sentiment of love for their country is deeply rooted, that it is only because the Jew is not Greek if a hatred towards him is present”.106
Iakovos Polylas107 also does not admit the existence of financial reasons for the antisemitic outburst in Corfu, as he upholds that the Jews of the island do not play a role in the industry, and that they only partly do control the trade of olive oil, since Christians are also involved in it. Conversely, like Theotokis, he upholds that the Jews “were not real Greeks”.108 The fact, so says Polylas, is that they did not speak Greek, that their children were not frequent in Greek schools,109 that they did not accept Greece as their homeland, put them in solitary confinement which attracted the orthodox populations' repulsion. In addition, Polylas accuses them to transfer “the money that they earned from Greeks to foreign banks”, which is considered anti-patriotic given the particularly difficult financial circumstances which were present in Greece during the last quarter of the 19th century. Furthermore he considered it a mistake that the Jews dared blame the Christians for the murder.110
On part of the Jews, the prestigious Dr. De Semo also does not believe in the existence of financial reasons for the bloodthirsty developments in Corfu. He upholds that – except for two cases – the Jews of Corfu do not have significant influence on the banking business, as it the case in other European countries, neither do they have their hand in industry, and, except for some tailors, are not artisans.111 As for the common people, “women have the specialty of mopping the houses which does not cause financial hardship to Christian women, because none of them take on that arduous job.” Jewish men were mostly porters who were always hired by Christians, while the homme d’équipe was always a Christian. De Semo considers the superstitions about human sacrifice as the main reason for the antisemitic incidences.112
However, even though the most important political and social figures of the local Greek and Jewish society doubted the existence of financial reasons for the outburst of antisemitic incidences, those reasons were valid.
Specifically, during that time there was a feudal system in Corfu and the Christian landowners rented their mainly olive) fields to farmers (Christian citizens as well) in exchange for money. Frequently, the farmers could not pay the lease and had to take a mortgage, often from Jewish citizens of the island, which were described as usury and therefore Jews were hated by the Christian farmers. Very often, Christian farmers could not pay the high interest at the same time as the lease. Therefore the farmers had to go to court and quite often, were put into jail “along with the real criminals”, where the conditions were miserable. According to a proverb of Corfu “it is far better to be a criminal than a farmer”. The landowners and the Jews were considered responsible for the miserable situation in which the farmers found themselves, as well as for their exploitation.113
A number of citizens benefited from the massive migration of the Jews; among those were police officers, friends and relatives of Corfu’s mayor, Michail Theotokis, the brother of Georgios Theotokis and also adherent of the liberal party, as well as priests and church followers. According to the report of Kefalas, who denounces the police force to participate in auctions. Policemen indeed took on “the role of official auctioneers in the central market, where they were selling the belongings they had bought from the departing Jews at heavily discounted prices.” 114
Furthermore, did political reasons contribute to the outburst of antisemitic incidences in Corfu. The allegation was attributed to the Jews that “due to their powerful social organisation, they manage to push through their political views in the governments and to acquire privileges and significant political power.”115 For this reason, Iakovos Polylas was displeased with the audacity that the Jews began to show; for that reason, he demanded restrictions for the Jews, as he did not want them to have more privileges than the Christians.
We do not deny that we fight the Jews. In fact, we consider this an essential part of our mission. We fight them in order to restrict them… We should not permit the Jews to have more privileges and rights than the Christians anymore.116
In this case, it was known that the Jews almost in union voted against Georgios Theotokis' party, and against his brother Michail Theotokis. On July 7th 1891 communal elections were. The electoral run was predicted to be difficult and therefore every vote were of particular importance. For the party in office (Deliyiannis’ conservative party) the candidate for the mayor’s office was Constantinos Vassilakis, who had a great part of Corfu’s people (including the Jews)117 on his side. The candidate for the opposition (the liberal party) was Michail Theotokis who with promises or threats tried to gain the people’s support. His followers put in great efforts to persuade the Jews to abstain from the elections in order to prevent Vassilakis to win the elections.118
From the moment that the Jews could not be persuaded to vote for heotokis, his followers created an intimidating situation, which would make the Jewish population to leave the island. This turned out to be an effective strategy. So, the behaviour of the Corfu’s mayor can be obviously explained, who was
totally absent from recent developments and did not work at all to restore order, while the Jewish district was guarded by military forces, reinforced by police constables, all judges were appointed as temporary interrogators, the judiciary, administrative and military authorities were constantly present in the Jewish district. Conversely, friends and family of the mayor collaborated for the annihilation and disappearance of the Jews, while the local newspapers who had the same political beliefs published any false rumour.119
In any case, the pre-electoral atmosphere was so tense and charged,120 that the interrogator Cagadis in his confidential letter of the 14th of June to the Prime Minister declared that he finally postponed taking any penal measures against Rubina’s family, although he considered it responsible for her murder, because that “could influence public order particularly on the eve of elections, by stirring religious fanaticism for the elections, a sentiment which did not cease to exist and can be manifested at the slightest provocation.”121 It becomes apparent that this specific blood libel had escaped its initial religious dimension, serving financial and political purposes of the local, and not only local, society. [BACK]
The communal elections of the 7th of July showed M. Theotokis as winner. A big part of the Jews had already left the island. Of the total of 5.000, 2.000-3.000 Jews migrated122 to Great Britain, Austria, Italy,123 mainland Greece and particularly Athens and Chalkis and to various areas of the Ottoman Empire, mainly Smyrne and Constantinople. Even if this figure is overrated it is certain that the Jewish community of Corfu, one of the biggest in the Greek state, was shrunk demographically, financially and culturally and could not reproduced the numbers it had lost.
Maria Margaroni, born 1969 in Volos, Greece. PhD candidate in History at the Centre for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin.
She studied Greek Philology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the Free University of Berlin and the University of Hamburg, German Philology at the University of Athens and the University of Caen, History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology at the University of Thessaly, where she completed her postgraduate studies in the field of «interdisciplinary approaches to the historical, archaeological and anthropological studies». The subject of her doctoral Thesis is the Antisemitism in the Ionian Islands at the end of the 19th century.
under British Rule, 1815”, History of Insolvency and Bankruptcy from an International Perspective, eds. Karl Gratzer, Dieter Stiefel, (Huddinge: Södertörn Academic Studies, 2008), 83-118 (93-94); Sakis Gekas, “Business Culture and Entrepreneurship in the Ionian Islands under British Rule, 1815-1864”, London School of Economics (LSE) Working Papers in Economic History, 89/5 (Available: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/22332/1/WP89.pdf).
Colo, 1980); Hillel Kieval, “Antisémitisme ou savoir social? Sur la genèse du procès moderne pour meurtre rituel”, Annales HSS, 49/5 (1994), 1091-1105; Robert Nemes, “Hungary’s Antisemitic Provinces: Violence and Ritual Murder in the 1880s”, Slavic Review, 66/1 (Spring, 2007): 20-44.
How to quote this article:
Maria Margaroni, "Antisemitic Rumours and Violence in Corfu at the End of 19th Century", in The Making of Antisemitism as a Political Movement. Political History as Cultural History (1879-1914) , eds. Werner Bergmann, Ulrich Wyrwa, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.3 July 2015