COMMUNITY

Yussuroum, a slang term that hides fragments of history

NIKOS VATOPOULOS

TAGS: City Life, History

The stories about Athens and its people are endless. Many of them have faded from memory over time. Others are remembered in fragments that come together at some point for the story to be told. The case of the Yussuroum family is one such Athenian tale. As charming as it is distant, the family name has retained its currency in everyday usage: Yussuroum (also rendered as giousouroum) in Greek has come to mean flea market.

The Athens Jewish community held an event in October in honor of Mois Yussuroum, aged 95, for his voluntary service over the decades. A garden in the community’s synagogue was named after the benefactor and the event, held on the initiative of the Jewish Museum in Athens and the Jewish community, was an occasion to bring back to light the history of the Yussuroum family.

While many Greeks use the term yussuroum when referring to a flea market, few know that it stems from this family and, in particular, from the antique market it created in the Jewish quarter of central Athens. Mois Yussuroum is the descendant of a long line of successful merchants with a presence in Athens. The Yussuroum home on Karaiskaki and Ermou streets was located in the middle of the city center’s commercial district and also housed the capital’s first synagogue. This was the heart of the Jewish quarter, which lay between Aghion Asomaton Square, Sarri and Ermou streets.

While the older limbs of the Yussuroum family tree have been lost over time, like many Sephardic Jewish families in Greece they came from Spain after being expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. The Yussuroums initially settled in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) as the Ottoman Empire had opened its gates to the Jews. The significant contribution of the Jewish presence to the Ottoman Empire and the countries that emerged from its gradual dissolution stems mainly from that wave of eastward emigration from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century.

When the Greek state was created in the 19th century, one of the Yussuroums, Isaak, moved to Chios in 1830, when the island was still under Ottoman rule. The family moved to the island of Kythnos in 1860 and Isaak’s son, Bohor, a tailor by profession, later decided to move to the capital of the Kingdom of Greece, settling in Athens in 1863.

Bohor, Mois’s grandfather, opened a clothing store on the corner of Karaiskaki and Ermou streets.

“My grandfather was a tailor but people didn’t have a lot of money at the time and they bought secondhand clothes,” said Mois. “He’d alter used clothes and display his goods every Sunday at Avyssinias Square, at the bazaar. Everyone else was selling antiques, which is why the phrase ‘going to Yussuroum’ became so prevalent.”

Bohor had seven children in Athens. After his death in 1887, his eldest son, Ilias, expanded the business and became a pillar of the Athens Jewish community. Ilias’s younger brother, Noah, Mois’s father, married Mazaltov Habib, an Athenian Jew, and tried to avail of the many opportunities that opened up in Greece after the Balkan Wars. He moved to Thessaloniki, where he opened a hospital supplies firm with Abraham Nahmias, but the massive fire in 1917 that wiped out almost the entire Jewish quarter in that city scuppered his plans and forced him to move back to Ermou Street in Athens, though to number 84.

At the recent event, Mois reminisced: “My father opened his store when he returned from Thessaloniki together with a partner, Spyros Kourousis. During and especially after the First World War, my father would go to all the places where there were allied troops – French and British – and buy military material, from tents to uniforms, bring them back to Athens and sell them.”

Noah Yussuroum was an auction hunter, traveling from France to Egypt to bring back stock for his store. In 1924-25, he struck gold at an auction of materials from the old royal palace (now the Greek Parliament) after Greece was first declared a republic. He built a new house in Thiseio (at 26 Irakleidon Street) and decorated the second-floor balconies with Stars of David.

Noah and his wife had two children, Isaak and Leon, in Thessaloniki and four more children in Athens, born between 1920 and 1929. Mois was the eldest and he and his brother Iakovos fought in the Battle of Crete and then joined the National Liberation Front (EAM) and fought in the resistance.

After the war, Noah’s children came together to revive the family fortune. Mois became a dentist, Isaak a civil engineer, and Leon and Iakovos went into the iron business and opened a store on Ermou.

Mois Yussuroum is a living witness to a long family tradition that is intrinsically linked to Athens’s commercial life and to active involvement in the city’s Jewish community.

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