Rhodes: A Decimated Jewish community
Rhodes is the most easterly of all the Greek islands and is situated only a few kilometers from the Anatolian coast of Turkey. It is believed that Jews arrived on this island when they left Judea in 300 BCE and settled in the Mediterranean basin. The first mention of Jews on Rhodes was made by a Roman historian at the end of the first century CE. A reliable document, written by a Spanish Jew who visited the island in the 12th century, found more than 500 Jews there, while in Jerusalem he found only 200.
The Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land in 1291 with their defeat at Acre, and found refuge in Cyprus. In 1306 they landed in Rhodes, taking three years to conquer the town, which was then ruled by these Knights Hospitalers. The year 1480 saw a large-scale attack by the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad II with the aim of conquering Rhodes from the Crusaders. The Jewish quarter of this walled city, known as the Juderia, is situated near the harbor from which the Turks bombarded with cannons. They breached the wall and entered the town through the Juderia, destroying most of the buildings in the process. However, they did not succeed in conquering the island and they returned to Anatolia.
The Crusaders saw this as a miracle and built a church in the destroyed Juderia and also in appreciation for the support of the Jews, they reconstructed the Great Synagogue, which had been destroyed by the Turks.
Italian rabbi Ovadia Yare de Bertinoro visited Rhodes in 1487 and wrote about how intelligent, polite and kind the Jewish community was, and he was especially impressed by the embroidery work of the women.
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, some of them arrived in Rhodes. Unfortunately, in 1502, the same grand master of the Knights Hospitalers who had rebuilt the Great Synagogue 20 years earlier decreed that those Jews who did not convert to Christianity had 40 days in which to leave the island. Property that was not sold would be confiscated and those who did not convert or leave would be sold as slaves. The majority of the Jews left and found refuge in Salonika and Genoa.
In 1522 the Ottomans again attacked Rhodes and this time forced the knights to surrender. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent asked the Jews who had been forced to convert in 1502 to return to their faith. The “converted” Jews were joined by hundreds of other Jews who had been brought to the island as slaves by the knights. The sultan offered tax privileges to Jews who came to settle in Rhodes, and many arrived from Constantinople and Salonika, most of whom were of Spanish origin. Over the years, Sephardic customs were adopted as was the Ladino language, which was used until 1944, replacing Greek which had been used by the Jewish community.
The Ottoman occupation lasted nearly 400 years. They banned Greeks from living in the old walled city, while allowing the Jews to remain in their Juderia. The Jews enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy and administered their own court of justice and educational system. There were unpleasant times, such as in 1840 when the community was accused of ritual murder of a girl.
At the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Rhodes started leaving on account of their economic situation. A few families were well off, but the vast majority were poor, with no prospect of improving their financial situation. Some went to America, where they settled mainly in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Atlanta. Others went to Buenos Aires and to Africa, to the southern Belgian Congo around Elizabethville, while others went to Southern Rhodesia where they settled around Salisbury. In Africa, many of them opened general stores near the mines and in the smaller villages.
Typically, the husband would leave Rhodes first, and when he’d accumulated sufficient funds, his wife and children would join him. This migration continued until the outbreak of the World War II.
When the Belgian Congo became independent in 1960, the Jews, along with the other Europeans, fled, with many of them moving south, to Cape Town which suddenly found itself with a French-speaking Sephardic community which is still very active. Guerrilla warfare and eventual black rule in Rhodesia in the 1970s and ’80s resulted in the emigration of this community, a number of whom settled in Israel. At one stage there were about 400 Rhodian families in Salisbury.
The Turkish-Italian war of 1912 resulted in the Italian occupation of Rhodes, which was legalized by the Treaty of Lausanne. The Jewish population at this time was about 4,500 and suffered no particular hardships. In 1936 the governor was replaced by the authoritarian fascist Count de Vecci. He abolished the Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish family courts. The Jewish cemetery had been just outside the wall of the city for centuries. He ordered that it be moved a few kilometers away and that 100 of the old tombstones were needed for building his palace. The supposed reason was that he wanted the area for public gardens, which were never laid out. Those who could afford to moved the graves to the new cemetery, while in many cases just the tombstones were transferred. After that, he closed the rabbinic college and forced Jewish shops to remain open on Saturdays and holy days and then banned kosher slaughtering.
The governor also decreed that all Jews who had obtained Italian citizenship after 1919 had to leave Rhodes within six months. Many of them were from Turkey and could not go back there. Most of them were poor and could not afford the fare to leave the island. With the financial help of Rhodians living abroad, 500 were put on a ship going to Haifa while another 300 were put on a ship to Tangier, from where they went to the Belgian Congo, Southern Rhodesia and the US. As it turned out, these were the fortunate ones.
When Italy surrendered in September 1943, there were already German soldiers on Rhodes and they took control. Some of the young Jewish men fled in rowboats to the nearby Turkish coast. The Jewish community at that time consisted mainly of women, children and the elderly, as most of the young people had left for economic reasons or because of the racial laws.
At the time, the Royal Air Force was bombing the port of Rhodes, and the Juderia, being adjacent to the port, suffered much damage. In February 1944 eight Jews were killed in an air raid, and on the first day of Pessah another 26 were killed. Many Jews sought shelter in the neighboring villages.
On July 19, 1944, all Jewish males older than 16 were ordered to report for work. This was only a ruse to force the women and children to join them the following day, and to bring all their valuables with them, which were of course taken by the Germans. The consul-general of Turkey, Selahattin Ülkümen, intervened and saved 40 people, including families where only one person had a Turkish identity document. He was later honored at Yad Vashem.
They were kept in a basement without food until July 23, when the 1,600 men, women and children were marched to the harbor and forced onto three old cargo boats. This was the last day of the existence of the community that had lived in Rhodes for more than two millennia. The boats departed on an eight-day journey to Piraeus, where the Jews were briefly interned at the Haidari camp near Athens. They were then put into railway cars and sent on a 13-day journey under terrible conditions to Auschwitz. Many of them had died on the sea journey, in Athens and on the train. About 1,200 were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz.
Only about 120 women and 30 men were left alive at the end of the war. They did not return to Rhodes, but joined their families in Africa and America or made their way to Palestine, while some remained in Europe. Some of the others, who had avoided deportation, tried to rebuild the community but were not successful.
In 1948, the island of Rhodes was returned to Greece and the Rhodes municipality renamed a square in what had been the heart of the Jewish Quarter “Square of the Jewish Martyrs.” Some Jews came to settle in Rhodes from the Greek mainland, but they were too few in numbers. One family did remain and looked after the only surviving synagogue, the Kahal Kadosh Shalom. The building was completed in 1577 and has been renovated a few times, but without major changes. The bima is in the center of the synagogue and faces the ark, which is in two sections, on either side of a large door. Next to the entrance is a plaque with the family names of those murdered in the Holocaust.
The synagogue and the adjoining museum are open for tourists in the summer months. Rene Shaltiel, whose parents were born in Rhodes, comes to the island every summer from Cape Town to help. Samuel Modiano, who spent his 13th birthday in Auschwitz, also comes every summer from his home in Rome. He takes groups of Italian gentile children to Auschwitz every year. Another Auschwitz survivor, Stella Levi, now resident in New York, also spends her summers in Rhodes, guiding visitors in the synagogue and museum. She has helped many Rhodes descendents to locate their families’ homes and graves.
Services are held only on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when a rabbi is brought from Israel. There are about 30 Jews living permanently on the island, but they do not practice Jewish customs.
The Menashe family
The story of the Menashe family is typical of many of the Jewish families in Rhodes.
Eliahu Menashe was born in 1895 and at 14 left for the US where he lived among the Rhodes community in Seattle, where he had a shoe-shine stand and a sandwich bar. He returned to Rhodes in 1924 to marry Rachel Menashe (not related), a marriage his parents had arranged, which was not uncommon. After the birth of his first son Isaac, he left for Que Que in rural Southern Rhodesia, where he worked for his brother who had a trading store.
In 1928 his wife and by this time a second son, Boaz, joined him in Que Que, where their daughter Lily was born. They then moved to Salisbury where Eliahu opened his own store. In 1938 the family went back to Rhodes for a six-month vacation, where they stayed with Rachel’s parents, who were quite well off, and also with Eliahu’s sister. Sadly, this was the last time they saw their family, as they all perished in the Holocaust.
They returned to Salisbury, where Lily married and moved to Johannesburg and later made aliya, while Boaz and Isaac married and remained in Salisbury. Boaz made aliya in 1978, while Isaac, a stalwart of the Jewish congregation, immigrated to Australia in 2004.