The tragedy of the Jews of Rhodes
It was a quiet evening in the old city of Rhodes as I strolled through the crooked alleyways, which were empty and looks as if they hadn’t changed since the Middle Ages. Suddenly, I heard scraps of a conversation that bounced off the stones. It wasn’t in Greek or in any other language spoken by the tourists that visit this Greek island. When I got closer to the speakers, I saw two elderly people sitting on a low step leading to a courtyard. Now I could hear the words clearly, and there was no doubt – they were speaking Ladino.
When I approached them, I saw in the moonlight that one of them had a number tattooed on his arm. The numerals were faded. That is how I made the acquaintance of Samuel Modiano. When he was 13 and a half, Samuel (Sami) and his family were caught and sent to Auschwitz. He was lucky enough to be tall, and he was chosen for hard labor rather than the gas chamber. Sami survived, and after the war found himself in Italy. Like all the Jews of Rhodes who survived the war (other than one woman, one of his cousins), Sami didn’t move back to the island. But some inexplicable force keeps drawing him back to where his family lived for generations.
Many descendants of Rhodian Jews, who are known among themselves as “Rhodeslis,” visit the island every summer. Maybe it’s the illusion that time has stood still in the ancient streets that tempts them back. You don’t need an overactive imagination to picture how it would have been hundreds of years ago. Isaak Habib, who was born to Jewish parents from Rhodes after the war, travels here from his home in South Africa for at least five months of the year. Habib is a driving force behind the preservation of the legacy of Jews of Rhodes and the rebuilding of the Kahal Shalom synagogue. He oversees the maintenance of it and directs research into the community’s impressive history, with its ups and downs. Isaak’s own family history reflects what befell the island’s Jews over the past century.
This is the oldest extant synagogue in modern-day Greece, although it should be noted that the Jews of the island do not characterize themselves as Greek Jews. They differentiate between Rhodes and mainland Greece, which annexed Rhodes only after World War II.
Rhodes was home to Jews prior to Spain’s expulsion of its Jewish citizens in the 15th century, but little is known about their way of life. Oral tradition holds that Roman-era Jews settled on the island following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and some say even before that.
In 1309, Rhodes fell to the Crusaders, who went on a rampage against the local Jews. Still, the community grew accustomed to the rule of the Knights Hospitaller, and at the end of the 15th century even helped them defend the island against the Turks. This prompted the Christian rulers to permit the Jews to build a synagogue. When the Turks nevertheless conquered Rhodes in 1522, the path was laid for the Jews of Spain. Meanwhile, the Romaniote Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity could return to Judaism.
The change of regime gave the Jews greater freedom of religion, and unlike the Christians, who were expelled from the old city of Rhodes, the Jews were allowed to remain. They stayed in what was already considered the “Jewish quarter,” and had been described as such some 300 years earlier by the famous Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela. The preferential treatment they enjoyed under the Turks for hundreds of years was comfortable for the Jews, but it created fertile ground for the development of hostility on the part of the Christians.
That hostility would erupt periodically, as happened in a case of blood libel on Rhodes in 1840. The Orthodox Greek community accused the island’s Jews of murdering a Christian child as part of a religious ritual and found the consuls of European countries as well as Ottoman governor Yusuf Pasha to be sympathetic to their story. A few days earlier, a similar libel had been spread about the Jews of Damascus, and the “confessions” of the Damascene Jews – extracted through brutal torture – served as “proof” for those on Rhodes who were spreading a similar story.
The Ottoman methods of interrogation were mainly comprised of torture. One of the Jews suspected in the boy’s abduction was Elyakim Stamboli. He was imprisoned, his legs were whipped 500 times, and then he was tortured again in the presence of local dignitaries, including the governor, the Orthodox archbishop, and the European consuls. Stamboli was tortured into admitting a murder he didn’t commit and informing on other Jews, also innocent, which resulted in additional arrests. The new victims included the chief rabbi of Rhodes and head of the local Jewish community.
The Jewish quarter was blocked off, and for 12 days the residents were barred from receiving water or food. According to legend, attempts were made to smuggle a dead body into the Jewish quarter during the siege as a way of framing more Jews. The plan was thwarted. After many months, during which Jews were ambushed by Greek Christians, the Jews were exonerated.
Habib proudly shows off two arks that stand on the eastern wall of the synagogue, placed symmetrically on either side of the entrance. Their meaning is unclear. Habib has heard various explanations, but pictures of the ancient synagogue at Sardis, which also had two arks, have only deepened the mystery.
The Italian connection
About 100 years ago, the Jewish community on Rhodes numbered about 6,000. The widespread poverty on the island prompted mass migration to the U.S., South America, and European colonies in Africa. By the end of the 1930s, about two-thirds of the island’s Jews had left. It soon became apparent that they had saved themselves from the hell that was looming.
The Jews who left before the Holocaust include the family of Habib’s father, who set out from Africa. Paradoxically, the anti-Semitic laws passed in Italy (which ruled Rhodes) in 1938 “helped” by making it particularly hard for the local Jews to find work and spurring many of them to pack their bags.
In 1903, Baron Edmond James de Rothschild and his wife Adelheid traveled through Rhodes. They opened an Alliance school for local Jewish children. Knowledge of French was a prerequisite for admission. After the island was transferred to Italy after World War I, the Jews began speaking Italian, too, which like French was seen as an entrée into the enlightened world.
The Italian influence spread to the synagogue itself. In the 1930s, a balcony was added to accommodate a women’s section, following the trend in Italy at the time, where Jewish women were taking part in prayers in the main hall of the synagogue. Prior to that, women would attend services in separate rooms from where they could watch and listen to the services via barred windows.
Habib tells of a rabbinical college that was once active on the island. He said it was the brainchild of the Governor of the Italian Islands of the Aegean Mario Lago, who was known for honoring the islands’ cultural heterogeneity and for his support for the Jews. Graduates of the college received certificates from the Italian government. After Italy passed its race laws, the college was shuttered, but Habib believes that the main reason was due to a lack of budget. A Jewish school continued to operate on Rhodes until the centurieslong Jewish existence on the island ended abruptly.
The Germans occupied Rhodes and the rest of the Aegean Islands in September 1943 after Italy stopped fighting alongside Hitler. For months, the Germans did nothing to the local Jews. There were no public humiliations, they weren’t forced to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothing, and they weren’t shepherded into a ghetto, as the Jews of Thessaloniki were. The relative quiet, which wasn’t disturbed until the British began bombing the island (killing some of the Jews who remained) kept the local community ignorant of the fate that awaited them.
A year ago, Habib discovered that in April 1944, the Italian police on Rhodes handed lists of the Jewish population over to the Germans. The lists themselves were discovered in the synagogue two years ago. Habib’s workers did not see them as important, and only when they were carefully reviewed did they turn out to be a detailed registry prepared in 1938 – including heads of households “belonging to the Jewish race” along with the families’ addresses and number of people living in each home.
Going to their deaths
On July 18, 1944, the local newspaper reported that all Jewish men aged 16 and over would be required to appear the next day at a building used as the headquarters of the Italian air force. The paper reported that they would be assigned work duties. The men obeyed. A day later, women were instructed to appear to “receive instructions.” The women who arrived at the building were given bitter news – if they did not return the next day with their children and valuables, their male relatives would be executed. Habib’s mother wrote that they were not given a choice: “We were only women and girls, and we went directly into to our deaths.” The women and children joined the men and everyone was held in the air force HQ for three days.
At 2 p.m. on July 23, the Germans set off the island’s air raid sirens. The residents, as expected, ran for shelter, leaving no witnesses. The Germans led the Jews to the port of Rhodes and loaded them onto huge transport barges to start their journey to Auschwitz.
The ships that would take them the rest of the way were waiting at the island of Samos because the efficiency-minded Germans wanted to add a transport of Jews from Kos. On July 31, the vessels docked in Athens, and the Jews were moved to the Haidari concentration camp. The men were separated. On August 3, the infamous cattle cars pulled up, and the Jews of the Aegean Islands began the last stage of their awful journey, a 13-day trip to the largest industrialized death machine in history.
One of Habib’s grandfathers died in the suffocating car. The rest got off the train at Auschwitz. Some 600 youths were taken away for labor, and the rest were killed within the space of three hours. Fewer than 200 Rhodian Jews survived the camps. After the war, Habib’s mother wrote a memoir of what she experienced and sent it to an acquaintance in Italy. She never told her family or children what she endured, but years later her memoir was found.
That is how Habib learned about his mother’s torturous experiences, which included Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. Nor were her troubles over when the British freed Bergen-Belsen and the war ended. After the war, a group of young Jewish women from Rhodes were abused by the British because of their Italian citizenship, which made them – in the eyes of the British – the enemy.
From salvation to extermination
The terrible story of the end of the Jews of Rhodes is not lacking in stories of rescue. The Turkish consul on the island, Selahettin Ulkumen, saved 42 Jews, claiming that they were Turkish citizens. Ulkumen did not hesitate to approach the Gestapo and used Turkey’s neutrality to demand that they be let out of the air force building where they were being held. The Germans complied. One of the lucky 42, a year-old baby at the time, continues to visit Rhodes from his home in the U.S. every year.
A commemorative plaque in the Rhodes synagogue courtyard tells another kind of story and lists all the local Jewish families who were murdered in the Holocaust. Among the many Spanish names (Alhadeff, Soncino, Capeluto, Ventura, Benbenisti), I find the name of a single Ashkenazi family. How could that be, if Rhodes was never home to any Jews of Ashkenazi origin? Habib tells me the story of the Pentcho, one of the ships that carried illegal Jewish immigrants into Mandate Palestine in violation of the British embargo. In May 1940, about 500 Jews, mostly members of the Betar Zionist movement, tried to escape Europe on board the Pentcho, which sailed from Thessaloniki.
After three months at sea, the ship’s heater exploded and it wrecked on the boulders offshore of the small Aegean island of Chamili. Some 10 days after the wreck, and Italian patrol plane spotted the survivors, whose food and water was nearly gone, and carried them out to Rhodes. The Jewish refugees from Europe were put up in tents erected on a soccer field. Some perished because of the cold and the harsh conditions. Two others died while trying to reach Palestine, and the rest were eventually transferred to a concentration camp in southern Italy.
The possibility of being sent to Italy, which was Germany’s ally, seemed a death sentence. So when the Pann family, whose father had a profession deemed vital on the island, was given a chance to remain on Rhodes, they were seen as fortunate. The family was happy to accept the invitation to stay. Sadly, the Europeans deported to Italy were unharmed, but the Pann family was sent to Auschwitz with the rest of the island’s Jews and were killed there. A miraculous rescue wound up leading to their destruction.
Like a headstone full of meaning
Most of the year, the Kahal Shalom synagogue is silent. The Rhodeslis like to visit it, and Israeli tourists make their way there as part of their meanderings between souvenir shops and restaurants. Recently, it has become a popular site for bar mitzvah ceremonies. A year ago, a young American, Sam Kopler, wanted to do something different to mark his bar mitzvah and decided to hold the ceremony in a Jewish community wiped out during the Holocaust. His parent’s found the Rhodes synagogue and not a single eye was dry at the celebration.
Since then, several ceremonies have been held there. At one, four generations of descendants of Jews of Rhodes put on tefillin for the first time in their lives. Still, everyone understands that the dead cannot be brought back to life, and Kahal Shalom remains, for the most part, a grand and significant monument on the grave of Jewish history on Rhodes. The sense is complemented by a black memorial erected nearby to commemorate the deportation of the Jews of Rhodes.
Jewish communities with roots on Rhodes exist throughout the world, and in some surprising places – including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Habib was born and raised. At its height, that community numbered some 2,000, but as the years went by nearly all the Jews left.
Bit by bit, most Jews of Rhodian descent seem to be making their way to Israel. Habib sees his future here.
”Rhodes holds so much Jewish history,” he says, gazing at the ancient synagogue.
”That’s the past, happy and sad. But the past is gone … and now all that remains is to be happy that we’ve started to control the fate of the Jews. In Israel, of course.”