The tragedy of the Jews of Rhodes ‎

The Kahal Shalom synagogue in 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.

Blood libels

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.”

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