On the Island of Rhodes, Marking 75 Years Since the Jewish Deportation

By | Jul 31, 2019
Jewish World, Latest

Rhodes, island of sun, beaches and tourism, resting in the south Aegean near Turkey. Rhodes, site of the Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the world. The old medieval town, a UNESCO World Heritage City, with its Palace and Street of the Knights, its small winding labyrinthine alleys and countless tourist shops and restaurants. Among the maze of streets is the area still known as “la Juderia,” the Jewish Quarter, once a thriving Jewish community. But a community that existed in the old town for 2,300 years was nearly wiped out in a single day: July 23, 1944.

On a plaque next to synagogue Kahal Shalom, you peer at the list of deportees to Auschwitz; Sephardic names like Ventoura, Nahmias, Beneviste continue today in the names of their descendants, known as “Rhodeslis,” many who come every year to Rhodes to meet each other, renew friendships and honor the memory of the Jewish community. This year, the 75th anniversary of the deportation of the Rhodian Jews, a number of activities were planned, including a kaddish service on July 21, followed by a wreath laying ceremony at the Holocaust memorial at the Jewish Martyrs Square.

List of deportee names next to synagogue entrance

Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, of the Jewish community in Athens, led services in the one remaining synagogue—also the oldest in Greece. Built in 1577, Kahal Shalom has beautifully decorated arches, chandeliers and a black and white mosaic floor. Visitors from all over the world spilled out of the synagogue into the sunny courtyard, and you could hear voices in Italian, French, Greek and English. Inside, speakers from the state, diplomats and Greek Jewish community representatives all stressed the importance of unity and keeping memory alive. “Never again” is also stressed in the text of the six-sided Holocaust memorial—unveiled in 2002, thanks to the efforts of Rhodes Jewish community president Bella Restis—in the languages of French, Italian, English, Hebrew, Greek and Ladino.

Wreaths at the Holocaust memorial

In a week of emotional ceremonies, including a silent march on July 23 from the Jewish Martyrs Square to the port and a speech by survivor Sami Modiano, two of the week’s most emotional moments involved music. One was in the synagogue when the congregation softly joined in singing “Hineh ma tov u’ma na-im shevet achim gam ya chad” (How good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”). Another was at the Holocaust memorial with “Adio Kerida,” a Ladino song of love and suffering. Songs had been an integral part of the community; if you walked through “la Juderia,” you could hear the women going about their chores singing traditional Ladino songs.

Musicians during memorial service in Kahal Shalom

Mention of Jews in Rhodes was noted back in Maccabean times in the 2nd century B.C.E., and their numbers and position rose and fell in the succeeding centuries. According to the community website, an Italian rabbi visiting Rhodes in 1467 wrote, “I have never encountered a Jewish Community in which everyone, from the eldest to the youngest, is so intelligent they have long hair and look like princes. The Knights of Hospitalers of Rhodes visit the Jewish homes regularly to admire the beautiful embroideries.” The militant Knights, who ruled Rhodes from 1309 to 1522, left their mark more than other invaders, fortifying the town against the Ottomans, who finally managed to conquer the island and held it for 400 years.

The Romaniotes, the original Jews, were assimilated into the customs and language of the Sephardic Jews who arrived in Rhodes after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The community reached its peak around the end of the 19th century when there were six synagogues and a Jewish school as well as a yeshiva, and Jewish merchants took an active part in commerce of the old town. In 1913 the Italians took over the island until they gave it to the Germans in 1943. During Italian racial laws of the 1930s, Jews started emigrating to countries in Africa, and to the United States (where sizable communities of Rhodian Jewish descendants settled in Los Angeles and Seattle). The Jews that remained behind in Rhodes perhaps felt and hoped that, compared with the terrible events in the rest of Greece and Europe, their life would be left undisturbed, living as they were far from the mainland, close to Asia Minor. But this illusion shattered in the roundup and the long nightmarish transport to Auschwitz, ironically one of the last of the war. In 1946 the island became part of Greece.

Walking tour visiting the site of a Jewish school bombed during World War II

Today, history is preserved in the Jewish Museum, the former women’s area of the synagogue, and in walking tours of the area given by Isaac Habib, whose Rhodian mother was one of the 150 survivors (120 men, 30 women). Raised in South Africa, Isaac is proud and passionate about the Rhodes Jewish community. No one seems to know more about “la Juderia” and the stone inscriptions in Italian, French, Ladino and Hebrew that he points out to visiting groups.

Some commemoration ceremony participants, spending a week touring Rhodes, mentioned they hadn’t previously known anything about Jewish Rhodes, and learning about the history of this once vibrant Sephardic community was both educational and moving. American Jews tend to focus on the Ashkenazi Eastern European experience in the Holocaust and ignore what occurred in Southeast Europe. Rhodes, this former oasis of Ladino speaking Jews, is nearly invisible. Today, although there are only a handful of Jews living in the old town, the memory of this community is actively kept alive by their descendants the Rhodeslis, “small in number but large in heart,” as one speaker put it at the kaddish service, who are determined to never forget and, as another speaker put it, “not only to remember, but to celebrate life.” That is indeed the victory.

14 thoughts on “On the Island of Rhodes, Marking 75 Years Since the Jewish Deportation

  1. Sharon says:

    Great piece of info !

  2. Your tribute to the beautiful Island of Rhodes was extremely inspiring. My parents were born and raised in Rhodes, Elie Behor Levy, son of Solomon Behor Levy and my mother Violetta Amato Levy, daughter of Solomon and Leah Codron Amato. Unfortunately my paternal grandparents were taken to Auschwitz, therefore I never had the opportunity to meet them. However, I was luck to know and live with my maternal grandmother Leah Amato.
    These stories are filled with horror as well as beautiful memories and I’m very proud to be a part of my Sephardic heritage. My brothers and some cousins still speak Ladino and have wonderful memories of our family. Again, thank you for your article on Rhodisli history.

    1. Sherri Moshman Paganos says:

      Dear Rica,
      Thank you for your moving comment. It’s wonderful to hear that your family still speaks Ladino and you’ve kept the Sephardic tradition alive —

  3. Rica Levy Pieniek says:

    Thank you

  4. THank you for this beautiful article on this beautiful island of Rhodes.
    My parents were both Rhodeslis and they had the good fortune of leaving before the war, settling in the Congo, where I was born. My grandparents and 6 aunts and uncles we’re not so fortunate. They were picked up by the Nazis and did not survive Auschwitz.
    It was strange growing up without knowing any of my grandparents. I have felt robbed and have mourned them my entire life.
    Holocaust studies have become my passion. I now live in Dallas, Texas and have been a docent at ou small Holocaust Museum for many years. I. September, the brand new Holocaust and Human Rights Museum will open its doors to the Texas public.
    I really loved what you said about American Jews being focused on Eastern European Holocaust history and about Rhodes becoming virtually invisible….. I am happy to report that our new museum will have a panel, small , but nonetheless present, about Rhodes. And I will have the privilege of taking thousands of students through the museum and i will make it a personal point of teaching them about this tiny , too often forgotten, Island.
    Thank you once again.
    Veronique Jonas (née Soriano)

    1. Sherri Moshman Paganos says:

      Dear Veronique,
      Your comment really touched me. I also find it interesting that many of those who left Rhodes went to the Congo..
      It’s great that the museum will teach others about the communiity in Rhodes.
      Due to the love and pride of Rhodeslisl ikke you, Rhodes will never be forgotten.

  5. Isaac Habib says:

    Before I started helping the Kahal Shalom in Rhodes where each year I learn and find out facts unknown to us, descendants of Rhodian Jews, I have been involved with the Holocaust and Genocide center in Cape Town where we have daily buses with South African kids coming to learn how from the pyramid of hate one gets to genocide, how to understand the meaning of racism etc… After this is explain, then those learners are accompanied by us guides in the different section of the centre leading to the genocide of Jews, ROMs and Sintis, Homosexuels, mentally and physically challenged people, ghettos, extermination camps, a section honouring the Jews of Rhodes, The death march, the various righteous gentiles who save Jewish lives, and as we exit the chapter of Nazi Germany, a picture of each survivor who settled in Cape Town is displayed of which the majority were survivors of the island of Rhodes. When we the guide have finished, those children go back in the conference hall and write their feeling, their emotion, express their opinion. We, at the Holocaust and Genocide centre, we hope that these four hours spent with us will make of these youngsters better human beings as they will enter adulthood. We have celebrated this year the 20th anniversary of our centre in Cape Town.

  6. Melvyn Halfon says:

    Since both my parents, Jack Halfon and Rachel Capouya Halfon, were born on Rhodes, I have made 4 trips to The Island. Each visit makes me feel like, I Am Home. Unfortunately, the article did not give proper credit to Aron Hasson of Los Angeles, who has donated much to the restoration of the synagogue.
    We once had a large Sephardic community in Atlanta and Montgomery, where I grew up.

  7. Louise Chiprut Berman says:

    I remember the first ASYF (American Sephardi Youth Federation) convention in Atlanta November 1973. Participants came from Miami, Seattle, LA, Portland, Detroit, Chicago, NY to name a few. It was due in part to the huge contributions of Rabbi Ishay (Congregation Or VeShalom – Atlanta) and Mati Ronen (ASYF advisor – Israel.) I wonder how much stronger we would be today if we had cell phones in 1973.

  8. Cordoval Miriam says:

    Grazie a tutti per la commossa ed enorme partecipazione alla Commemorazioni dei 75 della deportazione dei nostri familiari da Rodi. Ho conosciuto tantissime persone, alcuni anche parenti , e non dimenticherò mai la nostra storia. Non dimentichiamo il nostro passato. Siamo tutti “HERMANOS:.

  9. An excellent article, and wonderful comments from Sephardic firends, including my friend Veronique who needs to be commended for her work not only in the Dallas Holocaust museum but also through her art. Also, I agree that Aron Hasson of Los Angeles deserves mention not just for his role in the restoration of the synagogue, but also his dedication to the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation which he founded.

    Of course it is not just the fate of the Rodesli Jews that is ignored in Holocaust education, none of the Sephardic communities that perished (Salonica, Volos, Drama, Monastir, Sarajevo, etc.) are much within “the radar” of American Jews. For that matter, Judaism in the U.S. is defined by Ashkenazic Judaism. That’s why we Sefaradim need to do what we can to preserve and promote our history, culture, and language.

  10. Jacques Boutard says:

    Although I’m neither Jewish nor Sefardi, I’ve always been very interested in their culture, to the point of spending a couple of weeks in Toledo 2 years ago studying the history of Spanish Jews before and after their expulsion in 1492. I also had the opportunity to learn rudiments of the ladino language while studying Spanish in Cordoba, Spain (in another Juderia). And during my stays in Greece (in Athens and Thessaloniki) I tried to learn more about that history, and bought books about Jewish people’s life there and their relations with ethnic Greek people. In short, as soon as I get the opportunity, I look forward to discovering the island of Rhodes and visit La Juderia under the guidance (hopefully) of Isaac Habib.

  11. Gordon S. Moshman says:

    As a participant in this summer’s commemoration in Rhodes, I should mention that our trip was under the direction of Dr. Richard Freund from the University of Hartford. He has documented the Jewish presence in Rhodes from antiquity until the recent past in his book, “Archaeology of the Holocaust: Vilna, Rhodes and Escape Tunnels”, (Rowan and Littlefield, 2019). Through his expertise our group was exposed to the Sephardic history of the eastern Mediterranean especially Rhodes and Kos.

  12. Allen Coppes says:

    My grandfather was from Rhodes and emigrated to to US at the turn of the century, his name was Bohor
    Sadis. I was wondering if any relatives are still there on the island or were they sent to the camps and not return ? Any info would be helpful.
    Thank you

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