The Jewish community of Rhodes, Greece came to life when 35 people from around the world journeyed to the island recently for a special service. The service was held in the synagogue in which the Jewish story is infused in every brick, ingrained in every stone of the mosaic floor…
Last month I went to synagogue for a Friday night service with my son-in-law, my future son-in-law, and his father. The synagogue filled, the rabbi called out the page numbers in Sephardi and Ashkenazi prayer books and the proceedings began.
So what makes a Shabbat service newsworthy? Why was this night different from every other night?
Because it was a Shabbat service like no other — it brought together 35 people from Israel, the U.S., South Africa and Australia with the objective of celebrating the aufruf of my daughter’s fiancé.
In so doing, we honored a once-vibrant community that was decimated by the Nazis. We paid tribute to a community that saw one-third of its finest destroyed in the Nazi camps, leaving but a handful to call it home. We brought the Jews of Rhodes back to life.
The Jewish community of the Isle of Rhodes numbered 5,000 at its peak. So vibrant was it, so rich in tradition, it was dubbed Little Jerusalem. But exactly 75 years ago, its world came crashing down on September 1, 1938. That Friday evening, the community was shattered to learn that Mussolini had enacted a raft of decrees, which effectively spelled the beginning of the end for the Jews of Rhodes.
Jews were henceforth forbidden to attend public schools, teach, own property, manage businesses, or serve in the army. Jewish graves were to be exhumed, kosher slaughtering was banned, other Italians were forbidden from marrying Jews, Jewish schools were closed, and Jews who had settled on Rhodes in the previous 20 years had to emigrate or be imprisoned, fined and expelled.
The news devastated the community and many made plans to emigrate. My father, 25, was an accountant and engaged to be married to Becky Hassan.
Fast forward five weeks. Yom Kippur. My father spent the day in synagogue with his father. The following day he set sail for South Africa — never to see his parents again.
His intention was to settle in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and bring out his parents, teenage sisters, and Becky, his fiancé.
It wasn’t to be.
His parents and sisters were deported to Auschwitz, where his mother was gassed on arrival and his father perished toward the end of the Holocaust. What of Becky? She too was deported to Auschwitz and that was the last he heard of her. Informed that she had perished, he married the woman who became my mother.
Some years ago, while on holiday in Cape Town, he overheard the name Becky Hassan — it was the same Becky Hassan to whom he had been engaged half a century earlier! She had survived — and been told he had perished — and was living in Belgium, a grandmother in her 70s. He was a grandfather, also in his 70s, living in Johannesburg. Several months later, he flew to Belgium and they spent an hour at Brussels Airport, reminiscing.
When Jews were banished from Spain during the Inquisition, they dispersed across Europe, many finding refuge on Rhodes. The Spanish, or Sephardic, Jews outnumbered the original inhabitants. Their language, Ladino, and customs became the way of the land.
They initially lived in peace under the Knights of St. John until the Knights ordered them to accept Catholicism, or be expelled or put to death. For a period, the community was virtually non-existent, so the remaining Jews welcomed the 16th-century conquest of Rhodes by the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. Jews returned to their faith and the community flourished under Turkish rule for 400 years.
Most lived in the Jewish Quarter — a fortress of cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and open-air markets. They were confined to a dozen streets, the names of which had a charming logic — The Wide Street, The Cold and Windy Street, The Street to the Sea, The Street of the Great Synagogue, The Street of the Fig Trees, The Street of the Crazy Ones.
This vibrant community included six synagogues, a school, kashrut facilities, and the pride of the community — a rabbinical college with an international reputation, where my mother’s father served as the principal. My father, whose father had been a tailor, worked as a translator at Salamon Alhadeff & Son, one of the island’s largest banks with a staff of 500 and 20 branches on the mainland.
My father’s community was steeped in tradition. The family gathered to light the Shabbat candles, which the mother did with her head covered. After the blessing over the wine, children kissed their parents’ hands and were told, “We hope to see you married.”
It devised its own remedies: Headaches were treated with slices of potato and cucumber on the forehead, while infected eyes were washed with tea and blue beads around the forehead. And the superstitions: If you saw a hunchback, you had good luck. If you touched the hunchback, you had better luck. You never drank water while standing. Babies born on Fridays were considered intelligent. If a child had hiccups, parents intoned, “Let the hiccups go to the bottom of the sea and keep my child from harm.”
This was the community whose existence came crashing down in 1938. Of the 5,000 Jews on the island, over 3,000 departed — my mother’s Menashe family on the last ship that was allowed to leave. Italian forces occupied the island and the remaining 1,757 Jews were able to live in relative peace over the next five years.
But Italy capitulated and on July 19, 1944 German forces arrived — with orders to liquidate. The Jews were ordered to report to the Aviation Palace, where they were held for four days with neither food nor water.
Turkish Consul-General Selahattin Ulkumen, a Muslim, was aware that 42 of the incarcerated Jews had Turkish origins.
“I went to the Commander, General Von Kleeman, and asked him to release the 42,” he said later. “The commander said that according to Nazi law, all Jews had to go to concentration camps because Germany needed manpower. But I knew their real purpose — to kill them in the gas chambers. So I objected. I said Turkish law didn’t differentiate between whether a citizen was Jewish, Christian or Muslim. According to Turkish law, all citizens are equal. I said I would advise my government and it would cause an international incident.”
Ulkumen saved the 42, issuing Turkish passports to them against Nazi orders and enabling them to flee. Five of the 42 were Alhadeffs, members of my family.
He paid a price for his courage. German aircraft bombed the consulate, where his wife was about to give birth. She was injured, yet had the baby and died a week later. Her mother committed suicide upon hearing of her daughter’s death. Turkey severed relations with Germany and Ulkumen was arrested. He survived and in 1990 was declared Righteous Among The Nations.
On July 23, 1944, these 1,757 Jews were marched to the port, deported to the mainland on three cargo vessels and transported to Auschwitz, where 1,604 were murdered, including 151 Alhadeffs.
This was the community whose memory we honored last month. Thirty-five of us assembled outside the modest yet magnificent 450-year-old Kahal Shalom Synagogue that Friday morning for a “Jewish walking tour” of Rhodes. Our leader was Isaac Habib, a knowledgeable South African whose family came from Rhodes and who spends four months a year there as a guide.
He led us to the sites of the rabbinical college; the French-Jewish school established by Baron Edmond de Rothschild; the remains of synagogues destroyed by Royal Air Force bombers attacking German troops; the cobbled square where Jews socialized, known today as The Square of the Jewish Martyrs; the Chevra Kadisha; the recently built six-sided Holocaust memorial, each face inscribed in a different language — and Alhadeff Park on Alhadeff Street, where we paused for a group photograph.
The service that evening was preceded by Lionel Lubitz, a cousin of the fiancé, who led a rousing pre-Kabbalat Shabbat on his guitar. His music prompted congregants to break into spontaneous dance. The following morning, the Sydney Jewish Learning Centre’s Rabbi David Blackman conducted the aufruf — a profoundly poignant moment, given the community history and the family story. The wedding following three days later in Jerusalem, thereby closing the circle.
As for the seats on which we sat — they were the same seats on which my father sat the last time he saw his father, on Yom Kippur 1938, before the grandfather I would never meet was deported to Auschwitz.
I had a palpable sense that my father, my grandfather before him, and all the Jews of Rhodes knew we were there.