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Jewish Community of Rhodes
The History of the Jewish Community of Rhodes

Historic Background
The settlement of Jews in Rhodes is mentioned for the first time in the Book of Maccabees and it dates back to the 2nd century B.C. Proof of the Jewish presence in Rhodes has remained immutable for many centuries. The narrow, arched, paved medieval alleys of the "Juderia" (Jewish) quarter bear until today Jewish symbols. The historian Josephus also mentions the Jews of the island in the 1st century A.D. Later historic texts confirm their presence during the 12th century. In 1116, the Spanish traveller Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela visited the island and wrote in his "Itinerary" that he found 400 to 500 Jews living there. This number increased significantly when, in 1280, Jews from Aragon joined them.

An Italian Rabbi traveller, who visited Rhodes in 1467, quoted in his letter still preserved in Florence: "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 in order to admire the beautiful embroideries."

The Jews of Rhodes were also known to have been ardent defenders of the city against the Turks in 1480. After the Turkish attack against the island, only 22 Jewish families survived. In spite of their fear of Turkish attacks, they managed to stand strong and continue with their lives. In the 16th century many Jews were expelled from Rhodes after a resolution passed by the Council of the Knights. A little later new Jewish families arrived from Thessaloniki, and as a result, Rhodes became a significant Sephardic center. Thanks to the establishment of many Synagogues and Rabbinical Schools and to the flourishing commerce during the four centuries that followed, the Jewish Community gained a special position. Wealthy textile and silk merchants co-existed with gunsmiths, craftsmen, bookbinders and weavers.

As of 1888 the educational program of the Alliance Israelite Universelle School began to operate thanks to the donations of Edmond Rothchild. The boys’ and the girls’ school started functioning in 1901 and 1902. The school was destroyed in the bombings of 1943.

The Jews of Rhodes lived in two quarters, had two Synagogues and the travelers who were visiting the island talked about their piousness and their concern with theological issues.

In 1941 there were about 1,800 Jews living in Rhodes. They had four Synagogues. The "Shalom" Synagogue, on the junction of Dosiadou and Simiou Streets, as well as the ancient Jewish cemetery, survived World War II. The Synagogue was originally built in the 12th century, was destroyed during the war between the Turks and the Knights and was rebuilt in the end of the 15th century.

German Occupation -Holocaust
From September 1943 until July 1944, while the Germans were arresting and displacing Jews all over Greece, no measures were taken against the Jews living in Rhodes. This eased their initial fears and gave to the members of the Jewish Community the false impression of peace and hope that nothing serious was going to occur. Only a few young Jews, risking their lives, dared to escape in shaky boats to the Turkish coasts. The rest waited and hoped.

In the meantime, the Nazis were preparing their criminal plan for the displacement and the elimination of the Jews. In mid-July 1944, the German Command ordered the Jews to reside solely within the confines of the city of Rhodes or in the villages of Trianta, Kremasti and Villanova (now known as Paradisi). These were the places were they had fled in order to escape the bombardments, in a distance no more than twelve kilometers from the city.

A few days later, on 18 July 1944, a German officer turned up at the house of the president of the Jewish Community and told him that, according to the orders of the German Commander, all Jewish men over 16 had to appear the following morning in the old headquarters of the Italian Air Force. They had to bring with them their identity cards and their work permits. This trick made everyone believe that they would be gathered in order to be sent to forced labour.

In the next morning, two SS officers, who were sent from the "Rosenberg Command" in Athens, walked into the room accompanied by an interpreter. With brutality and threatening, they grabbed the documents from the hands of the Jews gathered in the room. They assigned the president of the Community the task to inform the women to join their husbands within 24 hours, otherwise they would be shot. They also had to carry with them all their belongings: jewelry, gold sovereigns, banknotes, a few personal items and food.

In the confusion that ensued, and in their ignorance, the women could do nothing but to obey the order. On 20 July, almost all the Jews of Rhodes had been captured and were held in this improvised concentration camp. The Germans started, with immense brutality, taking everything valuable from them. In the meantime, the Germans were plundering the houses of the Jews that had been hastily deserted. The Italian High Command was forced to issue an order according to which all Jewish real estate and assets were confiscated in favour of the Italian State.

At this point one should mention the humanitarian stance shown by the Turkish consul, Selahettin Ulkumen, who intervened to save not only Turkish nationals but whole families as well, even at the remotest proof of their Turkish citizenship. He managed to save from the Nazis approximately 40 Jews who would have otherwise been led to death. For his acts, he was awarded after the War the title of "Righteous among the Nations" by Yad Vashem.

The order for the departure came at noon of Sunday 23 July. An endless queue of Jews set off. They were more than 1,600 men, women, children and elderly. Some were dragging their sad belongings, others were carrying them on their backs. Some were not walking fast enough. The guards, who were following the file accompanied by wild Alsatians, were beating them with their rifle stocks. Heads down, they passed through the city. The streets were empty as the Germans had sounded the alarm for air attacks. Once they arrived at the port, they were thrown in three very old cargo vessels. The presence of Jews on the island, which dated many centuries back, ended on that sad day of the summer of 1944.

The course from Rhodes to the port of Piraeus was horrible. It was terribly hot and the vessels were so full that those in the cargo hauls could not go up even to get some air. Seven persons died in the course of the voyage and their bodies were thrown in the sea.

They arrived at the port of Piraeus on 31 July 1944 and were immediately taken to Haidari, where they were ruthlessly humiliated. The Red Cross was not allowed to give them food and water until 36 hours after their arrival. The women were separated from the men. They were stripped in the most barbaric way to make sure that they had no more jewelry on them.

The Germans in an apparent attempt to break their morale were beating men, women and children sometimes to death. During the three days of their stay in the Haidari camp, another ten of the Jews of Rhodes died.

On 3 August, after having extracted their gold teeth and glasses, the Germans led the Jews in animal wagons. They put 65 persons in each wagon and sealed the doors. That was the last "consignment" of Jews from Greece. The trip to Poland lasted 13 days. About 100 people died during the trip and their bodies were thrown in the fields along the rail lines. They arrived in Auschwitz on 16 August and, after the horrible "selection" procedure, 1,200 persons, those who were judged too weak to work, were immediately sent to the gas chambers and the crematoria. The remainder was sent to forced labour in quarries, in coal mines and in the railways. The women were raped, sterilized and used in inhuman experiments, with no mercy.

Despite their short stay in the camp, most died of hardships, weakness and diseases. Only 150 survived: 120 women and 30 men. It is worth mentioning though that even after their liberation by the Allied forces, many of them died of exhaustion as they had become living skeletons.

Post War Period
Before the War, the Jewish Communities of Rhodes and Kos numbered 1,900 members. After the liberation their total population was not more than 200 persons.

On August 6th, 1946, Gabriel Charitos is elected First Mayor of a free Rhodes, after 600 years of occupation.

In memory of his fellow Rhodians, the members of the Jewish Community, he names the central square of "La Juderia" to "Square of Jewish Martyrs", the unanimous resolution of the then City Council of Rhodes, being the first official recognition of the Holocaust on behalf of a Greek authority.

Gabriel Haritos, as the Mayor of Rhodes, was the local partner for the proceedings for the initial talks between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, under the auspices of United Nations, at the Grande Albergo delle Rose (Hotel of Roses) in Rhodes from January 12 to April 4, 1949.

These meetings resulted to the agreements for the seize of fire on February and April 1949, also defining the borders of the newly founded jewish state with Egypt and Jordan. These defined borders were active till the Six Days War of 1967.

Today there are about 40 Jews living in Rhodes, who practice their religion in the Synagogue of the Community. However, it is worth mentioning that the Synagogue is also open to the public that visit it because of its great historic and architectural interest. In 2002 the Municipality approved the erection of a Monument of the Victims of the Holocaust in the Jewish Martyrs square, in the place where the Jewish quarter used to be. The Jewish cemetery of the island is still preserved.

Source: Text and Photos from «The Holocaust of Greek Jews: Monuments and Memories», Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece, Athens, January 2006, except specified otherwise.
Jewish Community of Rhodes
Simiou & Dossiadou, Medieval Town, 851 00, Rhodes, GREECE
Tel. +30 2241022364, 2241073039 | FAX +30 2241070964
E-mail: jcrhodes@otenet.gr
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