Thursday, April 14, 2016

Jews From Island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                           
Rhodes, an island off of Turkey, but was a Greek-owned island
a place within the Mediterranean Sea; very close to Israel
where Jews lived undisturbed for about 1,500 years
what a find for geneticists to test DNA

There is an island in the Aegean Sea called Rhodes. It is the largest of Greece’s Dodecanese islands.   According to tradition, Jews came here to live in the 2nd century BCE.  They probably were able to live there as an isolated people until the 12th Century when Sephardi Jews were still escaping from the Spanish Inquisition and joined them, then numbering 500 Jews on the island.  By then, the Middle East had been taken over by the Ottoman Empire and Islam, which developed  with the advent of Mohammad's death in 632.  At that time, the Christian world was coming down on the heads of Jews even earlier than 1492 when the Spanish decree was that all Jews had to either convert or leave the country.                              

The Jews on Rhodes found themselves being governed by the rule of the Knights of St. John, a Christian ruling party, from 1309 to 1522.  It was headquartered in the Kingdom of JerusalemRhodes and Malta,
"After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291 (Jerusalem itself had fallen in 1187), the Knights were confined to the County of Tripoli and, when Acre was captured in 1291, the order sought refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. Finding themselves becoming enmeshed in Cypriot politics, their Master, Guillaume de Villaret, created a plan of acquiring their own temporal domain, selecting Rhodes to be their new home, part of the Byzantine empire. His successor, Fulkes de Villaret, executed the plan, and on 15 August 1309, after over two years of campaigning, the island of Rhodes surrendered to the knights. "                             
Knights of St. John-Malta KnightsThe Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem
By the end of this period, they were suffering for having suspected sympathy with the Turks.  In 1577, the Kahal Shalom Synagogue was built, now the oldest synagogue in Greece.

The Turks did take over and rule, which brought many Sephardi settlers and changed the composition of the community which was formerly under the Christian Greeks.
The Colossus of Rhodes is one of official Seven Ancient Wonders of the World
 and was located on the Greek island of Rhodes. The statue depicted the Greek
 God of the Sun, Helios, and was built to commemorate Rhodes’ victory over Cyprus.It is 98 feet tall, just a little shorter than the Statue of Liberty-111 feet tall.  .
Even on this remote island, in 1840 there was the accusation of a Jew committing a ritual murder, something that happened to Jews in the Middle Ages.   It was averted  through the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore.

WWI came along and the Italians occupied the island from 1912 in an attempt to make Rhodes a center for the diffusion of an Italianized Jewish culture among the Jews of the Middle East, and in the Fascist period, a rabbinical seminary was even established.

Then in 1938 on the brink of WWII, the Italian anti-Semitic legislation led to a considerable exodus from the island mostly  going to Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo.  Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, had passed a series of anti-Semitic decrees that affected the Jews of Rhodes because the islands were then Italian.  Those that stayed sadly were deported to their death by the Germans in WWII and few lived out of a population of about 4,000.  They were all murdered on July 23, 1944 by the Nazis.
Rhodes at night
Of the people last on the island, they spoke Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish.  The city of Rhodes had a Jewish quarter-or "La Juderia".  Now it's called the Square of the Jewish Martyrs or the Sea Horse Square as there is a fountain there on "La Calle Ancha Road (The Wide Street)".  There is a monument dedicated to the memory of the 1,604 Jews from Rhodes and the nearby smaller island of Kos.
 This young Turkish consul to Rhodes, Muslim Selahattin Ülkümen. 
Rhodes had a Jewish community of about 2,000  before the War 
and Ülkümen saved many of them by issuing Turkish visas and passports even though it was against direct orders from Turkey. Two researchers, Gilbert and Nyombayire,  went back to Rhodes and interviewed
 Ülkümen’s son as well as two Jewish refugees who were saved
 because of the Diplomat’s efforts.
 During the war, in protest of Ülkümen’s assistance to the Jews of Rhodes, the Germans bombed the Turkish consulate killing his wife..

"As a part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Amanda Gurin of Atlanta went to “The Rescuers,” directed by Emmy-award winner Michael King. The documentary follows  the above researcher, a young Rwandan anti-genocide activist, Stephanie Nyombayire and a world-renowned Holocaust historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, as they scout Europe for descendents of the Righteous Diplomats. The trek took 35 days and took Nyombayire and Gilbert to 15 countries.  Ulkumen 
was one of them.  
This is the blessing in this story.  Some 40-50 Jews from Rhodes had Turkish citizenship and because of that were able to escape the Nazis through the intervention of the Turkish consul of the time, Selahattin Ulkumen, above.  At one time, almost half of the businesses, little shops, had belonged to the Jews of Rhodes.  Today only 5 buildings are owned by Jews who make up a handful of the Jews left in the island city, mostly now quite elderly, and just a few younger ones who have intermarried.  Only an elderly brother and sister are related to any of the original Jewish residents and they are living in the new city.

In 1956, Greek Jews were urged to move to Rhodes, so 20 Jewish families took up the offer and were able to be a part of a small but tightly knit and vibrant Jewish community.  By 1970, an exodus began and many young Jews left Rhodes for better educational and employment opportunities.  However, people do return who have family roots from the island.

Aaron A. had been living in Zimbabwe and was able to visit his ancestral home a year ago.  He now lives in Florida.  Vic visited Rhodes recently.  His father had lived there in 1938 and Vic had celebrated Yom Kippur with him then.  It was the last time Vic was able to see his father.  He recalled being with him, the close-knit community, the rich family life they had that was centered around the charming Jewish Quarter with its cobbled alleyways that led to the huge waterfront; the world for him that was.
Today, " Rhodes is known for its beach resorts, ancient ruins and structural remnants of its crusades-era occupation by the Knights of St. John. Rhodes City features the medieval Street of the Knights and the castle-like Palace of the Grand Masters, once a Turkish prison and now a museum. The city’s bars, clubs and cafes bustle during high season. It's quite the tourist attraction for nearby people.  People come here to celebrate the High Holidays who have family roots from the island.  Every Friday night in the summer they do have a minyan and hold services.  They come to hold weddings, bar and bat mitzvas with at least 100 attending and they come from Paris, Cape Town, England and Australia.  They even have built a museum on the island.  "Weather73°F (23°C), Wind W at 13 mph (21 km/h), 53% Humidity.  NIce!  

Resource:  The Jerusalem Report, August 24, 2015, p. 30-35.
The New Standard Jewish encyclopedia: Rhodes

No comments:

Post a Comment