Thursday, July 28, 2016

Another Island of Sanctuary For Jews: Rhodes

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                     
Island of Rhodes in Aegean Sea

Another island that Jews have settled in was the Greek island in the Aegean sea, Rhodes.  Jews have lived there as far back as in the classical days, and in the 12th century, numbering  about 500.  It maintained itself under the rule of the Knights of St. John from 1309 to 1522, though in the end, suffered for suspected sympathy with the Turks.
                                                                                Map from Jerusalem, Israel to Rhodes
"The city of Rhodes had 50,636 inhabitants in 2011. It is located northeast of Crete, southeast of Athens and just off the Anatolian coast of Turkey.  Rhodes' nickname is The island of the Knights, named after the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, who once conquered the land
Historically, Rhodes was famous worldwide for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World." Rhodes is 28 hours away from Jerusalem, or 2,082.7km via M5.  If you draw a straight line from Rhodes to Jerusalem, it is only  824.39 km. This distance is equal to 512.25 miles, and 444.84 nautical miles.   Today, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.                                                                       
Under Turkish rule, many Sephardi settlers arrived, which changed the population of the community, which was formerly Greek.  By 1840, the Jews here were accused of a Ritual Murder but was averted through the intervention of Sir Moses Montiefiore.  After the Italian occupation from 1912, an attempt was made to establish Rhodes as 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 surprisingly established.

Then 1938 came along.  The Italian anti-Semitic legislation led to a big exodus from the island, largely to Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo, South Africa.  The majority of those who stayed were deported to their death by the Germans in WWII and few out of a former population of about 4,000 remain today.  

This is ironic because during the Holocaust years from 1938 to 1945, Turkey did more to save Jewish lives than the USA or Great Britain!  It was due to the intervention of a diplomat serving in Rhodes.  Before the war, Italy held this island.  Then the German army occupied it in 1943 when about 2,000 Jews were living there.  Many had come there from Turkey, Greece and Italy.
By 1944, the Gestapo ordered all the Jews of Rhodes to report to "temporary relocation," knowing they meant Auschwitz.  The diplomat, Selahattin Ulkumen, immediately went to the German commanding officer and told him that Turkey was officially neutral, and so that meant that the Jewish there were Turkish citizens and had to be released, but the Nazi officer refused.  He said that under Nazi law, all Jews were Jews without rights and had to be sent to the concentration camps.  Selahattin argued further by saying that under Turkish law, all citizens were equal and Jews were not treated differently than Christians or Muslims.  He then  threatened the German officer and told him that if he didn't release the Jewish Turks and their extended families, Turkey would cause an international incident.  After much tension,  he managed to get 50 Jewish Turks  released out of the approximate 2,000.

All 50 survived the war because of Selahattin.  He, however, paid a high price for his bravery.  Because of his non-cooperation, the Germans bombed the Turkish consulate on Rhodes.  Selahattin's pregnant wife, Mihrinissa, was killed in the blast, along with 2 other consular employees.  We see that it was not only Ashkenazi Jews who suffered from the Holocaust, but also Sephardim Jews as well.  Remember the movie, Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart?  They were in Morocco, and there were the Nazis.  Jews must have been rounded up there, too, only the movie never went into that.
Turkey postage stamp with Ulkumen
Yad Yashem's honor for Ulkumen
Israel's honor on a stamp for Ulkumen

After the war, Selahattin returned to Turkey and in 1989 was honored as "RIGHTEOUS AMONG THE NATIONS" by  the Israeli Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, and in 1990, Israel issued a postage stamp in his honor.  Selahattin died in Istanbul in 2003 at age 89.  Sephardi Jews from Turkey honor Selahattin Ulkumen as this week's Thursday Hero.

Resource: The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
Anna Kearnan on Sephardic Group, facebook

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