20 May 2019

A Sunday afternoon movie
brings back memories of the
Jewish community in Rhodes

The Seahorse Fountain in the Square of the Jewish Martyrs in the walled city of Rhodes (Photograph: Square, Nadezhda Bogatyryova/Wikimapia)

Patrick Comerford

It has been a busy working week last week, with workshops in the Rectory in Askeaton on Monday on ‘Anglican culture,’ visit to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and a chapter meeting in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, on Tuesday, a day-long meeting of USPG trustees in London on Wednesday, a three-day meeting in Derry of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland from Thursday to Saturday, and two services yesterday, in Askeaton and Tarbert.

By Sunday afternoon [19 May 2019], I was tired and exhausted. I was fit to do little else apart from stretching out on a sofa in the Rectory in Askeaton, watching Lew Grade’s movie Escape to Athena, filmed on Rhodes 40 years ago in 1979.

As the movie comes to a close, Zeno (Telly Savallas), leader of the Greek resistance on the island, leads a tsamikos or syrtos dance with his girlfriend Eleana (Claudia Cardinale), a local madame, around a Seahorse Fountain in a town square to an instrumental arrangement of the Dodecanese traditional song Περα Στους Περα Καμπους (Pera stous pera kampous, ‘The Nun’s Dance’).

This is the city square where the Nazis rounded up the Jews of Rhodes in 1945. In the post-war years, it was renamed the Square of the Hebrew (or Jewish) Martyrs (Πλατεία Εβραίων Μαρτύρων, Plateia Martyron Evreon) and the Seahorse Fountain was erected in memory of the Jews of Rhodes who died in the Holocaust.

As I watched this closing scene, I was reminded of the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, the last surviving, functioning synagogue on Rhodes, and the woman who gave me a tour of the synagogue one sunny afternoon 20 years ago, in June 1999.

From the Seahorse Fountain, the narrow street of Pindarou leads up into the alleyways of Dosiadou and Simiou. A pair of tall dark doors is covered with thick layers of heavy brown paint and two raised Stars of David. The doors open into a cobbled courtyard and the Kahal Shalom, the oldest surviving synagogue in Greece and the last remaining synagogue in the old Jewish quarter Rhodes.

The bimah or prayer desk in the Kahal Shalom synagogue in Rhodes (Photograph: Tripadvisor)

The Kahal Shalom is the last in a city that once had six synagogues. The floor inside and the courtyards outside are decorated with the graceful black and white pebble mosaic patterns or kochlaki that are distinctive throughout the Dodecanese islands. A plaque in the courtyard bears the date Kislev 5338 in the Jewish calendar, showing Kahal Shalom (‘the Holy Congregation of Plentiful Peace’) dates back to the year 1577.

But more immediate history and its horrors are recalled on a plaque in the west-side courtyard: it lists the names of 100 families wiped out in the Holocaust.

As the Italians – who captured the Dodecanese from the Ottomans in 1912 – passed increasingly repressive measures in the 1930s, the Jews of Rhodes began to leave in large numbers. By the end of the 1930s, there were still 2,000 or more Jews on the island, struggling to maintain their cultural life. A boatload of 600 Jews from Bratislava and Prague fleeing the Nazis reached Rhodes in 1939. There they were fed and quartered by the local Jewish community, and provided with fresh water for their onward journey to Palestine.

But as the boat sailed out, it caught fire, and the refugees were eventually washed up on the island of Samos. They returned to Rhodes, where the local Jews helped them to buy another old boat, and this time they made their way safely to Palestine. The refugees survived, but the Jews of Rhodes who helped them escape were to perish a few years later.

As the Germans took control of Rhodes, the leaders of the Jewish community decided to hide their Torah scrolls. In secret, the Torah scrolls were given to the Turkish religious leader, the Grand Mufti of Rhodes, Seyh Suleyman Kaslioglu, for safekeeping. The Grand Mufti hid the Torah scrolls in the pulpit in the Morad Reis mosque.

On 23 July 1944, 1,673 members of the Jewish community were rounded up in Rhodes and assembled in the square in front of the old Admiralty Building and the former palace of the Latin archbishops. From there, they were shipped to Piraeus and on by train to Auschwitz. The community that had survived the Crusades and the Inquisition and prospered under both Ottomans and Italians was decimated: only 151 people survived.

The Kahal Shalom Synagogue, with the women’s gallery behind and above the tevah (Photograph: RhodesPrivateTours.com)

We arrived at the Kahal Shalom synagogue one sunny afternoon in June 1999 to find nine Israeli tourists there, one short of the quorum of 10 Jewish men for a service. Eventually, a New Yorker in the courtyard outside realised the problem, and provided the one man needed to save the day, although he could only stand in silence and knew none of the prayers.

As a family, we sat at the back of the synagogue and watched as calm descended on the Holy Congregation of Plentiful Peace and the first service in months took place.

The interior of the synagogue follows a traditional Sephardic layout, with the tevah or reading platform in the centre, facing south-east towards Jerusalem. Behind it and above is the balcony, created in 1935 as a result of a liberalisation of religious policy, for use as a women’s prayer area. Before that, the women sat in the rooms beside the south wall of the synagogue, and they could see into the main body of the synagogue, through curtained openings. Those rooms are now used for the Jewish Museum of Rhodes.

Lucia Modiano Soulam was the brave woman with an extraordinary story who showed me around the synagogue and the museum not once but twice that week. By then she was bent over and in her 80s. She was a survivor of Auschwitz and she spoke Greek, Ladino, Italian, a little French and Turkish and very little English.

Lucia was the youngest daughter of Moise and Grazia Modiano. Her parents left Thessaloniki when the city was incorporated into the modern Greek state in 1912 and moved to Rhodes, then occupied by the Italians dependency.

During World War II, her two brothers Saul and Samuel served in the Italian army: Saul caught meningitis and died at the age of 24. When the Germans seized Rhodes, her father Moise Modian was arrested. Her brother Samuel, who tried to find and rescue him, also disappeared. Lucia, her mother and her sister Elisa were taken to Auschwitz where only Lucia survived.

Her cousin Sami Modiano was sent to Birkenau at the age of 13 but survived against all odds. He celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2007 at the age of 77 in the Great Synagogue of Rome – a moving ceremony he had been denied in his adolescence in Birkenau.

As we found our places at the service that weekend, Lucia took her place in a synagogue where once she would only have been seen in the balcony above and behind the tevah, or behind the screens and curtains in the adjoining women’s rooms.

She died in 2010.

The Seahorse Fountain in the Square of the Hebrew Martyrs remembering those members of the Jewish community of Rhodes who perished at Auschwitz (Photograph: Nicholas Rhodes Taxi Tours)

There have been Jews in Rhodes since at least the time of Herod the Great. After the Spanish Inquisition, an influx of Sephardic refugees from Spain and Portugal saw a growth in the Jewish population and a new input into Jewish culture in the Aegean. An 800-year-old Torah scroll in Buenos Aires has been dated and traced back to the Jewish community of Rhodes, probably brought there by Jewish refugees fleeing Spain and Portugal.

The Jews of Rhodes were doctors and merchants, printers and bankers, craftsmen and traders. The Ottoman Turks allowed them to live within the walls of the crusader city.

For over 200 years, 12 successive generations of the Israel family provided the Chief Rabbis of Rhodes. In the 19th century, four of the five banks on the island were in Jewish hands, and the first department store in Rhodes was owned by a Jewish family.

When the Jewish community in Rhodes was at its height in the 1920s, there were 4,000 or more Jews living on the island. At the entrance to the synagogue, a stone monument lists the names of the Jewish families of Rhodes who were taken by the Nazis:

In memory of the 2,000 martyrs of the Jewish community of Rhodes and the brutal annihilation by the murderous Nazis in the concentration camps of Germany, 1944-1945. May they rest in peace.

The numbers are so overwhelming that instead of 2,000 names the plaque lists only family names.

After World War II, the Torah scrolls were returned to the few members of the Jewish community who survived. Several years later in 1972, the Grand Mufti recalled, ‘One of the greatest moments of my life was when I was able to embrace the Torah, and carry it, and put it in the pulpit of the mosque – because we knew no German would ever think that the Torahs were preserved in the pulpit of the mosque.’

The Kahal Shalom Synagogue, with the women’s gallery behind and above the tevah (Photograph: I, Sailko/Wikipedia)

Inside the synagogue, the prayer desk was donated in memory of Regine and Semah Franco, their families and their children, who died during the deportation and in Auschwitz. Money donated by Rhodian Jews in Israel and the US helped to pay for redecorating the interior.

Under the guidance of Aron Hasson, a Los Angeles lawyer whose four grandparents were born in Rhodes, the Jewish Museum of Rhodes opened in 1997 in what was once the women’s prayer room.

The museum exhibits illustrate daily life for the community throughout the first half of the century, from old men wearing the traditional fez and rabbis in turbans during the Ottoman period to a little boy from the Angel family wearing a yellow star in the 1940s.

A plaque in English says:

Every soul had a name.
As they walked through the gates of hell, they became a number.
As they perished and rose to heaven, they remained a number.
Every name deserves to be remembered.

Today, the synagogue is used for services only when visitors or former residents and their families visit Rhodes for Friday night prayer services, High Holidays such as Passover, Pentecost and Yom Kippur, and special occasions. The number of adult male Jews is so small that it is difficult to find the quorum of 10 men needed for services on most Friday nights or Saturday mornings. The Holocaust virtually destroyed one of the oldest Jewish communities in the east Mediterranean.

Lord Ponsonby ... an Irish peer from Co Kilkenny who saved the besieged Jews of Rhodes in the mid-19th century

I have visited Rhodes half a dozen times or more. During my visits to Killaloe and Derry last week, I was reminded of on one of my failed efforts to visit Rhodes some years ago, when I came across the story of a brother of a former Bishop of Derry and of Killaloe who was an Irish peer and diplomat from a well-known Co Kilkenny family and how he saved the Jews of Rhodes from a violent outburst of prejudice almost 180 years ago.

In February 1840, the Jews of Rhodes were falsely accused of ritually murdering a Christian boy who gone missing while walking alone. The incident became known as the Rhodes blood libel.

After the boy went missing on a walk, the Jews of Rhodes were accused of kidnapping and murdering him. A number of Jewish men were arrested, beaten and tortured and accused of taking Christian children captive for ritual sacrifice.

After the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town of Rhodes was besieged during Passover that year, the British Government decided to intervene on behalf of the Jewish community. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, sent a dispatch on 5 May to the British ambassador in Constantinople, Lord Ponsonby, asking him to communicate the British concerns about events in Rhodes to the Ottoman government ‘officially and in writing’ and to ‘request… an immediate and strict inquiry to be made … especially into the allegation that these atrocities were committed at the instigation of the Christians and the European consuls.’

John Ponsonby (1770-1855) was an Irish-born diplomat from Bessborough, Co Kilkenny, and had been MP for Tallow, Co Waterford, Banagher, Co Offaly, and Dungarvan, Co Waterford, before the Act of Union, and for Galway City after the Act of Union. At the time of the blood libel allegations, his brother, Richard Ponsonby (1772-1853), was Bishop of Derry (1831-1853) and prevously Bishop of Killaloe (1828-1831).

Ponsonby, who had succeeded to his father’s estate and title in 1802, was sent to Constantinople as the British ambassador in 1832, and a year before the crisis in Rhodes he was given the peerage title of Viscount Ponsonby, of Imokilly, Co Cork, on 20 April 1839.

Ponsonby’s immediate response to Palmerston’s instructions created a consensus among the European diplomatic corps in Constantinople that the persecution of the Jews of Rhodes had to cease. Emboldened, Ponsonby, who was by far the most powerful diplomat in Constantinople, intervened with the Ottoman court on behalf the Jews of Rhodes.

An Ottoman inquiry cleared the Jewish population of all the accusations. The Turkish governor of Rhodes, Yusuf Pasha was dismissed for not having upheld the law, and Ponsonby praised the investigation as one during which the ‘affair of Rhodes was examined with fairness’ and called the verdict ‘a signal proof of the justice and humanity with which the Sublime Porte acts.’

Πέρα στους πέρα κάμπους

Πέρα στους πέρα κάμπους, πέρα στους πέρα κάμπους
πέρα στους πέρα κάμπους που είναι οι ελιές
Είν’ ένα μοναστήρι, είν’ ένα μοναστήρι
είν’ ένα μοναστήρι που παν οι κοπελιές

Πάω και γώ ο καημένος
για να λειτουργηθώ
Να κάνω το σταυρό μου
σαν κάθε χριστιανός

Βλέπω μια πάντα κι άλλη
βλέπω μια κοπελιά
Να κάνει το σταυρό της
και λάμπει η εκκλησιά

Ρωτώ, ξαναρωτώ τη
από πού ’σαι κοπελιά
Από εδώ κοντά ’μαι
κι από το μαχαλά

Μα έχω γέρον άντρα
και δυο μικρά παιδιά
κι ολημερίς με δέρνει
έχει σκληρή καρδιά

Βαρύ σταμνί μου δίνει
κι ένα κοντό σκοινί
Ν’ αργήσω να γυρίσω
για να ’βρει αφορμή

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