The elegant Seahorse Fountain in the old walled city of Rhodes provides refreshing relief for tourists in the blistering summer heat. Few if any notice Lucia Soulam as she trudges each day from the fountain through the narrow street of Pindarou and up the alley-ways of Dosiadou and Simiou.
As Lucia opens the tall brown doors leading into a cobbled courtyard, the only hint that this building is worth visiting is a small, fading, typed notice to say it is open to visitors daily between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Through the thick layers of heavy brown paint, it is difficult to make out the traces of two raised Stars of David. These alone indicate that this is the oldest surviving synagogue in Greece, and the last remaining synagogue in “La Judeira,” the old Jewish quarter in the south-east corner of the walled city.
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. The Jews of Rhodes were doctors and merchants, printers and bankers, craftsmen and traders. Unlike the Greek Christians of Rhodes, they were permitted by the Ottoman Turks 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. Today, sadly, there are only 35, in seven families; the number of adult male Jews is so small that it is increasingly difficult to find the quorum of 10 men needed to form a congregation for services on a Friday night or Saturday morning. The Holocaust virtually destroyed one of the oldest Jewish communities in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Kahal Shalom is the last remaining synagogue in a city that once had six. The floor inside and the courtyards outside are decorated with the graceful black and white pebble mosaic patterns or kochlaki, which are distinctive throughout the Dodecanese. A plaque in the courtyard on the east side 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 who were 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 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 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 Rhodians who helped them escape were to perish a few years later.
On July 23rd, 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 survived.
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. Memorials inside recall the victims of the Holocaust.
Lucia was among the survivors, and tells their story in her fluent Ladino, Italian, Greek and Hebrew. 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 has helped to pay for the recent redecoration of the interior. Under the guidance of Aron Hasson, a Los Angeles lawyer whose four grandparents were born in Rhodes, the graves in the old cemetery outside the city walls, many dating back to the 16th cenutry, have been restored, and a new museum has been opened 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.
The city square where the Nazis rounded up the Jews of Rhodes has been renamed Plateia Martyron Evreon, the Square of the Hebrew Martyrs, and the Sea Horse Fountain was erected in memory of those who died in Auschwitz.
Last week, we found nine Israeli tourists in the synagogue, 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 they held the first service for months. A calm descended over the Holy Congregation of Plentiful Peace, but it may be months before the synagogue hosts another service, for the Holocaust destroyed a unique and beautiful part of European culture.
This news feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Friday 25 June 1999