A world that was

Maintaining the memory of an ancient Jewish community.

Interior of Kahal Shalom, the oldest synagogue in Greece and the only surviving one on Rhodes (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
Interior of Kahal Shalom, the oldest synagogue in Greece and the only surviving one on Rhodes
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
RHODES, Greece — Officially, the square located in what was once the heart of the Jewish Quarter ‒ or “La Juderia” ‒ of the City of Rhodes is called the Square of the Jewish Martyrs. In reality it is known as the Sea Horse Square, because of the quaint fountain decorated with three sea horses located there, on the road formerly known as “La Calle Ancha,” which means “The Wide Street” in Ladino, the language spoken by much of the Jewish community of Rhodes before they were deported and murdered by the Nazis in July 1944.
Under shady trees in the square, a black marble monument is dedicated to the memory of these 1,604 Jews from Rhodes and the nearby smaller island of Kos. But at the start of the tourist season, most of the visitors to Rhodes, the largest of the Greek Dodecanese islands located just off the Anatolian coast of Turkey, are more interested in having their pictures taken with the array of exotic parrots and birds a restaurant a few meters away uses to drum up business than reflecting on a lost community’s tragic past.
Some 40 to 50 Jews from Rhodes with Turkish citizenship were able to escape the Nazis through the intervention of the Turkish consul of the time, Selahattin Ulkumen.
At one point, almost half of the shops and homes in the Old City of Rhodes belonged to the Jewish community. Today, the community owns only five buildings and there are but a handful of Jews left in the island city, mostly elderly, and a few younger ones who have intermarried.
Only an elderly brother and sister pair living in the new city are related to any of the original Jewish residents of the sunny island, which, with its proximity to Israel, crystal clear turquoise blue waters, large casino and attractive discount shopping, has become a choice vacation destination for Israeli tourists.
Many, though, don’t realize that tucked away in the picturesque alley behind the souvenir shops and open-air restaurants is the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue of four belonging to what once was a thriving Jewish community.
Believed to have been built in 1577, Kahal Shalom is the oldest synagogue in Greece.
This summer, Carmen Cohen, 55, the director of the Jewish Community of Rhodes and the publicity-shunning powerhouse behind the modest revival of La Juderia, is expecting to hold three weddings and four bar and bat mitzvas in the synagogue, with more than 100 guests for each event. And while none of the celebrants will be locals, coming rather from Paris, Cape Town, England and Australia, it is a proud accomplishment for her.
“We do manage to bring people who have family roots in Rhodes here. Every summer they come for events and the proper celebration of the High Holidays. Every Friday night [in the summer] if we have a minyan we hold services,” Cohen tells The Jerusalem Report in her office in the synagogue compound that includes the Jewish Museum of Rhodes, constructed in 1997 in what used to be the women’s section of the synagogue.
UNDER HER direction in 2002, the museum was expanded to include more space and displays of artifacts from the community.
Cohen, who came to Rhodes as a young bride of 20 from the city of Volos, on the Greek mainland, has an office in a former yeshiva building that belongs to the Rhodes Department of Archaeology. According to tradition, the original Romaniote Jewish residents traced their roots as far back as the second century BCE and were later joined in 1523 by Sephardi Jews who had taken refuge in the Ottoman Empire to escape the Spanish Inquisition.
Following World War II, in 1956, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, in an attempt to retain ownership over some of the buildings belonging to the Jewish community in Rhodes, urged Greek Jews who wanted to restart their lives to take up residence in Rhodes. Some 20 Jewish families took up the offer ‒ including Cohen’s husband’s family and the family of Anna Cohen, 63, her quietly loyal right hand – in an effort to maintain ownership of property and the Jewish heritage of Rhodes.
Anna Cohen, one of Rhodes’ last Jewish residents, stands in front of the entrance to the Kahal Shalom Synagogue.
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
Over the next two decades, they created a small but tightly knit and vibrant Jewish community, Anna Cohen, who grew up in the community, fondly recalls to The Report.
In her youth Cohen made and sold copper engravings from one of the tiny shops along the square. Her father, Simon Cohen, who sold T-shirts and tourist souvenirs, died recently. She was only able to get a minyan for her father’s funeral thanks to an Israeli woman who has been living in Rhodes for 10 years and who put out a call via social networks. The shiva was held in Athens where her sisters and children live.
The exodus of the newly formed Jewish community began in the early 1970s, and over the following years many young Jews left Rhodes for better educational and employment opportunities.
Since 1970, there has been a three-person administrative committee appointed by the Jewish Central Board in Athens in charge of the community, but none of the members live in Rhodes and except for the president, Bella Angel-Restis, none has a connection with Rhodes.
Though a longtime member of the community in Rhodes, Carmen Cohen only became active in its preservation after her elderly parents, who had moved to Rhodes from their native Volos in their old age, passed away. “I was upset with the situation,” she says.
When she began her tenure in 1999, the building where she now sits was in disrepair, and she cleared out five truckloads of garbage to refurbish it and make it usable.
The synagogue was mostly kept closed with an elderly woman Holocaust survivor opening it when a visitor came by asking to see it, and there was a tiny museum and no gift shop, which today is another small source of income. Despite attempts to convince her otherwise, Cohen declines to be photographed.
“We decided to give a new life to the community,” she says. Every year on July 23 ‒ the date of the deportation of the Jewish community ‒ the residents commemorate the event with some sort of memorial service.
This year, a concert and the screening of a film on the Holocaust were scheduled.
In late May, Aaron Alhadeff, 55, originally from Zimbabwe and on a roots trip from his home in Florida, made his way to the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where an entry plaque from 1651 proclaims “Peace in the world, let there be peace…” Stopping in the middle of the Sephardi-style synagogue, Alhadeff took out his smartphone and swiped through photos including a photograph of his great-grandfather’s and great-grandmother’s graves in the Jewish cemetery outside the Old City gates, which he was hoping to locate. Some of the gravestones there date back to the late 16th century. In 1927, his grandfather had been among the many young people from the Rhodes Jewish community who set out for the distant shores of Africa and the United States.
A 16th Century Sephardi Torah scroll at the museum.
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
“I am trying to find out as much as I can about my great-grandfather,” Alhadeff, who managed to find the street where his great-grandfather had lived, explains to The Report. “We are looking for our roots.
It is very eerie walking along these streets, especially knowing that at one stage the whole area was a vibrant Jewish community, knowing that my grandfather left here as a 17-year-old to seek his fortune.”
Some 15,000 people visit the synagogue compound each year, says Cohen, and they recently began to charge a symbolic entrance fee. “Our purpose is not to make money,” says Cohen. “Everything we do is earmarked for the upkeep of this place and at the same time we are trying to offer more services to visitors. We are trying to keep this place alive.” For the most part, says Cohen, they depend on donations for funding.
DURING THE High Holy Days, the local families eat the holiday meal together.
The religious services are led by South African Isaac Habib, 64, who for the past four years has been coming to Rhodes, spending five months of the year giving tours of the Jewish Quarter and helping out occasionally with Friday night services when there is a minyan.
His father Guershon left Rhodes in 1936 for the Congo, and his mother Lucia Capelluto was among the few Jews of Rhodes who survived the Nazi concentration camps. According to Habib, only one survivor, Lucia Sulam, returned to Rhodes after the Holocaust, with the other survivors making their way to countries where Jews from Rhodes had already created communities, such as the Congo, where 95 percent of the Jewish community was Rhodian.
A memorial to the over 1,000 Jews of Rhodes who were deported and murdered by the Nazis, July 23, 1944.
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
After the Congo gained its independence in 1960, the Jewish community left for various other countries, including his native Cape Town in South Africa, where they founded a synagogue named after the one in Rhodes and where till today the melodies and the ne’ila Yom Kippur prayer continue to be sung in Ladino, he relates to The Report in an e-mail.
“By working with Cohen I feel I am keeping the story of my ancestors alive.
Only after the death of both of my parents did I begin to become aware of my roots in Rhodes, and its Jewish history and customs, and the tragedy of its loss. So little is known about past Jewish life in Rhodes around the world,” says Habib, who has been inspired by his connection to Rhodes to write poetry in Ladino and paint scenes of La Juderia based on his imagination and stories he heard in his youth.
There are various online social media groups where descendants of Jews from Rhodes from around the world connect while trying to reconstruct their family trees. On the website of the Jewish Museum, there are detailed maps and lists of current Jewish landmarks, mostly stone plaques, as well as a list of the locations of the many Jewish family homes and businesses that no longer exist.
In June 2013, Vic Alhadeff, 63, chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia (and Report contributor), came with his family to celebrate his daughter’s aufruf (a pre-wedding Shabbat ceremony) at the old synagogue where some 40 people gathered from Australia, the US, South Africa and Israel.
“It was extraordinarily powerful, moving and special given that my family and the Jewish community had been decimated in the Holocaust and that we were there to celebrate my daughter’s marriage, which is the ultimate reaffirmation of life,” Vic Alhadeff, who is unaware of any familial relationship with Aaron Alhadeff, relates to The Report. The Alhadeffs were a large banking family in the heyday of the Jewish community of Rhodes before World War II.
Just before his father left for Zimbabwe ‒ then Rhodesia ‒ in 1938 after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini passed a series of anti-Semitic decrees that affected the Jews of Rhodes because the islands were then Italian, Vic Alhadeff’s father spent the day in the synagogue praying with his father on Yom Kippur, seated in the back row in the ninth and tenth seats from the left, Alhadeff writes in an e-mail. It was the last time his father saw his father since he was unable to send for the rest of the family before the Nazis took over the island.
During his daughter’s aufruf, Alhadeff sat in the same wooden seats with his two sons-in-law.
“It was exceptionally moving to be in those seats, to reflect on who had previously sat there and to do so with my daughters’ husbands,” he says.
His visit, he says, was “a poignant reminder of what a vibrant community the Jews of Rhodes were and the unfathomable tragedy that it has been destroyed forever.
The colorful traditions, the close-knit community, the rich family life, centered around the charming Jewish Quarter with its cobbled alleyways leading to the magnificent waterfront ‒ all these historical memories and images came flooding in as we immersed ourselves into the world that was.”
Maintaining a visible Jewish presence in Rhodes has not always been easy, Carmen Cohen stresses, with many of the population influenced by media reports identifying with the plight of the Palestinians and connecting the Jewish community with Israel. But in recent years, the tide has been changing, though they hit a rough spot last year with the Gaza war.
“Every time there is a big conflict the situation here is worse,” she says. “This brings anti-Semitism, because [people here] don’t understand that though I am Jewish, I am not Israeli. The words [for Israeli and Jew] are similar in Greek, but I am a Greek-born citizen of Jewish faith,” she asserts.