Searching for Jewish history on the streets of Rhodes
Updated: Jan 27
By Daniel Santacruz
All that remains today of the Jewish presence in Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese Islands of Greece, is the Kal Kadosh Shalom Synagogue, more of a museum that an active institution.
Located on Dossiadou St., a cobbled alley that leads to a wide thoroughfare where the old Jewish Quarter, or judería, stood, the synagogue is divided internally by three sets of arches resting on massive columns.
Two echals, where the Torah scrolls are kept, are located on both sides of the door that leads to the courtyard. Above the door is a plaque in Hebrew and Ladino that pays tribute to “a mother deceased in the flower of her youth by her sons,” dated 1929 and dedicated by the Turiel family.
The Hebrew date marking the completion of the floor (5601, which corresponds to 1841) is displayed on a
mosaic of stone patterns.
A plaque in the back courtyard, above where a fountain existed, gives the Hebrew date of 5338, corresponding to 1577, when the synagogue is believed to have been built.
The last addition to the building is the women’s balcony, or ezrat nashim, built in 1935. Prior that date women congregated in a room where the museum is now, viewing the sanctuary through openings made of latticework.
The museum, inaugurated in October 1997, displays panels with the history of the Jews of Rhodes including maps and photos, as well as newspaper articles, ceremonial objects, cooking utensils and dresses with explanations both in Greek and English. A section is dedicated to the Second World War and the Holocaust. In the center of the room a 16th-century Torah scroll is displayed, and in a room to the right of it a mikvah can be seen.
Martyrs and occupiers
To the left of Dossiadou St., two blocks from the synagogue and surrounded by restaurants and shops, is the Square of the Martyred Jews (known in Greek as Paateia Martyron Evron), originally a district of Jewish-owned homes and businesses.
The area was bombed during World War II and in its place was established the square and a memorial in English, Ladino, Italian and French that remembers the 1,604 Jewish Martyrs of Rhodes and Cos who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Cos is off the southwestern coast of Turkey, the third largest of the Dodecanese Islands.
Historians believe there has been a Jewish presence in Rhodes since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
In the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent, who had conquered Rhodes in the name of the Ottomans, opened the doors to the island to Sefardic Jews expelled from Spain by the Catholic sovereigns in 1492. The Romaniotes, Jews native of the Eastern Mediterranean, were outnumbered by the Sefardim, who brought with them different customs and a different language, Ladino or Judeo-Spanish.
The island was occupied by the Italians in May of 1912. According to a census done by them in the first years of the occupation, there were between 4,500 and 5,500 Jews living within the walls of the city, built by the Crusaders in the 12 century.
Saying adio to the island
The Jewish community began to dwindle from the beginning of the 20th century for economic reasons, with many emigrating to the United States, mainly to Seattle, Wash., and Los Angeles, Calif., and to the Congo and South Africa.
During the 1930s, some 4,000 Jews lived on the island. In 1938, the enforcement of the Racial Laws in all territories under control of Italy, except Ethiopia, hastened the exodus of Jews from the island.
Five years later it was occupied by German forces. The deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau started on July 23, 1944 when 1,673 of them, according to figures provided by the Rhodes Jewish Museum, were ordered to march to the port.
The first stop on the journey was the port of Piraeus, Athens, and from there the deportees were taken to the detention camp of Haidari, near that city, where were kept for four days.
On August 3 they began the last leg of their journey, Auscwhitz-Birkenau. According to Yad Vashem, “upon arrival, 400 of the 1,800 Jews were chosen for hard labor, the rest were executed immediately. Only 150 survived the war.”
At its peak, the island was home to four synagogues and a rabbinical college. There are only 30 Jews in Rhodes today. Ladino is no longer spoken there.
The museum and the synagogue are open from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. from April 1 to Oct. 31. After that, by appointment contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 30-22410-22364.
For more information about Rhodes, visit www.jewishrhodes.org/
For more on the victims of Rhodes and Cos during the Holocaust, visit http://www.sephardicstudies.org/keridorhodeslis.html
Camhi Fromer, Rebecca. The House by the Sea: A Portrait of the Holocaust in Greece. San Francisco, Calif.: Mercury House, 1998.
Fintz Menascé, Esther. A History of the Jews of Rhodes. Los Angeles, Calif.: Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, 2014.
Franco, Hizkia M. A History of the Jews of Rhodes, New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Stavroulakis, Nicholas. The Jews of Greece. Athens: Talos Press, 1990.
© Daniel Santacruz