HARTFORD, Connecticut – Under a blazing July sun in 1944 the Nazis forced 1,800 men, women and children of Rhodes onto waiting ferryboats. This was the start of a harrowing three-week journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau and signified the Nazis’ attempt to obliterate all traces of the Greek island’s Jewish presence.
The Jews of Rhodes were first mentioned in the Book of Maccabees and for more than 2,000 years stood at the intersection of East and West. When the Nazis occupied the island it appeared their culture, as well as the people, would be forever lost. But Dr. Richard Freund, Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, is making sure that doesn’t happen.
A new exhibit at the university — “It was Paradise: Jewish Rhodes” — explores the island’s more recent Jewish community, and links between ancient Israel and the Greek island. It also showcases Turkey’s consul Selahettin Üklümen, who saved the lives of 42 Greek Jews during World War II, as well as displays of personal items and books in Ladino on loan from the Rhodes Jewish Museum.
“I’ve worked on ancient sites in Israel, I’ve worked in Sobibor in Poland and I was struck how sad it was for this small island Jewish culture to be wiped out in the space of an afternoon. It’s cataclysmic,” Freund said. “This is a way of not giving Hitler a posthumous victory.”
‘I was struck how sad it was for this small island Jewish culture to be wiped out in the space of an afternoon’
The exhibit was born of Freund’s 2014 archeological excavation of the island’s Kahal Shalom synagogue. Founded in 1557 the synagogue was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Rhodes but has since been restored; it is the oldest synagogue in Greece today.
Freund and his team, which includes students and faculty from five institutions, have been excavating in and around the synagogue, using ground-penetrating radar to detect any artifacts with historical value.
Dr. Philip Reeder, Dean and Professor of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mapped Kahal Shalom, Kahal Grande and nearby church ruins. Using pre-World War II documents and maps, Reeder gleaned enough information to set the search parameters.
For Reeder, who worked with Freund in Sobibor and is also working on a project in Lithuania, it’s a job as scientifically fascinating as it is historically somber.
“From a scientific standpoint, we’re obsessed with getting data. However, I was trained in geography so I often think about the human aspect,” Reeder said. “Even if you’re not Jewish it weighs on your mind. You are on Rhodes where all the Jews were rounded up and executed. As a Catholic kid growing up in Baltimore I heard about the Holocaust but didn’t know a lot about it. It’s very sobering.”
The team’s work has highlighted the many layers of Jewish life on the island. During the Hellenistic period Jerusalem and Rhodes traded; the discovery of hundreds of Rhodian stamped amphorae in Jerusalem speaks to this period.
In the 12th century, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish traveler, visited the island and wrote in his “Itinerary” that he found between 400 and 500 Jews living there. In 1480 the Jews of Rhodes defended the city against the Turks; only 22 Jewish families survived the attack. Rhodes eventually became a significant Sephardic center and thrived for 400 hundred years.
During Ottoman rule about 4,000 Jews lived on the island. There was a rabbinical college and a Jewish yeshiva. While many of the island’s Jews left after the Italians ousted the Ottomans in 1912, the remaining population cultivated strong ties with the rest of the island, Freund said.
The team’s painstaking excavations add texture to the island’s history and traditions, something the 40 Jews who live on the island today are delighted to share. Aside from speaking with the island’s small Jewish population, Freund embarked on a testimonial project with descendants and survivors of Rhodes, which are part of the Rhodes project.
‘Anthropology is never just about the buildings and the artifacts…it’s about people’
“Anthropology is never just about the buildings and the artifacts. It’s not just about three shards of pottery and 50 coins. It’s about the people,” Freund said. “I wanted to know about the music, the songs, the history. I wanted to see the different influences and how you preserve a culture when you live outside the original country.”
That’s how he learned more about a particular pair of slippers that are on display. Inlaid with pearl, the takos, or mikveh slippers, have a wide, leather strap affixed across the instep.
“They took a simple ritual, a woman going to mikveh, and transformed it into something so aesthetically unique,” he said. “There is also a ketubah, a marriage document. It’s so beautifully illustrated, its colors so unique. It’s something that isn’t found in European documents.”
Many of the objects on display were packed into the suitcases of those who left Rhodes before 1939. For the remaining 1,800 Jews, the start of the war was by all accounts difficult even though the draconian laws of the Third Reich had yet to reach the community. But when Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was deposed in 1943 and the Italians joined the Allies, the Nazis took over the island.
A knock on the door
On July 18, 1944 a German officer knocked on the door of the president of the Jewish community and ordered all men over the age of 16 to appear at the former Italian Air Force headquarters. The men had to bring identity cards and work permits — it was a ruse designed to get the men to come without resistance. Once the men were in place the Nazis ordered the remaining Jews to the spot, with their belongings. If they failed to comply they would be shot.
The Germans forced the Jews onto ferryboats bound for Athens. From there they were packed into cattle cars. Three weeks later, on August 16, the trains arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis immediately sent them to the gas chambers. Only 150 survived; 120 women and 30 men.
Today a stark black granite monument in the Juderia, the old Jewish quarter of Rhodes, honors those who perished.
Freund said the exhibit does more than tell the story of Rhodes; it’s a vehicle for educating people about the robust Jewish community that once called the island home.
“Jews were not just a people in Europe. They were part of the Muslim world, the Greek world,” he said. “It is good for people to hear about a culture that was so rich and so different.”