Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Remembering a Jewish Greek Tragedy ; the Greek Island of Rhodes Lost 1,604 Jews in Nazi Death Camps

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Remembering a Jewish Greek Tragedy ; the Greek Island of Rhodes Lost 1,604 Jews in Nazi Death Camps

Article excerpt

The Greek island of Rhodes in springtime is a peaceful and festive place. White pleasure boats glide over azure waters into its snug harbor. Two columns topped with graceful bronze deer welcome travelers to the "island of roses," where the April air is fragrant with the scent of orange blossoms.

As I strolled last week around exquisite medieval turrets, Turkish mosques, and Byzantine churches, I rubbed shoulders with fellow American tourists. In the museums, along beach paths, and upon stone promontories I heard French, Finnish, German, Hebrew, Italian, and Russian. Walking through the twisting byways past tourist shops and cafes, my husband and I sat down to rest in a pleasant square before a bubbling fountain crowned with playful seahorses.

Behind us, though, I was stopped short by a more somber monument. A stark six-sided marble column repeats its tragic text in six languages: "Never Forget. In eternal memory of the 1,604 Jewish martyrs of Rhodes and Kos who were murdered in Nazi death camps, 23 July 1944." It turned out we were sitting in what the Greeks have named "Hebrew Martyrs Square" in the ancient Jewish quarter of the town. Jews have inhabited the island almost continuously since the second century before Christ; in the Middle Ages they helped the Crusaders defend the city against attacking Turks.

In the 1930s there were 4,000 Jews in Rhodes, which was ruled by Italy. About half left before the outbreak of World War II due to economic decline and anti-Semitic laws. Upon the eve of the war most Jews lived in their own quarter, where there were four synagogues.

Last week I was one of dozens of visitors walking up a tiny alley to visit the only one to survive Nazi bombing of the island, beautiful white Kalal Shalom. Dating from 1577, it is the oldest synagogue in Greece. With its graceful arches, mosaics, chandeliers, and inscriptions, the building's prayer platform faces southeast towards Jerusalem. It exudes an aura of stateliness and tranquility, until one reads the tragic plaque listing the hundred family names of the victims that was erected on its facade in 1969 by a man whose parents and siblings were among those deported. I went down the list of musical Sephardic names, from Alalouf to Benouzilio, from Capelouto to Hasson, from Palombo to Rosanes, from Sourmani to Ventoura. As I exited, a large group of Asian tourists arrived, asking in hushed tones whether it was fitting to cover their heads in this building made sacred both by religion and tragedy. …

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