Tonight we commemorate Yom HaShoah, the day we recall the unspeakable horror of the calculated and diabolical program by Hitler and his regime to destroy, through the most inhumane means, European Jewry.
When we hear of the Holocaust we hear primarily about the deaths of Eastern Europe’s Jews in areas such as Germany, Poland, Hungary and Austria. However, the Sephardic world, particularly the communities of the Mediterranean basin, Turkey and Greece, were decimated, as well.
I want to mention here the community of Rhodes, one of the Dodecanese Islands off the coast of Turkey.
Rhodes, which had had a Jewish presence for at least 2,000 years, became home to a great influx of Jews in the years after 1492 when they were expelled from Spain by order of the Inquisition and welcomed into the lands of the Sultan, Sulieman the Magnificent, throughout the Ottoman Empire. Living cloistered behind the walls of the fortress city, their neighborhood, known as “La Juderia”, became a thriving community complete with schools, synagogues, businesses and even a Rabbinical school.
The early 1900’s saw the beginnings of an emigration from Rhodes by several young Jews to the “New World” in pursuit of new opportunities. By the year 1918, the Jewish community there numbered about 4,000 souls. Italy took possession of the Island in 1911. The mid-1930’s saw the Fascists take control of Rhodes. In 1943 the Italians surrendered to the Allies and in August of that year, the Germans occupied the Island. The end of Rhodesli Jewry was in sight.
In August of 1944, there were still 1,767 Jews living in “La Juderia”. After their deportation and brutality at the hands of the Nazis, only 151 survived.
Three events in February and March of this year brought the plight of Jewish community of Rhodes to the forefront. It is those events I want to share with you now.
In February 2012, we had the opportunity to visit Cape Town, South Africa. While there we visited the Sephardic synagogue in the beautiful Sea Point neighborhood. The synagogue follows the traditions of the Jews of the Island of Rhodes, most of her members and their families having originally come from the Island. Many had emigrated from Rhodes to the Congo, to Rhodesia, then Cape Town. The synagogue sports an incredibly interesting and informative pictorial mural in her foyer telling the story of the community. When in South Africa, do make an effort to visit.
As we talked with our hosts Mrs. Lucie Soriano and Rabbi Ruben Suiza, they told us to be sure and visit the Holocaust exhibit located in the South African Jewish Museum.
The Cape Town Holocaust Center has, as part of its permanent exhibit, an area solely devoted to the Jewish Community of Rhodes. I urge you to visit the site and to visit the Exhibit when you are in South Africa. The Sephardic community of Cape Town worked long and hard to ensure this story was told and will be there for generations to come.
A few weeks later, on March 1, 2012, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal featured an article about Sara Hanan Gilmore, a Los Angeles resident born on the Island of Rhodes who survived the horrors of Auschwitz. Her story is one that should be read.
Finally, the Sephardic Educational Center highlighted a newly released book by Isaac Benatar entitled “Rhodes and the Holocaust”. With thanks to Rae Cohen for giving me a copy, I just finished reading the 112 page book. It is compelling, tragic, horrific and hopeful. Benatar’s book and another by Laura Varon, “The Juderia: A Holocaust Survivor’s Tribute to the Jewish Community of Rhodes,” are well worth reading. Add them to your library and share them with your children, family and friends.
As always, I invite you to visit the website of the Rhodes Jewish Museum to know more about Rhodes then and now. Thanks to Aron Hasson for keeping the Museum and the website active and vital for us and for all the world to view and visit.
The Holocaust, stands as a testament to man’s inhumanity to man. It is a tale of the most barbaric depravity. We, as Jews, vow “Never Again”. Never again will we allow ourselves to be slaughtered. Never again will we allow ourselves to be people without a home, without power, without a haven and without a voice. May we always stand by Israel and keep her safe and strong.
As we recall tonight the souls of those who were savagely murdered, tortured and abused beyond belief, may our hearts and memory remind us always…..never again will the world stand silent as ANY MAN suffers the blows of hatred, cruelty and genocide. WE will not stand idly by.
May all their memories be recalled with love and may their memories be forever a blessing.