A Family Reunion: The History of the Jewish Community of Rhodes

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By Gideon

Most tourists travel to the Greek Island Rhodes to enjoy the beaches of this gorgeous island. However, when my wife and my daughter traveled to Rhodes last May, sun tanning and sightseeing weren’t their only objectives. They also wanted to visit my wife’s great grandfather grave. Her grandmother on her father’s side was born and raised in Rhodes. She left the island as a young woman to be married to my wife’s grandfather in Libya. At the time both Rhodes and Libya were Italian colonies.

The Sephardi community of Rhodes was born in 1523, when the forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered the island and encouraged settlement of Jews there. Some of the Spanish expulsion’s (1492) Jewish refugees took advantage of the Turkish Sultan’s invitation and immigrated to Rhodes.  Although limited in number, Rhodes Jewish community once called “small Jerusalem.” It had immense rabbinic and religious influence on Jews worldwide and in the field of Halakhah. The Jews lived under Turkish Rhodes until 1912, when the Italians occupied it. In 1943 the Nazis took over the island. In July 1944, some 1,600 Jews that remained on the island were ordered to gather at assembly centers. They were then sent to Athens on barges, without any food or water. The barges initially made their way to the nearby island of Kos where over 100 Jews were piled onto the barges to be deported along with the Jews of Rhodes. The boats then stopped at the island of Leros to deport the single Jewish man who lived on the island. Upon arriving in Athens the Jews were detained at the infamous Haidari and from their deported to Auschwitz. Only about 180 of them survived. My wife’s grandmother who was in Libya and her brother who was in Africa at the time were the only survivors from the entire Denti family.

It was the first time for my wife and my daughter in Rhodes. It was an extended weekend vacation, a side trip while visiting Israel. They decided to visit the grave on Monday morning, their last day in Rhodes. They had a picture of the grave so they knew how to find it. As they got closer they saw another couple standing next to the grave. No one else was at the cemetery. My daughter approached the couple and asked what their relationship to the grave was. To their surprise, the man said that it was his grandfather’s grave. He was the son of the brother of my wife’s grandmother. He lives with his wife in Australia and this was their first trip to Rhodes. They debated when to visit the grave and eventually decided on the same Monday morning.  What the odds that a reunion like this will take place? Some may say that it was a coincidence. I think that heavenly intervention brought the descendants of the surviving siblings from Florida and Australia to the same place at the same time so they could reunite.

I’m reflecting on that terrible day when Rhodes’ Jews, left the island for the last time, crowded on Nazi barges, most-likely scared, not knowing what will happen to them, wondering if this was the end of Rhodes Jewish community; will anyone be left to remember them and tell their story? I hope they can see us because we do remember them. We will never forget.

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