On a sunny afternoon, under cobalt blue skies, our cruise ship docks at Rhodes, the fourth-largest island in Greece’s Aegean Sea.
Rhodes has been luring westerners to its green shores for at least 800 years, and our first stop is the medieval castle of the Knights of St. John.
As we walk along the cobblestoned main street, we notice all the changes since our backpacking days in the Greek islands: souvenir shops, pubs and sun-burnt English tourists nursing boot-shaped glasses of beer at shaded outdoor tables. It all seems a far cry from the ancient order that ruled the island from 1309 to 1522.
But once we leave the main drag, heading up the aptly named Knights Street, quiet reigns, and crowds all but disappear. Before leaving the city centre, we’d noticed a sign pointing to a synagogue. Assured by our guide there is indeed a historic synagogue on Rhodes –which we could visit at leisure after our tour of the castle – we determine to stop there on our return.
In ancient times, Rhodes was famed for its Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This stone and bronze giant bestrode the entrance to the harbour, so that boats approaching the island sailed underneath its 100-foot high legs. When an earthquake destroyed the Colossus in 226 BCE, islanders took the advice of the Delphic oracle and did not rebuild, for the gods had been offended by its size.
Today the Greek economy is wobbling as dangerously as the famed Colossus. “We made the mistake of voting for the same people for 30 years,” a local man says. Bemoaning Greece’s fiscal crisis is a popular subject on the islands. It seems change – and crisis – has long defined this part of the world.
Twenty kilometres from Turkey and close to Africa, there are African-inspired crocodile gargoyles on the knights’ castle, as well as carvings of “holy” snakes that speak of islanders’ beliefs in the snake as a holy animal, although they imported deer – more good advice from the Oracle – to control the viper population.
Greece fell, the Romans came, then the Byzantines, Christians, Arabs and again the Byzantines, who, we’re told, sold the island to the Hospitaller Knights of St John, who’d fled the Holy Land, relocating to Rhodes to build a fort and a hospital, fighting off successions of invaders. Two and a half miles of walls exist from the period when the knights ruled, along with three moats. The knights came from England, Italy, France and Spain – and they all spoke French.
Only nobles rose in the knights’ ranks, and the Grand Master was elected on Rhodes; his red throne is still on display. In 1522, Suleiman the Magnificent and his enormous army at last conquered the feisty knights, forcing their departure for Malta.
For 400 years their castle was used as a prison, and part of it stored gunpowder. Lightning struck in 1856, with explosive results. Today’s castle may look like the real thing, but is only 70 years old. This version was rebuilt by occupying Italians in the 1930s, the Italian Fascists having assumed control over the Dodecanese Islands in 1912.
Although Jews had lived on Rhodes for millennia, it was the Spanish expulsion in 1492 and the Ottoman Empire’s decision to welcome Jewish refugees that boosted Rhodes’ community. By the 16th century, it was flourishing: eventually the island boasted three rabbinical schools, six synagogues, and a community of 10,000. Under Italian fascism with its antisemitic laws, many “Rhodesli” started new lives elsewhere.
Today the island’s Jewish community numbers 50 at most. When we rejoined the crowds on the plaka, a large medieval square, we found ourselves in what once was the heart of the Jewish quarter, now marked by a memorial to those killed in the Holocaust. Our guide tells us that if Jews had not escaped by 1944, they were taken to the death camps, where more than 1,500 died. Their houses had been left open in hopes of return. Eventually, the houses were donated to the poor.
After so many tales of turmoil and tragedy, we are unprepared for the sight of the 16th-century synagogue at the end of a narrow lane off the main square: the ineffably lovely Kahal Shalom. Built in 1577 and recently restored, the Sephardi synagogue is used only for summer services, but it sparkles like new. Adjacent museum rooms display cases of religious objects, original clothing, and photographs from the island’s Jewish past: picnics, weddings and youthful musical groups.
The luckiest visitors happen, as we did, on one very special Kahal Shalom guide. Samuel (Samy) Modiano introduces himself as “la dernière generation de Rhodes.”
Upon learning we’re from Canada, Samy speaks to us only in French (oddly, like the medieval knights), lending a kind of frantic buoyancy to our conversation – our French being only so-so.
But such are Samy’s powers of communication that we emerged feeling we’ve encountered a living embodiment of a vanished community – which indeed we have. In 1944 he was shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, two months shy of his 13th birthday. He celebrated his bar mitzvah in the Polish camp, in a secret ceremony arranged by older prisoners. While the ebullient Samy doesn’t tell us about his bar mitzvah – we learn about it from other museum staff – he does show us the number tattooed on his arm.
In 1945 “l’armée russe” liberated the camp. But no one knew about Greek Jews, so the young teenager was taken to Rome with “les juifs italiennes.” He lives there to this day, returning every summer (May to October) to guide visitors through the oldest synagogue in Greece.
As the only “original Jew” from 1944 Rhodes, Samy naturally speaks fluent Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language in which many Kahal Shalom signs are posted. Clearly thrilled by the synagogue’s restoration, he praises its “bon état.” Opening his arms in welcome, he proclaims: “C’est ouvert pour tout le monde!”
For more information about Kahal Shalom, visit www.jewishrhodes.org.