The Jews of Rhodes endured a Holocaust butchery that remains little-known today. VIC ALHADEFF reviews a moving portrait of their experience.
On Sunday, July 23, 1944, air-raid sirens sounded over the island of Rhodes – even though no aircraft were flying overhead and no bombs were falling. The piercing noise provided a chilling backdrop as German military police, German troops and Italian police marched about 1700 Jews to the port, where three dilapidated cargo boats lay at anchor. At the head of the forlorn column was community president Jacob Franco.
In the six hours it took to reach the port, “not a single civilian bore witness or objected or came to say goodbye”, recalls Stella Levi. No-one watched. No-one protested. “It was like a funeral cortege – of people in mourning for themselves.” Weeks later, 90% of those 1700 would be murdered at Auschwitz.
About 50 Jews remained on Rhodes, 43 of them due to the courageous intervention of Turkish Consul-General Selahattin Ulkumen, a 30-year-old Muslim who protested to German commander Ulrich Kleemann that they were Turkish nationals and warned that he would cause “an international incident” if they were not released. In reprisal, German aircraft bombed the Turkish consulate, critically injuring Ulkumen’s pregnant wife. She succumbed to her injuries, but her baby son survived and her grief-stricken mother took her own life.
Meanwhile, the three overcrowded ships took eight days to reach the mainland port of Piraeus, having been joined en route by 100 Jews from Kos – the island’s entire Jewish community except for 13 who had also been saved by Ulkumen. In addition, the boats had docked at Leros to pick up Daniel Rahamim – that island’s only Jew.
These reflections leap from the pages of One Hundred Saturdays – a newly published book by American author Michael Frank and gleaned from six years of penetrating interviews with Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz who was deported from Rhodes. The interviews were mostly conducted in her New York home, but included a visit to Rhodes and concluded when Levi was 96 years old. “We need to finish before I’m finished,” she laconically tells the author in the final lines of the book.
One Hundred Saturdays is a significant addition to the worldwide repository of Holocaust literature, all the more so because it sheds light so poignantly on the rich story of the Jews of Rhodes and – given that only about 150 survived – on their perspectives of those harrowing experiences.
The youngest of seven siblings whose father had government contracts to sell coal to 12 islands, Levi speaks colourfully of growing up in the Juderia – the charming Jewish Quarter – while attending an Italian school for girls and gradually becoming aware of the fascist regime which governed the island. The Jews, Greeks, Turks and Italians shared the island peacefully, she notes, despite their different languages, religions and cultures.
She describes the community’s traditions, which included curing loss of appetite by wearing a blue bead or throwing salt into the toilet while urinating; you never borrowed eggs at night; a bed without a pillow meant bad luck; if you sneezed while discussing death you should tug your earlobe; and if you ate at a table without a tablecloth, the devil would arrive and force you to be the tablecloth.
She recalls Mussolini’s 1938 enactment of the Nuremberg Laws which excluded Jews from civil society, prompting the emigration of half of the island’s Jewish community to such destinations as Salisbury (now Harare), Cape Town, Seattle and New York. And she describes the subsequent rise in tension as “subtle but oppressive”, as she was expelled from school, the Rabbinical College was closed, street names were changed to those of fascists and – a decision which caused untold heartbreak – the Jewish cemetery was ordered to be relocated from where it had stood for 500 years in order to make way for public gardens.
“Heaviness hung over the Juderia,” she recalls. ”People were whispering it’s a bad omen.”
“Did you believe them?” asks the author.
She shook her head. “But we should have.”
Levi speaks about British warplanes bombing the island in early 1944, targeting the airfield and German supply ships – with the harbour located dangerously close to the Juderia. The bombers frequently missed their targets, and on the first day of Passover, as members of the community walked home from synagogue, explosions rocked the Juderia; 26 congregants were killed.
With reference to the fact that the deportation from Rhodes occurred in mid-1944, the author asks Levi what the community understood regarding Europe’s Jewish communities. Her responses vary from “Who could possibly care about us, so far away?” to “Maybe we didn’t want to know. Couldn’t let ourselves know.”
On July 19 came the order for Jewish men to present themselves at the aeronautica – the former headquarters of the Italian Air Force – and for women and children to do so the following day, with their valuables. Failure to comply meant the men would be shot. Four days later, they were all marched to the port.
Disembarking at Piraeus, they were met by Gestapo and trucked to a prison at Haidari, where they were joined by about 800 Jews from Athens and put on trains for the gruelling 13-day haul across Europe.
The sun was rising as the train pulled into the station at Auschwitz. As the doors opened, Jews from Salonika entered the carriages to help with the suitcases. They whispered in Ladino: “Give the babies to the old people.”
“But why,” asked Levi, “when the old people are so tired?”
The book is a moving salute to a Holocaust survivor who has aged “with grace and grit, sometimes also with stubbornness”, writes the author. It is also a compelling salute to the Jews of Rhodes.
Vic Alhadeff’s family came from Rhodes, and 151 Alhadeffs were among the estimated 1673 Jews who perished at Auschwitz, including his paternal grandparents. His mother attended the same school as Stella Levi.
One Hundred Saturdays, by Michael Frank, is published by Souvenir Press, London.
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Photo: Stella Levi (Greek Holocaust survivors group)