The Jews of Rhodes seen by authors, by Michael Schwartz

Last summer I had the opportunity to spend a little time at the Gennadius Library in Athens, and to see wgat I could find out about the Jews of Rhodes. I had previously used this library during my research into the Jewish community in Ioannina. The Gennadius Library is at Odhos Souidhias 62. After reading a leaflet about the Library, I discovered it was for post-graduates only. I must have looked very scholarly, because they let me in without any problem!

One thing that did surprise me, after looking up Rhodes in the Library Catalogue, was the very small amount of information about the Rhodes community which was vailable from the memoirs of travellers in Greece. It seems that, in contrast to Rhodes, the adventures of Ali Pasha in Epirus were far more fascinating for the English aristocracy than the legacy of 1522.

Many of the sources - guide-books, accounts by Greek hostorians ª mention that Jews had lived in Rhodes since Hellenistic times, and that the medieval city of Rhodes was heavily fortified ane
divided into several areas. The northern area, for example, was reserved for the Knights, while the larger southern section (the Chora) was inhabited by other Westerners, Greeks and Jews. Under the Turks, the Christians were expelled from the Kastro (the smaller castle area) and only the Turks and Jews remained (in fact, this was a simililarity with Ioannina).

Several historians give summaries of the synagogues and Jewish schools on the island, and there are also references to Benjamin of Tudela, and the breaking-up of the Colossus and its being sold
to a Jewish scrap-metal merchant (is that really true?). These are the most commonly quoted facts relating to the community, but the Library does have references to the Jews of Rhodes.

The Istoria Tis Rhodhou by Chr. Papachristodhoulou (1972) records the fact that there were 2.881 Jews on Rhodes and 119 on Cos in 1937, but that by 1947 only 2-3 Jewish families remained : the
effects of the Holocaust are at least acknowledged. Papachristodhoulou also gives a description of the events between 1480 and 1522.

Here, Georghillas saw that the threat from the Turks had not disappeared after 1480, but that the young men of the island had to train to fight. He applied several laws to prevent usury. Needless to say, the anti-semitic stereotype of the Jewish usurer was exploited in this situation : as if this was not enough Jews were also accused of leading the youth of the island into rapacious habits.

The result was the forced conversion of 1502. Jews either had to baptise or to leave the island. Several did baptise and stay on to fight in 1522; after the Turkish victory they reverted to Judaism, while those who had left returned to the island. Thus the community of the Tourkokratia was established.

Christodhoulou's work does have the advantage thatbit translates into Greek those extracts from Italian and French travellers who did manage to record their impressions of the Jews of Rhodes.

For example, Claude Savary visited Rhodes in 1779, recording that the Jews have a leader, the Mouteveli, who has the power of haraá?á over non-Muslim subjetcs. The Mouteveli judges those cases which appear before him without having to refer them to the authorities. Indeed, if the Cadi condemned a Jew or a Greek to a fine (prostimo) then the case could be referred to the Mouteveli
who would have the right to carry out the fine if he considered it appropriate. Savary estimates that there were 300 Jewish families on the island (1.500 Jews in total).

In 1688 Franciscus Piacenza writes that Christians could only enter the Jewish-Turkish Quarter during the day, and that there were only 200 Jewish families on Rhodes.

Victor Guerin, in his Voyage dans l'Ile de Rhodes (1854) confirmsPiacenza's comments about Christians only being allowed into theJewish-Turkish Quarter. His description of Jewish teachingmethods is both informative and entertaining : "They have threeschools with 120 students who sit on the floor looking at their teacher, who in turn sits cross-legged in the corner of the room,
on a pitiful straw mat. He is equipped with a supple stick which is a threat to the heads of the children. As for the girls, there are no schools. They do not know how to read or write, like the Ottoman women, and like them they live isolated lives. They only go out for shopping or to fetch water". According to Guerin, the girsl are attractive, and they play a type of Spanish mandolin, singing melancholy and tranquil songs on family occasions. The Jewish women visit the cemetery outside the Kastron. Immediate relatives wear a mantili, while others follow and go to the memorial where their lamentations begin, an ancient custom of Western Peoples.

Edward Billiotti (1881) mentions some of the Jewish occupations on Rhodes : textile merchants, travelling salesman, and porters. According to Billiotti the Jews of Rhodes tend to have little contact with either Christians or Turks, and are lagging behind in education.

Papachristodhoulou also comments on the evnts of 1821 (the beginning of the Greek War of Independence). Because the Greeks were numerically superior the villages of Rhodes, and the Turks were mainly confined to the City, it is Papachristodhoulou's convention that Jews doing their shopping in the villages formed a sort of spy service, informing the Turks of what they had learnt while in the villages. He goes on to say that Jews played an important part in the island's history, but their loyalty was suspect. They exploited the hatred between Greeks and Turks to benefit themselves at the expense of the Greeks. A rise in Jewish trade occurred after the fire of 1876, and this trade developed gretaly in the first years of Italian rule.

As if this was not enough, Papachristodhoulou gives his impressions of the first months of Italian occupation : "The Jews of Rhodes, since they had worked with the Turks in the fire of 1876 and had always flattered them, collaborated with them in the elections established after the Constitution of 1908 and made efforts to prevent Greek MPs being elected".

"With the Italian occupation of 1912 they found themselves in a new situation. From the very first, they approached the Italians. Italian soldiers took their leave in the Jewish Quarter where they want walking and where they could talk with the Jews with their Spanish dialect (really? - Author), developing a rapport with the families which they pursued for many reasons".

"The Jews stopped teaching Spanish in their schools and imposed Italian without it bothering them : both groups were foreign. They called their school 'Scuol Israelitiche Italiane'".

"In the national holidays and demonstrations introduced by the Italians, the Jews were prominent, appearing with Italian flags and crying 'Zito' in favour of the Italians. The Greeks did the same at first, but they thought that they would be given their freedom".

"This support by the Jewish Community was troublesome for the Greeks, for the Italians had an example set, and they expected the same conduct from the Greeks".

Needless to say, this author's blood boiled when I typed out these last few paragraphs. Do we have any Jewish eye-witness accounts of the hand-over of power from Turkey to Italy?

Much more encouraging was the copy in the Gennadius Library of Abraham Galanté's work "Histoire des Juifs de Rhodes, Chio, Cos,etc, published in Istanbul in 1935. Thsi work must, I am sure,be familiar to many Jews from Rhodes. It is a poignant picture of a proud community on the eve of its destruction. Perhaps it is now time for a reprint at a time when certain elements are telling us that there was no Holocaust ...

Galanté commences by reviewing the main events of Rhodian history as they affected the Jews. These include the sieges of 1480 and 1522, where the Jewish Quarter was singled out for attack by the Turks and subject to large breaches by cannon-balls. The questions of conversion and whether there were Jewish spies working for the Turks are also considered.

What makes Galanté's work particularly fascinating as its coverage of individual details of everyday Jewish life on Rhodes. Among the facts which one does not find in conventional histories
of the island are that Jews received royalties from the sulphur mines in Rhodes, that they could escort the dead to their resting place, even passing over Muslim burial grounds, that each Jewish
family had the right to a free house from the Government, and that they were allowed to buy kosher meat at the same prices and conditions as their Muslim fellow-citizens (we all wish this was
true of the price of kosher meat in London!).

On this last point, Galanté mentions that one Muslim butcher trading in kosher meat had tried to put up the price because the Jewish Holidays were coming up. Rabbi Matatia Codron refused to
accept this. The butcher insuted the Rabbi and even threatened him. Rabbi Codron responded by imposing a herem on the butcher who thus started losing money.

The butcher went to see his friends and told them that the Jews were destroying their trade, and that vengeance was required. One prominent member of the Jewish Community remembered the firman which protected the price of kosher meat. It was found and implemented by the Governor. Calm was restored. In fact, the firman disappeared in a gunpowder magazine explosion of 1855.

The author goes on to describe the cemeteries, professions, charities, funeral rites and many societies which went to make up the Jewish Community of Rhodes. Many acts of charity are listed,
including a donation by Baron Edmond de Rotschild who donated FFr 1 000 in 1903.

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- Copyright © 1993 Moïse Rahmani - Institut Sépharade Européen