Tracing our roots: The fulfilment of a dream (L.M. 28)

Ecrit par webmaster le 25 février, 2010

Tracing our roots: The fulfilment of a dream

by Martine Israël

In November 96 Moshe and Stella Israel, who were both born in Rhodes, were blessed in celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. On this occa¬sion they decided to realise a lifelong dream by taking their children Lea, Meir, Rapha and Martine to Rhodes to share with them the joys, and later their hardships of their lives on this beautiful island of Rhodes.

It is the largest of a complex of islands in the south eastern ranging from the large to the tiny known « Dodecanese » (meaning 12 islands al-though there are 13) and to the principal inhabited is¬lands. The present population of manages to entertain more than 1.250.000 visitors a year.

Our main purpose was to visit the « old city » where our pa¬rents were born. Sephardim remember the jewish quarter « juderia » was inhabited by Jews at least since the time of the knights of St. John’s rule of the island. Walking from the « Mandraki » (small harbour) one is suddenly confronted by the huge fortress walls of the castle of the knights and most people today enter the « old city » through the gate of freedom in symi square. This gate was opened in 1924 by the Italians who looked on themselves as liberators of the island from the turkish rule. During the turkish occupation, the Greeks were expelled from the « old city » which was the exclusive province of Turks and Jews. Greeks were allowed to enter during daytime but had to leave by nightfall. Under the expert guidance of Moshe and Stella, we were exposed to the me¬dieval aspect as one walks through the streets and sees the same buil¬dings, colours and moods experienced by « rhodeslis » since the Middle Ages. The most famous street (known in the old days as the « calle ancha » (wide street-) has been renamed square of the hebrew martyrs ( platia evreon martirori) .

Here stands the beautiful fountain decorated with rows of shells, starfish, octopuses etc set on blue tiles and surmounted by three large sea-horses. The name is in memory of the approximately 2.000 Jews who were assembled here be-fore being shipped to nazi concentra¬tion camps, from which only a few ever returned.
Stella Israel is one of the fortunate survivors of Auschwitz and had not returned to Rhodes in 50 years. Moshe Israel left Rhodes in 1938 for the Belgian Congo, leaving behind his parents and sisters who tragically perished in the camps. He too, apart from a one day visit in the seventies, had not returned in 60 years. His memory near failed him as he remembered and showed us the location of their homes, shops and various jewish day schools, eg. The Talmud Torah, the « scuole israelitiche italiani » ( jewish italian school » and others) of great importance to him was the « gran collegio rabbinico seminario » where he had studied together with many rabbis, Mohels and Shohetim who to this day practice in many parts of Europe, Africa and America.

We walked along many of the streets which are long, narrow and winding and are paved with tiny pebbles (« piedras » as Sephardim called them), pressed tightly together. Floor mosaics of white and black pebbles were fashionable in Rhodes and can be seen decorating the floor and courtyard of the only remaining syna¬gogue in Rhodes, the kehila shalom. Stella lived opposite this beautiful synagogue and Moshe had lived op¬posite the largest synagogue the kehal grande which sadly, together with another 5 synagogues were destroyed during the bombardment by the nazis. For us, as children born and growing up in the Belgian Congo, we remembered the wonderful stories told by our parents from Rhodes of how the Jews prepared their homes and meals for shabbat and holidays and we saw where the young housewives took their breads, biscuits etc to the communal ovens to be baked. One could almost visualise the festive decorations in the beautiful « calle ancha » for Purim, Succoth and Hanukah.

Many of the Rhodeslis settled in the Belgian Congo, Rhodesia, Brussels, Europe, U.S.A. and today many are in South Africa. For us (now Capetonians) we were fascinated to see the areas where the Rhodes jews worked and traded as wholesalers, tailors, pharmacists, grocers etc.

Names which we know eg Israël, Capelouto, Alhadeff, Notrica, Menashe, Hasson, Franco to name a few. The largest department store belonged to Solomon Alhadeffs’sons. It supplied not only Rhodes but the 12 surrounding islands as well. The main bank was owned by Mr. Haco Alhadeff who has (to this day) a street named after him in the old city. Today there is only one jewish cemetery. Many of the tombstones we saw there are not the originals. It was an emotional time for Stella as it was the first time she saw the tombstone of her late father, Isaac Sigura as well as the various monuments in memory of the Jews deported to the camps.

We met many foreigners from Israel, Europe and U.S.A. who were as deeply movedas we were upon entering the Kehila Shalom adorned with beautiful chandeliers. We were privileged to meet the custodian of the synagogue, Mrs. Lucia Solam (nee Modiano) who returned to Rhodes after Auschwitz. Only 3 Jewish people remain there of the original 2000. For our family it was also wonderful to meet Mr. Maurice Soriano and his wife Victoria (the other 2 original Jews) and who is today the president of the Kehila Shalom. Ser¬vices are held on Fridays and Satur-days as well as the high holidays, mainly during the summer holidays of Europe i.e. late June September when there are enough men to constitute a minyan. However, we learned that today there are approx. 27 Jews who live in Rhodes but who came from other parts of Europe. Sadly they do not frequent the syna¬gogue regularly.

On a personal note, I felt enormously proud that our sephardi shul in CapeTown (named after the Kehila Sha¬lom in Rhodes) was founded by my father in law Moise Israël and my uncle Joseph Rahmani both of whom are the honorary life presidents. Finally, it is in searching the past, that we can understand the present. We thank our parents for having physically shared their wonderful past with us. Without their knowledge and guidance the magnificent stone buildings in the « old city » would be just that…stone buildings.

(1) Martine Israël, born Rahmani, is the grand-daughter of a RhodesKa, Sarina, (born Charhon).


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