Remembering a Jewish Greek tragedy

The Greek island of Rhodes lost 1,604 Jews in Nazi death camps.

The Greek island of Rhodes in springtime is a peaceful and festive place. White pleasure boats glide over azure waters into its snug harbor. Two columns topped with graceful bronze deer welcome travelers to the "island of roses," where the April air is fragrant with the scent of orange blossoms.

As I strolled last week around exquisite medieval turrets, Turkish mosques, and Byzantine churches, I rubbed shoulders with fellow American tourists. In the museums, along beach paths, and upon stone promontories I heard French, Finnish, German, Hebrew, Italian, and Russian. Walking through the twisting byways past tourist shops and cafes, my husband and I sat down to rest in a pleasant square before a bubbling fountain crowned with playful seahorses.

Behind us, though, I was stopped short by a more somber monument. A stark six-sided marble column repeats its tragic text in six languages: "Never Forget. In eternal memory of the 1,604 Jewish martyrs of Rhodes and Kos who were murdered in Nazi death camps, 23 July 1944." It turned out we were sitting in what the Greeks have named "Hebrew Martyrs Square" in the ancient Jewish quarter of the town. Jews have inhabited the island almost continuously since the second century before Christ; in the Middle Ages they helped the Crusaders defend the city against attacking Turks.

In the 1930s there were 4,000 Jews in Rhodes, which was ruled by Italy. About half left before the outbreak of World War II due to economic decline and anti-Semitic laws. Upon the eve of the war most Jews lived in their own quarter, where there were four synagogues.

Last week I was one of dozens of visitors walking up a tiny alley to visit the only one to survive Nazi bombing of the island, beautiful white Kalal Shalom. Dating from 1577, it is the oldest synagogue in Greece. With its graceful arches, mosaics, chandeliers, and inscriptions, the building's prayer platform faces southeast towards Jerusalem. It exudes an aura of stateliness and tranquility, until one reads the tragic plaque listing the hundred family names of the victims that was erected on its facade in 1969 by a man whose parents and siblings were among those deported. I went down the list of musical Sephardic names, from Alalouf to Benouzilio, from Capelouto to Hasson, from Palombo to Rosanes, from Sourmani to Ventoura. As I exited, a large group of Asian tourists arrived, asking in hushed tones whether it was fitting to cover their heads in this building made sacred both by religion and tragedy.

The Greeks have just finished celebrating their Holy Week. Tourists who watched their joyous floral processions have sailed out the way they came, under the watchful eyes of the gentle bronze deer, patron animals of Rhodes. But under their gaze, too, had sailed that somber infamous ship in the heat of July over six decades ago. As it plied the torrid summer seas with its human cargo, it carried neither food nor water. Before the 1,700 human beings reached Piraeus, the Athenian port 300 miles away, 23 died of dehydration. From there they were shipped by rail to Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. One thousand were killed outright upon arrival. Five hundred and fifty of the remaining 700 deemed fit for work perished of hard labor, disease, starvation, and murder over the next several months. Only 151 remained alive when the camp was liberated in January 1945.

By now, this is a familiar story to ears of the world. But in these happier times, when tourists island-hop between the gems of the Aegean, it is fitting to pause and recall the hunted humans deported from Kos and Crete and Rhodes, to recall the Greek city of Thessalonica where 96 percent of the flourishing Jewish community of 56,000 was exterminated.

We can take heart from instances of humanity and morality by local leaders and population, such as in the port of Volos, the island of Zakynthos, and in Athens. More than 600 Greek Orthodox priests were arrested for aiding Jews and themselves deported to Nazi death camps. For example, in the Greek capital city 66 percent of its 3,500 Jews survived when the Greek police chief and the archbishop issued them false baptismal records and false ID cards, and hundreds were hid in Christian homes.

On this Holocaust Day 2006, fresh from a visit to temples of Apollo, Crusader forts, and ancient acropoli, I give special thoughts to the 80 percent of Greek Jewry for whom the cradle of democracy offered no salvation.

Helen Schary Motro who teaches at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, is author of "Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada."

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