The Jewish Community of the Island of Rhodes has a rich history that dates back to the second century BC, with the earliest reference to it appearing in the book of Maccabees. Other references to the Jewish presence in the Island are found in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. The Jews of Rhodes like the other Jews living in Greece and in its Islands spoke Greek and conducted the religious services in Greek, following the Romaniote rite, which is distinct from Sephardi, Ashkenaz, and Italian rites.
During the reign of the Knights of St. John in the 14th century, the Jews of the Island were relegated to the southeast section of the old city, where they continued to live until their deportation in 1944 to the Nazi extermination camps. In the year 1500, the Grand Master d'Aubusson expelled all the Jews who did not choose to convert to Christianity. So it seems that the Island of Rhodes was for a short time free of Jews, until 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottomans wished to repopulate the Jewish section of the Island. Thus he invited Jews from various parts of his empire to come to Rhodes and start a new community. The Jews that came were Sephardim, the ones who had found refuge in the Ottoman Empire following the expulsion from Spain in 1492. These Jews brought with them a vibrant culture filled with customs and traditions. One cultural aspect was linguistic. The language they spoke was Judeo-Espanol, commonly known as a "Ladino." The Jewish Quarter of the city was affectionately known as "La Juderia".
At the beginning of the 20th century, many young Jews left Rhodes in search of better economic opportunities in the Americas and in parts of Africa. In the early 1920s the community reached its peak population of 4,500 souls. But the growth stopped when many more left after the enforcement of the Racial Laws by the fascist government of Italy, which had occupied the Dodecanese Islands since 1912.
In 1943, Rhodes was taken over by the Germans. In less than a year, 1,673 members of the Jewish community were arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where 1,522 were slaughtered. Only 151 survived, many of whom immigrated to Southern African countries, Israel, the United States and other places. In 1947 the Island was ceded to Greece as part of the spoils of war. Today there are only a handful of Jews living in Rhodes. The synagogue, the homes and the cemetery are there to remind us of a thriving, close-knit community that had lived on the Island for centuries.
The "Square of the Martyred Jews" (known in Greek as " Evreon Martyron "), is located in the heart of the former Jewish Quarter. The square was originally an area of Jewish homes and small shops. However, the area was bombed during World War II, and in its place was established a small park and square. The present fountain ornamented with three seahorses replaced a previous fountain that was destroyed during World War II.
The "Kahal Shalom" is the oldest synagogue in Greece, and the sole remaining Jewish synagogue on Rhodes used for services. There was once six synagogues in the Jewish Quarter (called "La Juderia"). The "Kahal Shalom" was built in the year 1577. The full name of the building is "Kahal Kadosh Shalom" (Holy Congregation of Peace). It is used for prayer services when visitors or former residents and their families visit the island for Friday night services, High Holiday services and for special occasions.
Here you will be provided with information regarding the historical exhibition which is located in the rooms formerly used as the women's prayer rooms at the "Kahal Shalom" synagogue, it is home to a memorial of the once large Jewish community here in Rhodes, housing many photos and memorial plaques.
He was born in Los Angeles and he is a third generation "Rhodesli". He is an attorney in Los Angeles where he has been practicing immigration law since 1980. He was inspired to visit the island of Rhodes in 1975 by stories told to him by his grandparents. Its special charm and history fascinated him. Several years later, in 1995, he came back to Rhodes with his family for his children to learn of their family heritage. It was during that trip that he noticed the need of advancin the public awareness and appreciation of its unique history unfortunately devastated by the Holocaust.
Originally the Jewish cemeteries in Rhodes were forced to be moved by the Italian government during the late 1930's away from the Jewish Quarter to its present location in the new city. The Jewish Cemetery is one of the best preserved in Europe and contains tombstones from the 1500's to the present and it is located outside the Old City of Rhodes along the main road towards Kalitheas and Faliraki. Excavations of additional tombstones are continuing and during the last five years over 300 burial stones have been uncovered.
The "Rhodesli" are a little-known Sephardic sect who lived on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes from 1492, when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal, to World War II. Their culture, which is from 800 B.C survives as a small emigre community in Los Angeles. Their complex ethnic and religious heritage is unique in the world today. The Rhodesli are Jews who speak a rare medieval Spanish dialect (Ladino) and observe traditions derived from Turkish, Moorish, Spanish, and Jewish sources that remain mostly unchanged from centuries past.
I recently met Aron Hasson in Rhodes. It was my pleasure and honor to meet the man who spearheaded the movement to preserve the vital history of the Jews of Rhodes. I respect those trying to preserve and keep alive Rhodian history. In 1997, Hasson founded the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, a non-profit organization established to preserve the unique history and cultural background of the Jews of Rhodes, and to serve as a link between the past, present and future generations of "Rhodeslis" around the world.
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