One of the most memorable and poignant stops on my recent vacation to Greece was a visit to the island of Rhodes. Located northeast of Crete, Rhodes is an island with a rich Jewish history dating back to the second century B.C. and, walking the cobblestone streets, I searched for the island’s only remaining synagogue, built in 1577. I found the “Shalom” Synagogue after meandering through narrow alleys and entered a beautifully restored temple filled with relics and background about the pious and industrious Jews who lived and worshipped there. It was built in Sephardic style given many Jews came there after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
Many synagogues and rabbinical schools flourished in the 16th century and Jews were held in high regard as pillars of the community and successful merchants.
The temple and ancient Jewish cemetery survived World War II but most of its residents were not as fortunate. Before the war, in 1941, there were approximately 1,800 Jews in Rhodes. Today, only about 40 remain having been murdered by the Nazis. A plaque in the temple contains the names of the families who were killed in the Holocaust. I met the man who helps keep the “Shalom” Synagogue alive. While he calls South Africa home, he stays in Rhodes several months a year to help preserve and make sure visitors know about the Rhodes colorful and difficult history. He has a strong personal interest to maintain the temple and keep the memory of its people alive….his late mother was one of the lucky ones – she survived the Holocaust and her story is told inside the temple’s exhibits.
As you walk into the town square, not far from the synagogue, there’s another touching reminder that Rhodes’ Jews are not forgotten. The Monument of the Victims of the Holocaust sits prominently in Jewish Martyrs Square, the former Jewish quarter once filled with thousands of Jews. Dated July 23rd, 1944, the black marble edifice is a powerful reminder to tourists and residents to keep in “eternal memory the 1604 Jewish martyrs of Rhodes…who were murdered in Nazi death camps.”
In a world filled with growing violence, intolerance and anti-Semitism, it’s a visit I always will remember.