Saturday 8 August 2015

HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW by Karen Maitland

Entrance to the synagogue on Rhodes
Photo: Wkinght94
In recent months the attention of Europe’s finance ministers has been focused on Greece and I was delighted to see a letter in the national papers signed by authors and academics reminding the world of the huge legacy Greece has bequeathed to the world, from art and architecture to science, maths, astronomy, philosophy and literature. But we forget it gave us something else too. In spite of the periods of bitter civil war, there have been many centuries when Greece and Greek island people have shown us how it is possible for communities from different religions and backgrounds to live together in peace and tolerance, and with compassion for one another.

On holiday in the Greek Islands last summer, with five minutes to spare before the bus left, I managed to find the Square of the Martyred Jews in Rhodes city and, wandering into the street behind it, stumbled across one of the loveliest synagogues I’ve ever visited – Kahal Kadosh Shalom (Holy Congregation of Peace). Built in 1577, it is thought to be the oldest surviving synagogue in Greece still in use. I managed to return a few days later and spend several hours looking round the synagogue which has beautiful mosaic floor made from sea-pebbles and an amazing Jewish museum.

The Palace of the Grand Masters, Rhodes
Jewish presence on the island of Rhodes dates back to 2nd century BCE and is mentioned in the book of Maccabees. In 1500, the Grand Master of the Knights Templars expelled the Jewish community living on the island. But in 1522, Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire invited Jews to come to Rhodes and start a new community. Many of the Jews who came were Sephardim fleeing the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and they found a life of peace and acceptance on the island, developing their own unique form of music and song which is heard nowhere else. By 1920’s, the Jewish population on Rhodes was around 4,500 people worshipping in six synagogues.

But in 1944, the island was occupied by the Nazis and on 23rd July, a roundup of Jews began with 1673 Jews arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Only 150 survived the death camp. Today only a few Jewish families still live on Rhodes.
Interior of the Rhodes synagogue. Photo by Sailko

But through the darkness of that dreadful time, two stories from that period blaze with light. In 1944, when the Rabbi of the synagogue realised the Jews were about to be rounded up, he was fearful for the safety of their 800 year old Torah scroll and other holy manuscripts, so he took them to a close Muslim friend of his on the island - the Mufti of Rhodes. The Muslim leader said that it gave him the greatest joy in the world to cradle the precious sefer torah in his arms, and he laid it in the one place he knew the Nazis would never look for a Jewish scroll – the pulpit of the mosque! There it remained safely hidden in plain view for the whole of the war, until finally it could be restored to the Jewish Community. You can still see it in the synagogue today.
Interior of the synagogue on Rhodes showing the
floor mosaic of pebbles. Photo by Sailko

The second story concerns Bey Selahattin Ulkumen, the Muslim Consul-General of Turkey, who risked much to rescue 39 Jews from Rhodes and 13 from Cos who would otherwise have been deported to Auschwitz. In 1990, in gratitude and recognition for the Jewish lives he saved, B’nai B’rith and Yad Vashem declared him ‘Righteous among the Nations’. When the Muslim leader was asked why he had done it he simply said ‘I have to do my duty for my people and the Jews of Rhodes are my people.’

If you find yourself in the city of Rhodes this summer you can take a fascinating tour of the ancient Jewish quarter either doing it yourself using the guide book on sale in the synagogue shop or as a historical walk led by a member of the congregation. But even if you don’t have time for that, do stop in at the synagogue which is open all throughout the summer for tourists and visitors. You’ll be assured of the warmest of welcomes.


Marjorie said...

Great piece! I was there when I was 22, way too long ago. Beautiful, especially the floor.

Mystica said...

Thanks for a lovely post.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Karen, this really moved me. Stories of Man's humanity to Man are rarely reported and this post is uplifting. I shall certainly make a visit to the synagogue. Thank you for this.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I've been there! Not inside but outside. SO beautiful. And a great blog post.

Susan Price said...

Truly inspiring.

Sue Purkiss said...

It's lovely to hear of goodness among the horror.