The Hasson family with their four children in Rhodes

At the end of July 1944, a new wind of optimism blows over Europe. On June 6, 1944, the Allies have landed in Normandy, the Allied troops advance and liberate, at the end of August Paris will be liberated, and the outcome of the war has been decided: Nazi Germany now knows that it will lose World War II.

The "Jewish question", i.e. the existence of Jews, has been "solved", with the "final solution" having completed its implementation, since the Jewish element has been exterminated to a different degree in each of the occupied countries. Last country Hungary, cradle of Ashkenazi Jewry, Yiddishland, in Central Europe with 750.000 Jews, saw hundreds of thousands sent to Auschwitz from mid-May to early July 1944. The camp flooded, the crematoria forced to work at breakneck speed . These would normally be the last operations to displace Jews. Those Jews who had survived until then would be saved. But it didn't happen like that.

In June 1944, on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, for the only time in the history of the Holocaust, ships were used instead of trains for the Jewish communities of the islands. In June, from Corfu (June 9 for women and June 14 for men) and from Crete (June 7, from the port of Souda), almost all Jews, regardless of gender and age, are deported, while the 275 from Zakynthos are spared the last moment, in honor of Zakynthos, which became the island of the "Righteous". The 350 Jews of Crete aboard the ship Tanais will be shipwrecked in the Aegean off Santorini as their ship is hit by a British torpedo. This now seems to be the last act of the drama. But there was one more. And this last mission, beyond its drama, proves something terribly important: how in the Nazi logic exterminating all the Jews was an absolute priority, even if they were just a few forgotten on some island, at the edge of the eastern Mediterranean. All of them down to one.

This is precisely what the last mission with the Jews of Rhodes and Kos signifies. One thousand six hundred and seventy-three people from Rhodes and 98 from Kos will board ships for Piraeus. But there is the even more incredible thing: one of the ships will stop at Leros to pick up a single Jew. Was the one and only Jew on the edge of the Mediterranean really such a threat to the crumbling Reich? The answer is given by Saul Friedlander in his monumental work, Nazi Germany and the Jews. In his analysis of Nazism's exterminating fury against the Jews, he explains that even the last living Jew is a mortal and active threat to Nazism. That's why the boat was worth stopping at Leros too...

THE JEWS OF RHODES. But who were these 2.000 Jews who lived in Rhodes in 1941 and who maintained four synagogues? Only one of them, "Kal Shalom" was saved, today being the oldest and perhaps the most beautiful synagogue in Greece, with its black and white pebbled floor. The "Rodesli", as they defined themselves, were descendants of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to Rhodes from Thessaloniki at the Sultan's instigation after the conquest of the island by the Ottomans in 1522. Their neighborhood was organized inside the Castle, together with the Muslims, while the Christians, the rum millets, were forced to live outside the Castle. A favorable legislation was applied here as well, which allowed them to prosper for almost four centuries, making Rhodes a great commercial center and maintaining relations with the great parishes of Thessaloniki and Constantinople. They thus created another cradle of Sephardic, Spanish-speaking, that is, culture. At the turn of the 20th century, following their own request to the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris, they too acquired two AIU schools, in 1901 for boys and in 1902 for girls. There, many young men and women acquired a French education and a deep bond with France. The Jews of Rhodes became Italian citizens from 1912, they were Sephardic by origin, therefore Spanish-speaking, and many also French-speaking, with progressive ideas and openness to modernity. Of the pre-war economic achievements I will mention only the establishment in 1928 of Compagnia Agricola Industriale Rodi, which produces the well-known CAIR champagne, the most acclaimed Greek champagne, which kept viticulture alive on the island. The Alhadeff family, a family of bankers, one of the most prominent in the community, played a decisive role in this company. The Rodesli's spoke Greek with their neighbors, with their customers, in all their dealings with the Greek element. They may not have been Greek citizens, but they left Athens on the last train to Auschwitz. Their memory began to be commemorated in 2002, with the erection in June 2002 at the Jewish Martyrs' Holocaust Memorial Square, a multilingual column, and the annual commemoration ceremony on the day of the displacement.

Historiographically, their case is part of both Italian and Greek Holocaust historiography. One more time that the Jewish diaspora transcends national borders, that its history does not fit into ethnocentric perspectives, thus enriching and broadening the perspective of the historian.

From the islands to Haidari and Auschwitz

Many Jews had already left the island since 1936 due to the imposition of racial laws by Italian fascism, and this was their salvation. Of the 4.500 Jews living in 1912, in 1941 around 2.000 lived. From September 1943, with the capitulation of Italy, the Germans imposed their own occupation of the island and their own anti-Jewish laws. But nothing had been heard about displacement. But on July 18, 1944, a decision was announced by the German commander to gather all males over the age of 16 at the Air Command, and by July 20, the rest of the family members, women and children, had been summoned and arrested, that is, all the Jews of Rhodes . About forty families (around 200 people) were fortunate enough to be saved by the Turkish consul Selahattin Ulkumen, who has been honored by Yad Vashem with the title of "Right of Nations", by recommending Turkish citizenship. And a few young people who managed to escape in illegal boats to Turkey at the risk of their lives. He himself will save six people from Kos.

ON THREE TRUCK SHIPS. On July 23, 1944, a Sunday, 1673 boarded three cargo ships used to transport animals from island to island, according to the testimony of survivor Sammy Montiano. He describes the horrible conditions of transportation and the endless journey. Everything is reminiscent of the conditions of death trains: overcrowding of people with no living space, lack of oxygen, food and water. Except that the dead were thrown into the sea: 7 people already lost their lives and never reached Piraeus. The ships will stop in Samos and from there they will pick up the 98 people from Kos, they will travel day and night and will dock in Piraeus on July 31. The already impoverished human load will arrive at the Haidari camp and will also experience great suffering there for three days (deprivation of water and food, beatings, humiliation, terrorism), all that are inscribed in Haidari and in the memory of the Holocaust. Ten more people will die in this Greek camp. The rest will leave with the 22nd and last shipment from Greece to Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 3, 1944. On the same overloaded train are also 600 Jews who have been arrested in Athens after the great operation against the Jewish community of Athens on March 24 of '44. They will arrive at the camp on August 16. It is certainly the longest journey than all the displaced people made to get there, three whole weeks of martyrdom.

Of the displaced people of Rhodes, 120 women and 30 men will survive, and of the displaced people of Kos, 12 people. Fewer than ten survivors will return and remain on the island, while the rest will erase new trajectories and enrich with their descendants communities of Rhodian Jewish origin from Argentina, Brazil and California to Rhodesia and the Congo, not forgetting the Italy, France and Belgium. Publications will be published in different countries and languages, such as "Ke haber?" of The Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, preserving the culture of the Rhodesian Diaspora. There are many of their descendants who even today, with impressive commitment, celebrate religious coming of age (bar mitzvahs) and weddings on the island every summer or participate in the annual local commemoration ceremony. The small local community was formed after 1950 by people born in other cities who immigrated and settled in Rhodes.

LATE EMERGENCE. The memory of the extermination passed here, as everywhere in Greece, through the stages of silence and later the difficult and late emergence. However, from 2002 onwards in Rhodes, it makes its presence felt on various occasions and especially on the local anniversary of July 23rd, which is celebrated by the Region and the Municipality. And thus it responds to the anti-Semitism of members of the local community which is expressed through frequent desecration of the Holocaust memorial, as this wound does not stop lurking in our societies.

*Odette Varon-Vasard is a historian and author of the books "The coming of age of a generation. Young men and women in the Occupation and in the Resistance" (Estia, 2009) and "The emergence of a difficult memory. Texts about the genocide of the Jews" (Estia, 2013)

Source: website THE NEWS, 17.7.2023