The Jewish Quarter
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.
The Jewish community in Rhodes was most affected within the last 500 years by the influx of Jews from Spain, who fled at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Their descendants are referred to as Sephardic Jews, derived from “Sepharad”, the Hebrew word for Spain. These Jews brought with them their culture, their customs and traditions, one amongst the cultural aspects was linguistic, the language they spoke was Espanyol, as they called it, also referred to as a Ladino and “Judeo-Spanish”. The Jewish Quarter of the mediaeval town was affectionately known as “La Juderia”.
At the start of the 20th century, many young Jews left the Island in search of higher economic opportunities in America and in Africa. In the early 1920s the community had reached its peak population of 4.500 souls. In 1943 Rhodes was taken by the Germans, and on July 23 of the subsequent year, 1673 members of the Jewish community were arrested and deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, where most of them were slaughtered. Only 151 survived. In 1947 the Island was ceded to Greece. Today there are not many of Jews living in Rhodes.
The Square of the Jewish Martyrs in Rhodes (known in Greek as Evreon Martyron) is found within the heart of the previous Jewish Quarter. The Square was originally a region of Jewish homes and little shops. However, the area was bombed during World War II, and in its place was established a tiny little park and square. The present fountain ornamented with three seahorses replaced a previous fountain that was destroyed during WWII. The Holocaust Memorial was dedicated on June 23, 2002, in memory of the World War II victims from the islands of Rhodes and Cos.
Rhodes Synagogue - The Kahal Shalom Synagogue. Built in the year 1577, the Kahal Shalom is the oldest synagogue in Greece and the sole remaining Jewish synagogue on Rhodes still actively holding services. the complete name of the building is Kahal Kadosh Shalom (Holy Congregation of Peace). The inside of the Kahal Shalom Synagogue follows the standard Sephardic type of having the “tevah” (the prayer reading table) within the center of the sanctuary facing southeast toward Jerusalem. As a result of a liberalization of religious policy, in 1935 a balcony was created to be used as a women’s prayer area. Before that point the ladies sat within the rooms adjacent to the south wall of the synagogue that viewed the sanctuary through curtained openings. Those rooms are converted into the Jewish Museum of Rhodes.
The Rhodes Jewish Museum. Here you’ll be given information regarding the historical exhibition, created by Aron Hasson, which is found in the rooms formerly used as the women’s prayer rooms at the “Kahal Shalom” synagogue. it’s home to a memorial of the once big Jewish community in Rhodes, displaying many photos and memorial plaques.
Aron Hasson - The founder of Rhodes Jewish Museum. He was born in Los Angeles and he is a 3rd generation “Rhodesli”. He is an attorney in L.A. where he has been practicing immigration law since 1980. He was inspired to go to 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 together with his family for his children to find out of their family heritage. It was during that visit that he noticed the requirement of advancing the general public awareness and appreciation of its unique history unfortunately devastated by the Holocaust.
I recently met Aron Hasson in Rhodes. It was my pleasure and honor to meet the person who spearheaded the movement to preserve the vital history of the Jews of Rhodes. I respect those trying to 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 function as a link between the past, present and future generations of “Rhodeslis” around the world.
The Jewish Cemetery. Originally the Jewish cemeteries were located inside the Old City of Rhodes. In the 1930s, the Italian government forced the relocation of the cemeteries from the Juderia to an area outside the Old City walls and into its present location in the new city . The Jewish Cemetery is one of the best preserved in Europe and contains tombstones from the 1500s to the present. It is located outside the Old City of Rhodes along the main road towards Kalitheas and Faliraki. Excavations of additional tombstones are continuing. During the last five years over 300 burial stones have been uncovered.
The “Rhodesli” are a little-known Sephardic sect that moved to the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in 1492 following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal. They lived on Rhodes until WW2. Their culture, which is began in 800 B.C. survives as a little émigré community in Los Angeles. Their complex ethnic and spiritual heritage is exclusive in the world today. The Rhodesli are Jews who speak an uncommon medieval Spanish dialect (Ladino) and detect traditions derived from Turkish, Moorish, Spanish, and Jewish sources that remain mostly unchanged from centuries past.