The Longest Journey - The Jews Of Rhodes

REVIEW by Willard Manus

Rhodes was the last place in Europe to feel the horrific impact of the Holocaust. On July 18, 1944, the commander of the Nazi garrison on the island rounded up the 1800 Jews living there and shoved them into three cattle boats. The Jews' first stop was Athens; then came a long train ride to the hell on earth known as Auschwitz.

Thus came to an end the once-illustrious history of the Jews of Rhodes, a history that owed its origins to the Spanish Inquisition, a forerunner of the Nazi holocaust. To escape the Inquisition's torture chambers and death squads, large numbers of Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews fled Spain and settled on Rhodes, then part of Turkey's Ottoman empire.

Home for the Jews was behind the fortified walls of Rhodes' Old City, in a section called the Juderia. Here the Jews, encouraged by their Turkish neighbors (the Greeks were obliged to live outside the fortress), built shops, factories, wineries, schools, hospitals and synagogues. These close-knit, devout, industrious people formed a society that lived in harmony even when fascist Italy annexed Rhodes in 1924.

As THE LONGEST JOURNEY--THE JEWS OF RHODES, the documentary film directed by Ruggiero Gabaid depicts, many of the Rhodian Jews welcomed the Italians, even wore black shirts and applauded Mussolini's radio speeches--until, that is, Il Duce sent a henchman to Rhodes (Mario de Vecchi) who was a malevolent anti-semite. The new governor harassed the Jews, restricted their business dealings, forbade their children from attending school.

Consequently, about half of the Jewish colony fled Rhodes and emigrated to countries like Palestine, Morocco, Rhodesia, Canada and the USA. Those who stayed behind suffered grievously when Italy capitulated in WW II, leaving behind a vacuum which the Nazis were only too glad to fill, especially on such a strategically-located island as Rhodes.

THE LONGEST JOURNEY centers on three survivors of the Rhodian holocaust--Stella Levi, Alberto Israel and Sam Modiano. Each was shipped to Auschwitz with their families but somehow made it through that inferno. Now, seventy years later, they return to Rhodes to revisit the Juderia and walk its picturesque but haunted streets, remembering what it was like to live here. Some of their memories are happy: growing up in loving homes, splashing around in the sea, learning to speak four languages (Ladino, Greek, Turkish and Italian), taking part in communal religious and social events.

Their innocence and joy was shattered forever by Mussolini and then Hitler. Their laughter turned to tears; pain, terror and evil became constant companions. They lost everything they owned and cherished: houses, shops, schools, synagogues. And when the Rhodian Jews reached the camps, most of them lost their lives as well, in the most brutal and evil way imaginable.

At times THE LONGEST JOURNEY is painful to watch; the 50-minute, Italian-produced film tells a bitter, tragic story, but it manages to offer a measure of hope as well. Thanks to the help of the worldwide Sephardic community, one of the Juderia's synagogues has been rebuilt and was recently the site of a wedding, the first in sixty years. Additionally, a small Jewish museum has been erected next to the synagogue.

And now there is this film. THE LONG JOURNEY is not only a historical document but a tribute to the indomitable and undefeated spirit of the Rhodian Jews. As Sam Modiano said, "That bastard Hitler is dead, but we are still here, we are still very much alive!"