Rhodes´ Jewish Quarter
Feature Story by Willard Manus

To visit the Greek island of Rhodes is to understand why the geographer
Strabo called it the most beautiful place in the world, and why the Knights of St John, on seeing the barren limestone of Malta where they had been banished, were said to have remembered Rhodes and wept.

Rhodes' prime attraction is the Old Town, which is located in the main city behind fortress walls and moats built by the Knights during the two centuries they held the island as an outpost against Islam. The Order of the Knights was comprised of various nationalities called Tongues, all of whom found themselves living cheek by jowl with a sizable Israelite presence, one which dated as far back as 140 BC. Their number was greatly expanded in 1280 when a group of Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition arrived on the island, the first Sephardim to set foot on Rhodian soil.

When the Turkish army of Suliemann the Magnificent first attacked the
walled city, the Jews fought side by side with the Greek Christians and the Crusaders in trying to repulse the invaders. The siege, which lasted a hundred years, took its toll on Jewish-Christian relations, especially when the Crusader's Grand Master Pierre d'Aubusson was elevated by the Pope to the rank of Cardinal. He threatened to expel all Jews who would not convert to Catholicism. Those who resisted were subjected to torture, prison, or even death.

Because of his cruel treatment, many of the Rhodian Jews decided to aid
the Turks by filling the moat on the Italian side of the fortress with sandbags. Also, numerous Jews who had fled the island under duress returned with Sulieman's army as advisors.

The conquest of Rhodes by the Turks in 1522 was welcomed by the Jews.
Those who had converted returned to the fold and began to live openly as
Jews again. The only non-Muslims allowed in the walled city after dark were the Jews, who, as non-Christians were not regarded as enemies. The Jewish quarter (known as the Juderia) ran along the wall closest to Rhodes' main port and was centered around a square with a little fountain decorated with sea horses. The main street was called La Kay Ancha. It was packed with one- and two-story houses and a profusion of shops, schools, libraries, banks, synagogues, restaurants and hospitals. The Juderia was by all accounts a remarkable and colorful place, home to an insular but vital and loving tribe, some wealthy, some poor, but none neglected or exploited.

It is still possible to walk the medieval streets of the Juderia, though it is no longer known by that name, simply because the Jews are gone, except for a handful who survived the Holocaust. Thus one can no longer hear Ladino spoken or encounter Jewish cobblers, tinsmiths and shopkeepers. Nor can one be thrilled by the singing of the Rhodeslis, whose love of music was famous, especially when it came to the epic ballads and romanceros of Ancient Spain. Neither will one be fortunate enough to encounter the women of the Juderia, who were known for their beauty and high spirits, as well as their cooking, embroidery and crocheting skills.

However, one of the Juderia's four synagogues still surives. The Kal-Shalom, which stands on 8 Simmiou St., is open during summer daily from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m, and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Services are held when enough visitors are present to form a minyan. The Rhodes Jewish Community headquarters is at 5 Pilidorou St., Tel. 223-64. Also of major interest is the Jewish cemetery, which is located a few miles outside the Old Town and has been reconstructed. Many of its tombstones incorporate symbols of the trades practiced by the deceased and there is a statue to all those Rhodeslis who perished in Hitler's concentration camps.

In 1946, Gabriel Haritos, the first Mayor of Rhodes after WW II, renamed La Kay Ancha "The Street of the Hebrew Martyrs." To walk this street is to pay homage to their memory.