Re­turn To Rhodes

The cer­e­mony that reignited a ‘lost’ com­mu­nity

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - DI­AS­PORA NA­DIA WOJAKOVSKI

WHEN NICCI and Neal Me­nashe started plan­ning their daugh­ter Raquel’s bat­mitz­vah, there was only one pos­si­ble des­ti­na­tion. The South African couple, who live in Lon­don, knew that the week­end of cel­e­bra­tions, in hon­our of their el­dest child, had to take place in the is­land of Rhodes, Greece — home to Raquel’s great-grand­mother Rachel, and her an­ces­tors. The fam­ily had lived there peace­fully for 450 years be­fore abruptly flee­ing in 1939, never to re­turn.

But what started off as a week­end of cel­e­bra­tions, turned into the re­al­i­sa­tion that re-af­firm­ing the past in a city that had been dec­i­mated by the Nazis, could not be a one-off event, done only in hon­our of a cel­e­bra­tion. In­stead, it con­firmed a plan to do it again and again for a week­end — to res­ur­rect other Nazi­in­vaded cities and ex­pe­ri­ence life as it was once for the Jews, be­fore their vi­brant com­mu­ni­ties were wiped out.

The Rhodes bat­mitz­vah gave guests an au­then­tic feel­ing of how life back then really was. Raquel’s great-grand­mother, Rachel Amato, was born in Rhodes in 1907. One of seven chil­dren, she grew up in the Jewish quar­ter of the me­dieval old city.

A bril­liant, cre­ative stu­dent, she re­cited poetry, played the vi­o­lin, and spoke seven lan­guages. When she mar­ried Papu Ne­tanel in 1934 he built her a beau­ti­ful home on the is­land’s Mount Smith, a stone’s throw away from the Rhodes Acrop­o­lis. In this idyl­lic set­ting, sur­rounded by olive trees and over­look­ing the sea, she raised her son. The is­land was by then an Ital­ian colony, ruled by Mus­solini, who en­forced Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws. The fam­ily were warned to es­cape quickly, and fled in 1939, along with 2,000 other Jews. Rachel and her fam­ily even­tu­ally set­tled in South Africa.

But many of the other Jews, in­clud­ing Papu’s brother and chil­dren, did not leave. In 1943, the Ger­mans oc­cu­pied the city and the fol­low­ing July the Jews were de­ported to Auschwitz. Only 151 Rhodes Jews sur­vived.

The Me­nashes in­vited friends from all over the world — in­clud­ing their rabbi from Hamp­stead’s Vil­lage Shul, Yis­roel Weisz — for a cel­e­bra­tion themed on the ear­lier, hap­pier lives of the Jews of Rhodes.

Much of the spir­i­tual cel­e­bra­tion, in­clud­ing the Shab­bat ser­vice, took place in­side Greece’s old­est sur­viv­ing syn­a­gogue, the Sephardi Ka­hal Shalom, built in 1577.

“It was as if time had stood still,” said Nicci. “The beau­ti­ful old syn­a­gogue, the cob­bled streets, the fam­ily home — they were all the same, as when Rachel lived there. So it was a voy­age back in time, re-liv­ing the com­mu­nity’s history, eat­ing their food and cel­e­brat­ing as they did. Re­mem­ber­ing the story of great­grand­mother Rachel, through a jour­ney in place and time, was really the best way of hon­our­ing her life and of pass­ing on her legacy to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

For Raquel, the story will stay in her heart for­ever. “My com­mit­ment is to prom­ise to retell my sto­ries to my fu­ture gen­er­a­tions so that they will never be for­got­ten.”

But while the week­end was full of re­joic­ing, the guests could never forget the dark, tragic mod­ern Jewish history. For in the same street as the syn­a­gogue, in the “Square of the Mar­tyred Jews,” stood the mon­u­ment em­bla­zoned with the words “Never Forget”. On each side of the six-sided, black gran­ite col­umn, was writ­ten in an­other lan­guage, “In Eter­nal Mem­ory of the 1,604 Jewish Mar­tyrs of Rhodes and Cos who were mur­dered in Nazi death camps. July 23 1944.”

Said Nicci: “For those Jews of Rhodes who were rounded up and mur­dered, there was de­struc­tion, but for us it was a week­end of res­ur­rec­tion.” The jour­ney into the past not only con­nected the fam­ily with their an­ces­tors, but struck a chord with many of the guests. “Sud­denly”, said Nicci, “there was this thought — what about do­ing this again in an­other city? By com­ing back, even for just a week­end, we can come close to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life as the Jews did be­fore the war. It’s the best way to hon­our their mem­o­ries.” Since her re­turn from Greece, she has formed a com­mit­tee for the new or­gan­i­sa­tion, called Present in the Past.

“Un­for­tu­nately, be­cause of what the Nazis did across Europe, we have plenty of choice of des­ti­na­tions,” she said. “I am cur­rently look­ing at plan­ning trips to Am­s­ter­dam, Krakow, Morocco and Zamosc.”

The first week­end is an­tic­i­pated to take place in Am­s­ter­dam in May next year. Like Rhodes, Am­s­ter­dam had also at­tracted many Jews who had been per­se­cuted in Spain and Por­tu­gal in the 15th cen­tury. The Jewish name for Am­s­ter­dam is Mokum, which in He­brew means “place” and in Yid­dish refers to a “safe place”. Jews set­tled there, en­joy­ing a re­li­gious tol­er­ance in the Dutch Repub­lic that was un­heard of in the rest of Europe.

But with the Nazi in­va­sion came the de­struc­tion of this vi­brant Jewish com­mu­nity. Five out of seven Dutch Jews were mur­dered. To­day, the Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Mu­seum is housed in the for­mer the­atre that had been used to de­port the Dutch Jews. On its wall are in­scribed the 6,700 fam­ily names of the 104,000 mur­dered Dutch Jews.

The mag­nif­i­cent Sephardi Por­tuguese Syn­a­gogue, mod­elled on Solomon’s Tem­ple in Jerusalem, was the big­gest syn­a­gogue in the world when it was built in 1675. Un­scathed dur­ing the War, the splen­did con­struc­tion has be­come an even more vi­tal link to Jewish and Dutch history — 340 years since it was built, it re­mains mag­nif­i­cent and re­gal, a legacy of Am­s­ter­dam’s once ac­tive and vi­brant Jewish com­mu­nity.

This choice of city res­onates pro­foundly with my own fam­ily story. Hav­ing writ­ten Two Prayers Be­fore Bed­time — a semi-fic­tion­alised novel about my mother be­ing hid­den by a Chris­tian couple, Aad and Fie Ver­snel, in Am­s­ter­dam as a baby — I look for­ward to meet­ing up and hon­our­ing their fam­ily. My book has been trans­lated into Dutch by one of the grand­sons and my fam­ily is work­ing on get­ting my mother’s res­cuers recog­nised as Right­eous Gen­tiles in Yad Vashem, as soon as pos­si­ble. For me, too, this is really about be­ing present in the past.

Rabbi Weisz of The Vil­lage Shul is very ex­cited about the planned trips. As he said in Rhodes: “For this Shab­bat, for this week­end, we are res­ur­rect­ing the city. We have come back and have re­sponded to the dec­i­ma­tion with re­birth.” For more in­for­ma­tion about fu­ture trips email pre­sentinthep­ast@out­

Top: The cer­e­mony in Rhodes reignited in­ter­est in the is­land’s Jewish her­itage Above: Bat­mitz­vah girl Raquel Me­nashe

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