Historical background

Rhodes and Rhodians are mentioned a number of times in Scripture, though it’s not clear if it’s Jews that are being referred to. We know that Jews had settled on the island by 2nd century B.C.E, because they are mentioned in the book of Macabees.
The next explicit mention of Jews in Rhodes comes in the 12th century when Benjamin de Tuleda visited the island on his way to the Byzantine empire. He mentions a community of some 500 members.

Our knowledge of Rhodian Jews becomes more detailed after the island was sized by the knights, in 1309. Rhodes thus became economically linked with a network of ports that had emerged after the dismemberment of the Byzantine Empire in 1204. Doubtless, the Jews of Rhodes prospered initially through commerce with these ports and took advantage of other opportunities in crusader-held territories such as Kos and Bodrum. From what we know, the community was a Romaniote one, they spoke Greek and adhered to the Romaniote Minhag (tradition). Their quarter in Rhodes was enlarged shortly after the crusader takeover. Under the Knights domination, Rhodes quickly became an international center of trade, piracy and quite aggressive military activity. The Jews enjoyed a period of great prosperity and were particularly involved in producing silk.

In 1480, Sultan Mehmet II launched a great attack on the island. Jews and Christians fought side by side, and at the end succeeded in driving out the Ottoman troops. However, Rhodes never really recovered from this attack, and many knights as well as Jews fled the island. Only 22 Jewish families remained in Rhodes. Despite the horrors of this initial Turkish onslaught, they recovered quickly and continued to work in silk production. Moreover, the part played by the Jews in the defense of Rhodes raised them in the esteem of the knights.

Exactly what changes this high regard is unknown but early in the 16th century, the Grand Master, Pierre d’Aubusson suddenly demanded that the Jews be expelled from the island. Severe action was taken against the community. Some were forced to convert, others were sent to Nice, still others were thrown into a pit where they eventually died of starvation and exposure.

Ironically, as soon as the community has ceased to exist formally, new Jews were brought to the island. They were among the captives of ships seized by the (pirating) knights. Thus by 1533, Rhodes had a Jewish population of 3,000 Jews, but it appears that they were not allowed to from an organized community. Thus, Jewish sympathy to the Turks raised, and the Jews of Rhodes rejoiced to see an end to the occupation of the Knights when a successful attack was conducted by Sultan Suleiman in 1522. Those who had been forced to convert returned to their faith and a community was formally established.

The size of the community was quickly depleted, however, because those who had been brought to the island as slaves emigrated. Those who remained formed the core of what was still basically a Romaniote community. The policy of Suleiman to encourage Jewish immigration led to the arrival of large numbers of Sephardi Jews from Salonika, Izmir, and Constantinople. The two communities evolved separately, with some tensions, each with its own synagogue. (The Sephardi synagogue Kal Kadosh Shalom, built in 1575, still stands).

By mid 17th century, the Romaniotes had been obliged to conform to the Sephardi custom, and to speak Spanish. Under Sephardi leadership, Rhodes entered into a quite brilliant period of intellectual activity and produced a number of notable rabbis. Despite all this, Jewish life was quite insular while the Orthodox Christians were, for the most part, hostile and held them responsible for the fall of the islands to the Turks.

By 1850, Rhodes could boast 3 Jewish schools with a total of 120 boys. Attendance was normally until the age of twelve, and the instruction was in Ladino (Spanish). The children learned to read, write and do basic arithmetic. Further instruction was not encouraged, mainly due to the lack of stimulus and the general poverty of the community. At twelve or thirteen, a boy was set to work as a fellow-bread-owner in his family. Silk productions was no longer a Jewish occupation and was replaced by petty trade in perfumes, spices, cloth, slippers and sweets. A good number earned their livelihood as stevedores, while other individuals traded wheat, exported wine or were money lenders.

These reduced social and economic conditions were the cause for an appeal made to the alliance in Paris in 1900 for the establishment of a school. The resulting establishment of an Alliance school only furthered emigration, as those who became exposed to wider horizons took advantage of opportunities to leave the island. By 1900, there was a constant movement of Rhodian Jews into Africa, especially Rhodesia, the Congo and South Africa. Still others left for the Brazil, the US or Mexico. A particular cohesiveness existed among the expatriates that is still the characteristic of the descendants of these early immigrants. There is a very distinctive Rhodian Jewish identity that is still strongly maintained, be it in Pretoria, Rio de Janeiro, Atlanta or Los Angeles.

In 1923, Rhodes was ceded to the Italians after the peace agreements following the First World War. By 1941, there were only 2,000 Jews on /Rhodes, with four synagogues being maintained. In 1943, the Italians surrendered to the Allies and the Nazis took immediately control of Rhodes. In the following year, the entire community, along with the Jews on Kos was arrested and shipped under horrifying conditions to Piraeus, and from there to Auschwitz.

There were 151 survivors after the war, which did not choose to come back to the island. Still, there is a small number of Jews living in the island, and one synagogue as well as a museum is being preserved.