Rhodes and the Holocaust:
The Story of the Jewish Community from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes
By Isaac Benatar
Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2010.
Reviewed by Ralph Tarica
The Holocaust, with its infinitely diverse torture techniques and its massacres of fellow human beings by the hundreds, the thousands and the millions, still defies our comprehension. No matter how straightforward the cold facts depicted during the period – the numbers tattooed on arms, the convoys of cattle-cars headed for extermination camps, the brutal murder of babies – our intelligence is simply baffled by the sheer enormity of the event. As someone in this book says about the Nazi predilection for creating horrible places for their victims – “standing cells,” “starvation cells,” “dark cells” -- “He wondered whether they had nothing better to do with their lives other than to dream up such macabre places to kill” (p. 43). And one can wonder, too, how it was that as late as 1944, with clear signs that their regime might soon fall, the Nazis had nothing better to do with their lives than to round up the Jewish population of the islands of Rhodes and Cos, almost 2,000 of them, pack them up onto boats headed for Greece and then onward by train to their massacre at Auschwitz-Birkenau and similar extermination places.
The author of this book has wisely chosen to depict the events as a human drama by telling us the stories of individual human beings, as retold by surviving witnesses after the war – stories that we can easily understand and relate to but which at the same time exemplify larger and more generalized experiences. The book begins on the hopeful note of ‘Rhodeslis’ deciding in the early 20th century to emigrate to other lands so as to improve their lives and that of their families: to the United States, Argentina, the Belgian Congo, southern Africa, etc. Readers will undoubtedly recognize a recurrent family pattern: the children go off but the parents stay behind, believing that it is too late for them to begin life anew, often with one younger child remaining behind to look after them. So it is with Isaac and Djoya who stay on with their daughter Alegra.
The Italian occupation of the area, while repressive, is not a murderous one, but once Italy surrenders to the Allies, the Germans arrive to take their place -- and with a vengeance, as they soon begin catching and killing even the Italian soldiers. Because Rhodes has an important deep-water port, adjacent to the Jewish quarter – the Djuderiya – the British send planes to bomb it, and in one such raid Djoya and Alegra are killed. As for Isaac, after spending twelve horrendous days on board ship headed for Greece and while en route through the Balkans in an unspeakably filthy cattle-car, a German soldier strikes his head with the butt of his rifle, fracturing his skull and killing him. A young friend of Alegra’s, Samy, will serve as eyewitness for this part of the story until the end of the book.
This is not a work of fiction. Isaac and Djoya Hanan are the author’s maternal grandparents; Alegra was his aunt; Samy Modiano went on to survive Auschwitz, underwent ‘liberation’ by the Russian troops (liberation here meant free to go anywhere he liked, hardly a viable option for a 14-year old boy who had lost everyone and everything), and walked his way with an older friend from Germany to Austria, to finally arrive in Rome. Along the way we get a detailed depiction of life led under the most harrowing of circumstances; for example the way Samy is tempted to end it all by throwing himself onto an electrified fence, like so many others weary of their misery, or the way he cheats death by pretending to be dead lying hidden in a pile of rotting corpses. Samy Modiano eventually overcame his physical and psychological wounds and wound up spending summers in Rhodes giving lectures at the Jewish Museum and Historical Foundation headed by Aron Hasson. And that is where the author met Samy, on a return trip to Rhodes in 2007 to honor the memory of his grandparents Isaac and Djoya and his aunt Alegra.
A review such as this can hardly do justice to the myriad experiences, both gruesome and heart-wrenching, depicted here, as well as the miraculous escapes from death afforded the fortunate few. Benatar’s book is another necessary contribution to Holocaust literature regarding the Sephardic Jews, whose struggle for survival has been generally overshadowed by the literature focused on the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe. Photographs at the end of the book add greatly to its emotional power. The book will be treasured as a testimonial to all the martyred Jews of Rhodes. As the author says: We must never forget.
Ralph Tarica is Emeritus Professor of French and a member of the editorial board of Sephardic Horizons.