It was down to Greece for a late week in the sun with some of our favourite people. We first saw Kos in 1999 when we flew and ferried there on our way to Kalymnos, the island to the north. It is a special place which still fascinates with its mixture of Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Ottoman, Jewish and Italian and let’s not forget the modern Greeks. However these days Jewish Kos is silent, a community which had been on this island almost continuously for over 2,000 was murdered in a cowardly crime for which no one was ever held to account. Today there is no Jewish community, all which remains is a former Synagogue and a cemetery, side by side with the Muslim cemetery at Platani (Kermetes) outside Kos Town.
Prior to World War II, there existed two main groups of Jews in Greece: the scattered Romaniote communities which had existed in Greece since antiquity; and the approximately 50,000-strong Sephardi Jewish community of Thessaloniki, originally formed from Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and affected by the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The latter had played a prominent part in the city’s life for five centuries, but as the city had only become a part of the modern Greek state during the First Balkan War, it was not as well-integrated. Kos’s small well integrated Jewish community was from the Ladino speaking Romaniote tradition mainly involved in trading, including in the raisins and sultanas for which the island was well known.
Kos is one of the most popular tourist islands of the Dodecanese. Geographically speaking it is very close the Asia Minor and therefore a significant commercial and cultural center. At a comparatively early period Jews are mentioned among the population of Kos; and under Alexander the Great and the Egyptian Ptolemies (from 336 B.C.) the town developed into one of the great Jewish centres in the Ægean. Josephus (“Ant.” xiv. 7, § 2) quotes Strabo to the effect that Mithridates sent to Kos to fetch the gold deposited there by Queen Cleopatra and “800 talents belonging to the Jews.” Jews of Kos are mentioned at the time of Antiochus VII., Sidetes, Kos being one of the islands to which the rescript of the Roman consul Lucius was sent (139 B.C.; I Macc. xv. 23). It appears probable that in course of time the Jews became the chief bankers in the island, and that they took charge of the large sums of money owned by the temples.
In the sacrificial tablet of the Temple of Adrasteia and Nemesis, they are mentioned (lines 17, 18) as πάντες ὑπὸ τ[ων τρα]πεζειτῶν ή ἄλλως (Herzog, “Critische Forschungen,” p. 35). This inscription is of the first century B.C. Rayet (“Mémoire sur l’Ile de Kos,” p. 80) thinks that the 800 talents ($960,000) deposited by Cleopatra were held by these Jews τραπεζήται; but of this there is no evidence (Paton and Hicks, “Inscriptions of Cos,” p. xxxviii.). In 49 B.C. the Koans are reminded by the consul Caius Fannius to obey the decree of the Roman Senate and to allow safe passage to Jewish pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem (Josephus, l.c. xiv. 10, § 15). Herod is said to have provided an annual stipend for the benefit of prize-winners in the athletic games (Josephus, “B. J.” i. 21, § 11); and a statue was erected there to his son Herod the Tetrarch (“C. I. G.” 2502). The epigrammatist Meleager, who was living at Kos about 95 B.C., complains of having been abandoned by his mistress for a Jew (Epigram No. 83, in “Anthologia Græca,” v. 160).
According to Josephus, Kos had a Jewish community as early as the Second Temple. According to ch. Maccabees I (15.23), Jews had been living on the island since 142 B.C. In 49 B.C., under the Roman rule, the residents of the island were ordered by Governor Fanios to respect the decree of the Government and permit the safe passage of Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The first Greek Jew known by name was “Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew”, a slave identified in an inscription dated approximately 300 – 250 B.C. found in Oropos, a small coastal town between Athens and Boeotia. It could be assumed that as a result of frequent Jewish movement through Greece a Jewish Community was eventually established. This community is believed to have grown further after the Hasmonean uprising (142 B.C.) when many Jews were sold into slavery in Greece.
In the early Christian era, the fact that Paul the Apostle, upon his arrival in Greece, preached in the Jewish Synagogues in Athens, Corinth, Veria, Kavala (Philipus) gives proof of the existence of many Jewish Communities in this Country. So it will be readily understood that Jewry and the Greek lands have a very close and long standing connection and their histories are intertwined.
It is not known whether Jews continued to live at Kos from Roman times down to the conquest of the island by the Knights of Rhodes in 1315. Under the rule of the knights, however, Jews were banished (1502) from the island (Coronelli, “Isola di Rhodi,” p. 180) and transported to Nice, in accordance with the decree promulgated by Pierre d’Aubusson, grand master of the Hospitallers of St. John. It is not definitely known whether the Jews returned from Nice to Kos a year after their banishment, i.e., during or after the conquest of the island by the Turks but Jews returned in 1523, protected by the Caliph as “People of the Book”.
But, according to a document, now at Rhodes, containing some notes on the administration of the community of Rhodes, the community of Kos was in 1685 dependent on that of Rhodes, paying to the latter a tax collected from eighteen persons whose names are mentioned in the document. The amount of the tax, which was paid up to 1870, indicates probably that the community was not very large and had no chief rabbi, but was under the direct control of the chief rabbi of Rhodes.
In 1747 Eliezer Tarsia covered financially for the construction of a small but impressive synagogue that even after his death was preserved with the income from a neighbouring house and two shops he bequeathed. In 1850, 40 families lived in Kos, but were reduced to 25 in 1872. The Jews of Kos exported grapes and raisins and were also involved in metal and clothing trade. In 1901 Kos only had 10 Jewish families who were involved mainly in commerce. The members of the Community lived in harmony and spoke Greek, Turkish and Judeo-Spanish. The Community grew significantly during the Greek-Turkish War between 1918-1922, as refugees came from Asia Minor and particularly from Smyrna.
Little is known from the fortunes of the community until the 19th century when it figured prominently in a blood libel that would indicate that relations with the Christian community on the island were not especially cordial. By 1850, there were only 40 families, a number that fell to 20 by 1880 and 3 by 1910. After the Greco-Turkish war of 1918-22, there was an influx of Jews into Kos from Asia Minor, especially from Izmir. As the Dodecanese islands had been acquired by the Italians after the First World War, these islands enjoyed a somewhat isolated and almost neutral position and Jews quickly took advantage of the improved conditions. By 1933, there were 160 Jews actively involved in small crafts and in commerce with Alexandria, Izmir and Italy.
In 1933 Kos was shook by a very strong earthquake. As a result many human lives were lost. Important monuments, including the synagogue, were ruined. Immediately after the destruction of the old synagogue a new one was built very close to the port. It exists up to this day and is located on 4, Alexandrou Diakou Street. The synagogue served the religious needs of the 140 members of the Jewish Community. When Italy surrendered in 1943, the islands of the Dodecanese were occupied by the Germans. The members of the Jewish Community of Kos were arrested and their properties were seized.
In September 1943, the Nazis conquered Rhodes immediately following their invasion of Italy. As a result of the allied bombardment of Rhodes, bombs also exploded in the Jewish quarter of the island. Many Jews died. In July 1944, some 1,600 Jews that remained on the island were ordered to gather at assembly centers. They were then sent to Athens on barges, without any food or water. The barges initially made their way to the nearby island of Kos where over 100 Jews were piled onto the barges to be deported along with the Jews of Rhodes. The boats then stopped at the island of Leros to deport the single Jewish man who lived on the island. Upon arriving in Athens the Jews were detained at the infamous Haidari. Once there, they were forced onto cattle trains and were deported to Auschwitz. During the Holocaust, all members of the Jewish Community of Kos perished except for one person who survived the Holocaust and returned to the island afterwards.
This was not the first episode of persecution. As Kos changed hands like a shuttlecock between opposing armies, so, too, did the fate of the community. Between 1306-1522 all Jews were expelled twice under the rule of the Knights of St. John, to return again after the invasion by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1523. The Knights’ imposing Castle still commands the Harbour. There was a Blood Libel in 1850, under Ottoman occupation, but the Colonel in charge, Ramiz Bey, established Jewish innocence. As we shall see, this is not the only example of a Turkish individual defending Jewish persecution. War again, this time between Greece and Turkey, 1918-1923, led to an increase in population as Jews fled from Izmir. Their number reached 160 by 1939.
Italian troops invaded Kos in 1912, and the outbreak of World War 11 reinforced their presence. Such had been their tight control of administration and the policy of ‘Latinisation’, that even in 1944 all Birth, Death and Marriage certificates were in Italian. Looking at the ominous red stripe on the documents for every Jew made one realize how far back the community had been in peril. The region suffered great hardship, hunger, and bombardment by the allies between 1940 and 1943. War brings out the very worst in Man but perversely, occasionally, the best of spirit. Food supplies to the community were at starvation levels. Observing their plight, the new commandant of the region in July 1942, Admiral I. Campione, enforced fair distribution of food regardless of fascist dictates.
On 3 September 1943, the Italians surrendered. There was much rejoicing but fate played a cruel hand. The rescuing British forces were out numbered by the Nazis who occupied the Island on the 3 October 1943 (an interesting account of the campaign by the British Caithness regiment is at:
There were brave acts of Greek resistance throughout the occupation, and after writing a courageous condemnation of persecution, the Archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos, was threatened with the firing squad by the Nazi General Strop. Another example of indomitable spirit can be seen across the harbour in Pothia, the port of Kalymnos, where a number of citizens bravely painted their houses blue and white, the colours of the banned Greek Flag.
The Nazi response to such things was demonstrated shortly after their arrival. They impressed their might by hanging non- Jewish patriots, Elias Kapiris and George Zoumpoulikos, and the same fate befell Theokritos Kostoglou, Anezoula Patakou and Stamatia Peri in April 1945. For the Jewish community, all that had been feared throughout the war came to be on July 23, 1944. A few days earlier two senior Nazi officers met with the elders of the community with instructions that listed Jews were to congregate in the harbour. Despite the issue for Rhodes and Kos of some 42 exit visas by the Turkish Consul, Salahattin Ulkemen, an act recorded in his honour at Yad Vashem, three small cargo boats transported some 2000 souls from the islands to Piraeus. The 30-year-old Turkish Consul Selahattin Ülkümen approached the German general in charge and demanded that all Turkish subjects be released. He went further, demanding the spouses of Turkish citizens be released, invoking Turkish law that anyone married to a Turk is a Turk. The Germans assented. Ülkümen was playing a dangerous game. He bluffed the Germans — there was no such law.
Ülkümen’s bold personal action is credited with saving 42 families. But his bluff didn’t go unanswered. The Germans bombed his home in retaliation. His wife, nine months’ pregnant, was seriously injured and died of her wounds while giving birth to the couple’s son, Mehmet. 643 of Rhodes’ Jews were deported to Auschwitz; all but 151 were exterminated or died in the labour camps.
In June 1990, Ülkümen was installed on the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel. What used to be known as the Righteous Christians has been changed to the Righteous Gentiles because as a Muslim Mr. Ülkümen was the first non-Christian to receive the award.
First hand accounts of the bestiality of the eight day boat journey and the subsequent 13 day train journey, where those who died were unceremoniously thrown off, can be found in ‘The Juderia: A Holocaust Survivor’s Tribute to the Jewish Community of Rhodes’ (Laura Vardon, Prager, 1999) and ‘The Jewish Martyrs of Rhodes and Kos’ (Hiskia M. Franco, Harper Collins, Zimbabwe 1997).
In the nine months before the War in Europe had ended, nine in every ten of those deported from Rhodes and Kos had died. Survivors do return but it is not easy – ‘I fear so much I would hear the whispers of my people in the streets’ (Laura Vardon, p.166)
Today only the Synagogue, Kal Shalom, remains on the island. It is easily recognized due to the Star of David on the gates. It is now used as a Municipal Cultural Center. There is a monument inside the door listing the names of the 140 Jews from Kos whose lives were destroyed in this pointless act of evil by the racist Nazi State in the dying days of WW11. There are two Jewish cemeteries at Kos. One very old one, situated on the seashore at Cape Sable, is no longer used. The other, more in the interior of the island, contains over one hundred tombs, the earliest dating from 1715. Following are the names of the chief families in 1901: Romano, Capelluto, Angel, Tarica, Gabaï, Couriel, Benveniste, Coenca, Alhadef, Mir, Pisante, Habib, Abzaradel, Franco, Finz, Ergas; the most prominent among these families being those of Tarica, Alhadef, and Franco. The last-named was engaged especially in exporting raisins, the chief product of the island, and had connections at the principal centres of commerce of Europe. Later on Jews from Salonica came every year to the markets of Kos to buy the products of the island.
The evil of the Shoah always shocks but the memorial plaque on the outside of the Kal Shalom Synagogue is stark;
“The Holy Synagogue of the Jewish Community of Kos – 16th Century to 1944.”
The only redeeming feature of this tragedy, other than the Jews from Rhodes who escaped to Turkey, is that for the first two decades of Italian rule more than 2,000 Rodian Jews emigrated on Italian passports and their descendants keep the memory of this cultured and unique community alive. In 1941 2,000 Jews lived in Rhodes. They had four synagogues. “Shalom” Synagogue, on the junction between Dosiadou and Simiou Streets, as well as the ancient Jewish cemetery, survived World War II. “Shalom” synagogue was originally built in the 12th century, was destroyed during the war between the Turks and the Knights Templar and was rebuilt in the 15th century. Only 150 of them survived. Today the Community is comprised of about 40 people.
On June 2002, a Holocaust Monument was unveiled in the Jewish Martyrs Square, in the old town of Rhodes, in memory of the Jews of the island who perished during the Holocaust.
As well as Greek this unique community spoke Ladino and French. Ladino is a Romance language derived from Old Spanish. As a Jewish language, it is influenced heavily by Hebrew and Aramaic, but also Arabic, Turkish and to a lesser extent Greek and other languages where Sephardic expellees settled around the world, primarily throughout the Ottoman Empire. Like most other Jewish languages besides Hebrew, Judaeo-Spanish is in serious danger of language extinction because most native speakers today are elderly, many of whom had immigrated to Israel where the language has not been transmitted to their children or grandchildren.
It is worthwhile visiting the website of The Jewish Museum of Rhodes to learn more about this unique community and culture;
And the wonderful resource of the Jewish Museum of Greece which I have relied on in compiling this piece;
During World War II, when Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany, 86% of the Greek Jews perished owing to enemy actions, extermination and execution, and in many cities where prosperous Jewish Communities existed, only a few individuals remained. Out of 77.377 Greek Jews, only 10.000 survived the Holocaust. Those who survived the War owe their lives to the help of their Christian compatriots. Several joined the Resistance or the Greek Army in the Middle East. On Rhodes and Kos the evil was emphasised and made more poignant by the drama of the deportations to the Auschwitz happening so late in the war, the Jews being protected under Italian Occupation and no doubt the false relief felt when the islands were taken by the British before the Germans invaded.
Standing in front of the stark reminder of these racist murders on the front of the Synagogue in Kos you can only recall the words of the Holocaust survivor Abel Hertzberg:
“There were not six million Jews murdered; there was one murder, six million times.”
In August 2012 at Yad Vashem in Israel, the Holocaust Heroes and Martyr’s Memorial, a special commemoration was held for the victims on Rhodes and Kos. Irena Steinfeldt, Director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, urged those present to fill out Pages of Testimony in memory of the Rhodian and Coan Jews that were murdered, to help Yad Vashem create a living memorial for these communities.
“To me, the story of Rhodes and Kos symbolizes the whole story and uniqueness of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that it was clear to all that the Germans were losing the war, they still took all measures to murder the Jews – even one, on a distant Greek island,”
– Irena Steinfeldt
Colette Avital, Chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, recalled the flourishing Jewish community of pre-war Rhodes, a place of synagogues, a yeshiva, culture, and trade. She also stressed the heroic actions of Turkish Righteous Among the Nations Selahattin Ülkümen who rescued approximately 42 Jewish families in Rhodes.
Members of the Jewish community of Kos who were transported to Auschwitz with birth year given when known. Adapted from the Yad Vashem database of holocaust victims.
Alhadef, Vidal –
Alhadef, Caden Kaden
Alhadeff, Caden 1910
Alhadeff, Vidal 1900
Alhadeff, Leon 1942
Benosilio, Caden Kaden 1914
Benosilio, Levi 1905
Benosilio, Moris Moris 1934
Berdach, Hermine 1895
Boac, Menasel 1920
Capelluto, Elsa 1933
Capelluto, Giulia 1931
Capelluto, Alberto 1939
Capelluto, Esther Ester
Capelluto, Zimbul 1901
Capelluto, First name unknown
Capelluto, First name unknown
Capelluto, First name unknown
Capeluto, Haim 1908
Capelutto, Bernardo 1936
Capelutto, Zimbul 1905
Elcana, Rakhel 1937
Franco, Rachele Rakhel 1926
Franco, David 1919
Franco, Heskia Behor 1881
Franco, First name unknown
Haim, Ithac Yitzkhak 1876
Haman, Behor 1908
Haman, Ascer 1919
Hanan, Mari Mari 1905
Hanan, Behor Bekhor 1902
Kohn, Zlatica 1925
Lewi, Josif 1921
Lewi, Josef 1921
Menache, Khaim Haim 1895
Menache, Renata 1931
Menache, Ester 1915
Menasce, Mordehai Mordekhai 1910
Menasce, Stella Stela
Menasce, Mordechai Mordekhai
Menasce, Raphael Rafael 1908
Menasce, Ricca Rika 1909
Menasce, Nissim Nisim
Menasce, Marco 1903
Neumann, Ferdinand 1893
Neumann, Ferdinand 1893
Nojman, Ferdynand Ferdinand 1892
Elkana, Yakob Yaakov 1909
Elkana, Jack Yaakov 1909
Elkana, Rachel Rakhel 1934
Elkana, Luna 1913
Elkana, Rebecca Rivka 1938
Elkana, Rakhel 1939
Galante, Rosa 1891
Danon, Rachelina – 1935
Danon, Eleonora – 1900
Danon, Shlomo Salomone 1922
Israel, Isacco 1925
Manashe, Raphael Rafael 1908
Manashe, Rica Rika
Menashe, Boaz 1933
Menashe, Raphael Rafael
Menashe, Rica Rika 1910
Menashe, Mordohai Mordekhai 1910
Menashe, Bebo Boaz 1920
Menashe, Haim Khaim 1905
Franko, Salamon Shlomo
Romano, Marie 1902
Romano, Giacobbe 1903
Romano, Bohora 1878
Romano, Maria 1902
Romano, Matilde Mazaltov 1939
Romano, Moris Haim 1941
Romano, Bohora Mazaltov 1876
Romano, Giacobbe 1903
Remember the Shoah and respect the memory of the victims.
“in the world which will be renewed”
“בְּעָלְמָא דְהוּא עָתִיד לְאִתְחַדָּתָא”
The liberation of Auschwitz – Birkenau
Selahattin Ulkumen – A Muslim at Yad Vashem
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.