“The cars stopped and I saw bald people with striped suits… I told my mother I think they brought us to an insane asylum,” related Violette Mayo in testimony depicting her arrival from the Greek islands to Auschwitz.
On Thursday, July 25, 2013 an annual memorial or yahrzeit ceremony commemorating the destruction of the Jewish communities in the Greek islands of Rhodes and Kos was held in the synagogue at Yad Vashem. Survivors and their families lit the Yad Vashem candelabra and gathered to honor those loved ones who were murdered as well as to celebrate the Jewish life that existed in those two deeply rooted communities. Throughout much of the event, Yad Vashem's synagogue was filled with prayer and music reminiscent of the unique culture of the Jewish communities of Rhodes and Kos. The former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay Rabbi Mordechai Maaravi addressed the gathering and recited psalms and the El Maleh Rachamim and Kaddish prayers. Tamar Machado, a musicologist by profession, gave an interesting lecture on the unique qualities of the Jewish community in Rhodes and Kos, explaining that for many Greek Sephardic Jews sent to Auschwitz, Jewish prayer and music was the central unifying quality shared with the other Jews imprisoned in the camp. Through their Jewish tradition, the camp’s inmates shared a common bond which succeeded in bridging various communities together despite the many cultural differences and the wide number of countries of origin for many of the Jewish prisoners who constituted the camp’s populace. Throughout the ceremony, Betty Klein played the harp and beautifully sang a variety of both traditional and original songs in Ladino. Among the songs performed was an original one written by Mario Suriano entitled, “What is Happening on the Big Street”,written to commemorate the vibrant Jewish community and rich culture that existed in Rhodes.
Among those in attendance at Thursday’s event were Avi Rosenthal, director of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel who shared a personal story of his mother who was deported and murdered at Auschwitz, Ezra Tal who recited a poem of a childhood in Rhodes, Maggie Cohen who described a book designed to commemorate the Jewish communities of Rhodes and Kos and Foundation for the Preservation of the Jewish Heritage of Rhodes Chairman Mario Suriano who presented Yad Vashem with a copy of a personal diary of a Holocaust survivor from Rhodes who during the war escaped to Israel via Turkey and Cyprus and was later killed fighting in Israel's War of Independence.
On July 20, 1944, the Jewish men of Rhodes were arrested. Several of them managed to escape the roundup and join the partisans. The women and children were deported later, and on July 24, 1944 1,700 were shipped to Athens on two coal barges with no food or water; 120 Jews from the island of Kos were also added to the transport. The boats then stopped at the island of Leros to deport the single Jewish man who lived on the island. On arrival in Athens, they were imprisoned in the notorious Haidari prison, and from there, were deported to Auschwitz arriving on August 17, 1944. 400 Jews were selected for hard labor and the rest were murdered. Only 150 survived the war.