A letter to my Israel Family
Dear members of the Israel Family,
As you know, I recently traveled to Rhodos. The main purpose of my visit was to explore my roots! For many years I have wanted to find out more about my father’s history but somehow the time was never quite right. Now, finally, at the grand old age of 57, I decided the time was right!
My personal family history is emotionally complex for me and I will not burden you all with that here (do I hear a sigh of relief out there?). However, I did want to write and share with you some of what I experienced in my journey into our family’s history. For me there were three major surprises. Probably they are not surprises for some of you because I feel sure that you heard more about our family’s history growing up than I did.
The first surprise was that our family – Israel – lived on the Island of Rhodes for at least 200 years right up until July 19, 1944.
Second, while I was always told that my grandfather Hizkiyah Moise David Israel was a Chief Rabbi on Rhodes, I was not aware that he came from a long line of Rabbis from our family. In fact, probably the first one was in 1715. In addition to that, at least five of them had a major impact on the Jewish community on Rhodes throughout those two hundred years. Our family was described, in the little museum of the only standing synagogue dating back from the 1500’s, as "prominent."
The third surprise and shock was that on July 19, 1944 the Nazis rounded up all the Jewish families of Rhodes and delivered them to Auschwitz, thus wiping out the entire Jewish community. Many of our family, Israel were exterminated at that time. Over 1600 people were killed.
The old Jewish Quarter which our family called "La Juderia" has old winding cobbled streets almost exactly as it must have been in the days my father was born and lived there. There is even the very gate that our forefathers called "La Puerta De La Mar" through which they would all go to the nearby beach for a swim! The ancient synagogue still has at least four of its columns dating back to the 1500’s. At the entrance to the synagogue is a plaque inscribed with all the family names of people who were killed in 1944. "Israel" is one of those names. I placed one of the beautiful cobblestones by the plaque in memory of our fathers’ fathers. The cobblestones are, in fact, beach pebbles which are used (and have been for hundreds of years) all over Rhodos for streets and mosaic floors of homes. Indeed, the black and white pebbles create beautiful mosaics, and, even water drainage systems, all these hundreds of years. I collected a few of those stones from the Jewish Quarter where I imagined my father walked and played as a young child.
One of the rooms of the synagogue has been turned into a museum with pictures and photographs. Many of the photographs have pictures of our Israel family members. I will scan the photograph I have of my grandfather and send it to the people who are organizing this exhibit. I do wish I knew the dates of his life. I only know that my father was born in 1894. I have no information about when our own Rabbi Hizkiyah Moise was born or died. There were two great rabbis called Moshe Israel before "our" Moise. One of them is buried in the cemetery just outside the old city where I went to visit.
Many families have returned to visit the synagogue and some have dedicated a memorial plaque to their family’s memory. Some of the names will be familiar to you, I am sure. You can see the photographs I took HERE, and you might get an indication of the names of all the different Sephardic families from the plaque I mentioned above – HERE (please forgive my weird facial expression – I was crying!).
In fact, from the moment I entered La Juderia and especially the synagogue I was unable to stop weeping for the next four days. It was amazing. I sensed the presence of heritage, family, roots all around me as I sought out my father’s story in the stones, the walls and narrow cobbled streets. Probably coming from a poor family but very dignified and well connected, perhaps my father always felt a stranger in a foreign land after leaving his homeland. In some way he was unable to share his story with me – probably thought I wasn’t interested or that he wasn’t important enough – who knows why. After reading "The Jews of Rhodes" when I returned, I realized that the Jewish Community was probably always fearful of terrible discrimination under Turkish and Italian rule, which perhaps explained to me my father’s retiring, careful attitude.
I was deeply moved by my visit to Rhodes. I felt connected to Ezekiel in an intensely emotional way and so much more understanding of what he might have gone through in his life. I "talked" to him in my mind, the whole time, telling him where I was walking and what I was seeing and feeling. I missed him so much. At the same time, I felt included, probably for the first time in my life, in a wonderful old, traditional, heritage with roots as deep as those of the largest, most ancient olive trees.
Of course what I would dearly love is if we could all pool in some funds to dedicate a plaque to our family Israel and then all meet up there for a family reunion of some kind. Even as I write this I know that not all of you feel anything like I do about this. Each of us have had such different life experiences within our family. But I want to share my dreams with you.
I reach out to all of you in the hopes that we might keep some kind of contact – for friendship and family – but also because we have such an amazingly rich and wonderful heritage and this could be one way to honor it – by keeping connected.
Mostly, I am too moved emotionally, to be able to put into words the extent of my feelings. Maybe one day in the future I will elaborate even more.
I share this with you with great pride and love.