The Lost World of Rhodes by Nathan Shachar book review

Mike Guilfoyle

Image © Mstyslav Chernov

I was immediately drawn towards Nathan Shachar’s evocative and moving book on the formative historic influences that have he notes contributed so much to the diverse and richly textured socio -cultural inheritance of the Greek Island of Rhodes, the largest of the twelve Dodecanese islands situated near to South-Eastern Turkey (remarkably it only became a part of Greece in 1948!).  An Island that has been so memorably shaped and contoured by the confluence of epochal storied events ably detailed in this deeply humane and insightful narrative.  A place that has witnessed the upheavals of wars, sieges, emigration and multiple occupations over many centuries, as well as being the meeting place between the three great monotheistic faiths. Having half-read Lawrence Durrell’s book on Rhodes (Reflections on a Marine Venus) and visited the Island some years ago as a casual tourist, I vividly recall a visceral sense of looking upon a ‘ lost world’, when visiting the Jewish Quarter-once populated by a vibrant Jewish community in Rhodes town, strangely apart from the vibrant hub of Mediterranean bustle so close by, best epitomized perhaps by the small flotilla of excursion boats coming in and out of Mandraki Harbour , when standing inside the only synagogue on the Island.

The uprooted remnants of this lost world situated in the oldest part of Rhodes town , surrounded by the medieval fortress, formerly known as the La Juderia,  (affectionately tagged ‘ Little Jerusalem by its inhabitants) which since the seminal year of 1492 when an edict resulted in the mass expulsions from Spain after the Reconquista, was the center of Sephardic -Spanish-speaking Jews on the island (Ladino becoming the distinctive Judeo-Spanish tongue) a resilient community that was virtually annihilated in 1944 in the Holocaust after being deported and transported on a harrowing 24 days journey to the death camp of Auschwitz.

Shachar who in apposite fashion avers in his introduction to the book that he followed the classical dictum, Hic Rhodus, hic salta  (Here is Rhodes, jump here) thus sparking his incipient journalistic curiosity and latterly a well honed scholarly interest in Rhodian history’.  Certainly this reader found his accomplished style of well sourced and lively biographical and historical analysis refreshingly accessible, the text is certainly enlivened by many contemporary first person accounts and memorably related testimonies, including those of the very few survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom owed their lives to the remarkable courage of Selahattin Ulkumen, Turkish Consul in Rhodes during the Second World War.

The strategic importance of the island to the Allies and the Germans precipitated a brief but bloody interlude before the critical Allied loss of Rhodes after the Italian surrender in September 1943. The Island having been occupied then annexed by Italy from Ottoman Turkey in 1912, the Ottomans having themselves taken Rhodes and secured their Levantine dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean in 1522 from the Order of the Knights Hospitaliers of St John of Jerusalem, following a famous and costly medieval siege, in the aftermath of earlier irredentist ambitions’ the reclamation of an ancient family heirloom’ and then incorporated into the madre patria of Mussolini’s fascist expansionism, the imposition of such misrule being most powerfully evident during the period when the mercurial and vainglorious Italian governor of Rhodes Cesare de Vecchi held sway. Although he helped to put into place a substantial part of the extant tourist infrastructure, arguably the most lasting Italian contribution to the development of the local economy. His divisive tutelage,  a ‘ fascist buffoon’ until 1941 also witnessed the transforming impact of a feverish rush to modernization or Italianisation (Rhodes becoming Rodi) and this episode is told with verve and is well covered in Chapter Ten of the book.

De Vecchi  was then replaced by Admiral Campioni , the last Italian governor of Rhodes who was executed by firing squad in 1944 by Mussolini’s henchman for treason(for resisting the German takeover of Rhodes).  The author skillfully delineates the shifting and labile ancestral patterns of inter-ethnic community relations, often infused by tensions between the Rhodian Sephardim and their Greek neighbours, whose coexistence was to become more unsettled at times by waves of nationalist insurrectionary fervor and pan -Hellenic outbursts, particularly after the disastrous ending of the Greco -Turkish War in 1922 with the destruction of Smyrna( Izmir today). Which precipitated a mass exodus to and from Asia Minor of displaced populations of refugees, the shifting ethnographic balance of the Island, new forms of historic memory  and the lingering perceptions of injustice arising from being identified as too loyal either to the Ottoman Sultan or the Italians from 1912. The various manifestations of this liminal hostility as well as the kaleidoscopic variety of Jewish life, is poignantly captured in the haunting aftermath of soon to be plundered Jewish properties and the authors acute observations viewing the neglected memorial unveiled in the old Juderia in 2002 to the 1604 Rhodian (and those from the nearby Island of Cos) Sephardim Jews murdered by the Nazis. This Holocaust past was strangely omitted from Durrell’s part -biographical musings, a year on from the deportations when he was a part of the interim British administration after the Allied conquest of Rhodes!

The author manages I believe to deftly tell the story of this bustling Greek Island, within the framework of a wider historical narrative, a remarkable history of religious and cultural co-existence that has been disturbed and unsettled by forced resettlements, deportations and genocide, but also a story marinated with many of Island’s idiomatic characteristics, disparate cultures and religions. Empathically written, the narrative flow can at times feel somewhat uneven, and whilst the book is not quite on the magisterially erudite canvass of Mark Mazower’s  wonderful portrait of Salonika, that might appear a small cavil set against what remained for me as a memorable, evocative, richly sourced and gripping book.

Published by Sussex Academic Press 2013 Brighton ISBN 1845194551 £19.95

Mike Guilfoyle – Former Probation Officer and Associate Member of Napo.

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