The Bulletin (Brussels), Aug 24, 2000


The Bulletin. The newsweekly of the Capital of Europe

- August 24, 2000
Brigid Grauman


Rhodes, un pan de notre mmoire - Mose Rahmani
Most of Brussels' Sephardic Jews came here from Morocco or the Greek island of Rhodes. It is the story of the latter community that Mose Rahmani tells in Rhodes, un pan de notre mmoire, a homage to the birthplace his father left at 18 to settle in the Belgian Congo until that country's independence in 1960.
Once a diamond dealer, Rahmani was born in Cairo and speaks several languages including Judeo-Spanish, commonly known as Ladino. Ten years ago, he launched and still edits his labour of love, the monthly review Los Muestros which publishes news of the Sephardic community around the world in Ladino, French and English. Rahmani is a man for whom memory and the traces of the past are obsession.
When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many dispersed across the Ottoman Empire. On Rhodes, they lived relatively free of persecution, enjoying good relations with the Turks and edgier ones with the Greeks. For the first time in their history, they had the rights of fully-fledged citizens; the Ottoman Turks were tolerant of other cultures so long as they didn't demand independence. At one point, Rhodes was known as Little Jerusalem, so pious and confident was it Jewish community, which at its largest reached 5 000.
Rhamani explains its social structure, its schools, trades and traditions. He evokes the "world full of the scent of roses, cinnamon and honey," as recalled by one man he interviews, as well as its superstitions and prejudices, proverbs, folk tales and sayings. He remembers the words of his dying father, "mi veni eskarinio" which, literally, mean "I missed you" but, Ramani writes, are more like "I languish for you", and is one of many examples of the poetry of a language said to resemble 15th-century Castilian.
In 1918, after the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, Rhodes became Italian until 1944. It was a poor island, and Rahmani describes this well through his feeling for family life. In the 1920s, many young Jewish men, some only 15 or 16, emigrated to the Americas or Africa to make better lives for themselves. They left their parents behind ? and later learnt that most of the family that had stayed on the island had been killed by the Nazis.
On the eve of World, Rhodes still numbered 2000 Jews. They were deported to Auschwitz in July 1944, after the Normandy landings, and all by 200 died in the gas chambers. At the end of his book, Rahmani presents a chilling list of the names of these men, women and children. Former Austrian Chancellor Kurt Waldheim, then a young Nazi officer, took part in the organisation of their deportation. Although this book is partly a Kaddish for a paradise lost, it is also a fascinating read about a community few people holidaying in the Dodecanese are likely to be aware of.
Brigid Grauman

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