The Museum of Jewish
The Museum of Jewish Heritage and Centro Primo Levi in collaboration with CDEC and the Shoah Museum of Rome present:
THE LONGEST JOURNEY. THE LAST DAYS OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF RHODES (2013) a film by Ruggero Gabbai, historical research by Liliana Picciotto and Marcello Pezzetti. Centro Primo Levi thanks the Consulate General of the Republic of Germany and Lufthansa for their support.
On July 23, 1944, the Nazis deported almost the entire Jewish population of the island of Rhodes, while the Italian authorities that had been in charge of the Island from 1912 until the Armistice of September 8, 1943, stood by. It was late in the war, and German capitulation seemed imminent, yet the Nazi commanders did not hesitate to inflict the longest journey their criminal machine had ever planned, on this small, vibrant community nestled in this faraway island. The journey took 24 days under harrowing conditions, an atrocious transition from the Mediterranean sun to the grey hell of Auschwitz.
The Longest Journey weaves together testimonies of some of the few Jews to have survived Auschwitz, focusing on Stella Levi, Sami Modiano and Albert Israel. The survivors, along with the film crew, returned to Rhodes from their respective lives in New York, Rome and Brussels. Each one with a powerful cinematic presence, the three recount memories of family and communal life, interactions with the local Greeks, Turks and Italians, cultural transitions, as well as the tragic last days of their community. The film provides a kaleidoscopic view of Jewish life in Rhodes under Italian dominion before the War. Through the lens of these narrators, their early lives in Rhodes unfold as a sort of paradise lost.
After the war, as Rhodes was retroceded to Greece, the Jews who survived did not return to the island. Leading the viewers on a stroll through the narrow streets of Rhodes, the former Juderia, the film documents the annihilation of a community whose cultural and mercantile vibrancy was once a key element of the multicultural social fabric of the island.
The island of Rhodes had been an important Mediterranean center of Jewish life since the second century B.C.E. After the expulsion from Spain, the influx of Spanish Jews gave the community its distinguishing character until the early 20th century. Later, this millenarian heritage seamlessly incorporated the modern culture and ideas first introduced by the Alliance Israelite Universelle and later by the Italians, who occupied Rhodes in 1912. By 1930 the schools, the Rabbinical College and cultural life were predominantly Italian and local Jews embraced the new opportunities of exchange. Their tapestry of languages included Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Turkish, Hebrew, Greek, French and Italian, and identified them in the eyes of the Italians as important cultural and economic mediators.
In 1938, the Italian Racial Laws stripped the Jews of Rhodes of their civil rights and their livelihood. They were expelled from schools, removed from their jobs and deprived of their assets and businesses. The families sent away many of the boys and young men, fearing that they would be the most likely target of Fascist violence. Amidst the indifference and compliance of the Italian authorities, three high school professors, of antifascist leanings, held unofficial classes for Jewish boys and girls.
In the fall of 1943, in spite of a much greater military force, after a brief resistance, the Italian governor surrendered to the Germans. Many of the soldiers were deported to German labor camps. With the Germans in military control of the island, the Italian civilian authorities took the oath to Mussolini and remained in their positions. They continue to protect Italian interests as well as the Italians who had not fled.
The Jewish community, by and large impoverished unaware of what was happening to the Jews in Europe and even in Greece, witnessed the events following the armistice in complete isolation. Even though they were all Italian citizens, they were left out of the communication network that might have helped them make informed decisions.
On July 19, 1944, 1,800 Jews, including the elderly and children, were summoned to the Air Force headquarters. Four days later they were loaded on 3 boats and transported to Athens. They arrived in Auschwitz on August 16.
Only 42 Jews remained in Rhodes. Selahattin Ulkumen, the Turkish Consul offered them his protection and was able to negotiated their freedom with the Germans because they either had Turkish passports or were married to Turkish citizens.
Post-war memoirs by the Italian vice-governor and prefect, raise questions as to the dynamics by which the Jews of Rhodes, who were Italian citizens, were cut off the of information and protection network organized by the Italians who had remained on the island. Neither civilian nor Church authorities made contact with the leaders of the community. Prefect Macchi stated that his goal was to protect the Italians on the island. However, no protection was granted to the Jews, not even a warning. Jewish leaders and community members speculated over possible new discrimination measures or forced labor. They could not fathom what expected them. The only action taken by the Italian governor, few days before the mass arrest, pertained to the last step of the confiscation of Jewish assets that had begun in 1938. By then, the Mediterranean basin was already largely in Allies hands. The Germans left the island few weeks after the deportation and the Allies maintained in their position the Italian officers who, according to their depositions, had made contact with them several months earlier.
Today little remains of the culture and history of the Jews of Rhodes; this film constitutes a precious contribution in tracing the continuity from that lost world to ours.
About the film maker
Italian film maker Ruggero Gabbai has worked extensively on issues of memory and memorialization. He obtained his degree from Columbia University in 1993 and worked with Milos Forman, Paul Schrader, Emir Kustarica and Martin Scorsese.
His first documentary, “The King of Crown Heights,” was broadcasted on PBS. In 1990 Gabbai directed “Memoria,” a documentary featuring Italian survivors produced by the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan with historians Liliana Picciotto and Marcello Pezzetti. In 1997 “Memoria” was selected by the Berlin Film Festival.
Gabbai has directed more than 25 documentaries. These include “Io Ricordo” (2008-2009), documenting the experience of the victims of Mafia, “Sarajevo, i figli d’Abramo” (2002), “Cici daci dom, noi zingari d’italia” (1998) and “U Zen” on the destitute Zen district of Palermo.