Life & Culture

Our journeys to reclaim the past


When Nicci and Neal Menashe started planning their daughter Raquel's batmitzvah, there was only one possible destination. The South African couple, who live in London, knew that the weekend of celebrations, in honour of their eldest child, had to take place in the island of Rhodes, Greece - home to Raquel's great-grandmother Rachel, and her ancestors. The family had lived there peacefully for 450 years before abruptly fleeing in 1939, never to return.

But what started off as a weekend of celebrations, turned into the realisation that re-affirming the past in a city that had been decimated by the Nazis, could not be a one-off event, done only in honour of a celebration. Instead, it confirmed a plan to do it again and again for a weekend - to resurrect other Nazi-invaded cities and experience life as it was once for the Jews, before their vibrant communities were wiped out.

The Rhodes batmitzvah gave guests an authentic feeling of how life back then really was. Raquel's great-grandmother, Rachel Amato, was born in Rhodes in 1907. One of seven children, she grew up in the Jewish quarter of the medieval old city.

A brilliant, creative student, she recited poetry, played the violin, and spoke seven languages. When she married Papu Netanel in 1934 he built her a beautiful home on the island's Mount Smith, a stone's throw away from the Rhodes Acropolis. In this idyllic setting, surrounded by olive trees and overlooking the sea, she raised her son. The island was by then an Italian colony, ruled by Mussolini, who enforced Hitler's anti-Jewish laws. The family were warned to escape quickly, and fled in 1939, along with 2,000 other Jews. Rachel and her family eventually settled in South Africa.

But many of the other Jews, including Papu's brother and children, did not leave. In 1943, the Germans occupied the city and the following July the Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Only 151 Rhodes Jews survived.

The Menashes invited friends from all over the world - including their rabbi from Hampstead's Village Shul, Yisroel Weisz - for a celebration themed on the earlier, happier lives of the Jews of Rhodes.

Much of the spiritual celebration, including the Shabbat service, took place inside Greece's oldest surviving synagogue, the Sephardi Kahal Shalom, built in 1577.

"It was as if time had stood still," said Nicci. "The beautiful old synagogue, the cobbled streets, the family home - they were all the same, as when Rachel lived there. So it was a voyage back in time, re-living the community's history, eating their food and celebrating as they did. Remembering the story of great-grandmother Rachel, through a journey in place and time, was really the best way of honouring her life and of passing on her legacy to future generations."

For Raquel, the story will stay in her heart forever. "My commitment is to promise to retell my stories to my future generations so that they will never be forgotten."

But while the weekend was full of rejoicing, the guests could never forget the dark, tragic modern Jewish history. For in the same street as the synagogue, in the "Square of the Martyred Jews," stood the monument emblazoned with the words "Never Forget". On each side of the six-sided, black granite column, was written in another language, "In Eternal Memory of the 1,604 Jewish Martyrs of Rhodes and Cos who were murdered in Nazi death camps. July 23 1944."

Said Nicci: "For those Jews of Rhodes who were rounded up and murdered, there was destruction, but for us it was a weekend of resurrection." The journey into the past not only connected the family with their ancestors, but struck a chord with many of the guests. "Suddenly", said Nicci, "there was this thought - what about doing this again in another city? By coming back, even for just a weekend, we can come close to experiencing life as the Jews did before the war. It's the best way to honour their memories." Since her return from Greece, she has formed a committee for the new organisation, called Present in the Past.

"Unfortunately, because of what the Nazis did across Europe, we have plenty of choice of destinations," she said. "I am currently looking at planning trips to Amsterdam, Krakow, Morocco and Zamosc."

The first weekend is anticipated to take place in Amsterdam in May next year. Like Rhodes, Amsterdam had also attracted many Jews who had been persecuted in Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. The Jewish name for Amsterdam is Mokum, which in Hebrew means "place" and in Yiddish refers to a "safe place". Jews settled there, enjoying a religious tolerance in the Dutch Republic that was unheard of in the rest of Europe.

But with the Nazi invasion came the destruction of this vibrant Jewish community. Five out of seven Dutch Jews were murdered. Today, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is housed in the former theatre that had been used to deport the Dutch Jews. On its wall are inscribed the 6,700 family names of the 104,000 murdered Dutch Jews.

The magnificent Sephardi Portuguese Synagogue, modelled on Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, was the biggest synagogue in the world when it was built in 1675. Unscathed during the War, the splendid construction has become an even more vital link to Jewish and Dutch history - 340 years since it was built, it remains magnificent and regal, a legacy of Amsterdam's once active and vibrant Jewish community.

This choice of city resonates profoundly with my own family story. Having written Two Prayers Before Bedtime - a semi-fictionalised novel about my mother being hidden by a Christian couple, Aad and Fie Versnel, in Amsterdam as a baby - I look forward to meeting up and honouring their family. My book has been translated into Dutch by one of the grandsons and my family is working on getting my mother's rescuers recognised as Righteous Gentiles in Yad Vashem, as soon as possible. For me, too, this is really about being present in the past.

Rabbi Weisz of The Village Shul is very excited about the planned trips. As he said in Rhodes: "For this Shabbat, for this weekend, we are resurrecting the city. We have come back and have responded to the decimation with rebirth."

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