I entered the ancient synagogue wearing my Indiana Jones hat that was accepted as sufficient head covering, even if it didn't look like the traditional yarmulke, or Jewish skull cap. When I spoke to the elderly man in Spanish, he embraced me and asked if I would do him a great service. The type of Spanish he spoke was called ancient "Ladino" and it was not difficult at all for me to understand him. There were two Jewish American couples that he was about to meet with and since he did not speak English well he wanted to know if I would translate his Spanish into English. When I said yes, he considered my presence as an answer to his prayers.
A brief history lesson is necessary to appreciate the story of this man, Shemuel Modiano. A Jew from Spain was called a Sephardic Jew because in Hebrew "Sepharad" means Spaniard. During the Spanish Inquisition in Spain, hundreds of Sephardic Jews fled in 1577 A.D. to the Island of Roses, or Rhodes. It was a safe place for the Jews and had been since the Jews escaped from the rage of the Roman Empire in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Josephus mentioned that the Jews of Rhodes were there in the first century. There was a time during the 1920s when one out of every three inhabitants of Rhodes was of Jewish descent. Here they built six synagogues and flourished as jewelers, fishermen, farmers, and bankers.
In July of 1944 the German soldiers swarmed over the island of Rhodes and 1,500 Jews were sent to Birkenau and Auschwitz for extermination. There were another 1,500 Jews who fled to Argentina where they could continue to speak Ladino. Among those who were carried away to Birkenau was a thirteen-year-old Shemuel Modiano who was planning his bar mitzvah the very week of his imprisonment. It requires a community of ten men to open and read from the sacred scrolls of the Law of Moses. The bar mitzvah introduces a young man into that community. Shemuel Modiano was not only denied this right of passage, he also was denied 119 members of his own family that perished in the ovens of Birkenau. He was one of a 151 holocaust survivors from the 1,500 that were carried away by the Nazis. Only thirty Jewish survivors of the 151 returned to Rhodes. On May 11, 2005, when I translated for Shemuel Modiano, there were only ten Jews in all of Rhodes. But there were not ten men. This meant that the surviving scroll of the Law of Moses could not be opened.
On June 23, 2002, Rhodesians from all over the world gathered at the square to commemorate the unveiling of a six-sided column Holocaust memorial translated into six languages and spoken by the people of Rhodes. The inscription reads: "Never Forget. In memory of the 1,604 Jews of Rhodes and Kos murdered in the Nazi camps July 23, 1944."
Shemuel told me that among this group of adult Jewish males were descendants of those who fled to Argentina in 1944. They came especially to find Shemuel and to hold his delayed bar mitzvah when he was seventy-two years old. The young man who been denied the right of passage at thirteen was finally accepted into the community of adults.
There was a lump in my throat as he lifted up his left arm and I saw the tattoo B 7456, the mark of a holocaust survivor. If that weren't enough, tears streamed down my cheeks as I translated these words for Shemuel: "For the first time in my life I was able to carry the sacred scroll that my father carried at his bar mitzvah, and that my grandfather carried at his bar mitzvah, and that my great, great, great grandfather carried back in 1577 A.D.(C.E)."
Shemuel's face told a story, and my life is richer for having traveled abroad.
John L. Lund has taught as adjunct faculty at major universities throughout Washington, Idaho, California and Utah. He is a consultant to both the business world and the private sector as a family counselor. He currently travels with Fun For Less Tours as an educator. Find out more about these tours.