The largest of a series of three earthquakes hit the island of Rhodes on this date in 1481. Thirty thousand people died, and the Jewish quarter of the city of Rhodes was destroyed. The Jewish community there dated back to the Hellenistic period, perhaps earlier. Herod had been shipwrecked at Rhodes on his way to Rome in 40 BCE; he later met there with Octavian, the victor in Rome’s civil war, who reconfirmed Herod as king of Judea. Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th-century traveler and diarist, found four hundred Jews in the city of Rhodes, but after the earthquakes struck, most Jewish survivors left the island, leaving a remnant of only some twenty families. They were then expelled after being blamed for a plague at the end of the century — but two decades later, more than 2,000 Jews who had been enslaved by the Ottomans were shipped to the island. It eventually became a key center of Sephardic culture, home to many refugees from the expulsions in Spain and Portugal and their descendants. By the 19th century, the Jewish population had expanded to more than 4,000, but half of them fled when fascist Italy, by then in control of Rhodes, promulgated its race laws — and the Nazis then deported 1,820 Jews from Rhodes to Auschwitz.
“The settlement of Jews in Rhodes is mentioned for the first time in the Book of Maccabees and it dates back to the 2nd century B.C. Proof of the Jewish presence in Rhodes has remained immutable for many centuries. The narrow, arched, paved medieval alleys of the ‘Juderia’ (Jewish) quarter bear until today Jewish symbols. The historian Josephus also mentions the Jews of the island in the 1st century A.D.” —Jewish Community of Rhodes