The author’s Sephardic ancestors on Rhodes: her great-great-grandfather Samuel Leon (seated center) with wife Rebecca Alhadeff (right) and cousin Vida Bonomo (left). Courtesy of the private collection of Vivienne Capelouto.
As a child in central Virginia, I already had a built-in sense of my parents being from elsewhere: they had grown up in Zimbabwe, in a bustling community of Jews who had immigrated from various places to find refuge and rebuild their lives in the British-run African colonies in the early 20th century. I knew well the narrative of my father’s family. They were Lithuanian Jews (known as Litvaks) who had lived in a shtetl called Pumpian (Pumpėnai), and they were among several thousand Yiddish-speaking Litvaks who ended up in Southern Africa.
The culture of Ashkenaz was the one that predominated at home, both linguistically and culinarily, when I was young. My grandparents sprinkled their conversations with Yiddish, and we celebrated Shabbat and holidays with typical Ashkenazi foods: chopped liver, herring, kichel, kneidlach.
Yet somewhere within me there was an awareness that my mother’s side of the family had a different story and an alternate set of Jewish cultural accoutrements. Once in a while, her distinct lineage surfaced. She had a way with phyllo dough and could make out-of-this-world spinach pies. There was also a small kiddush cup that sat above our dining room sideboard, engraved with her name as winner of the 1963 junior trophy from the “Sephardic B. and C. Youth Society.” She had antique evil-eye jewelry, and a set of superstitions that made my siblings and me giggle (but which we also followed, just in case).
And then there was the shoebox, which was kept on an upper shelf in my mother’s closet. It held a trove of family memorabilia—postcards, passports, documents, books, and photos. I must have been in college when I first started seriously scrutinizing the box’s contents, and it fired up my imagination. I was entranced by the black-and-white testaments to other people’s lives lived in distant landscapes. My great-grandmother Estrella perched on a horse in a dusty African yard, a twin daughter on either side. The same twins years later, now glamorous-looking young women with delicate features and dark wavy hair, feeding pigeons in London.
I peered at postcards with smudged ink, scribbled in a strange-looking script that I now know is Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language that my great-grandmother, her Turkish husband, and their families spoke in their communities. I flipped through Estrella’s notebook of French exercises, covered with childishly looping handwriting, a relic of her girlhood that somehow survived intact. I studied her Italian passport—Italy wrested control of Rhodes from the Ottomans in 1912 and ruled it as a colony until the end of World War II—imagining what kind of journeys she would have taken from her island home in the 1910s and 1920s.
However, the item that changed everything about how I viewed my family’s past, and that spurred my quest to know more, was a one-page typed memo in Italian on stationary of the Jewish community of Rhodes, bearing official seals and signatures of Italian and Jewish officials. This is the document attesting to my great-great-grandmother Rebecca’s deportation from Rhodes. On July 23rd, 1944, 70 years ago this summer, she was one of nearly 1800 Jews from Rhodes and the island of Kos who were herded onto boats and eventually taken to Auschwitz.
Only about 150 Jews from Rhodes survived—a cataclysmic devastation of one of the world’s historic Sephardic communities. My great-great-grandmother Rebecca (also known as Rivka) was among the group that perished, selected on the first day she arrived at the concentration camp.
With this discovery, my family history intersected with the history of the Holocaust in a way that was painfully concrete. My childhood and young adulthood exposure to the Shoah was probably rather typical: I read books like Anne Frank’s diary and The Devil’s Arithmetic, saw “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful,” visited Yad Vashem on family trips to Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum when it opened in Washington, DC. I participated in community and youth group Holocaust commemorations.
Yet when I looked at Rebecca’s deportation document, an official verification that the worst imaginable fate had happened to someone in my own family, someone whose picture was in my mother’s shoebox, all of the collective Holocaust narratives that I had acquired up until that point felt somehow more distant rather than closer to me. I felt a gap opening up in my heretofore-solid sense of Jewish identity, and an immediate, insatiable craving to know more about Rebecca’s life.
In that moment was born my desire to piece together as much of my Sephardic family’s story as possible, using any fragments and faded images that I could find, and talking to anyone who would release to me their valuable memories of the past. That desire led me in May 2006 to the house on Kisthiniou Street, the house where Rebecca raised her eight children, the house to which her husband Samuel the winemaker would arrive at the end of the day, arms scratched because he had fallen asleep on his donkey and run into some brambles along the way.
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