When I travel somewhere new, I usually look for novels based on that location that I can read. So I set off to Rhodes with a novel written by Patricia Wilson called Villa of Secrets uploaded on my e-reader. Looking at the cover, I was expecting a thriller or romance. Instead, I became engrossed in a rattling good read that opened up an episode from the Second World War that I was unaware of.
You can see Turkey from Rhodes Old Town, and the island is east of Crete in the Aegean Sea. After the First World War, it was assigned to Italy. The Italian governor was going to live in the beautiful headquarters of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. In fact, the fascists spent a lot of money on a rather clumsy effort to recover Byzantine mosaics from nearby archaeological sites. You can read about this on a plaque in Italian today. The mosaics are on view today and are amazing.
Mussolini fell in 1943, and the Italian army detached itself from the Nazis. The German response was swift and brutal. Italian conscripts were massacred in the Greek islands they were occupying. The book and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin immortalise these events.
For the Jewish community on Rhodes, it was a catastrophe. The Italian government had already made a list of all the Jews and put them all in one area of Rhodes Town called the Jewish quarter. After the Italian fascists made laws against Jews, about half of the population left the island for Europe and Africa during those years. Once the Nazis were in control, they set about transporting them all to the Auschwitz death camps. In July 1944, over 1800 were deported along with others from the neighbouring island of Kos. They were told to bring work permits and were tricked into thinking that they were being taken to work camps. The remaining Jewish women and children were also ordered to appear the following day with their valuables under a threat of death. They had no choice but to obey, and once entrapped, their belongings were stripped away.
The crossing from Rhodes to the mainland of Greece lasted eight days and was horrendous. Seven people died during the trip. About 150 survived Auschwitz. The future UN Secretary-General and Austrian President, Kurt Waldheim, then a young Wehrmacht Intelligence officer, was present for the collection of gold when the Rhodian Jews were interned at the Chemenlik warehouses, formerly an early Ottoman aeronautical base, and assisted in arranging logistics for their deportation.
Worse still, the houses of the Jewish deportees were stolen by some of the local Rhodes community. There have been legal attempts by a number of the Jewish families to recuperate their property. As of 2018, despite Greek laws requiring such restitution, little has changed in Rhodes, according to Wilson.
The book cleverly jumps between the events of the deportation and the resistance movement and the contemporary attempts of one Jewish family to recuperate their property. These houses are probably quite valuable today given that Rhodes town is a UNESCO Heritage site and is a hot tourist spot.
Patricia Wilson takes a true story about a young teen girl who became a hero of the Greek resistance on the mainland and moves the action to the island of Rhodes. She also looked into the details of the deportation to give a clear picture of what happened. Both the 1940s story and the modern story do a great job of showing the feminine experience. The author probably packs a little too much into the plot—too much drama—and some of the threads are just too neatly resolved to be credible at the time. But the key characters are both inspiring and credible. Overall, it is much more than its cover page promotion as some sort of escapist summer read. It is well worth picking it up, even if you are not going to Rhodes.
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