Murder

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America.

 

That was the dream of so many poor Jews in the

old Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th

century. America was hope, a chance for a better

life, a way out of poverty and squalor, a bastion of

freedom.

 

America.

 

Enthusiasm for the new “promised land” spread

from heart to heart. Thousands of hopeful souls

uprooted themselves from the old world and set sail

for the new.

 

Among them, in 1908, were Bohor Yehuda Angel

and his eldest son Moshe. They left the Island of

Rhodes and made the long, arduous trip to Seattle,

Washington, where a small community of Rhodes

Jews had already settled.

 

Bohor Yehuda was a sturdy, pious man. He left his

six young children in Rhodes with his wife Bulissa

Esther. He and Moshe planned to work hard, earn

money, and bring the entire family to Seattle as soon

as possible.

 

Bohor Yehuda opened a shoe-shine stand in

downtown Seattle. Moshe worked at various odd

jobs. They lived simply and with great self-sacrifice.

They regularly sent money to their family in Rhodes

to sustain them until they could save enough to

bring them all to Seattle. It took them three years

of toil and scrimping before they finally raised the

necessary funds.

 

Bulissa Esther received the news with ineffable joy.

The past three years had been difficult. Separation

from a husband so many thousands of miles away in

a strange land was not easy. Caring for six children

in the absence of their father was a huge challenge.

Although she was blessed with great wisdom and

patience, Bulissa Esther was taxed to the limit of

her abilities. At last, she could now arrange to travel

with her children to America and the family could

once again be united.

 

Bulissa Esther and her six children set sail in the

summer of 1911. They traveled steerage, but no one

complained. They were on their way to the freedom,

happiness, and the promise of America. They were

on their way to family reunion.

 

When they arrived in New York harbor, they looked

forward to stepping onto American soil. They would

soon take a train cross-country to Seattle. All would

be well.

 

As they exited the ship, all passengers were brought

to the immigration office. American officials checked

their names, their places of origin, their ultimate

destinations in the United States. They asked many

questions, although most of the immigrants did not

know English and could not understand what was

being asked of them. Somehow, though, most of

the passengers answered well enough and received

papers admitting them into the United States.

When the turn of Bulissa Esther and her six children

came, she stood before the examining officers with

trembling anticipation. She told the officials that

they were on their way to Seattle to reunite with her

husband and eldest son.

 

One of the officials, following standard immigration

procedures, checked the family members to

determine if they had any obvious diseases or health

issues that would prohibit their entry into the

United States. Bulissa Esther and five of her children

were deemed to be healthy. Her nine-year-old son,

Joseph, was found to have a scalp disease, tinias.

This was not a serious health problem in itself; but

the immigration official ruled that Joseph could not

be admitted into the country due to his disease.

Bulissa Esther’s heart jumped a beat when she was

made to understand that Joseph could not enter the

United States. She broke down crying. She pleaded

with the officials. He is just a little boy, we will get

medicine for his tinias, please let him in, what am I

to do if you do not admit him? We’ve waited three

years for my husband and son to raise the funds to

bring us here! We can’t go back to Rhodes again!

 

No, said the official, you don’t have to go back to

Rhodes. You and five of your children can continue

your trip to Seattle. But Joseph can’t be admitted

into the United States.

 

Please, have mercy on a mother and her children.

Have mercy on a nine year old boy. How can we

separate him from the rest of us? How will he go

back to Rhodes alone? Who will care for him there?

 

That is not our problem, said the official. Joseph

cannot be admitted. You need to decide what to do

now.

 

America.

 

The promised land. A land with laws, but without

mercy. A land that would turn a young boy away,

that would break the hearts of a good, honest family.

Bulissa Esther was beside herself with grief. She

could not bring her family back to Rhodes. But

neither could she abandon little Joseph.

As it happened, a Jewish man from Rhodes, who

had been on the same ship as Bulissa Esther, was also

denied entry into the United States due to a health

problem. He had no choice but to return to Rhodes.

When he heard Bulissa Esther crying, he came over

to her and learned of the problem with Joseph. He

volunteered to bring Joseph back to Rhodes with

him, to settle him in with a family of relatives until

such time as Bohor Yehuda could raise enough

money to pay passage for Joseph to join the family

in Seattle.

 

Bulissa Esther had no other realistic option. She

thanked the man profusely for agreeing to look

after Joseph. So she kissed her beloved son and said

goodbye. All the brothers and sisters hugged Joseph

and promised that they would see him again soon.

Bulissa Esther and five of her children traveled on

to Seattle, reunited with Bohor Yehuda and Moshe,

and gradually adapted to their new lives in America.

Joseph was brought to the home of relatives in

Rhodes. Bulissa Esther prayed for the day when

Joseph could be brought together with the rest of

the family in Seattle.

 

That day never came.

 

Bohor Yehuda could scarcely earn enough to

support his large family in Seattle, let alone to save

money to buy passage for Joseph. Meanwhile, world

events were impacting on life in Rhodes, making

Joseph’s travel to the United States increasingly

unlikely.

 

War broke out between Italy and Turkey, with

Italian forces occupying the Island of Rhodes in

May 1912. After nearly four centuries of Turkish

dominion, Rhodes was now under Italian control.

Italy was officially granted Rhodes in July 1923 under

the Treaty of Lausanne. The Jews of Rhodes, along

with the other residents of the island, soon began to

speak Italian, to think Italian, to be Italian subjects.

Economic life in Rhodes blossomed. Little Joseph

grew up at a time of growing optimism among the

Jews of Rhodes.

 

He couldn’t easily travel to America during the

Turco-Italian War years. Then World War I broke

out in July 1914, making travel across the Atlantic

Ocean dangerous if not impossible. By the time the

war ended in November 1918, Joseph was a young

man, already comfortable in his life in Italian-ruled

Rhodes. In due course, he was married to a lovely wife,

Sinyorou; and they went on to have four children—

two boys and two girls. Life was moving along well.

They could see no reason to move to America; and

in any case, American quota laws of 1921 and 1924

dramatically limited the number of immigrants

eligible to enter the United States. Joseph had been

turned away from America once; he had no desire to

face American immigration officials a second time.

But conditions in Rhodes were to change radically.

In June 1936, Italy aligned itself with Nazi Germany.

Jews living in Italian territories—like Jews living in

Germany—became victims of a horrific policy of anti-

Semitism.

 

The Jews of Rhodes were thunderstruck

by the dramatic undermining of their lives and

their livelihoods. The Rabbinical College of Rhodes

was forced to close. Jews in Rhodes were required

to keep their stores open on the Jewish Sabbath

and festivals. In September 1938, anti-Jewish laws

went into effect in Rhodes that prohibited kosher

slaughter of animals. Jews were no longer allowed

to buy property, employ non-Jewish servants, send

their children to government schools. Non-Jews

were forbidden from patronizing Jewish doctors or

pharmacists. Jews who had settled in Rhodes after

January 1919 were expelled from the Island. (They

were the fortunate ones!)

 

For a short period in the early 1940s, there was

a slight easing of the anti-Jewish measures. Yet,

conditions were dire. Aside from dealing with their

loss of civil status and human dignity, they had to

deal with the ongoing hardships of living in a war

zone. British planes dropped bombs on Rhodes in

their effort to defeat the Axis powers, and dozens of

Jews were among those killed in these attacks.

 

When Mussolini was removed from power in July

1943, the Jews of Rhodes thought their troubles

were over. But contrary to their expectations, the

Germans occupied Rhodes. The situation of the

Jews worsened precipitously. In July 1944, the Jews

of Rhodes had all their valuables confiscated by

the Germans. They were then crowded into three

small freight ships. Of the nearly 1,700 Rhodes Jews

deported by the Nazis, only 151 survived. Almost

all the Jews of Rhodes were viciously murdered in

Auschwitz.

 

Among those who suffered this cruel and inhuman

death were the entire family of Joseph Angel.

 

Little did the American immigration official realize

in 1911, that by turning away a little boy with a scalp

infection, he was condemning that boy and family

to a calamitous destruction. That official no doubt

slept peacefully the night he sent Joseph back to

Rhodes, separating the young son from his mother

and siblings. The official was following the rules.

 

If that official was still alive in July 1944, he probably

slept the sleep of the innocent, not realizing that

his actions led to the death of an entire family. His

dreams were not haunted by nightmares of the

ghosts of Joseph’s family.