Born on the island of Rhodes in 1932, Regina (Barkey) Amira was one of about 4,000 Sephardic Jews who lived in the Jewish quarter, La Juderia, on the idyllic Aegean island. At that time, Adolf Hitler was starting his rise to power, which would have a profound impact on Regina’s large family and eventually bring an end to Jewish life in Rhodes. Regina and her family left Rhodes for Tangier, Morocco, in 1939, and lived as refugees for seven years before coming to the United States. Regina, now 84, lives with her husband, Victor, in Bellevue. She is one of only two remaining Rhodes natives in Washington state.
Jewish in Seattle: Describe Rhodes to us, from when you were a child.
Regina Amira: Rhodes was a happy place, a very calm place, a very secure place, because most people knew one another. It was a beautiful place. I never went all around the island. We went to the port, we went by the molinos , we went along the water, the mandraki , where the boats were. I remember the holidays. We usually had people at our house or we would go to my Aunt Behora. We didn’t have cars, so there was a horse and buggy to different places, especially to the lemon orchard. They had special lemons that were very large, like an orange. I remember the smell of the orange flowers. I remember going on picnics and seeing people we knew all around us.
What was it like to be a woman in Rhodes?
The women worked hard, looking after the children while the men went to work. The women washed by hand. They cooked on a little portable coal stove. On Fridays my mother would put a big sheet or blanket and put clean clothes in it and towels and we would go to the public bath. The women were on one side of the public bath and the men on the other. There was another level around the hot baths, and women would bring refreshments and sit there and talk and eshar lashon, and that was entertainment, and they visited with other women there. Sometimes they would sing. Also I remember going to the public oven. We didn’t have stoves at home, so my mother would make roskas and things like that and take it to the public oven and bake it there. You go by the streets and smell the wonderful breads and roskas baking. The women were very talented because with very little they would make some wonderful things — enough to feed their families.
What did the men do?
The men worked. My father would work hard but then he also was quite modern in some ways. He would go places and ride horses, he drove a motorcycle, he wore riding pants, looked very handsome, and I remember him wearing a fez because he came from Turkey. The men went to each other’s houses, they had raki and some little mezes, and my Uncle Maish would play the oud.
Do you recall hardships in Rhodes?
I remember hearing about somebody being ill. My sister Claire had meningitis, and I heard when I was little how she had to be in a dark room; people would come and visit but couldn’t stay for a while. We knew nothing better. That was life. But it was OK. It was a simple life. You didn’t worry too much about what was going to happen.
Can you remember your last day in Rhodes?
I remember walking to the port. There were people walking with us, accompanying us. When anybody left you accompanied them to the ship. I remember going on the ship and going on the open deck. They put a tent up, but it didn’t do any good. You know how windy it can get in the Mediterranean, from Rhodes to Piraeus. They had bought me a doll, and I got on the ship and it was so windy that my doll went overboard.
Was it a tearful exit?
You could feel uneasiness, as little as I was. I could hear things around me. You’re used to one place, then all of a sudden you have to leave. Not abandonment, but feeling of uneasiness and insecurity.
You’ve been back to Rhodes several times. Can you describe the first time you visited?
The first time I went to Rhodes (April 1974), I went with lots of anticipation. I was anxious to get there. But once there, I started feeling angry because there were no people there that I knew. My families were taken. There were only Scandinavians and Germans because they worship the sun, and we had beautiful beaches there. It was very heart-wrenching. My aunts were gone, my friends were gone, my acquaintances were gone. I came home, still trying to fight my feelings. And then I decided, no, I’m going to look at my good memories of Rhodes and try to get past the bad things that had happened to all the people. I thought, no, it was a beautiful place, good memories, and I would just live with that.