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Lucia Capelluto’s story highlights the ordeal of Rhodes

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On the 80th anniversary of the deportation of 44 000 Jews from Hungary and 1 900 Jews from Rhodes, this year’s Yom Hashoah ceremony in Cape Town felt all the more pertinent because 16 Holocaust survivors from Rhodes are buried at Pinelands Cemetery.

Those at the ceremony were able to hear the story of one such survivor buried there, Lucia Capelluto, through her son, Isaac Habib. In recounting his mother’s story, he read a letter that his mother sent to her mentor in the years after the war detailing her experiences.

Habib told of his mother’s deportation, her time spent at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, and how she eventually married and came to South Africa.

The Germans entered Rhodes in September 1944. On 20 July 1944, a German decree ordered Jewish men to present themselves at the office of L’Aeronautica, known for being the building on the island where Jews were rounded up. Men aged 16 to 60 showed up and were arrested. A few days later, the rest of the Jewish community entered the office of L’Aeronautica. They were arrested, and had to hand over money, jewellery, and other personal effects.

In the mass deportation of Jews from Rhodes, the old and sick were loaded into trucks, the rest had to get to the harbour on foot. Then, as many as 1 900 men, women, and children were crammed into three old open boats for a 10-day journey to mainland Greece.

They were transported to Haidari’s detention camp, 15km from Athens, where they remained for three days, and then taken back to Athens, where they were packed into cattle trains to Auschwitz.

Thirteen days later, on 16 August 1944, the train arrived at Auschwitz. It went right into the middle of the internment camp at Birkenau, and 1 700 people were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Lucia was one of only 200 left to become camp inmates.

Capelluto detailed the daily life and torment she experienced in the camp. “As the days passed, there was less food in the camp. The prisoners dying of hunger and sickness became more numerous every day.”

The grand doctor in the camp would select the sick daily and send them away to the hospital and then eventually to the gas chambers.

Lucia’s sister, Mattie, she wrote, became weepy and delirious. Her shouting brought blows from the baton. She witnessed her sister die on 4 October 1944, three and a half months after her capture.

Habib recounts how his mother went from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, which she described as the point when she knew that the worst was about to start.

“The worst period was from mid-March to the end of April. Typhus and dysentery were raging. I slept between someone who had typhus and my sister, who had dysentery. Yet I caught nothing. The only faint hope I had was that we could feel that we were near the end of the battle,” Habib read.

Out of the 100 women and girls deported from Rhodes and taken to Bergen-Belsen at the time of liberation, only 15 survived. Five more women perished in internment after liberation.

Capelluto remained in Rome after liberation from the camp, and posed as the wife of an Italian officer to leave the camp. She moved to Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, to be with her sisters after failing to return to Rhodes, and married Gershon Habib.

Ethan Werb, the head student at Herzlia, followed the testimony, by saying, “By remembering the Holocaust, we educate ours and future generations about the consequences of hatred and indifference. We teach them to embrace diversity, to cherish the rights and dignity of every individual, and to build a world where the horrors of the past remain just that.

“We’re here, and we’re here to stay. The date 7 October is another reminder that in spite of our persecution, we’ll overcome whatever we face, that in spite of the rising antisemitism globally, we’re here to be the light. We’re here because we’re am Yisrael. After centuries of suffering and persecution, our beloved state of Israel was reborn. And now we know that the Jewish people will never go through another Holocaust again. This is our greatest revenge – the generations, the youth,” Werb said.

“As Jewish youth, we promise to share the stories and testimony of the survivors because we’re the survivors. We’re your revenge, your victory, your legacy. We’ll honour that legacy with humility, courage, knowledge, and love. And by being proud Jews, now and forever.”

Israeli Ambassador Eli Belotsercovsky sent a video message to the Cape Town community saying, “Every year, we say, ‘Never again!’ And this year, we saw it happen again. We see blind hatred towards Israel and Jews. The date 7 October was the only time since the Holocaust that such a huge number of Jewish people were murdered – 1 200 innocent people most savagely and brutally. And the perpetrators of this attack were motivated, like the Nazis, by blind hatred towards the Jewish people. We have about 130 hostages still in the Hamas tunnels, and we’ll do everything in our power to bring them home.”

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