“Never again,” 86 year-old Auschwitz survivor Sami Mondiano says, calmly yet firmly, as he addresses a group of tourists in the Kahal Shalom synagogue on the Greek island of Rhodes.
Modiano and his wife of 58 years, Selma Doumalar, travel from their home in Rome back to the island every summer. Between July and September, they spend their mornings ― with the exception of Saturdays ― greeting visitors from across the globe at the synagogue.
“I come here every summer to tell the story of what I lived through, because it must never happen again.” Sami Modiano
In Kahal Shalom, which was built in 1575 and has now become a makeshift home for the couple, they answer questions about World War II. Their presence is often a pleasant surprise for visitors; no one comes to this small island synagogue expecting to meet a Holocaust survivor.
Rhodes was under Italian occupation during World War II, so its Jews remained safe until the summer of 1944, when Germans occupied the island. On July 20, 1944, boatloads of men, women and children, Modiano among them, were deported. They weren’t told where they were going. Twenty-three people, suffering from heat and starvation, died before they reached Athens. More than 1,000 others were held at the SS-operated transit concentration camp Haidary, before being transported by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“I come here every summer to tell the story of what I lived through, because it must never happen again,” Modiano told HuffPost Italy. He is one of 151 Jews from Rhodes to have survived the Holocaust.
“The day they took me away from here was the darkest day of my life,” he said. “When I remember that time, images of death and hope blend together in my mind, like a cocktail of memories and images that will never fade.”
Tourists from all over the world walk through the synagogue’s large wooden doors, including from Russia, Sweden, the U.S., South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Italy.
Modiano tries to speak to visitors in their language ― he manages to converse in Italian, Greek, French, Ladin and English. He tries not to let language restrictions get in the way of his message: When he is unfamiliar with a visitor’s language, he resorts to expressive gestures, punctuated by pauses and heavy silences.
When he speaks, his voice often trembles, and his green eyes well up.
Like many other Holocaust survivors, Modiano is constantly telling his story as a way to fight against the erasure of history. Specifically, he has fought to maintain the memory of the island’s Jewish community and the horror that was perpetrated on Jewish people in the name of a demented Nazi ideology.
The survivor also tends to look inward; he has repeatedly asked himself why his life was spared.
“Years ago, in my nightmares and my silences, I sought to understand why God saved me from death. When you feel condemned to death, you ask yourself these things,” he said.
The best answer he could come up with, he added, is that he survived so that he could tell the stories of those who did not.
“Now I have found the reason: to return to Rhodes and tell travelers and tourists my story and the stories of those who died. I knew all of them, every single one, even though I was young at the time.”
The couple has made the preservation of these people’s memory their life’s mission.
“I promised myself that no matter where I wound up, I would return to Rhodes every summer to say ‘never again,’” Modiano told HuffPost Italy.
For him, going back to Kahal Shalom, which the United States Holocaust Museum calls the oldest functioning synagogue in Greece, feels like going home.
“Being here is important to me. This is my synagogue, I grew up here. And 72 years ago, I was taken from here without knowing where I was going. We were placed in inhuman conditions in cargos, like animals. This is where the tragedy started,” he said.
Modiano still carries scars from his experience ― physical and emotional. He has burns on parts of his body, and the number B7456 is still tattooed on his arm. He makes a point to keep the tattoo uncovered.
“Anyone who has survived has a wound that will never heal,” he laments.
When Modiano verges on wearing himself out, Doumalar is quick to remind him: “Drink, rest, take a breath, you’re tired.”
“In the midst of my great misfortune, I had the luck to find a woman who stood by me all of these years,” said Modiano said. “To stay with a survivor is not easy and she has put up with a lot.”
This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.