By Janet Ekstract
ISTANBUL- The story that Rabbi Mendy Chitrik told at Shabbat dinner on Friday night at his home in Istanbul, was not a pretty one. It was a story of survival, a story of an ancient city reduced to rubble and a story of perseverance to rescue members of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Rabbi Mendy who has been head of the Askenazi synagogue for 22 years in Istanbul, is also chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic states. He reminded everyone on Friday night that a tenet of Judaism is to always have hope, not give up and that family is of utmost importance. As Rabbi Mendy commented: “We don’t give up, we look for a way until we find one.” And that’s exactly what he had to do in order to rescue remaining members of the Jewish community in Antakya, Turkiye otherwise known in the Bible as Antioch with history, thousands of years old.
As Rabbi Mendy explained, it was a race for time because as soon as he got the message about the earthquake, he took a 10-seater private plane with colleagues to Antakya to search for Jewish survivors. At the airport, he described the multitude of search and rescue teams from various countries like Israel who he said had a team of 450 people as well as groups from Azerbaijan and other countries. Rabbi Mendy said what struck him immediately about Antakya in the aftermath was the absolute silence there. Previously, where 200,000 souls had resided, were now collapsed buildings everywhere, damaged roads and the eeriest of feelings that nothing existed anymore. Rabbi Mendy said he went to the Jewish area and began searching for people, he found a blind Jewish man who had been taking refuge in his car for 18 hours and the man’s wife. They both had owned a store that was destroyed along with their apartment complex in the quake. Then they were able to locate many more people but they found out that a Jewish couple was stuck under the rubble of their building that had totally collapsed. It was a race for time and Rabbi Mendy said he appealed to the Israeli Defense Force Search and Rescue Team to find them and get them out from under the building. Initially, the team was told they were not allowed to go to the location but Rabbi Mendy did not give up. He remained persistent and made sure after much wrangling that the Israeli team would be able to retrieve the couple whose bodies were recovered hours later.
Miraculous was the fact that Rabbi Mendy said he was able to save all eight Torahs, the Jewish holy books from the Antakya Synagogue and that he took them to the Jewish community in Adana for safety. He managed to round up the last of the Jewish survivors in Antakya and put them on a plane to Istanbul where he spent Friday evening February 10 celebrating the Sabbath with them. As he told his story of rescuing his fellow Jews, it was a reminder of all the times, the Jews had to flee during their very long and rich history. Ironically, Antakaya is a city historically where Jewish forefathers resided and settled in for centuries. Reflecting back on the ordeal that the Jewish survivors from Antakya endured, Rabbi Mendy said: “The Jewish people are our family. When your family is in trouble, you rescue them.”