Ancient Turkish Jewish Community Evacuated, Two Missing After Earthquake

By Matis Glenn

Rabbi Chitrik, rescuing sifrei Torah from the shul in Antioch, Turkey

Two Jewish people are missing and 12 were evacuated from a small town in Southern Turkey in the aftermath of Monday’s fierce earthquake, Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, head of Chabad in Turkey, told Hamodia.

The 7.8 magnitude quake which devastated Turkey and Syria has left at least 7,000 people dead, with the number expected to rise, as debris of ravaged buildings is removed. So far, over 15,000 people are known to have been injured, but that number, too, is only preliminary.

While most of the country’s estimated 15,000 Jewish residents live in areas such as Istanbul and Izmir that were not hit very hard by the earthquake, one small town, Antakya (called Antioch by its locals) was decimated.  “We had a tiny community in Antioch,” a community representative told Hamodia. “Unfortunately, the city is heavily damaged, houses collapsed or were damaged heavily, so at the moment we brought them to Istanbul, besides some who wanted to stay there.”

Rabbi Chitrik, along with a rescue team, managed to save 12 Jews who were stranded there, including one who was pinned under rubble, and bring them to safety in Istanbul. Once there, they were settled in a Jewish nursing home. “They’re all safe and not injured, but they’re very shocked and tired,” Rabbi Chitrik told Hamodia. “after almost 24 hours without eating and drinking, and sitting in their cars in the frigid cold.”

However, the community’s President, Saul Cenudioğlu, and his wife Tuna, are missing. Their home was heavily damaged, but there has been no sign of them. Community activists have been canvassing the area, as well as searching local hospitals, but to no avail.

When asked if there were any other Jews missing, Rabbi Chetrik and the representative said that they are unaware of any, but details of the earthquake are still not clear.

The IDF and the Joint Distribution Committee, joined worldwide humanitarian organizations in providing relief in Turkey following the disaster.

The community is among the world’s most ancient, having been home to Jewish people for 2,500 years. The population, however, has dwindled down to about 14 people, and they are unable to form a minyan in the historic shul, which has stood for 250 years, according to Rabbi Chitrik.

“At least 500 people lived here” 35 years ago when Olga Cemal, a current resident, came to Antakya from Damascus, as retold by Rabbi Chitrik. Cemal also says that there were a lot of talmidei chachamim who were linked to the Aleppo Jewish community in Syria.

The shul was damaged by the earthquake as well, but Rabbi Chetrik rescued its sifrei Torah, which baruch Hashem were unscathed.

Rabbi Chitrik says that he thinks those who were displaced from their homes in Antioch will likely not be able to return, unless they build new houses. He expects many to stay in Istanbul.

According to Rabbi Chitrik, the town takes its name from the cruel Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus, who oppressed the Jews in the days of the Chashmonaim, leading to Matisyahu’s rebellion and the miracles of Chanukah. The town is said to have been Antiochus’ seat of power.

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