(JTA) — Saul Cenudioglu, the president of the small Jewish community in Antakya, Turkey, was confirmed dead on Friday, a day after his wife’s body had been pulled from the wreckage of their apartment building.
Saul and Fortuna Cenudioglu were killed when their building collapsed in the first of two massive earthquakes that struck southeastern Turkey on Monday, sparking a humanitarian disaster.
The death toll has soared past 20,000 across both Turkey and Syria. The grim toll is only expected to rise as the window for rescues closes four days after the disaster.
Fortuna’s body was found by a team from the Israel Defense Forces that was combing the devastated city as part of the Israeli relief delegation and had been dispatched to the Cenudioglus’ address. An initial report said Saul Cenudioglu’s body had been retrieved along with his wife’s.
Over 500 Israeli rescue workers have arrived in Turkey and are working alongside the more than 30,000 relief workers who have descended on the affected zone since Monday. Jewish nonprofits from around the world are also gathering donations and preparing to distribute aid to the affected areas and the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes in the quakes.
Saul Cenudioglu was born in Antakya in 1941, back when the city had a much larger Jewish community.
His niece Ela, who was born and raised in Antakya but now resides in Istanbul, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he was a “visionary leader committed to the Jewish community and the values it represents.” She said the family had a textile business in the city.
“He did everything in his capacity to have the small Jewish community of Antakya thrive and connect with the rest of the communities in Turkey and the world,” she added.
“Our friend Saul Cenudi was a pillar of the ancient Jewish community of Antakya,” Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, a Chabad rabbi based in Istanbul, told JTA. “Walking on the streets of his birthplace, everyone knew him by name.”
Chitrik was among the Turkish Jewish community leaders who descended on Antakya almost immediately after the first quake on Monday.
“When we came to Antakya on Monday, everyone was able to point out his house,” he said. “A very sad moment for the Jewish community in Turkey.”
What they also found there was the community’s more than 130-year-old synagogue in a severely damaged state. It joins at least 6,500 buildings damaged in the quake across Turkey.
Jews have been present in the city, known in antiquity as Antioch, for nearly 2,500 years, since its founding under the Seleucid Empire. The city was once governed by Antiochus, the villain of the Hanukkah story; is frequently mentioned in the Talmud; and was a major center of Jewish scholarship in ancient times, associated closely with the larger Jewish community of neighboring Aleppo.
Though several hundred Jews lived in the city at the time of Cenudioglu’s birth, by last year their number had dwindled to only 14, the youngest of whom was over 60. Many of them worked in shops in the city’s famed Long Bazaar.
Now, Turkish Jews say, it’s unlikely that any will remain.
“The end of a 2,500-year-old love story,” the Turkish Jewish Community’s president, Ishak Ibrahimzade wrote on Twitter.