During the Nazi occupation of Greece in 1944, the Gestapo rounded up the roughly 300 Jews living on the isle of Crete. They were herded onto a cargo ship headed for the Greek mainland with Auschwitz as their ultimate destination, but were spared the gas chambers in a cruel twist: The British torpedoed the ship. No one survived.
Etz Hayyim synagogue is the only remnant of the Ovraiki, or Jewish Quarter, in Chania, Crete’s second-largest city, which was home to the island’s Jewish community. The building stands in the same place it’s been since the Middle Ages, crammed into the city’s old town, a walled maze of alleys fanning out from a pretty harbor with a medieval lighthouse. The Ovraiki’s Jewish community stretched back some 2,300 years, surviving all kinds of invaders: Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans. Today, though, there are barely more than a dozen Jews left in Crete, and much of the quarter is home mostly to Starbucks and shops selling “I Love Crete” T-shirts.
For decades after Chania’s Jewish community was destroyed, the synagogue stood dormant. It was desecrated. Used as a dump, a urinal, and kennel. Pounded by earthquakes. Filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikveh oozing muck.
Then, after half a century, Nicholas Stavroulakis arrived and took on the synagogue as his mission, starting reconstruction in 1996. Today, Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services and hosts a research library with some 4,000 volumes—which began with Stavroulakis’ personal collection. Next month, Etz Hayyim will honor both its past and its future: On June 14, it will host both its annual memorial service for the hundreds of Crete’s Jews lost during WWII, as well as an exhibit marking the 20th anniversary of the reconstruction.
In a recent interview at his family home in Chania, Stavroulakis told me how Etz Hayyim came to be so important to him. “It called out to me,” he said. “It had become a monument to the victory of Hitler and the Nazis. Not only had the Jews all been killed but their very history was being erased. To my mind, it had to be saved at all costs.”
Growing up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete (the family name means little cross), Stavroulakis kicked around the world, getting an education that included Catholic boarding school in Wisconsin with “loving” nuns. He became something of a Renaissance man: He’s a historian, cookbook author, and an artist. He was co-founder and director of the Jewish Museum of Athens.
Stavroulakis first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties prompted many visits to the island. “It was well-known that the Cretan community was lost, and when I first came to Chania I wanted to see where they had lived,” he told me. After Stavroulakis, now 85, retired, he returned to Crete in 1995 and set about restoring the synagogue.
The idea of investing time and money in a synagogue without a viable Jewish community wasn’t an easy sell. Still, benefactors from all over—including the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the World Monuments Fund—got onboard with the reconstruction. Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.
The synagogue’s layout is in the Romaniote, or Greek tradition. The ark faces the eastern wall; the bimah, the western one. The reborn mikveh is fed by a spring. The scattered remains from some rabbinical tombs were recovered and reburied. And in a hallway near the sanctuary is a simple shrine: plaques bearing the names of the Jews of Chania who drowned in 1944.
Services are conducted in Hebrew, Greek, and English. Stavroulakis, who is not a rabbi, leads the Sabbath services, which typically draw about 15 people. Others with longterm ties to Etz Hayyim, some of them ordained rabbis, are brought in for the High Holidays.
Iossif Ventura, a prominent Greek-Jewish poet who was born in Chania and fled from the Nazis as a toddler with his family, remembers feeling “melancholy” but hopeful about the future when the synagogue reopened. He was so haunted by the Jews who perished at sea—especially the children—that he wrote celebrated poems about them, imagining their terror in the ship’s hold. “Tanais” is named for the cargo ship that became the Jews’ mass grave; here is an excerpt, translated by Elisabeth Arseniou:
at night the wind
shifting broken branches
to the tick of clocks
they fled in darkness
and it was
the scout the ferryman
the river’s name
receptacle of pulses
with the sirens sounding the voyage
with the smells of brine grease and rust
and even more
the opaqueness of those
Things were quiet at the synagogue for more than a decade. Then in 2010, Etz Hayyim was rocked by two arsons in one month. The library and office were hit hard. “The police were less than adequate,” Stavroulakis recalled. The arsonists’ motives appeared to be anti-Semitism (a bar of soap had apparently been thrown against a wall, a reference to a Greek anti-Semitic taunt, “I’ll turn you into a bar of soap”) and robbery. Stavroulakis says the culprits likely targeted the synagogue office because “the equation that most people have in mind is that Jews equal money.”
The arsons got international play. Outrage and donations poured in; Etz Hayyim bounced back fairly quickly.
“The synagogue’s character must not change,” Stavroulakis declared on the synagogue’s blog. “Its doors must remain open—or the congregation will have given in to the ignorance that fostered the destruction.”
A synagogue in Athens, where most of Greece’s 5,000 Jews live, lent spiritual support by declaring itself a sister synagogue. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, the young rabbi of the Jewish Community of Athens, often comes from the Greek capital to help with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services; more than 100 people, a mix of tourists and synagogue friends from elsewhere, not all of whom are Jewish, have attended.
Negrin, who was mentored in part by Stavroulakis, says the long association has been transformative: “As a student in Crete, I got familiar with Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania and fell in love with the embracing atmosphere and the overwhelming spirituality,” he said. “[Stavroulakis’] guidance, through my Jewish quests, was critical for me and contributed a lot to my rabbinical awakening.”
But political uncertainty is circling all of Greece. Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi group, won almost 7 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election. “We are not afraid, but we are concerned,” said Victor Eliezer, a spokesman for the Jewish Community of Athens. He says the hope is that democracy and increased education, particularly regarding the Holocaust, can make a difference: “The fight against the increase of neo-Nazi movements in Europe is not just a ‘Jewish concern,’ ” he added. “It is, or should be, a ‘European concern.’ ”
At Etz Hayyim, there is optimism. Ventura recalls, with a laugh, concern in the Chania newspapers when the synagogue first reopened in 1999. Rumor had it the revived synagogue was part of a “vast Israeli conspiracy” to take over Crete. But Ventura, who has shared his poems about the destruction of Crete’s Jews at readings there and around the world, says the audiences in more recent years have been positive.
On a recent spring morning when I visited Etz Hayyim, a cat lounged in the middle of the sanctuary as visitors started to filter in. There were mugs for sale in the closet-sized gift shop and a sign asking for donations to help with the old walls that constantly need patching because of the humidity from the Mediterranean Sea. Anja Zuckmantel, a German ex-pat who, in her role as administrator, takes care of all the day-to-day affairs at Etz Hayyim, says there is hope for a permanent Jewish community, “But in the foreseeable future that seems rather unlikely as there are simply not enough permanent resident Jewish families.” For now, the synagogue continues to be solely funded by benefactors and donations from visitors.
Passover was coming, and the staff of one and a few volunteers would soon be very busy. Once tourist season reaches gale force, there would be many more paying visitors like the Americans who walked in from half a world away, some of them planning weddings or bar mitzvahs in Crete. “People think it’s romantic,” said Zuckmantel with a smile.
In July, just a few weeks after the ceremony marking the Jewish community’s tragic past, Etz Hayyim will host a more upbeat event: Ventura’s grandsons Eitan and Benyo will come from New York and Israel to see where their 77-year-old grandfather was born, and they will have their bar mitzvahs at Crete’s only remaining synagogue.
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