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A Letter from London – The last Cretan synagogue lives on. By Antony Lerman

Historical Information

I felt sick to my stomach when I heard that the Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania, Crete, had suffered a second arson attack in 10 days. I got the call just after 9 am on Saturday. The attack had taken place at 3.30 that morning. This Romaniote synagogue is a haven of peace and tranquillity and a meeting ground for Jews, Christians, Muslims and those of no faith, so it seemed like an attack on the very ideas of tolerance and mutual respect, not only an attack on Jews.

The first attack, at 1 am on 6 January, was shocking enough. The unknown intruders set light to a reconstructed ezrat nashim, which was used as a library and office. The stairs were effectively destroyed along with 1,800 books. Smoke and fire debris got into the main synagogue building, staining the walls and woodwork. Within days, amid anger and bewilderment, cleaning and repairing were going on. At the service last Friday evening, with the walls scraped and painted, the wooden wainscot re-stained and the marble floor polished, the small community celebrated its recovery. A few hours later, they were surveying far worse devastation than before. This time an entire small office extension had been gutted. The flames took with it more liturgical and religious books, computers and the entire archives of the synagogue. Flames had burnt through a mesh-covered opening into the synagogue and damaged a part of the ceiling.

I feel part of this community. I got to know the synagogue and its remarkable Director, Dr Nikos Stavroulakis, when I ran the UK-based offshoot of Yad Hanadiv, a Foundation supporting Jewish life in Europe. Through this vehicle the British Rothschild family had contributed to the rebuilding of the synagogue, which was completed in October 1999, and gave continuing support for the synagogue’s programme. Etz Hayyim is the only functioning synagogue on Crete. It was vandalized by the Germans and locals after the remaining 263 members of the Jewish community in Hania were arrested by the Nazis on 24 May 1944. Almost certainly on their way to Auschwitz, their ship was hit by a British torpedo and they all perished.

It was practically a derelict site by the time Nikos, a Jewish art historian, museum designer and curator, author, theatrical costume designer, artist, cookery writer and much more besides, who had returned to his late father’s house in Chania, persuaded the World Monuments Fund and some donors to back a plan to rebuild Etz Hayyim.

Etz Hayyim is no conventional community. There were no other Jews on Crete when Nikos began the rebuilding, but he was determined that it be a living entity, not merely a mini-museum. Over the last 10 years it has become a home for Jews, including some Israelis, of all denominations or none. Some stay for months or longer; some just for a few days or weeks. There are also people of other or no faith who feel at home in the synagogue. It’s a fluid, pluralistic, diverse and largely itinerant population. Not a community in the traditional sense, since it seems to be at the frontier of Jewishness, but it has a postmodern character that reflects the reality of Jewry today.

Do the arson attacks threaten its existence? It may seem especially vulnerable, but it isn’t. Yes, there are antisemites in Hania and Greece faces major youth unrest and disrespect for law and order. And there are those who are even now exploiting this situation to spread their image of Europe as deadly for Jews today. But there are many who are appalled. Nikos is determined to continue and sees the many who have come together to help and offer support as a clear sign that good can emerge from such a tragic incident.

I flew out to Hania on Monday and first thing on Tuesday joined prayers being led by Nikos, while the business of cleaning-up and reconstructing was going on around us. After the second attack, he immediately decided that daily prayers would continue regardless. This affirmed that Etz Hayyim still speaks of a Judaism open to the world, not afraid to enagage, recognizing people’s multiple identities, yet linked to core texts and rituals.