We said prayers this morning in the Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania, three days after it suffered a second arson attack, which destroyed an office extension and burnt part of the ceiling. The acrid smell from smoke and water damage, the sight of streaked and blackened walls and the ashes on the floor were deeply dispiriting. And yet the decision of Nikos Stavroulakis, the director of the Romaniote synagogue that was only reopened after rebuilding in October 1999, to immediately resume daily prayers, and the cleaning up and repair activity going on all around, spoke volumes for the resilience and determination of a unique and inspiring community.
I first came across Etz Hayyim 8 years ago when I was running the Rothschild foundation supporting Jewish life in Europe, which had helped fund the rebuilding and supported the synagogue’s programme. Everyone I know who goes to Etz Hayyim, situated in the narrow streets of the former Jewish quarter of Crete’s second city, is charmed by its magical qualities. Now the only functioning synagogue on Crete, Etz Hayyim 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.
Although what was left of the building became the property of the Central Board of the Jewish Communities of Greece, it looked destined for complete destruction until Dr Stavroulakis, a Jewish art historian and museum designer, who had returned to his late father’s house in Hania, persuaded the World Monuments Fund and some donors to back the synagogue’s rebuilding. Although there were no other known Jews on Crete, Nikos wanted to create a living synagogue. “A cage went in search of a bird”, Nikos said, quoting Kafka, and the bird came. There are 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 Christians and Muslims and people of no faith who find meaning in the ways of the synagogue.
Last Friday night the community celebrated its recovery from the first arson attack on 6 January, which damaged part of a restored women’s section. The marble floor had been polished, the wainscot re-stained and the walls scraped and repainted. At 3.30 the following morning, arsonists struck again more devastatingly.
The police and local authorities were slow to respond after the first attack, but after the second, the incident was given wide international publicity and pressure from the central government resulted in a much augmented investigation. The incidents may have been the work of antisemitic groups, but there’s no evidence so far. There are such far-rightists in Hania, but there are also other violent and extreme elements, some linked to drug-selling. And Greek society is still experiencing more general violent protest among students.
Having visited the synagogue many times over the last 7 years, it seemed right to come and offer solidarity on behalf of the synagogue’s many friends. I’ll return with the message that, as we all knew, Etz Hayyim operates in challenging circumstances, but will continue to provide an enriching experience for anyone who falls under its spell.
Antony Lerman is the former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research