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International Collaborative Projects

The Heritage Contact Zone (HCZ) Project

Between 2018 and 2020, Etz Hayyim Synagogue was part of the Heritage Contact Zone (HCZ) consortium along with six other European-based institutions in this EU-funded project that deals with contested, neglected or marginalised heritage. The project aimed to develop innovative and inclusive forms of heritage representation, using heritage as a space for dialogue and making conflict constructive. At Etz Hayyim, this project challenged us to explore new ways of engaging with the local community that go well beyond the inclusive narrative of the place of the Cretan Jewish community within the larger history of Crete and Greece which we present to our visitors.

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For Etz Hayyim, HCZ was the first major European collaborative project and thus, an exciting opportunity to learn from the diverse experiences, projects and methodologies employed by our six project partners from the Netherlands, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Italy and Belgium. The two-year project, now fully documented on the HCZ website (https://heritagecontactzone.com/), produced four major outcomes: five local exhibitions of which one was in Hania; a ‘toolkit’ for working with contested heritage (a toolkit being an aid for other heritage organisations in developing initiatives that create new memory communities and engage the public in creative ways); five new permanent “heritage contact zones” which included Hania; and lastly, the online conference, Open Up! which concluded the project.

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One of the major outcomes of our collaboration with the HCZ project was the exhibition, Parallel Points of View that was shown in Hania in October 2019 (see http://heritagecontactzone.com/hania/ for an online version and interview with the exhibition team). The exhibition presented ten alternative perspectives on the history and society of Crete that covered the mediaeval Emirate of Crete, Ottoman Crete and today’s Muslim presence to Romaniote and Sephardi Jewish views, and the women’s perspective, together with views from the Roma, LGBTQ+, expatriate and refugee communities. The exhibition was co-created in participatory workshops with ten groups representing the various perspectives which resulted in a compilation of individual stories and objects. In the exhibition, these objects were juxtaposed with works by some contemporary Cretan artists. Konstantin Fischer, a local artist and Etz Hayyim Havurah member, curated the exhibition for Etz Hayyim as part of the HCZ project.

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Also check out our Hania Jewish Quarter Virtual Tour for exploring the centuries-old former Jewish neighbourhood, Evraiki. It was another outcome of the project. A city map was also published in print as part of the EU-funded project and is now available from the Etz Hayyim office.

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The Maleme German War Cemetery

For one of our HCZ project ‘toolkit’ workshops, Etz Hayyim hosted the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, www.volksbund.de) in July 2020. The toolkit was tested for a very specific purpose: the reconceptualisation of the permanent exhibition at the German war cemetery in Maleme to the west of Hania. The associate partner, Volksbund, was founded in 1919 after the First World War and maintains more than 800 German military cemeteries in 46 countries. One of them is located in Maleme and is one of the most visited cemeteries maintained by Volksbund. In recent years, Volksbund has placed more emphasis on making their cemeteries not only places of commemoration, but first and foremost places of learning and critical reflection. It is within this context that the longstanding exhibition at the Maleme war cemetery is presently under review and the staff of Etz Hayyim has been consulting Volksbund on this project at the request of the Volksbund Secretary General.

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The concept for a new exhibition at the Maleme cemetery states as one of its aims that visitors shall not simply absorb information, but also be offered the opportunity to learn about the complexity of historical events and to leave the exhibition with questions rather than with reconfirmed certainties. One of the main changes to this exhibition will be the focus on the impact of the German Occupation on the daily life of the local population, repression and atrocities, as well as the fate of the Cretan Jewish community. We are looking at ways to present the history of the German Occupation of Crete to a broad audience ranging from local Cretans and schools to visiting tourists in an engaging way and to raise awareness and gain acceptance for this new inclusive and critical approach to presenting this painful and often contested part of Cretan history.

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GEDENKDIENST partnership

Every year since 2013, the staff at Etz Hayyim Synagogue is joined by a young Austrian volunteer from the Vienna-based Austrian non-profit organisation, GEDENKDIENST (Holocaust Memorial Service) in cooperation with Etz Hayyim.  This organisation carries out critical educational work on Austria’s historical responsibility and sends young Austrian volunteers for a period of 12 months to 20 different locations worldwide including historical and memorial sites, museums, and research and educational institutions that deal with the remembrance and awareness of crimes committed by the “Third Reich.” These institutions include the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Anne Frank Stichting in Amsterdam and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The tasks of the volunteers range from supporting or being a part of projects that undertake research into the Holocaust, commemorating the victims of Nazism and taking care of the survivors in retirement homes as a voluntary social service or an alternative to compulsory military service.

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Etz Hayyim’s cooperation with GEDENKDIENST began with a visit of a group of students from Vienna University in June 2012 during their study trip on the topic, “Occupation and Resistance in Greece” headed by Dr Hans Safrian. Among the students were the then-Chair and Vice-Chairs of GEDENKDIENST who approached Etz Hayyim with the idea of designating the synagogue as one of the locations to which GEDENKDIENST sends their volunteers.

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The association was founded in 1992 from an initiative by an Austrian political scientist who, since the late 1970s, had campaigned for the establishment of an alternative to military service in Austria which would include and foster Holocaust awareness education. At the start, the initiative focused on establishing a programme of volunteer services at the museum and memorial site, Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1980, the then Austrian Federal President stated that “an Austrian has nothing to atone for at Auschwitz.” In 1995 however, he acknowledged the “positive achievements” of GEDENKDIENST which had been formally established in 1991.

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At Etz Hayyim, each GEDENKDIENST volunteer (the Gedenkdiener) has become an integral and valued member of our staff. As a not-for-profit organisation, the synagogue relies on volunteer work and donations and we therefore feel privileged to receive the dedicated support of a young, creative-minded volunteer every year. Our partnership with GEDENKDIENST benefits the daily operations of the synagogue and our educational and cultural initiatives and projects which would not be possible without the GEDENKDIENST volunteers.

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A year at Etz Hayyim provides a unique experience for each Gedenkdiener to learn about many aspects of Jewish and Cretan history and culture, to participate in community events and holidays and to meet people from all over the world. The young volunteers are also key staff members who contribute decisively to the work undertaken at Etz Hayyim: the Gedenkdiener supports the staff in giving guided tours to visitors, contributes to research and publications, and helps to prepare community events and exhibitions on specific temporary projects. In 2015, for instance, the Gedenkdiener organised the presentation of the photography exhibition, “Intercultural Encounters” at Etz Hayyim in cooperation with the Austrian Embassy in Athens. Furthermore, an exhibition about the reconstruction of the synagogue was prepared with the help of our volunteer in 2016. Visitors have repeatedly expressed their admiration for the work carried out by the individual Gedenkdiener and have commended the GEDENKDIENST initiative as an important contribution to preserving the memory of the victims of the Second World War and an acknowledgement of Austria’s historical responsibility. Each Gedenkdiener also describes his or her impressions and experiences during their tenure in our Jottings newsletter under the section, “Gedenkdienst at Etz Hayyim”.