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One Week After the Fire

  |   Historical Information

Overview of the past few days at Etz Hayyim – 6th – 15th January 2010

Our own situation here in Hania assumed a quite different dimension when news broke of the disaster in Haiti. Quite naturally our own problems became less of a burden when one became aware of the incredibly sad and nightmarish situation there – not only for the loss of life but for the situation with the living and the challenge of re-constructing a new life in the ruins of a failed state as it was.

On the morning of the 6th with the lingering whisps of acrid smoke about us a few gathered in the wretched looking sanctuary to say Shahrtih prayers after which we had a quick meeting to set things in motion.  Fortunately we have a very good team of people who have worked on the Synagogue over the past 10 years – and by 11:00 AM the carpenter had come to measure for the new stair and to check on the condition of the floors etc. in the library (Ezrath Nashim).  The electrician had checked the wiring by mid-afternoon and reconnected the library to the mains and Besnik and his cousin Artan moved the furniture to provide space for the work on the sanctuary. Sam Cohen and Nasser set about ordering the metal supports etc. for an extension of the gate to the back garden where the arsonists had broken in and so from day 1 we had begun the work and it has continued daily since then so that this evening  – we will have Erev Shabbat services in a quite brilliant Kal. The walls have been scraped down from soot, rivulets of soot blackened water that were streaking them.  After priming the walls were then painted white after the stone blocks of the Venetian arches had been cleaned as well.

We were especially thankful on that morning for a letter of concern by the superior or the Franciscan friary nearby, Fr. Pietro, and the visit of Fr. Angelo, one of the friars who gave us his blessing before he left.

As the fire had not directly penetrated the sanctuary the Ehal and Siphrei Torah were un-affected as were several quite valuable books including a 17th century Ottoman Qur’an.

Assessment of general loss has been made – though I personally found it impossible to go up to the office and library until the Sunday after the attack. The actual flames that had finally broken through the stair-well had burnt the backs and upper pages of all of the books on Ottoman architecture, Islamic Calligraphy and Persian and Mughal art as well as many monographs and all of the catalogues and photo-copies of articles etc. relevant to these subjects. The area set aside for Byzantine art and architecture which contained catalogues of exhibitions of Byzantine icons over the past 40 years plus monographs and books concerning Byzantine iconography – some being valuable material from Dumbarton Oaks – had also suffered the same damage as did the section of Jewish religious art and architecture – especially the section on the early roots of Jewish and Christian iconography. The south wall of the library which contained books on Ancient and Medieval European history – plus Modern Greece and Crete – (the complete Cambridge Ancient History and Cambridge Medieval History) had all suffered from the intense heat that had built up in the space…as if they had been baked in a very hot oven and rendered brittle and in cases in a state of fragmentation. After consultation with a book conservationist in Athens we finally accepted that the library of some 1500 books was a ‘write off’…as were the two computers, CD player and about 130 or so CDs of music – Sephardi religious and secular  as well as Ottoman Sephardi.

Especially saddening was the murraka (illuminated collage) of the famous 17th century calligrapher Osman Effendi which had been reduced to ashes in its frame. Bizarrely the second volume of Rashi that I had been consulting lay on my desk – next to the melted computer – undamaged by heat and smoke!  Three Ottoman brocades from the 16th century were discovered to be intact and unharmed behind soot blackened glass as well as the conical felt hat worn by Mevlevi Dervishes and a complete Mevlevi habit worn in the performance of the sema (the ritual whirling dance of the dervishes).  All of these had been sitting on one of three large 19th century Afghan embroidered bolsters that also had been un-affected by the fire and smoke.

Today, this evening, when we gather for Erev Shabbat prayers we can be thankful that this quite senseless and quite wicked act has had some incredibly positive results in uniting our efforts here to quickly have Etz Hayyim functioning and alive as it has been over the past years. It is quite impossible to thank all of you who have responded so immediately to our need here – financially and morally through e-mails and letters. Thus far we have had the daily presence and hard work of Alex, Anja, Angela Tsourounaki (who brings us home-made pies and pizzas), Konstantine Fisher and Paola Nikotera, David Weber, Marianna Vinther – as well as many others…(see the pictures below).

Nikos Stavrouakis / Director- Etz Hayyim Synagogue

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