There is this cozy synagogue in Chania, snugged between narrow nostalgic Cretan streets, built by a community that ceased to exist 75 years ago, a Jewish monument that almost fell victim to complete destruction.
The Etz Hayyim synagogue was damaged by earthquakes, air strikes during World War Two, desecrated, pulled to pieces, and ultimately used as a chicken run, a kennel, a urinal, and used as a dump ground for the neighborhood.
Chania, surrounded by sea and mountains, has put considerable effort in encouraging tourism. Its historical character is dominated by the Venetian Harbor, the old port, the lighthouse, the shopping streets, and waterfront restaurants, with little of Jewish historical note to see, beside the Etz Hayyim Synagogue behind the old port, which was officially re-opened on 10 October 1999. For centuries that neighborhood was home to the Jewish community, named “Ovraiki”.
The second synagogue in Chania was situated in a parallel street, Odos Kondylaki, one of the two main streets of the Jewish Quarter. But Beth Shalom, also known as the “New Synagogue,” ended up ruined as a result of a series of bombings.
Due to tourism, with the passing of time, the Jewish Quarter has become less self-explanatory, and successive waves of visitors grow further and further removed from historic events. A restaurant has been established in a former soap factory that was owned by a Jew named Jacob. In some sense, the surroundings are on the verge of becoming a pleasant tourist attraction, the lines blurred between remembrance, local tradition, travel, pilgrimage, historical preservation and a Jewish house of worship.
When you settle down in one of the chairs on the terrace and enjoy the lovely view over the lively synagogue, it is easy to miss an extremely dark page in Cretan Jewish history.
Prior to World War Two the Jewish community consisted of around 400 souls. When the Nazis occupied the island in 1941, most of the Jews had either moved to the mainland cities of Athens and Salonika or left Greece altogether. It was on May 29, 1944, that the remaining Jews of Crete were rounded up by the Gestapo to be incarcerated at Aghia Prison, until they were to be sent to the mainland for deportation to Auschwitz. The complete Cretan Jewish community were forced at gunpoint by the Gestapo into the hold of a Greek merchant vessel, the Tanais, set to sail for Piraeus. But on the early morning of June 9, 1944, the Tanais, was torpedoed by a British submarine, off the coast of Santorini, not realizing who were on board.
The container ship was carrying 276 Jews, among them 88 children and Rabbi Elias Osmos, along with hundreds of Greek hostages and Italian prisoners of war.
No one survived.
The ship sunk in 15 minutes and brought an end to at least 2,200-year history of Cretan Jewry, one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities.
The “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the systematically isolation and mass destruction of Jews became a macabre reality on the island of Crete.
The synagogue in Chania, surrounded by displaced gravestones, and the reburied remains of the rabbinical tombs, is an essential part of Crete’s heritage and history. Etz Hayyim is not just any synagogue that survived the War and Holocaust, it is the only surviving Jewish monument in Chania and on the island of Crete. It also features the only pieces of Cretan Hebrew epigraphy that can be read in situ.
Today the synagogue is embedded in the touristic experience, it is mainly a happy place, where weddings and bar mitzvahs are held. The past has become a modern façade and product for Jewish life from different communities and very different ways. The past matters, it can be erased or (by some) forgotten, as happened here on Crete, but only to be picked up later and reused with new meanings. The Cretan Jewish history has been revived by the Jewish community from outside and became (re-) engaged in creating new personal and collective memories.
The Cretan Jews no longer have a voice; perhaps therefore it is extremely difficult to understand their past culture, let alone revive it.
It is assumed by scholars that one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Greek world was established in Gortyna by the middle of the 2nd century BCE. A copy of the proclamation of the Roman Senate in support of the Jews, which was send to various countries and cities, at the request of Simeon the Hasmonean, was also addressed to the Cretan city (142 BCE).
The author of the Sibylline Oracles mentions that by 140 BCE the entire land and sea was “full of Jews,” and the Alexandrian thinker Philo Judaeus tells us that Crete was among the countries with a large Jewish population by the early years of the Roman Empire.
The existence of a Jewish community on the island in late antiquity is shown in three Cretan inscriptions, which point to Gortyna as the metropolis of the Hebrew community of the island.
Cretan Jewry is well documented in the Venetian period, thanks to numerous Venetian official and private documents, and the communal ordinances known as “Taqqanoth Qandyia” drafted in Hebrew. A well-structured Jewry on the island existed around the 11th or 12th century, when a letter was written in Alexandria referring to kosher cheese produced in Crete. This implies rabbinical supervision over the production of specific foodstuffs and wine on the island.
In 1481 Meshullam of Volterra found 600 Jewish families and four synagogues in Candia. The Jewish community of Candia gave a warm welcome to the exiles from Spain in 1492. The Cretan Jews did live in a volatile climate, it was during the Greek rebellion of 1364 that the Jews of Castel Nuovo were massacred, and from 1350 the Jews were forced to live in a stipulated area (Ciudecca).
They were forced to wear a mark on their clothing to distinguish themselves of not belonging to the religious faith of the majority and they were also obliged to attach it to their houses. In general, the central government attempted to safeguard the Jews and they were Venetian subjects with the status of citizens. Venice’s dominion over Crete came to an end with the fall of Candia to the Ottomans in 1669. The Turkish period marked a steep decline in the cultural life of the Cretan Jewish communities.
The start of the reconstruction of the synagogue Etz Hayyim began in 1996 by Nicholas Stavroulakis. There were no Jews in Chania when he started his project. He had to redefine the Jewish community and got support from mainland Greece. Postwar Crete was marked by the lack of Jews, Jewish life had become a Cretan memory. It is almost impossible to understand and express what Jewish Crete once consisted of. The complicated circumstances of more than 2,000 year of Jewish life is difficult to grasp in one history and tradition, especially when one tries to renewal Jewish life in present-day Chania. The synagogue has been scarred by time, nature and history.
Nicholas Stavroulakis honors the local Jewish historical traditions in religious commemorations, writings, the preservation of the synagogue and artifacts, combined with guided tours and even a little gift shop, without transforming it into a touristic site.
The building is a symbol of hope and despair, endings and beginnings, and a witness of anti-Semitism in the past and present. In 2010, two arson attacks damaged the library and the office of the synagogue. Antisemitism is rising across Greece and Europe. For combatting anti-Semitism, we need to claim our Jewish roots and recover the identity of our ancestors.
The elimination of Jews from society was integrally linked with the destruction and confiscation of religious, cultural and economic property. By isolating and separating the Jewish community, they became degraded and eventually destroyed.
Etz Hayyim restores the communal identity and provides a deep emotional significance. The Cretan Jews that left the island before the War couldn’t recover their belongings. A full recovery of past identity will never be possible, but the synagogue brings the individual and collective memories together and provides the possibility to surround oneself with a world, not gone, but on the map.
This is crucial for the renewal of this community, which perhaps in the future will become a permanent one.
For opening hours click on the link of ‘The Etz Hayyim Synagogue‘
Notes on the Jews of Gortyna and Crete. Stylianos V. Spyridakis. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik Bd. 73 (1988), pp. 171-175.
The Living and the Dead: The Story of Hebrew Inscriptions in Crete. Zvi Ankori. Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research Vol. 38/39 (1970-1971), pp. 1-100.
A Companion to Latin Greece. Eds. Nickiphoros, Peter Lock. 2015.