Crete’s Etz Hayyim: A Synagogue Open to Everyone

Etz Hayyim Synagogue CreteBy Liam Hoare

CHANIA, Greece – The story of the Jews of Chania came to an end at sea. Having been rounded up by the Gestapo on May 29, 1944, Chania’s Jews were transferred eastward along the island of Crete to Heraklion, and on June 8 were hoarded onto the steamship Tánaïs for a voyage to Piraeus, the port of Athens, for onward transfer to Auschwitz. On the morning of June 9, thirty-three miles northwest of Heraklion, the Tánaïs was sighted by the British submarine Vivid, torpedoed, and sunk. All 279 Jews aboard perished.

After the total extermination of Cretan Jewry, the final surviving monument to Jewish life in Chania was the Etz Hayyim Synagogue. Dating back to the fourteenth century, the building sits in what was from the time of the Ottomans until the Nazi occupation the Jewish quarter. Following the war, and with no-one left to use it, the synagogue became dilapidated through decades of neglect and misuse. It became a home for squatters and a spot for residents of the neighborhood to dump their rubbish. Its walls were scarred by shells and shrapnel still, and by 1995 in the wake of an earthquake, Etz Hayyim was on the verge of collapse.

Today, Etz Hayyim stands fully restored. Once more, it is a place of prayer and worship, congregation and celebration. This is due to the work of Nicholas Stavroulakis. An oracle when it comes to the history of Greek Jewry, Stavroulakis was the co-founder of the Jewish Museum of Greece and its director until 1993. It was Stavroulakis who, in the mid-1990s, got Etz Hayyim onto the list collated by the World Monuments Fund of buildings of international historical concern worthy of immediate conservation. This recognition begat interest in the site and financial support from among others Ronald Lauder and Lord Jacob Rothschild. In October 1999, Etz Hayyim was rededicated.

“My father was Cretan and I had a connection to the island. I owned property here. My attraction to Chania was initially based on my father, and I came across the synagogue at a time when I was not especially religious,” Stavroulakis told me over tea around his kitchen table. I arrived in Chania in the middle of a storm, and on the morning I was due to meet Stavroulakis, he insisted on sending someone out to accompany me to his apartment (since he was house-bound following a medical procedure). Chania was in quite a state, with the wind and the waves crashing up against the harbor walls and flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the sea littering the promenade.

It was on his first visit to Crete in the late 1950s that Stavroulakis met Victoria Fermon, the daughter of the last Hebrew teacher on the island. Fermon had survived the war in hiding, and due to her marriage to her husband had converted to Christianity. She had (in Stavroulakis’ words) been abandoned by the mainstream organized community in Athens. But, due to the nature of her conversion and her origins, she was not trusted by Crete’s Christians, either. Stavroulakis said that at the time he met her, Fermon would not set foot in Chania’s old Jewish quarter.

In a commemorative book on the re-opening of the synagogue, Stavroulakis describes Fermon as the first real ghost of Chania’s Jewish community he encountered – and a ghost she was to remain. “I met Victoria Fermon but there was no Jewish community here. They had all been killed. The synagogue was due to be torn down. No-one had any interest in it whatsoever. The building had already gone into memory, and what was taking place was an obliteration of an important thread that ran through all of Jewish history.” If you asked the average person in Chania at that time where the Jewish quarter was, Stavroulakis said – pausing periodically to reignite his extinguished pipe – they would not have been able to tell you.

The Jewish life in Crete that had been lost to the waters in June 1944 predated the destruction of the Second Temple, the creation of the European Diaspora, and the birth of rabbinical and Talmudic Judaism. Cretan Judaism and Greek Judaism more broadly developed its own Hellenistic character not only separate from Eretz Israel but also from what would become Ashkenaz and Sefarad, one that was less isolated socially and linguistically from the host culture. In Chania, for example, on Yom Kippur the Book of Job was read in the synagogue not in Hebrew but in Greek – a tradition that Stavroulakis has resurrected. Zionism was never a major factor in Jewish political life.

Etz Hayyim also gives away clues about the nature of Judaism in Crete. In keeping with the tradition of Romaniote synagogues in Greece, while the ark is located on the eastern wall, the bima is located directly across from it on the western wall. The seating arrangement then conforms to the axis formed up the ark and bima, with benches lined up along the northern and southern walls and along the centre. This allows for movement between the ark and the bima, as well as interior circuits around the synagogue.

Cretan Jews also had a different conception of the role of the synagogue, one Stavroulakis draws on and has attempted to in some fashion recreate for his own purposes. “I took precedent from Philo of Alexandria” – the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher – “who wrote in the first century of the synagogue as a place of meeting where gentiles apparently came on Shabbat in order to discuss things and discuss the law, the Torah, which was easy to do at that time because it was written in Greek.”

This is to say that, in the absence of a traditional kehilat, Etz Hayyim cannot function as a traditional European synagogue might, with its communal and financial structures. Indeed, this was one of the issues in terms of getting the reconstruction project off the ground. “No-one was interested in the reconstruction of the synagogue in Chania. Nobody. I had great difficulty trying to secure initial support because, in 1995, I was attempting to build essentially a communal structure without any community. We don’t have a community in the sense of kehilat.”

Those who use the synagogue today and congregate on holidays and Shabbat constitute in Stavroulakis’ mind a kind of fraternity of interested and curious people who are in some way connected to Judaism. “We have a fairly active nucleus of a community but it is not a Jewish community, and consequently, it has difficulties in annually supporting itself.” But, “one can safely say that this is the only synagogue in Europe that is open to everyone. I’ve refused adamantly to have police guards at the door to do anything that might inhibit anyone from coming.”

Indeed, some of the people who use Etz Hayyim are not Jewish. For example, there are Christian residents of Chania who come from time to time on Shabbat or the high holidays. For those people, the synagogue “allows them to participate in some aspect of their Jewish root.” The synagogue’s librarian for example, the historian Anja Zuckmantel, a German who showed me around the site, is not Jewish yet a tremendous supporter of Etz Hayyim.

Of those who use Etz Hayyim that are Jewish, “Some of them are Jews who are of ambiguous backgrounds. They’re not Cretan Jews – they are form Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, of mixed North African background who come to synagogue and are firm supporters. There are Ashkenazim who don’t admit their Judaism anywhere and are able to come to terms with it through the synagogue.

“I defined the synagogue very carefully. It is open to any Jew regardless of their background, be they Reform or Liberal or Reconstructionist, sublimated or secularized. This was to be a place for a Jewish confrontation with each other. A lot of Jews came out of a place of hiding and the role of the synagogue is in terms of re-establishing a legitimacy of identity with a great number of people.” As for the services, Stavroulakis described them as “immaculate and kept according to the traditions of the Venetian Sephardic Jews of Greece that emerged after the sixteenth century.”

There is one question hanging over the synagogue and an inescapable one, and it is a question of money. Without a kehilat, there are no membership dues or congregants making major one-time donations to pay the synagogue in a self-sustaining way. “We don’t have a financial model, which is a problem because whenever the subject of finances comes up, I have to rely on the historical potential that is to be found in this building,” Stavroulakis said.

Since it is unlikely that a Jewish community (in the traditional sense) will re-establish itself in Chania, Etz Hayyim will have to find a way to survive without one, as the recipient of largesse from an outside philanthropist or philanthropic organization, the Jewish Community of Greece, the municipal government in Chania, or the central state in Athens. The restoration and rejuvenation of Etz Hayyim is a remarkable project, one which can be attributed to the will of one man amid so much doubt, and it is something which demands to be sustained well into the future.

“In our own way,” Stavroulakis told me in closing as I finished my tea, “we have justified the existence of the synagogue.”