I often come to Crete, specifically to Chania, where I have friends who treat me like family. On the plane to Chania, I try to sit, if possible, next to the window. I have to change the plane in Athens. From there, I fly another forty-five minutes to Chania. Soon I can see the shape of the island which spans 260 km (160 miles) from east to west and narrows to 12 km (7.5 miles) from north to south. Crete is like a mountain in the Mediterranian sea. Chania is positioned in front of the imposing culisse of the White Mountains (Lefka Ori)
The beautiful city of Chania, the second largest town and the former capital city of Crete, managed to preserve its historical character and original colours, despite the extensive damage caused by bombing during World War II, together with more recent fast-growing tourism. The first thing that tourists always want to see is the Venetian Harbour, the old port, the Faros Lighthouse, the narrow shopping streets and waterfront restaurants. Almost nobody knows of or possibly even cares that in former times, the quarter behind the old port was called Ovraiki. Almost eighty years ago, you would have seen Jewish shops, Jewish restaurants and Jewish families walking around and talking animatedly with their Greek Orthodox neighbours. And on Friday evenings, you could watch them walking into the community‘s two synagogues, the Sephardic Beth Shalom and the Romaniote Etz Hayyim.
When I am watching the blue of the Mediterranean sea – the Cretan Sea – from the plane above, I can´t help but think about the Jewish community of Chania which disappeared seventy-two years ago in the deep sea not far off the coast of Heraklion. Only some months before the end of the Nazi occupation of Crete, nearly 2300 years of Cretan Jewish history was obliterated in a single day.
In the year of the bombing and strafing of Chania, at the beginning of the Battle of Crete, Beth Shalom Synagogue was destroyed, leaving only one synagogue to serve the needs of the entire community. In May 1944, the island’s community, which at that time numbered about three hundred individuals, was arrested by the Nazis. After fifteen days incarcarated in the nearby Ayas prison, the prisoners were sent by convoy to Heraklion where they were herded onto a cargo ship, the Tanais, together with some Greek and Italian prisoners of war. In the early hours of the following morning, halfway to the port of Piraeus and somewhere off the island of Milos, the ship was struck by two torpedoes fired from a British submarine and sank within fifteen minutes – leaving no survivors…“ (Nikos Stavroulakis).
I imagine 263 inhumanly imprisoned Jewish men, women and children, alongside their fellow Greek and Italian prisoners, screaming for their lives onboard the “Tanais”. And how they disappeared – sunk by two British torpedos on 9th June 1944 – in only fifteen minutes. From the 300 or so Jews of Crete, only seven individuals managed to escape when, on 21st May 1944, the Jewish quarter was surrounded by German trucks.
Sometimes, when the setting sun envelopes the horizon behind the sea in a pink – yellow haze, I wonder if the souls of the drowned are perhaps still present. Much imagination is needed to find traces of Jewish life in the Jewish Quarter of Chania that was called “Ovraiki”. So I wonder, is there no more Jewish life in Chania? Unfortunately, much is lost forever in the sea or stolen and destroyed by thieves and looters. Yet, a ray of light on the horizon has remained. I want to give thanks to the tireless efforts of some individuals, in particular to Nikos Stavroulakis, as well as to many others, for what could be achieved against many odds.
Before we visit the Etz Hayyim Synagogue, let´s take a walk through the Old Town (“Palia Poli”) of Chania. The area between the Parodos Portu and Parodos Kondilaki used to be the Jewish quarter of Chania. Some inhabitants of Chania still remember the name: “Ovraiki”. Today, there are countless tavernas and shops here. In the heat of the rainless summer, you perhaps wouldn´t notice that several restaurants are located within the ruins of bombed-out houses, as is the “Ela” restaurant, a former Jewish-owned soap factory. The restaurant is situated practically opposite Etz Hayyim. The history of the house is described inside the menu, and the owner and the stuff are friendly. There are many tasty dishes including vegetarian, although not prepared as kosher. A list kosher food in Greece can be found under this link: http://www.etz-hayyim-hania.org/useful-information/
There are a few buildings that can be attributed to their former use within the community, for instance, immediately south of Etz Hayyim on Parodos Kondylaki Street is the building of the former Talmud Torah School. The latter functioned as the community school in the neighbourhood until the end of the 19th century. Kondylaki Street No. 39 was the residence of Rabbi Elias Osmos who perished alongside his family and the rest of the community on 9th June, 1944. The former community kindergarten stood on the corner of Kondylaki and Portou streets. However, this building was destroyed during the German bombing of Chania in May, 1941, together with the Beth Shalom Synagogue immediately to the north on Kondylaki Street (today a restaurant).
There are no longer any remnants of the former Jewish cemetery to the west of the Old Town in what is presently, the Nea Chora district. The last remaining tomb stones from the cemetery are now kept in the southern courtyard of Etz Hayyim Synagogue.
Current research aims to develop a detailed map showing clearly the homes of Jewish families in the Ovraikí neighbourhood based on lists of community members in the early 1940s.
The monument to the Jews of Chania is located at Akti Miaouli where it is placed (barely visible) next to some palm trees. A metal plaque refers to the fate of the cargo ship, the “Tanais”. (The monument is the location of an annual public commemoration of the victims of the Tanais, which is followed by a memorial service at Etz Hayyim Synagogue.) The local residents meet at the Akti Miaouli to drink coffee in a cool place and with a sea view. My favorite café is the “Elliniko”. Here, they offer wonderful baguettes, cakes and excellent espresso. After having a refreshment, you can follow the coastline that will lead you to the “Ovraiki”. Now we are ready to visit the synagogue.
When you enter the shady courtyard of the synagogue, you may find its friendly administrator, the historian, Anja Zuckmantel sitting here at a round table. She and her colleagues will be happy to give you a tour of the Synagogue and tell you about the history of the place.
Etz Hayyim stands in the same place it’s been since the Medieval (Venetian) period, crammed into the city’s old town, a walled maze of alleys fanning out from a pretty harbour with a lighthouse. The Ovraiki’s Jewish community stretched many centuries, surviving all kinds of invaders: Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans. Today, however, there are barely more than a dozen Jews left in Crete (and most of them from abroad), and much of the quarter is home mostly to Starbucks and shops selling “I Love Crete” T-shirts.
For decades after Chania’s Jewish community was destroyed, the synagogue stood dormant. It was desecrated. Used as a dump, a urinal, and kennel. Pounded by earthquakes. Filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikveh oozing muck. Then, after half a century, Nicholas Stavroulakis arrived and took on the synagogue as his mission, starting its reconstruction in 1996. Stavroulakis first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties prompted many visits to the island. “It was well-known that the Cretan community was lost, and when I first came to Chania I wanted to see where they had lived,” he told me. After Stavroulakis, now 85, retired, he returned to Crete in 1995 and set about restoring the synagogue. (An exhibition about the reconstruction project was opened in June 2016.)
The synagogue is active and holds weekly Friday Kabbalat Shabbat services and Shabbat Kiddush; most other holidays are also celebrated. Events at Etz Hayyim Synagogue are organized according to the Jewish liturgical year, but also include other cultural programs like concerts and lectures. (a calendar of events is available at: http://www.etz-hayyim-hania.org/newsandevents/ and on the synagogue’s Facebook page) The synagogue is not just a house of prayer open to all Jews, but to everyone (including non-Jews) who shares our values within the tradition of Abraham. Consequently, services are determined to a great degree by specific Jewish denominational needs. There are daily prayer books (siddurim) according to the Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions. For the greater festivals, there are also festival prayer books (mahzorim), as well as talleths and tephillin that are either Sephardic or Ashkenazic. These are available on request to all visitors. Equally, there are also prayer booklets that are based on Conservative, Reform and even Reconstructionist texts that permit active participation for most Jews and even non-Jews.
For more Information see the following links.
facebook: Synagogue Etz Hayyim
Special thanks to Nikos Stavroulakis, Anja Zuckmantel and the stuff of Ets Hayim, who helped me to write this article and to Mr. Manolis Manousakas, who is a local historic of Chania. He is one of the few Greeks who regularely reminds about the Jewish history of Chania in his articles in the local newspaper Chaniotika Nea
Author: Anna Metaxa – Berlin – Chania 27/8/2016