Our guidebook mentioned that there was a restored, historic synagogue in the old quarter of Chania, Crete, Greece. We were intrigued and were rewarded by a very informative visit to the synagogue’s museum after touring the synagogue, the Mikveh (ritual bath) and the memorial to all the congregants who perished in the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1944. We were very glad that we had sought out and found the synagogue. Thanks to the Etz Hayyim website, we are able to share a lot of the history and stories that we saw pictured and read about in the synagogue museum.
“The Jews of Crete are first mentioned in 2 Maccabees and appear to have had a community at Gortys. This city came into administrative prominence during Hellenistic times and attracted artisans and technicians from Alexandria. It is likely that the members of this early Jewish community were originally from Egypt. Inscriptions found on the island of Delos indicating the existence of a Samaritan community at Knossos/Herakleion in the 1st century BCE make it likely that a Jewish community also existed there… Under various occupations – Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman – the Jews of Crete were a distinct and quite fascinating thread of continuity. Toward the end of the 19th century as a consequence of the struggle between the European Powers over the fate of the Ottoman Empire and insular revolts aimed at unifying Crete with the mainland of Greece, Jews began to emigrate until by 1941 there was only one community that survived – that of Hania – numbering approximately 330 people. It had two synagogues dating from the Middle Ages – Beth Shalom and Kal Kadosh Etz Hayyim.
“In that year during the bombing and strafing of Hania at the beginning of the battle of Crete, Beth Shalom was destroyed leaving only one synagogue to serve the needs of the community. In May of 1944 the entire community was arrested by the Nazis and after a period of incarceration in a nearby prison they were sent by convoy to Herakleion where they were herded onto a ship, the Tanais. In the early hours of the following morning halfway to the port of Piraeus the ship was struck by torpedoes fired from a British submarine and sank within fifteen minutes – leaving no survivors.” – Nikos Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, www.etz-hayim-hania.org
“Until 1995 the Jewish Quarter and Synagogue of Hania slowly sank into near oblivion and the memory of the tragedy was almost obliterated in the enthusiasm to develop Hania as a tourist centre. A serious earthquake damaged the synagogue to the point of imminent collapse and not long after Nikos Stavroulakis gave a paper at a symposium sponsored jointly by the World Monuments Fund and the Jewish Heritage Program in New York. Not long after a decision was made to include Etz Hayyim in the list of 100 most endangered monuments of international cultural concern in 1996. In the august company of Hagia Sophia, the Temple of Minerva in Rome, etc., Etz Hayyim began a new period in its long history. Through the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation an initial grant was given for the restoration project which was put under the aegis the of the World Monuments Fund in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece. Work began on the project in 1998. The Director of the project has been Nicholas Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece and funding has been provided by the Rothschild, Lauder, Rosenberg, Rose and other foundations of note as well as interested individuals. The synagogue was officially re-opened on 10 October 1999 when the mezzuzoth were put on its doors and a Sepher Torah was brought ceremoniously into the Synagogue.” – Nikos Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, www.etz-hayim-hania.org
“The interior of Etz Hayyim is laid out according to the tradition of Romaniote Jewish communities in Greece. Several examples have survived notably in Ioannina, Halkis, and Corfu and what remains of the interior furnishings of the synagogue of Patras. This layout is quite different from that of the Sephardi synagogues in Greece and can also be found in Venice, elsewhere in Italy, and occasionally in Turkey and North Africa. In keeping with all synagogues the Ehal (Torah shrine) is located on the East wall but as is typical of Romaniote synagogues, the Bema (elevated platform for reading the Torah) is located axially opposite to it against the West wall.
“The seating arrangement follows this polar-axial arrangement so that the benches are either against the walls (south and north) or along the central aisle. It is a highly practical solution to the problem of processions where the congregation must follow the Torah as it is being brought from the Ehal to the Bema and back again, or even the interior circuits that are performed at certain festivals, e.g. Sukkoth. From the place where one is sitting (or standing) one can easily face East or West or reach out to touch the Torah.
“Visual access to the interior for the women was possible through a lattice-work screen in the S/E Gothic arch and another smaller women’s section is located above the caretaker’s lodge to the N/W. The former domed structure was completely destroyed in 1941, rebuilt in 2008 as the Jennifer Stein Memorial Library. Both spaces now house part of the Synagogue’s library as well as offices.” – Nikos Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, www.etz-hayim-hania.org
“The Nazi-German occupation of Greece began in 1941 and lasted until well into 1945. The circumstances that led to this were complex and perhaps initially only peripherally of concern for Germany as it was called upon to assist its Italian and Bulgarian allies in their expansionist and irredentist aspirations. Crete was taken by the Germans in May 1941. They were met by fierce resistance from the local population and the three main towns, Hania, Rethmynon and Herakleion, were badly bombed.
“The Axis Powers eventually prevailed in the Battle of Crete and established their rule by June 1941. By agreement the island was divided into two zones of occupation; the Germans taking the lion’s share with the main ports and cities and the Italians holding the far eastern portion….
“It was not until the morning hours of 29 May 1944, and almost as an afterthought, that the Jews of Crete were arrested. Most of the Jews lived in what was then the Jewish Quarter between Kondylaki and Skoufon streets, bordered by Zambeliou and Portou Streets in the Old City of Hania. Jews who lived in such areas as Splantzia and Halepa and other parts of Hania were herded together and eventually were fed into the convoy of trucks that left from Zambeliou, Portou and Kondylakis Streets. From there they were taken to Ayias Prison located not far from Hania. Until 9 June they were kept in atrocious conditions, that were described by Christian friends who had attempted to make some contact with them, as inhuman. Many of the elderly and others had nothing to wear save the bed clothes that many wore at the time of their arrest. From Ayias they were transported to Herakleion by lorry and dispatched on the ill-fated ship Tanais. Together with Greek and Italian prisoners they were headed for Piraeus where they would have joined Jews from Corfu and Zakynthos destined for Auschwitz.
“For some years the details of the last hours of the Tanais and the fate of its crew and human cargo was not clear. What was known is that the ship had been sunk and that all had perished. Evidence has now appeared through the Foreign Office in London that in fact the Tanais had been sighted by a British submarine and was given two torpedo broadsides and sank within 15 minutes. None of the prisoners survived.
“A memorial service for the members of the Jewish community of Crete who perished on the Tanais is held annually, during which a list with all the names of the victims is read.” – Nikos Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, www.etz-hayim-hania.org