The Greek Synagogue That’s Lacking Only One Thing: Jews

The renovated Etz Hayyim synagogue on the island of Crete is testament to the passions of a man who refused to allow it to become a symbol of Hitler’s destruction of the Greek Jews.

Constantine Fraser

CHANIA, Crete – Down a backstreet of the Old Venetian Harbor of Chania, between the tavernas and boutiques, an elderly Greek man finishes morning prayers, wraps up his tefillin and lights his pipe. His name is Nikos Stavroulakis, and the synagogue of Etz Hayyim is his living memorial to 2,000 years of Cretan Jewry. No one quite knows when the first Jews arrived on Crete, but they seem to have been there almost since the time of Alexander. The Roman historian Tacitus even speculated, perhaps a little excitedly, that the Jewish people might have originated on the island, with the word “Judaea” a corruption of Crete’s Mount Ida. For centuries, they lived cheek by amicable jowl with Greeks, Turks and Venetians. But in June 1944, with Greece’s liberation already in sight, the island’s last 263 Jews were picked up by the Germans and herded onto the Greek tanker Tanias.

They didn’t even make it as far as the cattle wagons waiting on the mainland: Two British torpedoes sunk the ship and all aboard in the middle of the Aegean.

Looted and desecrated, its congregation wiped out, the old synagogue of Chania’s ancient, Greek-speaking Romaniot community fell into filthy disrepair, and would spend the postwar years as a storeroom for nearby restaurants and serving as an unofficial public lavatory.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that someone finally decided to rescue Etz Hayyim, which by then was listed by the World Monuments Fund among the world’s most endangered historical sites. Nikos’ background is glamorously international: Born to a Greek Orthodox father (his impeccably Cretan surname means “little cross”) and a Jewish mother from Istanbul, he was educated in England and the United States. He’s an academic, a founder of Greece’s Jewish Museum in Athens, an artist, the author and illustrator of several books on Levantine cuisine ... and a prodigious talker.

Over coffee and at great length, he expounds in his gravelly bass voice on the importance of ancient Crete as a crossroads between the Judaic and Hellenic worlds. His conversation is thick with literature, irony and friendly digs. Almost single-handedly, this last living Chaniot Jew raised the necessary funds and tackled Etz Hayyim’s restoration, retiring to his father’s house in the old town. “What dominated my thinking was the idea that the synagogue had, in fact, become a memorial to Hitler’s success in almost completely eradicating an important thread not only of Jewish history, but also that of Crete – a thread going back to the very beginnings of the Diaspora,” Nikos tells me. “After an earthquake in 1995, the roof collapsed and the walls started to buckle. I’d just returned to Chania, so I took up the project.” If there is now a working synagogue on the island, it’s down to him.

Today at Etz Hayyim, two quiet courtyards flank the main building. By the marble gate, which lies open to all on weekdays, water lilies sprout from terracotta pots and sunlight streams through the branches of an olive tree. At the back lie the chipped headstones of Chania’s past rabbis and the original mikveh (ritual bath) fed by an ice-cold local spring. Inside, the teak benches face a central aisle between the Ark and the reading platform, which in traditional Romaniot fashion sit at opposite walls. There’s even a library upstairs, open to the public by appointment. Etz Hayyim is a little haven from the throngs of tourists and touts outside. And with its rededication in 1999, Jewish life returned to Crete after the only half-century of silence in over two millennia.

Etz Hayyim synagogue, Crete. Photo by Constantine Fraser

Spiritual curiosity

Given the synagogue’s curious circumstances, however, Jewish life there is a little odd. In fact, its most striking feature is the shortage of actual Jews: aside from Nikos himself, the island has two Greek Jewish households down the coast at Heraklion and a sprinkling of expatriates. So apart from on the High Holy Days, when visitors come from Athens and Israel, they rarely have a quorum, with Nikos instead leading weekly Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services and sharing out the bread and wine in the synagogue itself. Of the dozen worshippers on the evening Haaretz attended, about two-thirds of us are gentiles: some are passersby who have dropped in; others regular attendees or volunteers at the synagogue, drawn by the charm of the place. “As long as you share our values, you’re welcome here,” says Nikos, with a wry smile and raised eyebrow, as if questioning my suitability. Men and women, Jews and non-Jews of all denominations, sit together and worship together, go for communal meals and (funds permitting) organize concerts and lectures on Jewish thought.

“Etz Hayyim has acquired quite a mixed group of people, and most of us sometimes wonder what’s brought us together,” says Anja Zückmantel, a German expatriate living in Chania. Despite having no Jewish background of her own, she got involved at Etz Hayyim and started to volunteer as a guide. Now, she works as the synagogue’s librarian. “The question probably can’t be answered properly, because everyone has their own personal reasons for coming here: friendships, spiritual or intellectual curiosity, or any combination of these.”

Interior of Etz Hayyim synagogue, Crete. Photo by Alexander Phoundoulakis

This pluralism isn’t just the product of necessity. For Nikos, remembering Crete’s lost Jews means keeping alive the tradition of a people long at a crossroads with the non-Jewish world, and bringing some instructive diversity back to a country that the 20th century had whitewashed into Greek Orthodoxy. Perhaps Etz Hayyim’s openness also comes from Nikos’ personal attachment to the Diaspora’s cosmopolitan past. In fact, Nikos now describes as “kooky” his past decision to move to Israel for several years, during which he taught at Tel Aviv University. He realized he’d had enough, he says, as he was sitting on a bus: “I looked around, and I realized that every single person around me was a Jew – and I said to myself, ‘What on earth are you doing in this place?’”

The lowest point for Etz Hayyim came in early 2010, when two arson attacks in the space of 10 days gutted the office and destroyed rare manuscripts, but largely spared the synagogue itself. “The attacks excited a lot of international interest as being anti-Semitic, which they certainly were not,” insists Nikos, who instead puts them down to vandalism and a halfhearted attempt at burglary, pointing to the thieves’ specific targeting of the office.

Whatever the motive, Etz Hayyim kept their doors open, undaunted, and the following Shabbat saw 90 people gather in support amid the scaffolding and smoke damage, testament to the little community that has sprung up. It could so easily have been a museum, this synagogue without Jews. Somehow though, Chania’s little temple has returned to life as a place of prayer, of learning and of common humanity.

Constantine Fraser