Early on the morning of June 9, 1944, the Greek freighter Tanais – which was carrying the entire Jewish community of Crete – was attacked northeast of the port of Piraeus.
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Within 15 minutes, the ship – which the German occupiers of Crete were using to transport the Jews to the Greek mainland for deportation, probably to Treblinka – had disappeared beneath the surface. None of its 265 Jewish passengers survived.
Also on board were a number of Greek resistance members and Italian prisoners of war (estimates range from some 230 to 600), nearly all of whom also died when the Tanais went down.
The Jewish presence on Crete was ancient, with its first recorded mention being in the non-canonical book 2 Maccabees, written in the second century B.C.E.
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By 1941, when the Germans occupied the island, it had 371 Jewish residents, all but eight of whom lived in Chania. (The decades preceding World War II had seen a net departure of Jews from the island, with the number declining from some 600 at the turn of the century.)
The Germans demanded a list of their names from the city’s rabbi, Elias Osmos, but didn’t get around to taking measures to deport them until May 1944.
Early on the morning of May 29, 1944, the occupiers rounded up the island’s Jews – most of whom lived in the Jewish Quarter of Chania’s Old City, where they were held briefly. From there, they were taken to Agia prison, outside the city, where they were imprisoned under subhuman conditions until June 8, when they were loaded on trucks and brought to Heraklion, there to be boarded onto the Tanais.
The 38-year-old cargo ship was the only vessel that had survived a June 1 Allied air raid on a German convoy, and although it too had been damaged, it was deemed seaworthy for the short voyage to Piraeus.
Shortly after 2:30 A.M. on the morning of June 9, the British submarine HMS Vivid spotted the Tanais some 33 miles northeast of Piraeus. A short time later, the submarine’s commander, Lt. John Varley, ordered the firing of four torpedoes, two of which apparently hit the ship.
Within a quarter hour, the Tanais was gone. None of its prisoners, who were locked into their quarters, had a chance of surviving.
Crete was liberated by mid-October 1944, and it is estimated that 25 of the island’s Jews, all of whom had evaded detection by the Germans and hence were not among those on the Tanais, survived the war.
The lone remaining synagogue on Crete, Chania’s Etz Hayyim Synagogue – originally built as a church in the 15th century, and turned into a synagogue in the 17th century – was left in ruins until the mid-1990s. Then, a group of private citizens, together with the World Monuments Fund, undertook to renovate it. It reopened in 1999 as a museum and functional synagogue.
Although it was damaged after an arson attack in 2010, it was quickly repaired, and today functions as a museum of the history of Cretan Jewry.