Sunday, 2 June 2019

How the last Jews of Crete
perished in the Holocaust
75 years ago in June 1944

Etz Hayyim Synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the virtual annihilation of the Jewish community of Crete in 1944. Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, the Greek freighter Tanais – which was carrying 265 people, the entire surviving Jewish population of Crete – was torpedoed before it reached the port of Piraeus.

Since I started visiting Crete in the mid-1980s, I have often searched for the remains of the Jewish communities that once lived in the island’s three main cities, Chania, Rethymnon and Iraklion.

The courtyard of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania … there have been Jews in Crete for over 2,300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania, where there has been a synagogue since the Middle Ages. It is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.

There had been Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans.

There are early references to the Jews in Crete in I Maccabees 15: 23. A letter from Simon Maccabee to the ruler of Crete in 142 BCE expresses support for the local Jews. Philo of Alexandria speaks of the Jews of Crete. Josephus the Jewish historian married a Jewish woman from Crete. He notes that the false Alexander, on his way to Rome in the year 4 BCE, visited the Jewish communities of Crete, who accepted him as a member of the Hasmonean dynasty and gave him money. A few decades later, the New Testament records Jews from Crete living in Jerusalem at the time of the Pentecost (Acts 2: 11).

The Emperor Theodosius II expelled the Jews from Crete in 408. But many families returned, and in the year 440 many Jews in Crete accepted the claims of Moses of Crete, a self-proclaimed Messiah.

The Jews of Rethymnon lived in a suburb outside the walls of the Byzantine city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Surviving in mediaeval Crete

The Jewish communities of Crete may have survived the Byzantine and Saracen periods, and there probably was a Jewish presence in Crete when the island was captured by Venice in 1204.

The Jews of Rethymnon are noted in 1222, when there is a reference to them during a Greek rebellion against the Venetians, and some documents give 1228 as the date for the foundation of a synagogue in Crete. By 1320, the Jews of Rethymnon lived in the old burgus or suburb, outside the Byzantine city. Sabateus Capsali was the Jewish owner of several houses abutting the walls of the suburb in Rethymnon.

In return for reopening the synagogue in 1386, the Jews of Rethymnon were obliged to pay towards building the port (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Jewish community of Rethymnon had its own institutions well before 1362, with a synagogue cantor and a shochet or ritual animal slaughterer. In return for reopening their synagogue in 1386, the Jews of Rethymnon were obliged to pay towards building the port.

A significant number of Sephardic Jews arrived in Venetian Crete in 1391, having fled recent massacres in Spain. They were soon joined by more exiles from Venice in 1394 and then from Germany. Despite tensions between the original Romaniot Jews of Crete and the new Sephardic arrivals, the two communities soon intermarried.

Meanwhile, in 1392, the Jews of Rethymnon were required to supply 12 men to guard the ramparts near the ghetto. There is a reference to this Jewish quarter in a resolution of the Venetian Senate in 1412.

The Jewish population of Crete in the 15th century has been estimated at 1,160. The Capsali family, which had lived in Rethymnon from the 14th century or earlier, included leading rabbis such as Moses ben Elijah Capsali (1420-1495), who became Hakham Bashi or Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, and Elijah Capsali (1483-1555), who wrote histories of Crete and Venice.

When large numbers of exiles fleeing the Spanish Inquisition arrived on Crete in the early 16th century, the island’s Jewish communities sold gold ornaments in their synagogues to raise money to ransom many exiles being kept forcibly on board the ships.

In the side streets of Rethymnon on a balmy summer afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ottoman decline

After the Turks captured Rethymnon in 1647, it is said, the Jewish population left the city for economic reasons. But the Jewish communities of Crete survived in Iraklion and Chania. On the advice of the Chief Rabbi of Crete, Moses Ashkenazi, all Jews who were Greek subjects formally adopted Ottoman nationality in 1869.

The Jews of Chania were accused of a ritual murder in 1873. But, thanks to the efforts of the French consul-general, the missing child was found and the Greek authors of the plot were jailed.

The name of Kapsali Street, leading to the Cathedral, evokes memories of one of the leading Jewish families in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the beginning of the Greco-Turkish war in 1897, there were 225 Jewish families in Crete, or 1,150 people in a total population of 250,000, spread across the three cities: Chania (200 families), Iraklion (20 families), and Rethymnon (five families). But Jewish life in Crete was declining significantly, and many Jewish families left and moved to Venice and other parts of Italy and to other Jewish enclaves in the Mediterranean, including Gibraltar, Istanbul and Thessaloniki.

Recently, as I strolled through the old Venetian parts of Rethymnon, I could find no traces of the Jewish quarter or any of the former synagogues, the Jewish Quarter or a Jewish cemetery.

The minaret of the Valide Sultana Mosque behind Tombázi Street has a sculpted Star of David … was this the site of the synagogue in Rethymnon? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The minaret of the old Porta Grande or Valide Sultana Mosque, behind the shopfronts on Tombázi Street, has an inscription in Arabic and a sculpted Star of David beneath. The mosque stands near the Guora Gate, the main gate into the Venetian city, built by Jacopo Guoro, Governor of Rethymnon in 1566-1588.

The revival of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The mosque was built in 1670 and was named after the Valide Sultana Kösem (1589-1651), once of the most powerful women in Ottoman history as Valide Sultana or Queen Mother from 1623 to 1651. Kösem was of Greek birth, born Anastasia, the daughter of a priest on the island of Tinos. Perhaps the Star of David was carved on the minaret because the mosque stands on the site of the original synagogue.

Close to the mosque, the name of Kapsali Street, off Tombazi Street, evokes memories of the Capsali family, one of the leading Jewish families in Rethymnon.

The Etz Hayyim synagogue was desecrated and abandoned after World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

German occupation

Some of the remaining Jews managed to escape Crete before the Germans occupied Crete in 1941. The Nazis ordered a census of the remaining Jews on the island and found 314 Jews in Chania and 26 in Iraklion.

In 1944, the 265 remaining Jews of Crete were rounded up by the Nazis to be sent to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz. But early on the morning of 9 June 1944, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine, the HMS Vivid, off the coast of Santorini.

In all, about 1,000 prisoners were on board the ship, including 400 Greek hostages and 300 Italian soldiers. No one survived.

The Aron Hakodesh or Ark in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a cruel twist of fate, the Jews of Crete were destroyed by fire in the Holocaust, but not in the way the Nazis had planned. The crew of the HMS Vivid believed they were sinking an enemy target, but never realised the horrific purpose of its voyage or who was on board.

The bimah or prayer platform in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reviving a synagogue

The Etz Hayyim synagogue in Chania stood empty after World War II. The building was desecrated and was used as a dump, a urinal and a kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.

The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. He first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties inspired many visits to this island. He returned to Crete in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.

The synagogue’s floor plan is in the Romaniote or Greek tradition. The ark faces the eastern wall, while the bimah or platform for readings and prayers faces the western one. The rebuilt mikvah is fed by a spring. The scattered remains of the tombs of past rabbis have been recovered and have been reburied. In a hallway, a simple plaque bears the names of the Jews of Chania who were killed in 1944.

The tombs of Ottoman-era rabbis beside the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Etz Hayyim suffered two arson attacks in the same month in 2010. But there was international outage, and donations poured in for the restoration of Etz Hayyim. A synagogue in Athens, where most of Greece’s 5,000 Jews live, lent spiritual support by declaring itself a sister synagogue.

Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter of Chania, is crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, regularly comes to Chania from Athens to help with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was both privileged and humbled to be a guest last year at the memorial service in Etz Hayyim to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish community of Crete. The service was led by the Chief Rabbi of Athens, Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, and I was invited to join in reading the names of the 265 Jews from Crete who died on board the Tanais.

After the Haskhavah or memorial service, we lit 265 candles to remember each one of the victims. In silence the candles were placed around the synagogue, in the courtyard and in the garden, in the mikvah or ritual bath, and on the tombs of the rabbis buried there in Ottoman times. The New York-born poet Natalia Ventura, who lives in Crete, read her poem ‘Memorial Service’:

A menorah, prayer shawls and prayer books in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Your absence
perfumes the air
like incense in this house of prayer.

Through the evening service,
we listen still
for the music of your presence,

half expecting a miracle:
your voices
ringing in our ears.

Your names – at least – survive.
We say them one-by-one,
speak the being behind the name.
Whole families grouped
like sheaves of wheat –
Elchais: Chaim, Elvira, Rebecca, Leon,
Osmos: Solomon, Stella, Ketti, Mois.
A shower of names, unrelenting –
Avigades, Dientes, Depa, Evlagon, Ischakis, Cohen, Kounio.
A tide, a torrent, hailstones
hitting hard: Isaak. Zapheira. Matilda. Nisim.
Zilda. Salvador. Raphael. Rosa.

We light candles
to your memory, carry them
to every corner of the courtyard:
set them on the steps,

the Hebrew-lettered stones,
the walls round the rabbis’ tombs;
among the roses, potted palms
and jasmine; under the walnut,

under the pomegranate tree
until the courtyard’s a sea
of light, shimmering with spirit –
yours and ours entwined.

Sorrow and joy,
absence and presence,
Then and Now cross borders,
join hands, are one.


The Holocaust memorial in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This feature was first published in June 2019 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)

Patrick Comerford with Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania

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