18 June 2018

At a memorial service
to recall the 256
Holocaust victims in Crete

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I was both privileged and humbled to be a guest last night [17 June 2018] at a memorial service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania – the only surviving synagogue in Crete – to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish community of the Greek island during World War II.

Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, while the 256 remaining Jews of Crete were being sent by the Nazis to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them from Chania to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine 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.

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 horrific purpose of its voyage or who was on board.

The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue last night was led by the Chief Rabbi of Athens, Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, and I was invited to join in reading the names of the 256 Jews from Crete who died on board the Tanais.

During the Haskhavah or memorial service, the New York-born poet Natalie Ventura, who now lives in Crete, read her poem ‘Memorial Service.’

Later, we lit 256 candles to remember each one of the victims, and in silence the candles were placed around the synagogue, in the courtyard and the garden, in the mikvah or ritual bath, and on the tombs of the rabbis buried here in Ottoman times.

This was a humbling occasion, and as a visitor to Crete for 30 years I found it deeply moving to have been invited to take part.

The revival of the Etz Hayyim synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town 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.

They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the the arrival of Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.

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 in a neighbouring village, and the Greek authors of the plot were jailed.

At the beginning of the Greek-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 in the island: Chania (200 families), Iraklion (20 families), and Rethymnon (five families). They are engaged in commerce and in various manual occupations.

After World War II, the Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty. The sleeping 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 Ark in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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 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 they have been reburied.

In a hallway, a simple plaque bears the names of the Jews of Chania who drowned in 1944.

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, is now crammed with tavernas, caf├ęs 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.

Candles on the graves of the rabbis in the synagogue courtyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Last night, the poet Natalia Ventura read her poem ‘Memorial Service’:

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.

With Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin at the Holocaust Memorial Service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania

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