03 September 2021

‘Be gracious to us and answer
us … treat us with charity
and kindness, and save us’

The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

After a long delay and a lengthy period of impatient waiting, I plan to return to Greece next week, and I am looking forward to two weeks in Rethymnon, which has been the nearest thing to home in Greece since the 1980s.

This holiday coincides with the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, beginning at sunset on Monday evening (6 September), and they include Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur on Wednesday evening and Thursday 15 and 16 September.

I hope in these two weeks that I can also take the journey from Rethymnon to Chania and visit Etz Hayyim, the only surviving synagogue in Crete.

In the past few days, the Jewish community in Greece has expressed its concern about the appointment of Thanos Plevris as Minister of Health earlier this week. Twelve years ago, in a court hearing in 2009, he appeared to deny the Holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz when he was defending his extreme-right father.

The right-wing minister had been a defence lawyer for his father, Constantinos Plevris, when he was charged with incitement to racist hatred or violence over his book Jews: The Whole Truth.

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) expressed concern over the cabinet appointment on Tuesday and called on the new minister to apologise for his remarks.

A Greek MEP, Stelios Kouloglou, has also asked European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas to investigate whether Plervis represents the ‘European way of life.’ In response, Plevris said the KIS objections to his court comments were ‘understandable,’ but now claims he ‘fully disagrees’ with his father’s views.

His father wrote, ‘Keep the camp of Auschwitz in good condition because I want, at some point, the national socialist regime to come back, Hitler to come back, take the Jews and put them in Auschwitz.’

Defending his father in court, Plevris said at the time, ‘What kind of instigation is this? What incitement is this? Is one not allowed to believe and want to believe “I want to exterminate someone”?’ Both father and son have been members of the extreme-right Popular Orthodox Rally party.

This week, in response to the concerns expressed by KIS, the new minister said, ‘I never wanted to insult the Jewish people, and I apologise if I did.’

He has also suggested in the past that migrants at Greece’s border with Turkey should be shot. He went on to argue that all migrants should be banned from basic essential health and education services, even suggesting they should be denied food until they leave.

Greece’s COVID vaccination rate is behind many other EU member states, but Plevris holds views on vaccination that appear to be to the right of Trump. In a July op-ed headed ‘The Government has no obligation to enforce vaccinations,’ he wrote: ‘If the citizen does not want to be vaccinated, is it my responsibility to convince him or to go and be vaccinated himself?’

This is the man who was appointed as the new Greek Health Minister this week. Many Greek media have criticised the cabinet shuffle, saying it is a clear turn to the far-right faction of ruling New Democracy party. The Interior Minister, Makis Voridis, has also been forced in the past to apologise for anti-Semitic comments.

In its statement this week, KIS asked Plevris to apologise to the Jewish people for his words in court and to express his unequivocal condemnation of intolerance, antisemitism and Holocaust denial. ‘We also hope that the new Minister will address all citizens equally, regardless of skin colour, race or religion.

The controversy over the appointment of Plevris comes only weeks after the death of Isaac Mizan, the last Holocaust survivor from the former Jewish community of Arta in north-west Greece. He was arrested by the Nazis on 24 March 1944, along with 351 other Jews in Arta. They were sent first to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen.

He returned to Greece and Arta in August 1945. Of the 352 Jews of Arta deported to death camps, only 23 returned; of the 12 members of the Mizan family who were sent to Auschwitz, only three returned.

Isaac Mizan spoke movingly of the deep trauma suffered by the survivors of the Holocaust: ‘There were moments when we felt guilty because we, the lucky few, survived and the others were lost.’ He died earlier this summer at the age of 94.

KIS reports recently that racism and anti-Semitism in Greece remain ‘a serious problem and an open wound for our society.’

A grave was vandalised in the Jewish cemetery in Ioannina last month, and marble fragments from the gravestone were scattered around the cemetery.

In March, vandals attacked a new mural on Michael Kalou Street in Thessaloniki depicting the deportation of the Jews of Thessaloniki and their extermination in the Nazi death camps. The mural was created by the Vardaris Neighbourhood Team of the Self-Help Promotion Programme of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

At the end of last year, the Holocaust memorial in Drama was vandalised.

Last night’s racist chanting and Nazi salutes by Hungarian football fans in Budapest shows clearly that every expression of racism must be challenged wherever and whenever it is seen or heard.

The Ten Days of Repentance (עשרת ימי תשובה‎, Aséret y'méy t'shuvá) are the first ten days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, beginning with Rosh Hashanah on Monday evening and ending with the conclusion of Yom Kippur in the week after.

This evening, for my Friday evening reflections and prayers, I am praying the words of part of a prayer that is traditionally recited during those ten days:

‘Our Father, or King, be gracious to us and answer us, though we are without merit; treat us with charity and kindness, and save us.’

Shabbat Shalom

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

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
97, Saint John’s Priory, Waterford

The Manor of Saint John designed by AWN Pugin for the Wyse family ca 1842 … continues the name of Saint John’s Priory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme this week is Benedictine (including Cistercian) foundations. My photographs this morning (3 September 2021) are from the Manor of Saint John, on the site of the lands of the Benedictine Priory of Saint John in Waterford.

The former Wyse family chapel designed by Pugin is now used as a lecture room (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Benedictine Priory of Saint John the Evangelist in Waterford may have been founded by Prince John (later King of England) ca 1185, and had two chapels. Saint Leonard’s chapel was associated with a hospital. The hospital housed monks and nuns until the 15th century.

Saint John’s Priory was dependent on Bath Abbey, and one of its dependencies in Ireland was Saint John’s Priory in Youghal, Co Cork (see 31 August 2021).

Saint John’s priory gave its name to the Johnstown area, which was part of the suburbs of the mediaeval city.

After the suppression of the monastery at the Tudor Reformation in 1536, the Priory and its lands were granted to Sir Thomas Wyse, a leading Catholic in Waterford, for his services to the crown. But it is said Cistercian monks continued in the community until the Cromwell period in the mid-17th century.

The Wyse family remained substantial landowners at the Manor of Saint John, which took its name from the former Benedictine priory, and the family also gave its name to Wyse Park.

Sir Thomas Wyse inherited his family’s vast estates and took a leading role in the famous 1826 election campaign with Daniel O’Connell. He was the election agent of the pro-emancipation candidate Villiers Stuart who inflicted a dramatic defeat on Lord George Beresford in Co Waterford, a success that encouraged O’Connell to contest the Co Clare by-election in 1828.

Wyse was elected MP for Co Tipperary in 1830. A year earlier, he had been elected to Waterford City Council, and he was MP for the city from 1835 until he lost his seat to a more radical Young Irelander in 1847.

Wyse is better remembered today for his marriage to Letitia Bonaparte, a niece of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. They met while he was on the Grand Tour in Italy and they were married in 1821 in Viterbo.

Back in Waterford, Wyse was appointed one of the Commissioners for the building of the new Houses of Parliament in London. Pugin was one of the architects, and Wyse engaged him to design the new Manor of Saint John at Roanmore.

After losing his seat in Parliament, Wyse was appointed the British Ambassador to Greece. He was knighted for his securing Greek neutrality during the Crimean War and when he died in 1862 he was given a Greek state funeral in Athens.

His Pugin manor house once displayed the Napoleonic Imperial Eagle over the entrance door, elegantly cut in stone by a local sculptor, M Carew.

The Manor of Saint John is in the middle of a housing state at the back of the site of the former Waterford Crystal factory. It hosts a variety of youth services providing learning, development and recreational opportunities for young people. The facilities include games rooms, sports hall, a youth cafe, meeting and training rooms, a community garden, outside all-weather multi-game playing surfaces, health and fitness gym and much more.

The former Wyse family chapel designed by Pugin is now being used as a lecture room. But most of the original tiling, plaster work and features are long gone.

The gates are locked at the entrance to the ruins of the former Benedictine priory at the corner of Manor Street and Parliament Street. They can be glimpsed from John’s Lane on the north side. In recent years, the walls around Wyse Park have been rebuilt, and the family gravestones have been secured. There are plans to rebuild the arch of Saint John’s Priory, which was removed in the 19th century.

Most of Pugin’s original tiling, plaster work and features are long gone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 5: 33-39 (NRSVA):

33 Then they said to him, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ 36 He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good”.’

It is still possible, here and there, to imagine Pugin’s vision for Saint John’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (3 September 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the protection of Amazon rainforest, the so-called ‘lungs of the world’, and all those who live there. May we recognise the impact of our actions on the climate and choose to live more sustainably.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The rear of Saint John’s, where there is no trace of Pugin’s Gothic intentions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The name of Saint John’s Priory survives in John Street, now part of a busy shopping area in Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)