02 September 2022

New Torah scroll to honour
scholar who saved the last
surviving synagogue in Crete

The Aron haKodesh or Ark in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania … a new Sefer Torah is being installed in memory of Nikos Stavroulakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday marks the European Days of Jewish Culture (4 September 2002), and this year’s theme is ‘Renewal.’

Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania is inviting members and friends to the installation in coming weeks of a new Sefer Torah in loving memory of Nikos Stavroulakis (1932-2017), who was the driving force behind restoring the only surviving synagogue in Crete. At first, the ceremony was originally planned for Simhat Torah 5783, Monday 17 October 2022, but this is now being rescheduled.

I have not been back to Crete this year. Although I cannot be in Etz Hayyim for this event next month, I have deep respect for the work of Nikos Stavroulakis as a scholar and an artist, and especially for his work in restoring Etz Hayyim, which stood forlorn and in ruins close to the harbour in Chania for four decades after World War II.

The name Etz Hayyim means Tree of Life. This is one of my favourite synagogues, and I referred to it in my Friday evening reflections last week (26 August) as I was thinking about the word hayyim and the meaning of life. The story of this synagogue and its restoration is a true story illustrating the theme of ‘Renewal.’

Nicholas Peter Stavroulakis (aka Peter Stavis) was born on 20 June 1932 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. His parents Petros and Annie were both immigrants: his Jewish mother was from Turkey and his Greek Orthodox father was from Crete.

He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1954 with a BA in European Literature and Philosophy. Two years later, he earned an MA in Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. He then left for England where he began his DPhil in Islamic Art and Architecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London under David Rice.

Much later he resumed his academic work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under Professor D Avi Yonah and completed his thesis on ‘The icons of Mar Saba Monastery in the Wadi Kelt’ under Professor Bezalel Narkiss in 1975.

He left England for Athens in 1958, uniting with family there, especially his first cousin, Dori Kanellos, son of his father’s sister Maria. For the next eight years, he taught at the Doxiadis School and the Anglo-American Academy.

At the same time, he developed his career as a painter and engraver, with a number of one-man shows from 1960 in Athens, London, Paris, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. His works can be seen in New York, Houston and other museums worldwide.

He moved to Israel in 1969, assuming his Hebrew name Daniel Hannan. In Jerusalem, he was as director of the excavation of Santa Maria Allemana under the Jerusalem Foundation in 1969-1971, and he lectured in Byzantine Art and Architecture at the University of Tel Aviv in 1972 -1974.

He returned to Athens in 1974, and lectured in Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman history and art for several American study-abroad programmes.

Nikos Stavroulakis was a consultant for the newly established Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nikos co-founded the Jewish Museum of Greece in 1977 with Nouli Vital, Eli Almosnino and Ida Mordoh. He was its director from 1977 to 1993, constantly expanding its collection with rare books and publications, textiles, costumes, jewellery and domestic and religious artefacts.

During those years, he wrote several books, including The Jews of Greece, Salonica: Jews and Dervishes and the Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. He also translated the Holocaust memoir of Errikos Sevillias, Athens to Auschwitz. Later he was also a consultant for the newly established Jewish museums of Thessaloniki and Rhodes.

Nikos moved to Chania in 1994, and there he was the driving force behind restoring the synagogue of Etz Hayyim, which had been in ruins since World War II.

Etz Hayyim synagogue was built as a church in the 15th century and was converted into a synagogue in the 1600s. The 265 remaining Jews of Crete were rounded up in 1944 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 synagogue in Chania stood in ruins after World War II after the destruction of the local Jewish community. The World Monuments Fund placed it on its ‘watch list’ of most endangered heritage sites in 1996, and Nikos drove the efforts to bring it back to life.

Under his direction, building work began in 1996, and the synagogue was rededicated in 1999. The synagogue reopened as a ‘place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation,’ with an eclectic and pluralistic congregation.

As Nikos Stavroulakis put it, Etz Hayyim ‘accommodates Jews of every variety of self-identity as well as non-Jews.’ He continued as the spiritual director of Etz Hayyim until he died in Chania in 2017 at the age of 85.

May his memory be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

Nikos Stavroulakis was the driving force behind restoring the synagogue of Etz Hayyim in Chania

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