I entered the courtyard. Christoph, the Austrian intern, was there, sitting on a wooden chair, ready to light his cigarette. He was there because he chose to volunteer instead of having military service back in Austria. He stood up and came to greet me. “Are you Georgia?” “Do you want coffee?”, “Oh yes”, I said. “I am going to the kitchen to make it. Go into the office. Katerina is waiting for you.”
“Welcome, come in. Have a seat.” Katerina was a PhD candidate in the University of Crete. She was especially interested in the subject of collective memory and in EtzHayyim synagogue of Chania, the only living synagogue in Crete.Here she found a place where both collective memory and individual memory had been perished for many decades. She contributes to the synagogue with research work.
“Nikos Stavroulakis restored this synagogue when it was ready to collapse. His initial intention was just to restore this building because it was the only thing that remained after the loss of the Jewish community here. However, this synagogue became a haven for Jews, non-Jews, atheists, Muslims, everyone. He was a pioneer in building an inclusive community. Marianne will tell you more about him. They were very intimate friends. But we can walk around the synagogue and explain you each part of this place.”
“It is a Romaniote Jewish synagogue. This was the tradition of the Jews of the eastern Roman Empire, a tradition different than the Sephardi. ”
We walked around and she explained to me the history of the synagogue. “After the Jewish community perished, the synagogue was vandalized.We know that homeless Christian Orthodox families used the Synagogue as a house for some time after the Second World War. After they left, no one took care of the building. According to a testimony of a local person back in the 1970’s he could have bought the place easily shortly after the war, but he was afraid of God’s anger since it was a temple.
We kept walking in the synagogue and I kept asking about the history of Jews and how they left their neighborhood. “Here was the office of Nikos. We keep part of his libraryhere. Nikos was also a great artist. He was an expert in Islamic art.”
We moved to the mikveh. Katerina showed me a poster. “This poster was the first move of Nikos when he decided to restore the building. It is the poster with the 100 most endangered cultural sites all over the world in 1996. He managed to include the synagogue in this list after a speech he gave to New York in 1995.’’
Before coming to the synagogue, I printed the newsletter/jottings that EtzHayyim synagogue sent out in September 2017, after the death of Nikos in May 2017. The newsletter included letters of Nikos’ friends from all over the world. I read interviews of Nikos and articles from his friends and colleagues.
Marianne volunteered a lot in the synagogue. “For about 10 years, I guided people, I got involved in the fundraising and I became a part of this synagogue and of our community.” “What each one of us brought from his country, we brought it here.”
“Nikos had friends with strong personality. This is how I explain the success of this place. Each one could take the burden to lead the synagogue and do it successfully”.
Some months ago, I had visited the exhibition for Shared Sacred Spaces in Thessaloniki. The EtzHayyim synagogue and a video of Nikos was there to surprise the visitors. A French film producer had visited them two years ago and made a short documentary for their story. When I heard his voice, I thought that a man in his age would be very persistent and courageous!
“Georgia, what I am trying to tell you is that Nikos did not create this community on his own. People who came here founded this community. Nikos was just here to welcome them, discuss with them all kind of subjects and share with them knowledge and experience. People who come here are people who feel that they cannot fit in somewhere else. Here they are free to share thoughts and feelings.”
“You know, many people focus on this community aspect. Nikos first and foremost, would like restore the building and revive the history of Jews in Crete. The matter of community emerged much later.”
“Nikos was a very well educated man and he travelled a lot in his life. He knew very well what he wanted to create He was very sure for his steps and he had a lot of confidence. Ηe questioned everything and he discussed a lot”.
Some moments ago, Katerina had told me that in the beginning Nikos had to deal with many difficulties. Marianne confirmed me the same “The Central Greek Jewish Board and all the other Jewish communities did not help him in the beginning. Where is he going? There is no Jewish community there. He is the only one Jew and will we spend money only for one Jew?”
In the inauguration day, representatives from all Jewish communities of Greece were there to honor the synagogue.
“The next day after the inauguration in 2000, Nikos came to the synagogue and prayed. Step by step, we made it and every Friday night we have the regular service. In this way, with people knocking on the door and coming inside for talking with Nikos, a havurah as Nikos named it, was created.”
“Nikos was interfaith. He traveled a lot, he met many cultures and religions and he wanted pluralism. He brought features of each religion in this synagogue, such as Buddhism. But for him it was clearly a Jewish place open also to other religions.” I will never forget my enthusiasm when I realized that in 2017 the EtzHayyim synagogue published an Interfaith calendar with the major holidays of the Abrahamic religions. “Oh, yes! Nikos was exclusively responsible for every single detail of this calendar. It was an innovative action.”
In January and February 2010, some people put fire on the synagogue and destroyed a great part of the building as well as artifacts, books and material of great value. The case never went to court and the incident has been forgotten by the local society. The local society perhaps was not ready to deal with the revival of a Jewish past and perhaps the rebuilding of a Jewish community.
Katerina also told me “In the municipal archives or in the archives of local newspapers, you can find articles written by some locals back in the late 1990’s against the re-opening of the Synagogue of Hania. They refered to it as an ‘invasion’ of Jews.’’
Ending our meeting, I went to discover the Jewish quarter with the help of Katerina. In the 20th of March 1944 the Jews of Chania were arrested by the Nazis. They would be embarked on the ship “Tanais” to travel to Athens and from there to the concentration camps. Not even one of them would ever reach their final destination. The ship was sunk taking into the sea their past and their history.
I would like to thank: Ms Marianne Vinther (President of the Board), Ms Katerina Anagnostaki and Ms Anja Zuckmantel for their help but foremost for their vision and their persistence.
PS: Nikos Stavroulakis came, after a very long career and after his personal commitment to Greek Jewish Museums, to Chania in order to save the one and only synagogue on the island of Crete. EtzHayyim depends on donors for its function and its brighter future. Marianne was very positive for the future of the synagogue and she and the whole staff of the synagogue will struggle hard to keep alive the vision and the mission of Nikos and of all the synagogue’s friends and supporters.