The Revival of Etz Hayyim Synagogue

On the Greek island of Crete, a longstanding Jewish community had its presence since the first century b.c. The community had been flourishing throughout the centuries and had a prominent intellectual and commercial position in the life of the island. In two areas of the island, Irakleio and Chania, the Jewish community was especially active. In the town of Chania and until 1944, the Jewish community had two synagogues (one Sephardi and one in Romaniote style) and almost 300 persons.

Three impact events contributed to the death and life of the Jewish community and of the Etz Hayyim synagogue. But first of all, what is an impact event? The literary theorist Anne Fuchs has introduced the term “impact event”. Using this term, she discusses the topic of catastrophic immediacy, referring to the moments of rupture that challenge the psychic and cultural continuity of a group or nation.(Assmann A. 2015: pp.52–52) The first one was the annexation of the island of Crete in the Greek State. After 400 years under the dominance of the Ottoman Empire where religious minorities enjoyed the rights of autonomy, now religious minorities should acquire a less privileged status. In the era of nationalism, Jews would not fit in the national identity which was under formation. The building of a national identity required the religious element: a Christian Orthodox religious affiliation. Simultaneously, Jews would become the cultural and religious other which was excluded from the society and became a foreign element towards the religious and cultural homogeneity of the Greek society. A cultural pattern where Jews did not belong to the Greekness was created and still exists. Emotions of anger, hatred and hostility towards the Jewish community were the most usual and common behaviors of the majority of the local society. They behaved towards them, blaming them as traitors due to their different religious beliefs. At that time, the Jewish community began shrinking. Most of them moved to France, USA or Palestine in order to live without fear and to chase professional and commercial opportunities. The decline of the Jewish community had already started.

Until the Second World War, a small Cretan Jewish community was alive. Until 1944, Nazi had not tried to take the Jews of the island. However, in March 1944, they took all the Jews and almost destroyed the Jewish Quarter of the island. The next day, Jews were embarked on Tanais Ship in order to move to Athens and from there in the concentration camps. However, Tanais would never reach the final destination. A British submarine shrunk the ship and no one survived. The Jewish community was perished but not by the gas somewhere in Poland or Germany. The defining moment of the destruction of the Jewish community had two aspects: The first one had to deal with the emotions and the actions of the remaining local society. Locals saw the leaving of the Jewish community as an opportunity to take their residences and shops and start their own commercial life. Indeed, a testimonial from a local rich merchandiser reaffirmed this case “In 1954, the Municipality was ready to sell the Etz Hayyim synagogue for a few money. I was ready to buy it but in the end I became afraid. This was a worship place. Some worshipped their God here. I was afraid of the divine anger.” Until 1980, Synagogue became a place of shelter for poor and homeless families. Later in the decades of 1980 and 1990, Synagogue was just a garbage place. The second aspect had to deal with the emotions of the Jewish world in front of this event: Cretan Jews would never have the experience of Shoah. They became just the members of a violent attack but did not lose their lives in the gas chambers. For this reason, less attention was given in the bibliography and the researches for the fate of Cretan Jews and their stories. People started forgetting. Acts of forgetting are a necessary and constructive part of internal social transformations, they are however violently destructive when directed at an alien culture or a persecuted minority. (Assmann: 2008: p.98)

The third and very important impact event was the moment where a Jew, Mr Nikos Stavroulakis decided to restore the building in order to save a cultural monument. In 1995, Mr Stavroulakis managed to restore the building and create an interfaith community where people from all the religions would find a place to share their ideas and feelings. But first and foremost, this place belonged to the Jewish community where Shabbat and High Holidays are being celebrated with participants from all over the world and the religions. The local society did not welcome the restoration of the synagogue and the revival of the community. Local media wrote out articles where they refer to “invasion of Jews” and the Local Church had a hostile view on the whole matter. Shop keepers in the former Jewish Quarter were very suspicious. Media played a major role in the construction of a cultural pattern. Such cultural templates have an active part in the shaping and transmitting of an event(Assmann: 2015:p.58). Even the other Jewish communities in Greece, were not that supportive towards this initiative. However, Mr Stavroulakis would like to bring back memories and cultures and foster the cultural memory where Jews belonged there. In the first ten years, two fires destroyed the synagogue but with the help of international donors, the damages were fixed. It is worth mentioning that the responsible for the incidents were never identifies and the case never went to court. Today, one year after the death of Mr Stavroulakis, the Synagogue still expands. In the last two years, the Synagogue inaugurated a commemoration event for the victims of Tanais. Representatives from the Church and the Municipality are always present.

The revival of the synagogue came as a contributor to the cultural memory. Cultural memory is a form of collective memory, in the sense that it is shared by a number of people and that it conveys to these people a collective cultural identity.(Assmann J: 2008: P. 110)

Georgia N. Gleoudi
Georgia N. Gleoudi
Georgia Gleoudi is a graduate of "MA in Religious Roots in Europe: in Lund University and has a BA in International Relations and European Studies from Panteion University, Athens. She is interested in Religion and State relations, faith - based diplomacy and intercultural relations