On June 8, 1944 the Greek tanker Tanias, commandeered by the Germans, was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Vivid 53 km. west of Heraklion, capital of the Greek island of Crete. Aboard were several hundred Greek and Italian prisoners of war, and all of the 265 Jews of Crete, many of them children.
They had been taken by trucks, concentrated by the Nazis into a camp in Heraklion, herded onto the ship and were being sent off to Piraeus on the Greek mainland in transit to the death camps of Poland. There they were destined to meet their end by gassing, hard labor and starvation. The prisoners of war were to be forwarded to work in labor camps for the Nazi war effort, and would also most likely meet their deaths there.
As a result of the torpedoing, all the passengers and crew sank to a watery grave. Admiralty records state that it was wartime policy to attack all enemy ships coming out of the harbors of Crete, which were being used to transport German troops back to the mainland, and the Royal Navy had several submarines on standby to monitor the ports.
Today, out of a total population of more than half a million, the Jews of Crete number just seven men and three women, and there is no official monument to those who perished in 1944. Of the eight or so synagogues that stood on the island before World War II, none remained after the German occupation of 1941 to 1944. All, except for one, were vandalized, taken over by squatters and eventually demolished.
Hania, the provincial capital of western Crete, had boasted two synagogues of which one, Beth Shalom, was destroyed by German bombing in the initial attack on Crete in 1941. The other, Etz Haim, withstood the war but in a ruined state. It stood in the old Jewish quarter, called Ovraiki, around the original harbor, later extended by the Venetians, who called the area "Zudeccha" or Jewish ghetto.
The building dates from the late 15th century, and may have been constructed from the shell of a partly destroyed chapel. It served the Sephardi and Romaniote (Byzantine-Greek) Jews of the city for many years and was vandalized by the Germans in 1941. It was then further looted by the local population, and the Germans handed it over to five families of squatters, who divided it up and lived there until 1956, when the structure remained as a deserted ruin.
It the following year it came to the notice of Nikolas Stavroulakis, who was returning on a sentimental visit to his roots. He was director of the Jewish Museum in Athens, and on his retirement determined to try to save what was left of Etz Haim. Stavroulakis is a Jew of Cretan and Turkish origin, whose mother came from Istanbul. He studied history at Oxford University, eventually came back to his native city and has now made it his life's work to restore Etz Haim as a living memorial to the 265 Jews who perished on the Tanias in 1944.
Stavroulakis was able to organize the restoration of the synagogue through the World Monuments Fund of New York, which listed it as one of the hundred most endangered ancient religious sites. With the help of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece and many public and private donors, such as Lord Jacob Rothschild and Ronald S. Lauder, restoration work started in 1996. Stavroulakis and his engineer, Mato Levi, supervised the work, which meant a complete rebuilding of the walls and roof, reconstructing the timber women's gallery, and refitting the interior with new pews, a new Torah ark and bima (reading desk), all of which were commissioned from the traditional carpenters of Jakarta, whose work was similar to that of the medieval joiners of Greece. The work was completed in October 1999 and the synagogue reopened to the public.
THE BUILDING has several unusual features. Right behind the prayer hall is the mikve, fed by a local spring. It is still in use, though the water is very cold and unheated, an original touch. Also behind the hall is a small garden with four graves. These are of local rabbis, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, who had to be buried here at times when the local population was openly hostile to the Jews. In one case three attempts were made to move the corpse to the cemetery and each time it was prevented by aggressive hooligans, so it was decided after a delay of three days to conduct the burial in the yard behind the synagogue.
One grave still has the original tombstone lying on it, though shattered into many pieces. Another commemorates Rabbi Hillel Eshkenazi, "tzaddik, hassid and kabbalist," and is dated 1710. Stavroulakis found and marked this grave based on the prewar testimony left by the last rabbi of Hania, Av Evlagon.
The area also includes a large white ossuary containing the bones of 15 skeletons recently unearthed in a new development, and which Stavroulakis identified as Jewish, being right by the old Jewish cemetery, now completely destroyed.
The Etz Haim Synagogue stands close to the harbor. The area is still medieval in layout, and the synagogue stands in an alleyway called Parados Kondylaki, which is approached by a short walk from Kondylaki Street, starting at the harbor. It is an area of tiny pedestrian streets and overhanging houses, now full of tourist shops and restaurants, none of them kosher. The area is very attractive to tourists and many visitors drop in to see the synagogue. But there are few regulars and a minyan is only achieved on Friday evenings with the help of tourists.
Any visitor will be greeted by a volunteer guide, usually Samuel Kohen, 58, of Bulgaria, who has lived in Jerusalem and for the last five years in Crete. He is the perfect guide as he speaks Greek, Hebrew and English as well as Ladino and several Balkan languages. One does get the feeling, both from Kohen and the director, Stavroulakis, that these remaining Jews are splendidly cosmopolitan, men of the world, but strongly devoted to the local culture of Crete and anxious to see the preservation of Jewish life on the island.
The Jews of Crete have a distinguished history. and the Bible refers to the island several times, though before Jews settled there. King David had a personal bodyguard of Cherethite and Pelethite soldiers (2 Samuel 8:18) and the prophet Amos refers to the Philistines from Caphtor (9:7), another name for Crete.
During the Roman Empire, a message of peace to the Jews was sent from Rome to many states and communities around the eastern Mediterranean, and this included Gortyna in central Crete (I Maccabees 15:23), so it can be assumed there was a Jewish community there. Philo of Alexandria mentions a large community in Crete, and the second wife of Josephus was of Jewish extraction and came from "the most notable people in Crete" (Life, 427).
In the fifth century, the Jews were persecuted by the Emperor Theodosius, and life continued to be difficult under the Christian Byzantines and later the Muslims. It seems that Jewish customs had become lax, as in 1228 there were published the Takanot (Regulations of) Kandya to regulate Jewish observance in Heraklion, then called Candia.
The Venetians had conquered the island in 1204 and they held it for nearly 500 years. Jewish life prospered, presumably in the wake of the extended trading contacts of the Venetian fleets, but in 1364 a number of Jews were killed in retaliation for a local (non-Jewish) rebellion against the Venetians. The capital, today Heraklion, was enlarged and named Candia, based on its defensive moat, called the Khandak. Some of the major exports were honey and raisins, and sweetmeats made from them, and this gave rise to the English word candy.
JEWISH LIFE expanded in Candia, and the Historical Museum of the city displays the coat of arms of the Chen family, with the inscription "Degel Mahaneh Chen" which was displayed on the tombstone of Don Shealtiel Chen, rescued from the destroyed Jewish cemetery. It appears that certain wealthy Jewish families were permitted to enter the nobility during the later period of the Venetians.
The museum is housed in a grand mansion that was built in 1870 on the site of the former rabbi's house, which stood opposite the main synagogue of Heraklion, near the seashore. After its destruction by the Nazis, the site was used by the Xenia Hotel, which has itself been pulled down and made into a garden area in front of the museum and alongside the coastal road.
Besides the rampant lion family crest of the Chen family, the museum contains a full history of the Tanias tragedy, as well as other events of the difficult life of the Greeks in Crete during the German occupation. There is no doubt that there was collaboration and that the locals took advantage of requisitioned Jewish property, but there were also many acts of resistance and heroism on the part of the Greek partisans and their Allied colleagues who came to the island to fight the Nazi occupation.
Any visitor to Crete will have to go to see the Minoan palace of Knossos, the prime historical site of the island, dating back 4,000 years. Thousands of tourists swarm across it each summer to be impressed by the excavations and reconstructions of the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans. This was his life's work, but much of it has been criticized by later scholars, who dislike the fact that Evans did not differentiate clearly between the original work and his colorful rebuildings.
There is also disagreement on the role of this wonderfully extensive palace, laid out in labyrinthine detail on all of its several stories, with many large storage areas, originally filled with enormous pottery jars. Evans claimed that it was the palace of King Minos, who lived in the 17th century BCE, but other scholars, not disputing the date, consider it to have been an oversize mausoleum, a vast palace to the dead. The large warehouses and storage jars were for the preparation and conservation of the cadavers of royalty and the nobility, to preserve them for life in the hereafter.
In this connection it is interesting that Evans restored a small building that
looks like an elaborate ancient Egyptian kiosk and is found to have steps down to a deep water basin, filled by rainwater. Evans called this the North Lustral Basin, to purify the faithful or the priesthood before they took part in the cult. His critics would say it was a place for washing the bodies of the dead before preservation in the jars. We would designate it as a mikve, a ritual bath, and it is indeed likely that it served such a function within the Minoan cult. Whatever the original purpose, it is a reminder of the widespread significance, across the ages, of ritual washing of both the living and the dead.
There is another Jewish connection to Knossos, as there is evidence that the village, a suburb of Heraklion, housed a Jewish Samaritan community in the first century BCE. This is not as unexpected as it may seem. Another Samaritan community had a synagogue on the Greek island of Delos, known from an inscription found there, and other Samaritan communities are known to have existed in the early Diaspora around the eastern Mediterranean.
Evans labored hard to make Knossos visible and attractive to the lay crowd. Stavroulakis has done the same with the Etz Haim Synagogue, but his purpose has been a more personal and more deeply commemorative one. He has worked over the last 50 years to bring back some semblance of Jewish life to the island and at the same time to honor and commemorate those 265 innocent Jewish souls that perished so miserably in the sea off their homeland some 65 years ago.
The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Jerusalem.