Lone Greek Jew in Island Port, Fights to Restore "Tree of Life"

By Scott Marksw

On a sweltering night in June 1944, the Jewish presence in the port city of Chania on the island of Crete ended in a bomb-damaged synagogue.

Crete (Kriti) the largest Greek island is bordered between the Aegean and the Libyan seas and between Europe and Africa. Crete, then a Venetian strong hold, fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1669. This occupation lasted until 1878. During these years the Cretans organised numerous revolutions that were always put down by the Turks. Finally, in 1898, with the intervention of the then Great Powers, Crete was declared an autonomous state. Crete remained autonomous until 1913 when it united with Greece

Towards the end of the Second World War violent battles took place on the outskirts of the town till the final fall of Chania (aka Hania) after a siege of 10 days. Chania was bombed until the town was completely destroyed. During the years of the occupation a strong resistance was organised against the conquerors, and Chania was one of the centres of organised resistance in Greece.

In 1944 Nazis occupying the island of Crete ordered Chania's remaining 269 Jews into the place of worship called Etz Hayyim, or Tree of Life. In the morning, they were put aboard a ship on the first leg of a journey to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Halfway to the mainland, the vessel Danae was hit by British torpedoes and sank. There were no survivors, including 600 other Greek and Italian prisoners. The dual tragedies -- the deaths at sea and the eradication of one of Europe's Jewish communities -- were soon overshadowed by larger events and became obscure footnotes of World War II.

Now, a former museum curator -- and the lone Sephardic Greek Jew who returned to Chania -- is waging a single-handed drive to restore the 400-year-old Synagogue as a remembrance both to those who died and their Jewish ancestors,whose community stretches back nearly 2,400 years. "What could be more of a tribute than to reopen the synagogue? It's become an all-encompassing quest," said Nicholas Stavroulakis, the former director of the Jewish Museum in Athens. But the effort has created barely a ripple in Greece, where Orthodox Christianity is the state religion and until recently few resources were spent on exploring Judaism's deep roots in the region. Most residents of Chania don't even know the synagogue exists.

More than 90 percent of Greece's 80,000 Jews (mostly Ladino speakers) perished in Nazi death camps and less than 5,000 remain. The northern port of Salonica was once known as the "Pearl of Israel."

In Crete, the Jewish community had alternately prospered or suffered persecution under various overlords: Romans, North African Moors, Byzantine rulers, Venetians and then the Ottomans. A 19th century census listed more than 1,000 Jews in Crete, concentrated in Chania.

Decades later, the entire community was obliterated by the Nazis. Stavroulakis, whose parents left Chania before the war, is the only Greek Jew in Chania. There are also a few Israeli immigrants.

"When I touch the walls of the synagogue, I feel a connection to a Jewish past here that was once so rich," Stavroulakis said, standing before the building's pale yellow walls in the port's former Jewish quarter. Some Christmas trees lay discarded in front of the synagogue.

Workers have straightened and fortified the walls and built a new roof. The next project is to restore the women's section and the "mikveh," or ritual bath. Also under way are efforts to fashion doors made from native chestnut and control a limestone rot eating away at the facade.

Stavroulakis estimates he needs about another $100,000 to meet his goal of rededicating the synagogue by March. He keeps the synagogue's new Torah on a desk in his bedroom.

Much of the nearly $400,000 raised so far has come from outside Greece through private donors and organisations, including the Rothschild Foundation and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, established by the heir to the Cosmetics Empire. The mayor of Great Neck, N.Y., Robert Rosegarten, visited the site and is spearheading the fund-raising effort in the New York area.

The synagogue, listed as a "preservation priority" by the World Monuments Fund, was originally a Roman Catholic Church built in the 15th century by the Venetians. After it was damaged by German shelling in 1941, it was occupied by squatters and then abandoned. Earthquakes later toppled parts of the roof and walls.

An inscription over an archway begins: "May it be His will to forgive."

Scott Marks is a Sephardic Jew of Rhodeslis and Turkino Decent. He lives in Orlando, Florida, and is planning to attend the University of Central Florida's Judaic Studies Program, and is currently researching for a new book on the Sephardic Jews of the Island of Chios.

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