Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The arson of Etz Hayyim synagogue

Back in 1997, I spent a few months in the beautiful city of Rethymno in the island of Crete, undergoing the compulsory military training that all conscripts undergo. During the little free time I had, I had the opportunity of getting to know the towns of Rethymno and Chania, wonderful testaments to the complex history of the island: the melange of Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman architecture still gives Western Crete a sense of a cosmopolitanism that has left its indelible marks in the urban landscapes of the area. Bustling Christian churches often within a walking distance of the few remaining mosques that betray Crete's Muslim past that is rapidly sinking into the whirlwind of oblivion and, in the city of Chania, a unique marker of Crete's other forgotten inhabitants, the Etz Hayyim Romaniote synagogue.

Just like the Ottoman mosques of the island which, to some locals, have no place in the Cretan landscape, Etz Hayyim has managed to withstand the impact of neglect and deliberate destruction. The following diary exerpts are from the synagogue blog and refer to two consecutive arson attempts in the month of January.

Spyros Sofos

January 17, 2010

Second Arson Attack on Etz Hayyim Synagogue

Under: News by admin at 00:06
On the night of Friday, January 15, after more than a week of work on the sanctuary – newly scraped, primed and re-painted; the wood-work oiled with lavender and the marble floor polished – we met for Erev Shabbat prayers and Kiddush. Later we locked the synagogue and returned to our homes feeling that we had set our steps forward. Saturday morning at 3:30 AM however the Synagogue’s director was wakened by the alarm that had been set off in the Synagogue and rushed there accompanied by two helpers to find the entire main office ablaze. They began putting out the fire with the garden hose as the firemen had not yet succeeded in getting their hoses connected. When the mains were finally connected the firemen set to work – by 4:45 the fire was only smoldering and all that remained of the upper and lower office was completely gutted. Also about a third of the wooden ceiling of the Synagogue itself was burnt, the benches covered in soot and broken wood, the floor a mess – but the EHAL was not touched! Everything in the main office – e.g. two computers, complete Talmud, Midraschim, 2 sets of Rashi lexicons (Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew) plus many reference books and the entire archive of the Synagogue have all been destroyed.
By noon the Siphrei Torah along with all of the silver ornaments (rimonim, tassim, yads etc.) and a precious early 17th century illuminated Qur’an were removed to a secure location. It was a sad moment to see them being taken away from the Kal as it was a joyous moment when they had been installed in 1999. But we are determined that they will come back!


January 17, 2010. Today, after Shahrith prayers in the ravaged Kal we will all meet to look into the task before us.  We must insure that we keep the Synagogue alive as place for prayer and even – more pertinently under the circumstances – recollection.  It is difficult at this moment to quite grasp how one faces the formidable task of reconciliation – with what exactly? ignorance, wickedness? – whatever it was – and is – (since the cause of all of this is still to be determined) our gift to Hania is our presence and our determination to continue to bear witness to values that are being severely tried at this moment.  We have many friends and are deeply grateful for the support in whatever form it has taken. It will now take some time for us to become contemporary as so much has been lost in terms of computers and contents (though we have located the hard drives of the computers and hopefully something can be done to contents).
Please keep posted through this blog as matters evolve as we will use for keeping a log of events.
N. Stavroulakis


January 19, 2010


Under: News by admin at 21:10
The latest fire managed to destroy all of what we had felt grateful to have been left with! Whatever we had salvaged from the first fire had been taken to the main office – books, CDs, a Mevelevi dervish habit and conical felt hat, some of my notebooks and the like. The second attack saw the ground floor and first floor of the office and library above gutted. Fortunately, all of the books there – perhaps 1000 or so on Judaism, Islam and Christian theology had already been moved to safe keeping and so have been saved….but two computers, scanner, cameras etc. – all gone!
The police have been very good with us and have been very thorough and sensitive to what has happened. In the following days we will try to be more prompt in giving information. Actually in many ways Etz Hayyim has succeeded in its role as a reconciler and I have been blessed with finding many old friends and we have re-established our links. Equally important is the effect that this has had on our ‘fraternity’ which has been strengthened and given a firm direction and truly has become a community. We are a strange lot – some Jews – religious, non-religious and some perhaps even anti-religious, some are Christians – both Catholic as well as Orthodox and we also have Muslims. All of us are cemented into a community through the magic of this precious synagogue. Through this fire – somewhat like that which our Father Abraham experienced on that night when the sacrifices were consumed and he stood in awe before what appeared to be a smoking oven, we have digested our differences and set about finding what unites us in silence and emerges as a whisper.
We are still in the difficult period of balancing work that must be done with incoming funds as they were disproportionate at the moment.
To date we have started work on the new security system which is a gift from the Jewish Community of Salonika through its president David Saltiel. Work has begun on the grill to be installed over the back garden gate as well as the bars that are to be installed over all of the windows that were once those of the yeshiva (this property became an asset of the Bank of Greece after WW II and then was sold to a Christian – and subsequently became known as the Synagogue Cafe.) It was through one of these opened windows that the second incendiary entered our property. The electrician has already connected some of our lines and tomorrow we will get the telephone installed – in the synagogue proper (for the moment). Alex and Anja (and the Synagogue) have a temporary office and computers not too far away and the work on the stairs to the old office may well be finished by the end of the week when work can be started on cleaning up, working on bookcases and seeing how deep the fire reached into the floor and ceiling. This will also have to be done in the Kal itself as several of the wooden panels of the ceiling had started to burn.
I wish to thank all of the friends who have shown such care for this synagogue which seems to have embraced and been embraced by the entire world.
Nikos Stavroulakis

 for more updates, please visit www.etz-hayyim-hania.org/

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