21 January 2010

The Tree of Life

Recent News
On the night of January 5 and again on January 15, Etz Hayyim synagogue of Chania on Crete was firebombed.  The library of books and manuscripts dating back to the 17th century was destroyed.  The building itself dates from the 14th century. From May 1944 until 1999, the building stood in ruins, desecrated by the Germans and local residents, then Nikos Stavrolakis -- nearly the last Jew on Crete and founder of the wonderful Jewish Museum of Greece, led a group to bring back Etz Hayyim as a living building.

Etz Hayyim means Tree of Life and while it will no doubt flourish again, now there is grief and shock, and Stavrolakis has lost his personal books and papers.  Links about the fire are below, but this is about what happened to 98% of the Jews of Crete.

On 29 May 1944 the Jewish population of Crete -- essentially the Jews of Chania --were rounded up by the Wermacht.  These included Jews who had come to Chania from elsewhere. The Jews of Euboea had been collected in March, those on Corfu, Rhodes, and Kos were collected in June and July.   Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens went to magnificent lengths to protect Athenian Jews: no such claims can be made for any other Greek archbishop or, indeed, any other archbishop in Europe.

In Chania, the Germans allowed the neighbors and the homeless to  loot Jewish property: photographs of this were used to demonstrate "popular anti-Semitic agitation." The Matsas book (link below) has accounts from Jews who saw, as they were being led away, their neighbors carrying off their possessions.
After the war, Cretan Jews who had fought with the partisans were punished by the collaborationist government.  Samuel Dentis, age 18, was shot by a firing squad.  Iosif DeCastro and Salvator Minervos were sent to the prison island of Makronisos -- these names give the history of Crete in miniature. 

On June 10,  Chania's Jews, along with 48 Christians who had been caught in anti-German actions, and 112 Italian soldiers who would not fight for the Germans,  were loaded onto a cargo ship -- the Danai or the Danae or the Tanais, depending on your preferred form of transcription. En route to Piraeus where they were to be loaded onto trains, the ship was sunk.

It was originally thought that the ship was sunk by a German bomb on board, but is seems sure now that the ship was sunk by the British who were known to be sinking possible German shipping in the Mediterranean.
These are the missing Jews of Chania.


Ekathimerini commentary.
Samuel Gruber's Jewish Arts and Heritage blog is the source of the photograph here and gives more information on the fires.. 
U. S. State Department statement.  
If you did not read it already at the link above, read Archbishop Damaskinos' protest against the German treatment of the Jews and his response to the German threat of execution.

Nikos Stavrolakis, The Jews of Greece.
Michael Matsas, The Illusion of Safety.


  1. Three young men, 2 British and 1 Greek, have been arrested for arson.

  2. 2 American citizens are also wanted.


    Many Jews from Crete fled to the Ionian islands in the 17th century along with Venetian and Greek Cretans. Their descendants in Zakynthos were more fortunate than the descendants of those who remained in Crete, mainly thanks to mayor Loukas Karrer and bishop Chrysostomos. The Zakynthos community was the only one in Greece that suffered no deportations.

    Sadly the community has ceased to exist as most emigrated to Israel after the war and the rest left after the major earthquake of 1953 that destroyed the synagogue along with the rest of the town. This is where the old synagogue stood and where the Jews express their gratitude to the people of Zakynthos.



    All that remains is the very neglected cemetery


    with an inscription that claims it dates to 1280!

    Best regards,



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