09 January 2010

Greece: Crete synagogue attack

The only synagogue on the island of Crete was vandalized on the night of January 5, according to an email from Dr. Nicholas Hannan-Stavroulakis, director of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue.

Individuals accessed the synagogue's south garden, opened a cushion from the mikveh and stuffed the filling into a container of flammable liquid. The flaming container was set under the stairs leading to the women's section. The director's office, library and reading room are also on that level.

The library contains valuable books in various languages on Ottoman, Byzantine and Jewish art and architecture, resource books on European, Near Eastern and Cretan history. Also in the office were a computer, CD player and more than 150 CDs of Sephardic liturgical ands secular music.

The vandals left quickly, but smoke from the fire filled the synagogue and poured out onto the street.

Albanian immigrant Yannis Pietra, who lives near the synagogue, saw the smoke and called the police and the fire department. He went to find the director, who arrived with the synagogue's handyman. A young Moroccan, Nasr Alassoud, also traced the smoke and was helpful to the director.

By 1.45am, the fire was out and the police investigation had begun. Synagogue librarian Anja Zuckmantel-Papadakis and her husband arrived soon after the fire was extinguished.

The damage became apparent the next day.

According to the director, what was unusual was the lack of local residents despite the din of the synagogue alarm and the fire engine sirens.

More disturbing, writes Stavroulakis, was the lack of the local residents' sensitivity to the fact that had the synagogue burned out of control, half of Hania's old city would also have burned. Fire trucks could not have accessed the narrow streets.

By 7am, the director had talked to the police and damage was assessed. Synagogue leadership - Paola Nikotera, Konstantine Fischer, Sam Cohen and David Webber - examined the damage to books and the structure.

A bar of soap was thrown against the outer wall. (A common anti-semitic quip in Greek runs...'I'll make you into a bar of soap!').

Early investigations indicated it would take up to a week to have water reconnected. Electric was easier and with the help of engineer Giorgos Archontakis and photographer Angeliki Psaraki, it was working by 5pm.

While the Sefer Torahs were protected, the interior sanctuary walls and stone were stained and streaked by sooty water. By early evening, cleaning plans had been made and, by late evening, carpenter Manthos Kakavelakis had measured for a new staircase to replace the burned one.

All the carpets - some 30 mostly antique Turkish pieces - were packed for cleaning.

On January 6, the group gathered for morning prayers and discussed the incident and their anger, how it should be directed, and ignorance that spurs racism and discrimination.

Etz Hayyim has tried to be a spotlight surrounded by almost aggressive ignorance, in the words of Stavroulakis. The synagogue's doors are open from early in the morning to late at night - a place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation.

In many ways, writes Stavroulakis, "we have been successful through this quiet presence – perhaps our ‘silent presence’ wears not too well on some and is even a source of annoyance to others."

Etz Hayim demonstrates little sign of overt protective security. Bags are not checked, neither are IDs and passports and visitors are not required to sign in. Writes Stavroulakis, the synagogue's character must not change, its doors must remain open – or the congregation will have given in to the ignorance that fostered the destruction.

According to the director, "We will have a heavy burden of funding the necessary renovations and we hope that you as either old friends or new ones will assist us. Any donations will be deeply appreciated and, of course, welcome."

For more information, go to Etz Hayyim Synagogue and learn more. A special account has been set up for donations and contributions:
ALPHA BANK (Hania, Crete)
Account name: Friends of Etz Hayyim
Account # 776-002101-087154
IBAN: GR74 0140 6600 7760 0210 1087 154
To donate in the US, tax-deductible charitable contributions will also be received by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM).
Mail checks to:
P.O. Box 210
118 Julian Place
Syracuse, NY 13210
Write "Hania" on the memo line - 100% of all funds will be transferred for use by Etz Hayyim.


  1. The utter lack of condemnation by the media and civil society is something that should be stressed.

  2. I can only second what Abravanel said. One can only imagine the outcry if this had been a Mosque..

    Outrageous and disheartening to say the least.

  3. On Saturday we had a second arson attack which completely destroyed the archives, amidst the general indifference.

    Please take a look in Etz Hayim's post -> http://blog.etz-hayyim-hania.org/index.php/2010/01/second-arson-attack-on-etz-hayyim-synagogue/

  4. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Many thanks for this forum enabling public discourse and understanding. This is a particularly disturbing news item for all, not in the least those of the Greek Orthodox, Christian faith. Whatever the grievances of the perpetrators, to not express themselves by peaceful demonstration is both cowardly and violently incompatible with civilized behavior- civilization being time honored Greek tradition and value. Undoubtedly one of the most troubling aspects of this story is the allegation that a bar of soap was symbolically placed at the crime scene, presumably intended to communicate sympathies and identification with the German nazi ideology of World War Two. This is exceptionally bothersome considering the massive famine and executions imposed upon all Greeks-Jewish and Gentile- during Greece’s nazi occupation- certainly the people of Crete. Not to diminish the suffering endured by all the other nazi occupied countries of the time, it is ironic that the perpetrators embrace nazi ideology- the same ideology which prevented nazi Germany from conscripting Christian Greeks into its fledgling ranks during its final struggle of its war effort. Christian Poles, Danes, Norwegians- even Russians, however, were forced into the German war machine. Thus, the nazi symbolism represented by the bar of soap exemplifies the criminal stupidity of the perpetrators.

    Nonetheless it is certainly defamatory and false, to say the least, for Abraham H. Foxman of the internationally renowned ADL- Anti Defamation League- to have claimed existence of: a ”common Greek anti-Semitic expression, “I’ll make you into a bar of soap.”” This obviously defames and misrepresents overwhelmingly tolerant, common Greeks who without question are just as insulted by the introduction of this vile, absurd rumor as the Jewish community whose Etz Chaim synagogue in Hania was attacked. Hence the criminal, anti Semitic arson attack is being justly condemned. Abraham H. Foxman, nonetheless, must also apologize for his unsubstantiated, ridiculous rhetorical attack, regardless of any need for vengeance he was experiencing when he propagated a supposedly “common expression“ incorporating anti Semitism and soap.

  5. “I’ll make you into a bar of soap.”” This obviously defames and misrepresents overwhelmingly tolerant, common Greeks who without question are just as insulted by the introduction of this vile, absurd rumor as the Jewish community whose Etz Chaim synagogue in Hania was attacked.

    This is not a rumor but an established reality and more than once this insult has been addressed against me and thus I, as a Greek Jew, can testify to it's verifiability. The tolerant common Greek Christians are insulted by the lack of reactions towards the tenths of incidents of antisemitic violence the past 12 months which include vandalisms of Jewish cemeteries, graffiti and the attempted arson of another synagogue in the city of Veria.

  6. The name of the 24 y.o Cretan Greek male from Heraklion who confessed first and implicated the other mental giants should be published as soon as possible. This attack was a result of a recently activated grudge against the Jewish people and the State of Israel. I hate it when Jewish houses of worship are attacked. Crete apparently is a beautiful island. Attacking synagogues is not a good long-term strategy for a place however. The more justice there is in a place the more divine blessings it receives.