The most prominent figure within the Cretan Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Abraham Evlagon. He was born in Istanbul in 1846, and ordained there as a rabbi at the age of 22. In 1876, he relocated with his family to Hania to assume the position of Chief Rabbi (Hahambashi) of Crete. There he spent fifty-eight years, as he put it in his memoir, “crouching under the burden of the community […] standing before the flock to lead them.”
During the politically tumultuous years at the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Evlagon proved himself as a spiritual leader and public figure. He maintained good relations with Christian and Muslim neighbours and authorities, even though his role as an Ottoman appointee must have been especially difficult. During violent clashes in Hania, Rabbi Evlagon sheltered the Greek Orthodox Bishop Nikephoros in his home and saved him and 28 Christian families from certain death.
The political changes at the end of the 19th century also affected the Jewish community as the Ottoman government ceased its partial financing of the Hebrew school and of a stipend for Rabbi Evlagon. As a result, he relied on his fluency in several languages to conduct regular correspondence with the Alliance Israélite Universelle and other institutions and communities abroad mainly to garner financial support for the upkeep of the community and its synagogues.
During the First Balkan War, Evlagon was sent by the Greek government on a secret mission to Paris in order to secure the support of world Jewry for Greece. When King Constantine of Greece visited Hania and Beth Shalom Synagogue in December 1913, Evlagon gave him as a gift the Ten Commandments which he had calligraphed in Hebrew on a single grain of wheat – an example of his skills as an artisan. During World War I, Evlagon organised assistance for Jewish refugees from Palestine who had sought refuge in Crete. Successive political leaders – Sultan Abdul Hamid, the governor of the Cretan State and the kings of Italy and Greece – decorated Evlagon for his contributions to social and political life.
In 1921, Evlagon completed his memoir, a brief account of his many years of service on Crete but also a collection of anecdotes and historical information. He also wrote two major treatises. Spiced Wine traces the series of blood libels in the 19th century, reflecting Evlagon’s concern about and experience of Anti-Semitism. When Wine is Drunk is a collection of readings on attaining the age of seventy.
When Evlagon died at the age of 88, his funeral, on 31 October 1933, was attended by numerous local dignitaries, and a large crowd honoured him with a procession led by the municipal military band.
Evlagon’s youngest son, Leon-Judah, was his only child who stayed throughout his life on Crete, and he, with his wife and two young children, suffered the same fate as the remaining Jewish community of Crete in 1944. A descendant of Evlagon’s oldest son, Jacob, had apparently resettled in Southern France, from where he was deported to Auschwitz on 13 February 1943. The descendants of two of Evlagon’s children live today in Israel.
All Photos: © The Jewish Museum of Greece
Donor: Mrs. Lilian Kapon