By the mid-1950s, the Greek government passed a law which gave so-called “abandoned” communal Jewish property to the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece (KISE). The squatters moved out, but from this date encroachments were made into the two courtyards of the synagogue. In the south courtyard a neighbour gradually moved a fence further and further into the area of the rabbinical graves so that by 1990 some 40 square metres had been built into. In the north courtyard, as late as 1994, the adjacent so-called “Synagogue Café” opened three windows that had been blocked up in the 19th century. The courtyards were littered with trash, broken bottles, abandoned household utensils, dead cats and dogs.
Ironically, Etz Hayyim had become a monument to the victory of Hitler and the Nazis. Here, in the very heart of what had been the Jewish Quarter, was all of the evidence that one needed to see that not only had the Jewish community been obliterated but that its very history was being erased.
In 1995, a serious earthquake damaged the synagogue to the point of imminent collapse. Not long after that, Nikos Stavroulakis was invited to give a paper at a symposium sponsored jointly by the World Monuments Fund and the Jewish Heritage Program in New York. He chose to speak about Etz Hayyim Synagogue. As a result, a decision was made to include it in the World Monuments Fund’s 1996 list of “100 Most Endangered Sites” of international cultural concern. With this recognition, in the august company of Hagia Sophia, the Temple of Minerva in Rome and other historical landmarks, Etz Hayyim began a new period in its long history.
The restoration project was put under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece. The director of the project has been Nikos Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece and funding was provided by the Rothschild, Lauder, Rosenberg, Rose and other foundations of note as well as by interested individuals.
The synagogue officially re-opened on 10 October 1999, with some 350 people present, when the mezzuzot were put on the doors and a Sepher Torah was brought ceremonially into the synagogue. Rabbis Jacob Arar and Isaak Mizan of Athens were the celebrants assisted by Rabbi Yacob Dayan of Salonika. Honouring us by their presence were the Capuchin Friars of the nearby Catholic Church as well as the Sisters of Charity (of Mother Teresa) and the Ambassador of the German Federal Republic. The Hon. Constantine Mitsotakis, the former Prime Minister and President of the New Democracy Party of Greece, was also in attendance, along with all of the presidents and many members of Jewish communities of Greece.
Etz Hayyim has evolved a life of its own as a Jewish presence and witness to the long and vibrant history of the Jews of Crete. Symbolic of the tent of our common father Abraham, its doors are open to all who share the values of mercy, justice, compassion and love of our fellow men.
Although the then-Bishop of Crete, Irenaeus, had warned that a renewed Jewish synagogue would ferment riots and dissension in Hania, quite the opposite happened. Not long after its rededication, a number of local Christian ladies came by and asked if they could light candles in memory of some of their Jewish girlfriends who had died in 1944.
Photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15: © Etz Hayyim Synagogue
Photos 6, 7, 8, 9: © WMF