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Dedication of Etz Hayim in Hania by Dr. Braha Rivlin  - 10.00

The Rothchild gate leading to the main courtyard 
and entrance to the synagogue
© EVM 1999

On Rosh Chodesh Heshvan, 5760 (October 10, 1999), a memorial prayer was held for victims of the Holocaust from Crete at the renovated Etz Hayim synagogue on Kondilaki street in the old Jewish quarter of the city of Hania, Crete. The memorial corner in the courtyard of the Etz Hayim synagogue lists the names of Holocaust victims, including the family of the last chief rabbi of the Jews of Crete, Rabbi Avraham Evlagon.  Born in Constantinople in 5606 (1846), the rabbi began to serve in Crete in 5636 (1876), and remained in office until he died of old age in 5694 (October 1933). 
The restoration and renovation work in the synagogue was assisted by Rabbi Evlagon’s autobiographical essay.  The rabbi was a man of the world, fluent in several languages, who maintained excellent relations with with his fellow Jews throughout the Diaspora, as well as with non-Jews, who held him in the highest respect.  He was a spiritual shepherd, a brilliant politician, and an artist by temperament. 
I published Rabbi Evlagon’s essay from the manuscript in 1988 in the quarterly journal Pe’amim (No. 37). The essay was not written in a single sitting.  Several sections relate events in the present tense, ending in a section in which the author states that he is 60.  In the final paragraph of the essay, the author states his age on completing the work as 75 – i.e. 1921 (and not 1932, as appeared in the booklet published to mark the dedication of the synagogue).  At the communal archives in Athens, a later document was discovered mentioning the rabbi’s activities a year before his death.  This document is not an original, but a German translation of a letter written by the rabbi to the leaders of the Athens community in 1932.  The translation was prepared after the German occupation of Greece in 1941 by the "Sonderkommando Rosenberg," which visited Athens and Salonika in order to learn about the Jews of Greece.  In this case, the members of the Sonderkommando (which comprised 84 members, including 15 mediators and translators) translated a relatively old document of little relevance for their purposes, but this illustrates the methods used by the Germans: an examination and translation into German of the documents of Jewish communities written in all languages.  The census of the Jews of Crete was also held in the same year: 314 in Hania, and 26 in Heraklion. 
During the long period in which Rabbi Evlagon served in Hania, the synagogue constituted an important community center.  It is also mentioned in the rabbi’s letters, some of which were published in the Revue des etudes juives in 1993. In 5736, the rabbi’s great-grandson, Yaakov Trento of Bnei Brak, published a new edition of Rabbi Evlagon’s book "Nikhnas Yayin" (Arditi Publishers, Constantinople, 5672).  This book, which discusses the desired areas of study for a person reaching his seventieth year, has already sold out, and he will shortly be publishing a further edition.  Trento has also published Rabbi Evlagon’s manuscript "Yeyn Rakach," which describes the blood libels and includes the rabbi’s personal conclusions regarding Jewish destiny. 
On the Friday morning preceding the rededication, the synagogue and its immediate surroundings were already very lively.  All the shopkeepers in the area asked whether we had come to the "celebration."  We answered in the affirmative, though mindful that the establishment of the synagogue had been the subject of some controversy and opposition in the local press.  The hordes of visitors who had arrived were already coming to the site to take a look at the work.  In the evening, the throng came dressed festively for the ceremony, at which a Mezuzah was affixed on the door and the Torah Scroll was brought in to the Sacred Ark.  Rabbi Yaakov Arar, the rabbi of Athens, led the service that evening, as he did the next morning and on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan.  The synagogue was filled with worshippers from communities in Greece, Britain, the United States, and Israel.  The guest included Dan Curiel, the Israeli ambassador to Greece; Rabbi Dayan from Salonika; the rabbi of the American Sixth Fleet from the nearby base at Suda; and the presidents of the communities of Athens, Salonika, Volo, and Corfu.  Many of the guests were Holocaust survivors.  There were also many well-known members of the local Greek community in attendance, including clergymen. 
All those present shared in the joy of Greek Jewry, which had managed – under the leadership of its Central Board, headed by Moisis Constantinis – to establish a memorial to the Jewish community of Crete, annihilated in the Holocaust.  Nicholas-Hannan Stavroulakis, the restorer and renovator and formerly the founder and director of the Jewish Museum in Athens, was successful in interesting the World Monuments Fund in the project, and in recruiting donors from throughout the world.  The renovation process began in 1996. 
All those present recalled that on May 20, 1944, the ancient Jewish community of Crete reached its end.  The 265 Jews who lived in Crete at that time, under the leadership of 74-year old Rabbi Elia Osamo, were assembled by the Germans in order to be sent to the death camps.  After several days in prison, they were placed on the ship "Danae" at Heraklion port, together with Greek hostages and Italian prisoners of war.  The ship was sunk at sea on June 9, and none of those on board survived.  It was initially believed that the Germans had deliberately sunk the ship, but it is now known that the ship, which had brought supplies to the German troops on Crete, was damaged on its way to the mainland by a torpedo fired by the British submarine "Vivid." 
Since the day the synagogue was abandoned by the departing Jews, it had stood deserted and close to destruction.  The bombing raids of 1941, the earthquake of 1955, and severe neglect over all the years created a painful picture for those who visited the site after the end of the war. 
The festive event of rededicating the synagogue in Hania was an indescribably moving event.  In a city without Jews, prayer was once again heard in this ancient synagogue.  It is my hope that many more prayers will yet be heard in this place. 

Dr. Braha Rivlin is the author of Pinkas Hakehillot - Greece published by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.


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