Greeks Condemn Crete Synagogue Arson Attack

Two major Greek-American groups this week expressed outrage over a recent arson attempt against the historic Hania synagogue, in Crete’s eponymous port city, with the first condemnation issued in Chicago on Thursday by the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE) / USA Region coordinator.

“The Greek American community is outraged at the recent act of anti-Semitism at the historic Hania Synagogue in Crete. We are deeply disturbed that such acts of terrorism happen in 21st century Greece…” the statement read.

In addition, a statement issued in Washington on Wednesday by the Pan-Cretan Association of America (PAA), underlined that Greek-Americans “castigate the arson attempt against the Hania Synagogue on Jan. 5, 2010.”

“After the attempt, January 5, 2010, to torch to the ground the historic Hania Synagogue, in Crete, we Cretans in the United States are outraged at all actions of anti-Semitism in Greece and all attempts to terrorize Greeks of Jewish faith,” the statement read.

“As an expression of our outrage at all actions against the Jewish Community in Greece we sign this statement and we appeal to all people of good will to voice their support in efforts to eradicate hatred and racism in Greece,” the statement also read.

JTA reported that the only synagogue on the Greek Island of Crete sustained significant water and smoke damage in the attack.

Some 30 antique Turkish carpets also were damaged when the Etz Hayyim synagogue in the city of Hania was set ablaze Tuesday night by unknown attackers. The synagogue’s Torah scrolls were not damaged.

The arsonists reportedly climbed over the synagogue’s iron gate and made an improvised firebomb using stuffing from a couch in the synagogue’s mikveh to ignite a canister filled with flammable liquid, then placed the firebomb under the wooden staircase leading to the women’s section.

The upper floor of the women’s section serves as the office of the director, as well as a library and reading room. Among its volumes are valuable books in various languages on Ottoman, Byzantine and Jewish art and architecture.

An Albanian immigrant who lives near the synagogue saw the smoke and called the police and firefighters.

There is little security at the synagogue, according to reports. Situated in the heart of the Jewish quarter, the synagogue dates back to the late 15th century.

Also in the attack, a bar of soap was thrown against the outer wall of the synagogue to illustrate the common Greek anti-Semitic expression “I’ll make you into a bar of soap.”

An e-mail circulated January 8 from a member of the synagogue recounted the attack and its aftermath:

With shock and sadness I forward this report received from my friend Nikos Stavroulakis of a destructive fire two nights ago at the restored and much-loved Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania, Crete. The fire severely damaged the recently restored ezrat nashim (former women’s section) of the historic synagogue, and entirely destroyed the library and computer stations. Additional damage from soot and water to the rest of the structure and furnishing can be repaired, but at a considerable cost.

Here is Dr. Stavroulakis’s report in full (also posted on the Etz Hayyim blog with more photos):

At approximately 12:20-1:00 AM on the night of the 5th January, a serious attack was made on the fabric of the Synagogue. One or two or even more individuals made their way into the south garden of the synagogue by climbing over the iron gate. Subsequent to this they set about making an improvised incendiary device by tearing open a large Ottoman cushion in the mikveh and then with the contents stuffed a canister that was filled with some flammable liquid which was then set afire under the wooden stair of the ezrat nashim. (The upper floor of the women’s section (ezrat nashim) serves as the office of the director as well as a library and reading room and contains valuable books in various languages on Ottoman, Byzantine and Jewish art and architecture as well as resource books on European and Near Eastern History from pre-historic times as well as a large section on Cretan history. A computer and CD player with over 150 CDs of Sephardic liturgical and secular music were also kept in the office.)

Within probably minutes the assailants had taken off and the fire produced smoke that poured into the synagogue proper and then out into the street through the oculus in the facade of the synagogue.

Yannis Pietra, an Albanian emigrant living not far from the Synagogue, smelled the smoke and looking into the street saw it belching out of the facade and called the police, fire-station and then set off to find the director who arrived not long after along with Besnik Seitas the handyman of the Synagogue. At roughly the same time a young Moroccan, Nasr Alassoud, also traced the smoke that was coming down the street to the harbor. He proved to be a much needed hand by the director. By 1:45 AM the fire brigade had extinguished the fire and the police had begun their work. But the residual damage was only going to be apparent the next day.

Anja Zuckmantel-Papadakis, our librarian and her husband arrived not long after the fire was extinguished. What was quite notable was the lack of ‘locals’ despite the quite incredible noise of the synagogue alarm system and sirens from the two fire engines screeching through the neighborhood. What was even more disturbing and an obvious sign of a lack of civic responsibility was the apparent lack of sensitivity to the fact that had the synagogue been engulfed in flames at least half of the old city of Hania would have gone up in flames as the narrow streets and inaccessible quarters would have prevented access by the fire brigades.

By 7:00 AM a deposition was made by the director with the police and the somewhatience of assessing the damage done was carried out. Members or the Synagogue fraternity: Paola Nikotera, Konstantine Fischer, Sam Cohen and David Webber were on hand to examine what had taken place – to books, structure as well as to assist the police in establishing evidence part of which was a bar of soap that had been thrown against the outer wall. (A common anti-semitic quip in Greek runs…’I’ll make you into a bar of soap!’) As the mains of the Synagogue had been disconnected in the course of extinguishing the fire, we were informed that it would perhaps take up to a week to have them reconnected. The prospect was met when Mr Giorgos Archontakis, an engineer, offered to help us with this. As we were dealing with this, Angeliki Psaraki our photographer arrived to take pictures of the damage and later with Mr Archontakis. These two were successful in submitting the necessary papers to the Electric Company and by 5:00 PM we had electricity again which considerably raised morale though the damage by now was even more apparent.

The Siphrei Torah were fortunately well protected in their Ehal but the walls of the interior of the sanctuary as the wooden ceiling have been streaked and covered by water laden soot as well. Much of the naked stone on the interior has been badly stained and by early evening we set in motion plans for the cleaning of the walls and even ordered the scaffolding. By late evening our carpenter, Mr Manthos Kakavelakis had taken measurement for the new stair as the old one was completely gutted in the fire and we had discussed the creation of a solid stone wall to protect the new library entrance. This structure will be articulated so as to include the entrance to the mikveh. All of the carpets of the synagogue (some 30 odd and most of them antique Turkish) had been covered with soot and messed about by the fire-fighters and police. These have been packed up in readiness for cleaning.

On the 6th January, a day after the fire we assembled together to recite Shaharith prayers at 9:00 as is our custom.

The atmosphere was understandably sombre but the director – Mr Stavroulakis – tried to divert some of the understandable anger by looking over what had happened over the past 24 hours or so. We must be angry over what has happened to our synagogue. If we were not it would be an indication that we were either indifferent or morally numb. But exactly against what is our anger directed? The urban context in which Etz Hayyim figures at this moment must be considered carefully and any indifference on the part of the citizens to the material fabric of this city and its collective ‘psyche’ is tantamount to abetting to a degree the desecration of monuments, of homes and sites of common meeting. What we must be angry about is the ignorance that determines racism, discrimination or badly examined lives.

We have tried at Etz Hayyim to be a small presence in the midst of what is at times almost aggressive ignorance. We have done this to such a degree that our doors are open from early in the morning until late in the day so that the Synagogue assumes its role as a place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation. In many ways 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. Often I have pointed out that we are perhaps the only synagogue of significance in Greece, possibly Europe, where there is little if any overt sign of protective security. Hand-bags are not checked, ID cards and passports are not examined, and one is not obliged to sign in. This character of the Synagogue must not change and the doors must remain open – or we have given in to the ignorance that has perpetrated this desecration. Our awareness of what ignorance can do to us will certainly determine how certain repairs are to be made – but at the same time we must be cautious about allowing ignorance to affect or determine the nature of our presence.

On the website of the local Greek-language newspaper, one commenter conveyed her feelings about the attack.

“I am a Brtish tourist who over the years I have been coming to Crete have found peace and frienship within the walls of this synagogue,” wrote Helene Wiggin, “I hope the people of Hania will protest strongly against such vicious attacks and racism. Etz Hayyim is a place of memorial, learning, ecumenical gatherings, concerts but it is an oasis of calm amidst the bustle of tourism. Please find the mindless ignorant souls who have done such evil. they need new education and compassion in their ignorance.”

To see photos of the damage click here:

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To find information on how to donate to the synagogue’s recovery efforts, click here.