Friday, January 8, 2010

Greece -- Full Report on the Destructive Arson Fire at the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania

 Destroyed library of synagogue. All Photos courtesty Etz Hayyim web site

Sam Gruber posts pictures and a full description of the destructive arson attack Tuesday night on the beautiful 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.

Sam posts the description presented on the synagogue's web site by our old friend Nikos Stavrolakis, the director of the synagogue complex, who personally raised money for and oversaw the restoration of the building in the late 1990s.  I vividly remember visiting the synagogue with Nikos in 1996, when it was still pretty much a ruin, and listening to his hopes and plans for it.

In his description, Nikos reflected about the significance of the synagogue and the attempt to destroy it --noting that the perpetrators had thrown and bar of soap against the burning building -- a reference to a "common anti-semitic quip in Greek [that] runs…’I'll make you into a bar of soap!’" and that local people apparently did not react.

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.

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. 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.

The web site has a slide show of images showing the extent of the damage, which included the destruction of the valuable library and music collection.
At approximately 12:20-1:00 AM on the night of the 5th January [,,,] 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.

Make donatation to efforts to repair the synagogue and rebuild the library to:

ALPHA BANK (Hania, Crete)
Account name: Friends of Etz Hayyim
Account # 776-002101-087154
IBAN:  GR74 0140 6600 7760 0210 1087 154
Nicholas Hannan-Stavroulakis / Director Etz Hayyim Synagogue/ Hania


  1. Etz Hayim's official site :

    Greek media have met with indifference the attack which follows a hideous 2009 with many attacks in synagogues, Shoah monuments and cemeteries.