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The Lost—and Found—Jews of Crete

The Greek isle’s Jews were wiped out during the Holocaust. But today, a tiny community has rebuilt its centuries-old synagogue.

During the Nazi occupation of Greece in 1944, the Gestapo rounded up the roughly 300 Jews living on the isle of Crete. They were herded onto a cargo ship headed for the Greek mainland with Auschwitz as their ultimate destination, but were spared the gas chambers in a cruel twist: The British torpedoed the ship. No one survived.

Etz Hayyim synagogue is the only remnant of the Ovraiki, or Jewish Quarter, in Chania, Crete’s second-largest city, which was home to the island’s Jewish community. The building stands in the same place it’s been since the Middle Ages, crammed into the city’s old town, a walled maze of alleys fanning out from a pretty harbor with a medieval lighthouse. The Ovraiki’s Jewish community stretched back some 2,300 years, surviving all kinds of invaders: Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans. Today, though, there are barely more than a dozen Jews left in Crete, and much of the quarter is home mostly to Starbucks and shops selling “I Love Crete” T-shirts.

For decades after Chania’s Jewish community was destroyed, the synagogue stood dormant. It was desecrated. Used as a dump, a urinal, and kennel. Pounded by earthquakes. Filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikveh oozing muck.

Then, after half a century, Nicholas Stavroulakis arrived and took on the synagogue as his mission, starting reconstruction in 1996. Today, Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services and hosts a research library with some 4,000 volumes—which began with Stavroulakis’ personal collection. Next month, Etz Hayyim will honor both its past and its future: On June 14, it will host both its annual memorial service for the hundreds of Crete’s Jews lost during WWII, as well as an exhibit marking the 20th anniversary of the reconstruction.

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