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 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 somewhat depressing experience of assessing the damage done was carried out. Members of 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 Hekhal 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 December, 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.
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.
Nicholas Hannan-Stavroulakis / Director / Hania
P O Box 251,
Hania 73100, Crete