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New Work at Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Hania (Crete)
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, December 1, 2008

Dr. Nikos Stavroulakis writes that the Ezrath Nashim (women's section) of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue of Hania, Crete, has been recreated, completing a two-decade process in which the ruined synagogue has been reclaimed, restored and revived.

The latest (and final?) work is "restoration" in the broadest sense. It is known where the women's section was, but there are no visual or written descriptions of its former appearance, and there was only fragmentary physical evidence remaining in the synagogue.

According to Nikos, "We had little to work from other than a rough idea of its dimensions and elevation and the likelihood that it had been built in the late 17th or early 18th cent., and [that is] was built out of what had remained of the original bell tower [of the former church, from which the synagogue created]. The ground floor is open and gives visual access to the graves of the rabbis in the courtyard and there is a door from the street as well as another to the mikveh and also one to the synagogue proper. The upper floor is of wood in [the] contemporary (Ottoman) style, based on surviving similar structures in Hania where old Venetian buildings were re-vamped to suit expansion and also to regularize floor plans beneath."

The rebuilt Ezrath Nashim "gives visual access to the interior of the synagogue through one of the Venetian arches (that to the south-east) and is spacious enough for our immediate needs for further expansion of the library."

Rabbi Nicholas de Lange
of Cambridge (UK), an authority on the Jewish history of Greece, and of Hania in particular, affixed up mezzuzot on Erev Rosh Hashanah.

Learning from Hania

After almost 20 years in the "business" of conserving and restoring old synagogues and cemeteries, I've learned that most projects take a long time, and often the very best projects need that time to develop and mature. Its never been easy getting money for projects, and these days its going be harder than ever to find grant and loans to carry out big restoration projects – unless governments start pouring money into public works, and the unlikely prospect that historic preservation is given higher priority than bridge repair.

No project demonstrates the virtues of taking time than the long-term and closely nurtured restoration and revival of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue. The saving of the abandoned and ruined Etz Hayyim, the last vestige of the Jewish community of Hania of Crete began two decades ago. Actual restoration on the structural parts of the synagogue began in March 1998 by the World Monuments Fund, but Stavroulakis, who has nurtured this project from the start, had presented the need for saving the building as early the 1990 Future of Jewish Monuments Conference in New York. It took getting the building listed as a WMF Jewish Heritage Preservation Priority in 1996, and the inclusion of the site on the first WMF Watch List of Endangered Monuments (also 1996), to really get the project rolling. WMF and Stavroulakis raised about $300,000 in planning and construction grants to take care of all the structural needs of the synagogue, including a new roof (this was a process I was involved in as a consultant to WMF). WMF than stepped back from an active role, and Stavroulakis raised additional funds and created the program for furnishing the building, rehabilitating adjacent spaces, and creating an active religious and cultural center.

Since then it has progressed in stages, and each stage as been part of a process of rediscovery, rededication and reuse of the complex. The result (I am told by those who have recently visited) is not just a dusty ruin, or an empty and cold restored building. It is a living center uniting past and present – a contemporary place rooted in the past. History is well served, but so are (the modest) needs of Jewish life in Crete.

Read Stavroulakis' account from the 2004 Conference: The Future of Jewish Heritage in Europe, (click "Stavroulakis" at bottom of page).

The biggest problem confronting former synagogues in need of restoration is often not money – but what to do with the building if and when it is restored. The truth is that without a use, money and effort are often not well spent if a building sits empty – and even neglected – when the conservators go home. Planning and budgeting use for an old building – something that often only develops over time – must be part of the process of every restoration project from the start. I most cases this may mean a slower project, but in the end it will mean better chance for the continued life of an historic building.

Few projects are shepherded by creative and charismatic individuals like Nikos Stavroulakis. But ordinary people, locally-based, with stick-to-it-ness can get things done. The world community, through organizations like the World Monuments Fund, and local government agencies, need to help with money and expertise, but it is usually good - even essential - to have committed people at the helm.

Correction and Update on Thessaloniki Cemetery and Subways Construction
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, August 27, 2008

Last month I wrote about concerns in Thessaloniki, Greece, about subway excavations under the Jewish Cemetery, now occupied in large part by the Aristotle University.

Prof Steven Bowman sent in the following correction to my history of the site:

"The Jewish community [of Thessaloníki] 'sold' the graveyard to the city as a result of negotiations to bring back the men in forced labor. The negotiations were in Fall 1942. There are today less than 1000 Jews in Thessaloníki."

At the invitation of ISJM, The U.S. State Department's Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues has provided the following details about the situation in Thessaloníki. I thank Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy for this information:

"Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department's Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, visited Athens and Thessaloníki during the June 25-28 period to discuss the impact of metro construction on the old Jewish cemetery at Thessaloníki.

In Athens, Ambassador Kennedy met with Aristides Agathocles, Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry; two members of the Greek Parliament; the deputy head of the European Commission Liaison Office; and the head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece.

In Thessaloníki, Ambassador Kennedy visited the metro construction site, accompanied by the manager of the contracting company responsible for the metro project, representatives of the Greek Archaeological Service, and members of the Jewish community. The construction site includes three proposed entrances to the subterranean University metro station to be located below the intersection of Egnatia and Third of September Streets.

The tunnel for the metro trains, now being bored, is at least fifty feet below the archaeological zone, the stratum with evidence of all human habitation going back to Neolithic times. The tunnel boring does not, therefore, pose a threat to any of the interments. Ambassador Kennedy has briefed rabbinical communities on this aspect of metro construction and none has interposed an objection to the tunnel boring method. The construction of the University metro station has, however, raised some concerns.

Two of the proposed three entrances to University metro station, are close to the boundaries of the cemetery. Detailed maps provided by the construction company show the entrances to be just outside the cemetery boundary. Excavation work on the entrances has not yet commenced, but cement channels for utilities and other facilities have already been dug in areas that appear to be just inside the cemetery, along Third of September Street.

Ambassador Kennedy was told that this work has not resulted in disturbing any graves. He urged the Archaeological Service to continue working closely with the Jewish Community of Thessaloníki, particularly if further excavations should uncover any remains.

As he did in an earlier conversation with the University Rector, Ambassador Kennedy urged during his visit that the University create on the campus an appropriate memorial to the cemetery. State Department officials will continue to monitor the construction and to coordinate with the Jewish community, the contractor and the government in Athens. We will also continue to brief interested rabbinical communities as events unfold."

The visit of Ambassador Kennedy demonstrates the importance of outside interest in the treatment of Jewish sites in Greece and elsewhere. Sometimes, it is only under the cover of international interest that the concerns of local communities can be fully expressed. In the case of Thessaloniki, it is important that in addition to Jewish leaders and diplomats that international academics express their concern. This is especially true for cultural heritage specialists, ancient historians, Byzantinists, and archaeologists who work in Greece or with Greeks, and any other academics with dealings with the Aristotle University. There is a better chance that the University will do the "right thing" when its community knows that people (outside the local Jewish community) care, and that the world is watching.

New Excavations for Subway Line Under Destroyed Thessaloniki Jewish Cemetery Destruction Raise Concerns
By Samuel Gruber
ISJM, July 18, 2008

More than sixty years after one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe was destroyed to make room for a university campus in Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece; excavation at the Aristotle University for a subway line has spurred new interest in the site's history, new concerns about the fate of the thousands of Jewish graves, and calls for broader public recognition that the University is built on the site of tens of thousands of Jewish graves.  The international community is also showing interest.  U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust issues, Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, recently visited Greece to discuss the matter, which has been raised by the Greek Jewish community.

Excavations for the university library in the 1960s apparently uncovered many graves. Though tunnels for the trains will run deeper than the level of the graves, there are legitimate concerns that excavations for a station and for access and air shafts will violate burials. Witnesses report that the new excavations have already disturbing Jewish graves – though to what extent remains unclear at this time.

While no one has suggested that the University be moved or that the cemetery be restored, there is a general sense among protestors that any new excavation must stop, the graves must be respected, and that their should be some sort of commemorative gesture.  At the very least, all excavation work done on the site should be done under rabbinic supervision so that graves are protected and remains properly removed for reburial. Such care for graves in uncommon in Greece where it is the custom to excavate and remove ancient burials, and where Christian burial is often only temporary – the bones being then gathered up and removed to ossuaries.

In recent years there has been improvement in the Greek response to the legacy of the Holocaust (when I lived in Greece in the 1970s I encountered widespread ignorance and outright denial of the long and expansive Jewish presence in Greece).  In March, Greek president Karolos Papoulias attended the Greek Jewish Martyrs Memory event on the national memory day for Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust.  This comes on the heels of Bulgaria's admitting responsibility for the deaths of 11,000 Greek Jews in the Holocaust, probably the major issue that has been pushed in recent years by American-Greek Jewish advocacy groups.  While these issues are not specifically related, they speak to a more receptive attitude towards Holocaust history in the Balkans.

The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki has requested (again) commemoration of the cemetery and the community at the University. Moses Constantinis, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Greece (KIS) said in a recent interview of Agence France Presse "The entire area was once a Jewish cemetery. In-depth excavation is certain to hit upon graves and remains...We would not want the peace of the dead to be disturbed. In our religion, it is a sin to move the dead after burial...we would like the area studied and if excavation interferes with the cemetery, which we believe it does, then to avoid building (the station) or move it to a different location."

Bloggers have proposed solutions ranging from naming the new train station after the cemetery, or more constructively, creating a Sephardic Studies program at the University. The cemetery dates back to 1492 when Spain expelled its Jews and thousands found refuge in the small town of Thessaloniki, then under Ottoman rule. As the community grew to be the largest Sephardi center in Europe before the Holocaust – with a Jewish population of over 50,000 - the cemetery became one of Europe's largest, too, with more than 300,000 graves.  Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, now has a Jewish population of about 6,000 among its nearly 360,000 residents.

The future of the enormous Sephardi cemetery was already in doubt before the Second World War and the German occupation of Thessaloniki. Actions to expropriate the land for the University had already begun in the 1930s, before the Holocaust. This was not uncommon in the interwar period, as many European cities underwent major growth and tried to expand into "open" or "under-utilized" land.  Usually Jewish cemeteries were spared because they were much further from the town centers, but not always.  In Thessaloniki, it seems that after initial acquiescence, the Jewish community resisted, and that was the state of things when the war started.  Then, with the killing of all the Jews, the problem was solved for the surviving populace, since there were few Jews left to protest the taking of the land.

Prof. Steven Bowman of the University of Cincinnati and an expert on the Holocaust in Greece (he edits the The Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library published by Sephardi House) reports "the Jewishish community [of Thessaloniki] "sold" the graveyard to the city as a result of negotiations to bring back the men in forced labor.  The negotiations were in the fall of 1942." Subsequently,  there was no discussion of the graveyard during the postwar return of the heirless property of Greek Jewry to the survivors. Bowman says that when the community "sold" its rights to the cemetery , it was stripped of its marble and stone which was recycled by contractors; and "the bones of ancestors were removed to Stavropolis on the other side of the city where the main Jewish graveyard exists today." But Bowman says that only a few hundred families were able to move bones of their relatives to the new cemeteries granted by the city.  Since it is estimated that the cemetery had more than 300,000 burials, many bones must remain buried, or scattered amongst the fragments of stones on the university campus and the environs beyond its border.  Today one can see many fragments of stones from the cemetery decorating the gardens and entrances of buildings at the University.

The situation in Thessaloniki was not an isolated case. Many Greek cemeteries have been built over. In Edirne, for example, a road was cut through the cemetery.

For more on Jewish Thessaloniki see:

Steven Bowman, ed., The Holocaust in Salonika, Eyewitness Account, Translated with introductions and notes by Isaac Benmayor (New York: Sephardic House & Bloch Publishing Co., 2002)

Elias Messinas, The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia. (Athens: Gavrielides Editions, 1997).

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Before the Flame Goes Out
A project to document the material, cultural and historical essence of the Romaniote (Greek) Jewish communiites in Ioannina, Greece and New York, USA. The ongoing project, created and directed by Vincent Giordano, consists of high-quality still photography, motion picture film, and audio, recording the synagogues and thier art, the congregations, and the life stories of the congregants who have managed to maintain their traditions for millenia. ISJM has been the primary sponsor of this project since 2002.

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Jewish Museum of Greece
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The website provides visitors with information regarding the historical exhibition which is located in the rooms formerly used as the women's prayer rooms at the "Kahal Shalom" synagogue. In addition, this web site will inform visitors of other interesting subjects which are unique to the history of the Jews of Rhodes.

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