I have just returned from an 18 day trip to Crete with stop-overs in Athens and was saddened by what I found of Judaism there. In Athens I visited the Jewish museum and had a long talk with the curator, a woman originally from Thessalonica who was saved as a child by being hidden at the time of the Nazi round-up of the Jews.  The museum is her passionate attempt to preserve something of what was at one time a flourishing and influential Jewish presence in Greece and especially in her home city. I had not realized that this was at one time so important a centre it was able even to influence the pope of the day and have rescinded some negative regulations he tried to enact. Now there is little left. The museum preserves some beautiful treasures and also memorabilia and the story of the Shoa in Greece. It also houses a tiny shul where, she says, a small group come together just on the major festivals. There is just one other shul in this now large metropolitan city.

You may like to check out their website :  http://www.jewishmuseum.gr/


        Chania is the second city of Crete and we actually stayed in a delightful, funky little apartment in a part of the "old city" that was at one time the Jewish quarter. The narrow, twisting, cobbled streets were a delight to explore, and there I discovered a beautiful little Sephardic synagogue, Etz Hayyim, recently restored. I went round Shabbat morning for Shacharit and found only two old men there, each, because there was no minyan, davenning silently on his own. The community, at one time the biggest in Crete, was rounded up in April 1944 and the tragic, ironic story I was told was that while being taken to the camps their boat was torpedoed by an allied submarine. My narrator believed this end was something of a blessing being a quick end rather than the dragged-out agonies of the camps, but then, of course, there were no survivors. But the Jewish quarter and the synagogue were ransacked and looted and, as a final blow, nearly destroyed by an earthquake some years later. I saw pictures of the ruins and there was little left. But some big money from the Rothchilds and other foundations have done an amazing job of restoration, and it is quite beautiful today both in the building and the furnishings. There is an inner courtyard leading to a small library and study room as well as an office. I got to visit the Sukkah erected for the festival. Going through the shul one enters a second inner courtyard in a section of which are buried three of their most distinguished rabbis of the past. There is also a fine mikveh just off this shady, peaceful, lovely spot. They do get visitors in the tourist season, but unfortunately there is no viable community or minyan and the overall impression left is that of a lovely but sad  museum.

You may like to check their website: http://www.etz-hayyim-hania.org/  for some pictures.


I also happened by chance in my wanderings to meet in his workshop-store the man, a weaver of tapestries and carpets, who had made a wonderful curtain for the Ark depicting the "Tree of Life" and various other traditional symbols.


He was born after the war and told me that his father as a young man had escaped the round-up and joined the partisans in the White Mountains. They were supported by a small contingent of Australian/New Zealand troops and he very proudly showed me a certificate issued to his father by the Allied Command after the war acknowledging his participation. This was his equivalent of war medals.


I also got to hike the famous/notorious Samaria Gorge trail  -  an 18 km. rough descent from the White Mountains down through the rocky river bed to the sea on the south coast. (My body was sore for some days afterwards !!) This was the trail through which the partisans had led their King George and part of his household to safety and a pick-up by a naval vessel when the Nazis invaded.

As with the situation in eastern Europe, it is sad to see evidence of what was once a flourishing, influential Jewish cultural and religious community, now reduced to almost nothing but museum pieces and memories.





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