Champion of Chania synagogue restoration dies, 85

Etz Hayyim Synagogue viav eKathimerini

eKathimerini — Nicholas Hannan-Stavroulakis, the man who famously fought for the restoration in 1999 of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in the town of Chania, died Friday morning. He was 85.

Stavroulakis served as the director of the Jewish Museum in Athens and was an emblematic figure in Greece’s Jewish community.

His funeral will held in Athens on Monday.

Growing up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete (the family name means little cross), Stavroulakis kicked around the world, getting an education that included Catholic boarding school in Wisconsin with “loving” nuns. He became something of a Renaissance man: A historian, cookbook author, and an artist. He was co-founder and director of the Jewish Museum of Athens.

Stavroulakis first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties prompted many visits to the island. “It was well-known that the Cretan community was lost, and when I first came to Chania I wanted to see where they had lived,” he said in an interview last year. After Stavroulakis, retired, he returned to Crete in 1995 and set about restoring the Etz Hayyim Synagogue.

Etz Hayyim synagogue is the only remnant of the Ovraiki, or Jewish Quarter in Chania, 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 harbour with a medieval lighthouse. The Ovraiki’s Jewish community stretched back some 2,300 years, surviving all kinds of invaders: Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans.

After the destruction of the  Jewish community in 1944 until its restoration and rededication  in 1999,  it stood derelict,  as a monument to the success of the Nazis in obliterating 2,300 years of Jewish life on the island of Crete.

Today it stands as a vibrant statement of Jewish life, vitality and values.

Today, though, there are barely more than a dozen Jews left in Crete.