Individuals accessed the synagogue’s south garden, opened a cushion from the mikveh and stuffed the filling into a container of flammable liquid. The flaming container was set under the stairs leading to the women’s section. The director’s office, library and reading room are also on that level.
The library contains valuable books in various languages on Ottoman, Byzantine and Jewish art and architecture, resource books on European, Near Eastern and Cretan history. Also in the office were a computer, CD player and more than 150 CDs of Sephardic liturgical ands secular music.
The vandals left quickly, but smoke from the fire filled the synagogue and poured out onto the street.
Albanian immigrant Yannis Pietra, who lives near the synagogue, saw the smoke and called the police and the fire department. He went to find the director, who arrived with the synagogue’s handyman. A young Moroccan, Nasr Alassoud, also traced the smoke and was helpful to the director.
By 1.45am, the fire was out and the police investigation had begun. Synagogue librarian Anja Zuckmantel-Papadakis and her husband arrived soon after the fire was extinguished.
According to the director, what was unusual was the lack of local residents despite the din of the synagogue alarm and the fire engine sirens.
More disturbing, writes Stavroulakis, was the lack of the local residents’ sensitivity to the fact that had the synagogue burned out of control, half of Hania’s old city would also have burned. Fire trucks could not have accessed the narrow streets.
By 7am, the director had talked to the police and damage was assessed. Synagogue leadership – Paola Nikotera, Konstantine Fischer, Sam Cohen and David Webber – examined the damage to books and the structure.
A bar of soap was thrown against the outer wall. (A common anti-semitic quip in Greek runs…’I’ll make you into a bar of soap!’).
Early investigations indicated it would take up to a week to have water reconnected. Electric was easier and with the help of engineer Giorgos Archontakis and photographer Angeliki Psaraki, it was working by 5pm.
While the Sefer Torahs were protected, the interior sanctuary walls and stone were stained and streaked by sooty water. By early evening, cleaning plans had been made and, by late evening, carpenter Manthos Kakavelakis had measured for a new staircase to replace the burned one.
All the carpets – some 30 mostly antique Turkish pieces – were packed for cleaning.
On January 6, the group gathered for morning prayers and discussed the incident and their anger, how it should be directed, and ignorance that spurs racism and discrimination.
Etz Hayyim has tried to be a spotlight surrounded by almost aggressive ignorance, in the words of Stavroulakis. The synagogue’s doors are open from early in the morning to late at night – a place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation.
In many ways, writes Stavroulakis, “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.”
Etz Hayim demonstrates little sign of overt protective security. Bags are not checked, neither are IDs and passports and visitors are not required to sign in. Writes Stavroulakis, the synagogue’s character must not change, its doors must remain open – or the congregation will have given in to the ignorance that fostered the destruction.
According to the director, “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.”
For more information, go to Etz Hayyim Synagogue and learn more. A special account has been set up for donations and contributions:
ALPHA BANK (Hania, Crete)
Account name: Friends of Etz Hayyim
Account # 776-002101-087154
IBAN: GR74 0140 6600 7760 0210 1087 154
Write “Hania” on the memo line – 100% of all funds will be transferred for use by Etz Hayyim.
P.O. Box 210
118 Julian Place
Syracuse, NY 13210