were arrested by the Nazis and sent by convoy to Crete’s capital city Heraklion, where they were herded onto a ship, the Tanais.
In the early hours of the next morning, halfway to the port of Piraeus, the ship was struck by torpedoes fired from a British submarine and sank within 15 minutes, 2,300 years of Cretan Jewish history tragically obliterated in a single day.
For nearly 50 years, the Jewish quarter and synagogue slowly sank into oblivion. A serious earthquake damaged the synagogue to the point of imminent collapse and Nicholas Stavroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, fought for its protection. With funding provided by various foundations, the synagogue was officially re-opened on 10 October 1999 with its mikve — used for throwing refuse in after the Jews left, and eventually capped with cement because of its stench — made workable once again and fed by an ice-cold spring.
Nowadays, there is no official community at Etz Hayyim but there are a handful of Jewish residents, none of whom were born in Crete, who host Kabbalat Shabbat services every Friday night. We go along, entering the marble gate and courtyard that takes us into the synagogue and are immediately blown away by the intimacy and feeling of togetherness that the 30 minute service creates.
There couldn’t have been more than 25 of us altogether, facing each other on benches in a small, airless room framed by white walls and Venetian arches, bookshelves filled with Siddurim with an Ohel at one end and Bimah on the other.
Kabbalat Shabbat booklets were handed out but no one in particular leads the service; it is more of a group effort with individuals with different accents volunteering to read certain
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sections, either in English or Hebrew, our voices uniting in song at the key moments.
It is a beautiful service; simple, without a hint of pretence. I recite the prayers and think of what this synagogue has been through — as recent as 2010, two arson attacks in the space of 10 days gutted the office and destroyed rare manuscripts — and I suddenly feel EDITED BY CATHY WINSTON firstname.lastname@example.org easyJet (easyjet. com), or from £125 from Manchester with Ryanair (ryanair.com).
incredibly moved. “They try so hard to wipe us out, but here we are, Jews together. We have survived,” I whisper to my oldest son. His eyes scan the room and, although he is 11, I know he understands.
Afterwards, there is Kiddush and we chat to some of the people, many of them French-speaking, and learn that this is a big crowd and off-peak,
they struggle to draw in more than five people at most.
Leaving the Shul, we wander through the narrow streets between the Parodos Portu and Parodos Kondilaki which used to be the Jewish quarter, known as Ovraiki. There’s not much left of it to see but the Ela restaurant, just opposite the synagogue, was built on the site of a former Jewish-owned soap factory and nearby there is the former Talmud Torah school.
Otherwise, the quarter is now home to ice-cream parlours, Greek tavernas, Starbucks and souvenir shops selling Cretan goodies such as olive oil soaps and fishing knives.
Back at the hotel the next day, we re-enter ‘fun’ mode and head to the nearby Cactus water sports shack further up the beach where I am coerced by my children onto a ‘Sofa & Rings’ — a floating sofa attached by a rope to a speed boat — which I dismount after 15 minutes, shaking, exhilarated, my face soaked with sea water spray and tears of laughter. I settle my nerves with a glass of ouzo at the hotel bar before taking comfort in the Cretan cuisine at the all-inclusive lunch buffet — my favourite dishes being the Greek salad, vegetable moussaka, Spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) and, of course, bread slathered in olive pate and melitzanosalata (aubergine dip). The kids, naturally, favoured the very Greek dish of, erm, spaghetti in tomato sauce followed by vanilla ice-cream.
Yes, Crete knows how to do family holidays well. I’ll be holding this one in my mind’s eye for years to come.
Check in to the Santa Marina Beach hotel to uncover Crete’s sights and history