In Hania, Crete: The death and life of a Jewish community, and the rebirth of historic synagogue Etz Hayyim

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The entrance to the north courtyard of Etz Hayyim synagogue is through the Rothschild Gate. British financier Lord Jacob Rothschild was one of the early funders of the restoration of the synagogue. At left is an olive tree, a symbol of peace — and an abundant crop on Crete.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In October 2018, I visited Athens and Crete for two weeks. This is the second in a series about my experiences. See my post of October 21, 2018 about a fast-paced Greek cooking class.

Mikhail Dientes was a peddler of pistachios. In 1941, he relied on selling the bite-size, pale green nuts to support his wife and four children in Hania, the city of his birth, on the Greek island of Crete.

David Natzon, likewise Hania-born, also sold pistachios, as did several other men in the small Jewish community, numbering barely over 300, on Crete’s northwest coast. 

Living in a neighborhood mostly confined to a few streets in the Jewish Quarter and being in the same business, it’s likely the men knew each other. They may have been friends, perhaps rivals, or friendly rivals.

Little is known about Dientes or Natzon other than then they died together on the German-flagged merchant steamship Tanais in June 1944 when it was torpedoed by a British submarine near the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea, far from its destination, the port of Piraeus on the Greek mainland near Athens.

And it’s unlikely their stories will ever be known in depth and detail, because when the Tanais sank, it wiped out what was left of the Jewish population of Hania (also spelled Chania), and possibly 15 other Jews from Crete. 

Also aboard were at least 30 German soldiers guarding Italian 112 prisoners of war, 48 Greek Christians who fought against the Nazis occupying Crete and the ship’s crew of eight.

(Some of this information comes from an article written by Dimitris A. Mavrideros, in the booklet “The Jews of Crete: Selected Articles and Essays; The Jews of Hania 1940-1944” printed in 2002, which I picked up when I visited Eta Hayyim, the lone synagogue on Crete. Mavrideros writes that the survivors were likely on deck when the torpedoes hit and thus ended up in the water, while all the Jews locked below deck in the holds were doomed.)

The 244-foot (74.5 meters) Tanais, built in England in 1907 and for many years sailed under the British flag, was not marked in any way to indicate it was carrying civilians and was not a troop transport on this run. 

So it’s also unlikely the crew of the HMS Vivid, a 206-foot V-class submarine recently built in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, by the company Vickers Armstrong, had any idea the four torpedoes fired — two of which connected — June 9, 1944 were heading toward a ship that posed no threat.

This loss of civilian life in World War II echoes the torpedoing of the Tsushima Maru by the U.S. submarine Bowfin that I wrote about from my trip to Okinawa, Japan (see post of April 15, 2018).

Some 20 Greeks and 30 German soldiers and crew survived, picked up by the three ships accompanying the Tanais. The diesel-powered Vivid, under the command of Lieutenant John Cromwell Varley, was submerged, and took no return fire.

Had the Jewish passengers on the Tanais reached Athens, their eventual fate may have been equally ominous: They were scheduled to be transported to concentration camps, possibly Auschwitz or Treblinka (sources vary on this), where death shortly after arrival was almost guaranteed in mid-1944.

Jews have lived on Crete since Hellenistic times, though never in large numbers. Isolated as an island but nevertheless a commercial crossroad, communities survived successive rule by the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottoman Turks over 2,300 years.

Even on the mainland, a Jewish presence in the 20th century was relatively small, numbering less than 100,000 in 28 cities, with the largest concentration clustered around the capital, Athens, in the south and Thessaloniki in the north. (In contrast, Poland’s pre-WWII Jewish population was about 3 million.)

Before the war, Hania’s Jewish population was still below 400, with some families fleeing before the Nazi occupation.

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Against the west wall in the sanctuary is the bimah, the raised platform where the Torah is read.

Religious life was centered around Etz Hayyim (“Tree of Life”), a congregation that traced its roots to at least the 17th century (the Venetian period, 1204-1669), located in a maze of streets very close to the harbor, and a second synagogue, Beth Shalom, that did not survive the Nazi invasion that began in late May 1941.

Hania was badly damaged, but the immediate deportation of the Jews was not a priority. Religious rituals, such as how animals were slaughtered, were banned, and thousands of German soldiers were forbidden to patronize Jewish business, as had been the policy throughout Europe in countries under occupation. 

In addition to the pistachio sellers, other employment included tailor (or seamstress), wine merchant and laborer. Many were students or housewives. These details are known because the Nazis insisted in August 1941 that a list of every Jewish resident be compiled. Most were Greek natives, though some were immigrants from Bulgaria, Italy and Turkey. The total Jewish population: 314.

A second census was demanded in February 1943, at which time the number had fallen to 279, through deaths and possibly some hearty souls fleeing to the mountains to take their chances living among resistance fighters. The oldest person was Alegra Frangou, 93, whose name was spelled Allegra Frango on the 1941 list.

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Members of the Jewish community of Hania, Crete, who died in June 1944 are memorialized on these brass plaques at Etz Hayyim.

It wasn’t until May 21, 1944 that 263 Jews were suddenly rounded up at 5 in the morning, allowed to bring only one small suitcase. The Nazis encouraged the looting of Jewish homes, and they themselves stole furniture, clothing and any items of value. 

The deportees were transported to the Agyias (also spelled Aghia and Ayas) prison outside of town, where the shocking turn of events were compounded by inhumane conditions. 

On June 3 or 4, the Jews were trucked east to Heraklion (also spelled Iraklion), Crete’s largest city, where they were held for four days before boarding the ill-fated Tanais.

Without the care of its congregation, Etz Hayyim quickly fell into disrepair, suffering the ignominy of being taken over by squatters, who dug under the sanctuary’s marble paving stones misguidedly hunting for gold, and defiled the surrounding structure and several sacred tombs.

In the ensuing decades, the property suffered further indignities, even as Hania’s waterfront and Old Quarter were redeveloping as tourist destinations filled with cafes, shops and small hotels. An earthquake in 1995 delivered another crippling blow, hastening the collapse of a section of the roof.

Fortunately, several elements converged to save the synagogue: A tireless champion emerged, and the building gained classification from the World Monument Fund as an endangered site worthy of conservation. 

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Curator and artist Nikos Stavroulakis designed the nameplate highlighting the synagogue’s name in Hebrew (bottom) and an outline of the building. Shalom (top) is the Hebrew word for peace.

The multitalented Renaissance man who spearheaded the effort to bring Etz Hayyim back from the brink was Nikos Stavroulakis, a co-founder of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens, and who served as its director from 1977 until 1993. 

He was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in 1932 of immigrant parents: a Jewish mother of Turkish descent and a Greek Orthodox father (born Muslim) who was from Hania. 

Educated in the United States, Britain and Israel, Stavroulakis was a historian, author, curator, teacher, lecturer and artist — his works appear in major museums worldwide. He also designed a symbolic nameplate for the reborn Etz Hayyim, which incorporates Hebrew lettering and an outline of the building. 

With financial backing from Lord Jacob Rothschild in England and American Ronald S. Lauder (his mother was Estée Lauder, of cosmetics fame), among others, reconstruction began in 1996.

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Centering the east wall is the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept behind an embroidered curtain. Services, cultural events and holiday festivals are open to all interested people, regardless of religion.

The layout and furnishings are decorative yet serviceable. The main sanctuary, flanked on both sides by small courtyards, is lined north and south with rows of simple teak benches, spaced atop which are a collection of 95 colorful pillows, where it is not uncommon to find some of the synagogue’s resident cats snoozing contentedly. 

Unadorned Gothic arches allow light to flood the center aisle, once again covered in black-and-white marble.

Against the west wall stands the bimah, a raised platform, where the Torah is read. Opposite on the east wall is the Holy Ark, where three scrolls are kept behind an embroidered curtain.

The synagogue was rededicated in October 1999, with a former prime minister of Greece present, along with representatives from a local Catholic church, the Sisters of Charity, other dignitaries and about 350 attending in total. 

Etz Hayyim has another link to the Holocaust, in that one of its Torah scrolls was among those rescued from what the Nazis called Bohemia and Moravia, but the rest of the world referred to as Czechoslovakia.

During WWII, the Jews of Prague managed to save about 1,800 Torahs, many from small communities in the countryside. After the war, 1,546 of them were brought to London, where they were restored and repaired by the Memorial Scrolls Trust. Today, 327 of these scrolls, some of them dating back centuries, are on long-term loan to congregations around the world.

In 2000, then the lone Jew in Hania, Stavroulakis personally brought the Holocaust Torah into Etz Hayyim, installing it in the Holy Ark and placing branches from a olive tree in a vase in front of the ark, giving added poignance, no matter how small, to this renewal of an ancient sacred space. 

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An exterior of the synagogue shares space with tables and chairs from a neighboring restaurant. At left you can see where some of the original stonework was incorporated into the renovation.

In Hania today, Etz Hayyim holds religious services, celebrates Jewish holidays and festivals and stages cultural events; all are open to any interested party regardless of religion. 

The number of resident Jews is still too small to support the salary of a rabbi, so when a bar or bat mitzvah or other religious observance requires a clergyman, a rabbi travels from Athens. 

Stavroulakis died in May 2017, but he is still very much a “presence” at Etz Hayyim. The staff talk about him to visitors, who number about 30,000 a year, and he appears on information boards in the tiny museum upstairs and on the website.

He and many other dedicated people have made it possible for Etz Hayyim to live as a place of “prayer, recollection and reconciliation.” One of the ways it does so is to hold a memorial service every year in June to read out the names of all the Jews of Crete who perished on the Tanais. 

Below a niche, rectangular bronze plaques listing the names of the deceased also pay tribute to their memory.

The Hania Community Research Project is an ongoing effort to recover information about the community that perished in 1944. Perhaps one day, more will be known about the pistachio sellers and all the other lives lost. 

Quick reference: Etz Hayyim synagogue: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays, May through October. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays, July to September. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, November through April. Closed Greek public holidays. Respectful attire is required. Donation of 2 euros is suggested. Parados Kondylaki, Hania, Crete. http://www.etz-hayyim-hania.org

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In Athens, Greece: A fast-paced cooking school session, and a recipe for Portokalopita (Orange Phyllo Cake)

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Four of the five dishes we made from scratch in under four hours at The Greek Kitchen cooking class in Athens, Greece. From top: Karotosalata (salad), Fava Puree with red onion and green onion garnish, Pitakia (cheese- and spinach-filled pies) and Moussaka (baked in a beefsteak tomato).

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In October 2018, I visited Athens and Crete for two weeks. This is the first in a series about my experiences.

“You will find the entrance to number 36 in between a hat shop and a hardware store.”

The above directions are the kind of precise details that I consider useful when I’m exploring an unfamiliar city and have an appointment for a specific activity.

In this case, it was a Greek cooking class that I had signed up for online before I left home.

As an added precaution, my friend Sylvia — who joined me on the Athens leg of my trip — and I scoped out the location a few days in advance so we wouldn’t be late for our 9:30 a.m. class.

The Greek Kitchen is on the second floor of a nondescript building on busy Athinas Street, in the heart of the Monastiraki section of Athens. 

It has a small blue-and-white logo on the overhead door frame that would have been very easy to miss without being aware of the neighboring businesses. The other landmark that I’d been advised of was a Cosmote phone store across the street.

Like the other cooking classes I have written about on my blog (see May 21, 2018 for a post about Naha, Okinawa; May 1, 2017 about Chiang Mai, Thailand; and December 23, 2016 for Hanoi, Vietnam), this one started with a trip to the nearby market, Varvakios. Athens’ Central Market has been in business since 1878.

Sylvia and I had also scoped this out a few days earlier, but since our instructor, Vasia, is friendly with so many people around the shops and stalls, it was fun to see her interact with the vendors.

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We used super fresh plain Greek yogurt (metal bowl) in several of our recipes.

We picked up fresh ingredients for the dishes we would be making, including split fava beans; creamy plain Greek yogurt; feta; and kefalotyri, a hard, somewhat salty cheese similar to Parmesan, at a cheese shop. At the bustling covered market, we secured ground beef, olives, handmade sheets of phyllo dough (sometimes spelled filo) and romaine lettuce.

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For tourists, some vendors will vacuum-pack fresh olives in a plastic bag.

Where a variety of olives were for sale in bins, Sylvia bought about a half kilo of black ones to take home. Once measured, the vendor took the olives to the back of his space and vacuum-packaged them in plastic for easy transport. Olives packed this way are not only a popular and affordable souvenir but also widely available.

Vasia, whose big personality carries over into her love of Greek food, put together an autumn menu, basing the dishes we would be making on seasonal ingredients. 

Two others were in our class, both young Australians: Ashley from Canberra and Rosalie from Brisbane. (I’m using generic spellings because I didn’t have a chance to ask.)

Our prep space consisted of a long table covered with a red-and-white checked cloth and a cutting board at our individual stations. We each had a small box grater, two small knives (very odd to cut with when we were all used to large chefs knives at home), two spoons, a vegetable peeler and a metal bucket for food waste.

Also on the table was a white bowl of greens and one of mixed vegetables.

Parallel to our table was Vasia’s equipment cart, stacked with dry ingredients and seasonings and an induction hot plate.

This is a list of the dishes we made from scratch, in the order we prepared them: 

● Fava Puree: Fava beans with olive oil, a traditional dish from the island of Santorini, that can be a dip or a first-course thick soup;

● Moussaka: The well-known Greek layered meat dish, topped with béchamel sauce, here baked inside tomatoes;

● Pitakia: Small cheese- and spinach-filled pies, with dough made from scratch;

● Portokalopita: An orange cake using shredded phyllo pastry, often served in the spring; 

● Karotosalata: A salad of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, raisins and almonds served with tahini yogurt dressing

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Handmade phyllo dough was not only just-made but much less expensive (1.50 euros is about $1.73) than in American supermarkets. A pound of frozen dough cost $4.49 at my chain grocery.

 

To get all this accomplished in under four hours, we worked nearly nonstop in teams. So, for instance, on the fava puree, Sylvia and I peeled garlic while Ashley and Rosalie chopped the red onions. On the orange cake, Sylvia and I made the batter while Ashley and Rosalie shredded the phyllo dough by hand.

With much humor and running commentary, Vasia directed what we did and when, but aside from helping with some vigorous stirring of the béchamel, we provided almost all the hands-on labor. (While the fava puree was cooking on the kitchen stove, Vasia’s assistant kept an eye on it and skimmed off the foam as needed.)

Because Rosalie is a vegetarian, she made a separate sauce for the moussaka, while we made one with ground beef. (The Greek Kitchen will likewise tailor dishes for specific dietary requirements.)

When we got to the béchamel sauce, Vasia was at her most animated. “Constant stirring” was her mantra as she exhorted our efforts. Rosalie led off the rotation, melting the butter and stirring in the flour in the metal bowl atop the induction hot plate. 

Ashley and then Sylvia took over spoon duty when the milk was added, while I was busy grating the kefalotyri. The cheese went in when it was my turn to stir, before Vasia jumped in to make sure the sauce was thickening properly and had the correct smooth consistency.

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Our instructor Vasia chatted with us as we ate the meal we prepared together.

Amid all this “constant stirring,” Vasia’s patter detoured into the wonders of Greek olive oil, surely the best on the planet, in her opinion. I didn’t hear all of this, but I think she said something about her family growing olives on Crete, and bottling their own brand of olive oil.

Once the béchamel sauce was done, we sampled it to check the seasoning. Then we each took our large beefsteak tomatoes, which we had hollowed out earlier, and packed in a hefty portion of the meat sauce and lastly the béchamel, brimming over the top. Next stop: The oven.

Only four ingredients were needed for pitakia dough: Greek yogurt, flour, baking powder and olive oil. Without yeast, the dough needed only 20 minutes to rest, during which time we made the filling of feta, spinach, mint, dill, salt and pepper.

The appetizer-size little pies reminded me of making samosas or Chinese potstickers.

We each had enough dough to fashion three small pies. We flattened each ball of dough using our palms, then cupped the disk in one hand to add the filling.

We carefully brought together the edges to enclose the filling and form a half-moon, pinched all the way around to seal and used the tines of a fork to press and decorate the edges. After egg-washing the top, the pies were ready to  bake.

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Portokalopita (Orange Phyllo Cake) is a dense slice of sweetness. This is the cake I made at home, garnished with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt and an orange section.

Below, I’ve included the recipe for the orange cake, which went together very quickly in class. Making it at home was more time consuming and I’ve adapted it a bit also.

By the time we’d made the salad, our other dishes were ready to eat, so we sat at another table, with a blue-and-white checkered tablecloth, and enjoyed a surprisingly filling meal. Vasia joined us, and we peppered her with questions as we ate. 

Researching cooking schools, I found the options ranged from lessons taught in people’s homes to the course I selected. Prices varied widely also. 

What I liked about The Greek Kitchen was the menu, the price, the fact that the class would not be canceled if only one student was signed up and that a single supplement was not charged.

It turned out to be a marvelously good time, and I would heartily recommend Vasia as an ambassador for Greek cooking.  

Quick reference: The Greek Kitchen, 36 Athinas Street, Athens, Greece. The cost is 45 euros (about $52). A 10 euro, nonrefundable deposit is required in advance. The remaining 35 euros, in cash, can be paid on the day of class. Classes begin at 9:30 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. A Greek breakfast baking class is available at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Sundays. 45 euros. Website: greekkitchenathens.com

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After the Orange Phyllo Cake cooled and I added the syrup, I wondered if I would be able to get it out of the pan in one piece. As you can see, I was successful!

Portokalopita from the Peloponnese (Orange Phyllo Cake)

The pleasing scent of orange will be wafting through the kitchen while you prepare and bake this easy recipe. 

For a crowd, make the whole cake. But if you are just baking for a few people, the recipe easily halves.

Sylvia and I happened to make half recipes on the same day. She baked hers in a square pan, I used a round one.

Sylvia found that the amount of syrup (even halved) as written below drowned the cake. I boiled the syrup, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes in an attempt to reduce the volume. That seemed to work. 

I also left it for more than two hours to absorb the syrup and didn’t cut a slice until the next day. It is very dense, not at all like a springy sponge cake.

Hands on: 20 minutes for batter, 15 minutes for syrup   

Total time: 2 hours, 35 minutes    

Serves: 6-8 half recipe, 12-14 full recipe (depending on size of pieces)

For the cake:

4 large eggs

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

Zest of 2 oranges (For a half recipe, I used 1 large navel orange.)

10 1/2 ounces (300 grams) plain Greek yogurt (2% or higher fat content of Fage brand is recommended if you can’t get fresh)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

1 teaspoon baking powder

Scant 1 cup (200 milliliters) sunflower oil (or other neutral oil such as canola), additional for greasing pan

1 pound (500 grams) phyllo sheets (if using frozen, thaw in packaging at room temperature for 2 hours)

For the syrup:

1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups water at room temperature 

Juice of 2 oranges

1 cinnamon stick

To make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).

Grease a 9-by-13 baking dish or aluminum pan with sunflower oil. Use an 8 1/2-inch round pan for half recipe.

In a large mixing bowl, use a whisk to combine eggs and sugar (it’s OK to use an electric mixer but there’s really no need). Beat until the mixture is pale and frothy.

Add orange zest, Greek yogurt, vanilla extract and baking powder and continue to beat (with a mixer, use medium speed) until well-combined. While beating, slowly add sunflower oil.

Remove phyllo sheets from packaging and shred into 1 1/2-inch (3 centimeter) pieces using a knife or your hands. The size does not have to be uniform or exact.

Gradually sprinkle the shredded phyllo into the bowl; you don’t want it to clump. Combine with a spatula until the ingredients are fully incorporated.

Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish. (I placed it on a parchment-paper lined baking tray just in case it bubbled over the sides.)

Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake has risen and is golden brown on top. For half recipe, bake about 40-45 minutes.

Remove cake from oven and let cool completely in the pan (1 hour or more) before adding the syrup.

To make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, bring the water, sugar, orange juice and cinnamon stick to a boil over medium heat for 2 minutes. (I stirred for 10 minutes to thicken the syrup.)

Pour the hot syrup over the cold portokalopita and set aside for at least 1 hour until the syrup has been completely absorbed by the cake. I found that the longer I left the cake, the more the syrup was absorbed.

If baked in a round pan: Run an offset spatula around the edge to loosen the cake. Gently lift out cake and transfer to a serving plate. If baked in a 9-by-13-inch pan, it’s probably easier to slice from there and serve on individual plates.

Adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, is, well, icing on the cake. A dollop of plain Greek yogurt works nicely also.

Adapted from a recipe provided by The Greek Kitchen, Athens, Greece