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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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