Nikos Stavroulakis: The Havurah of the Last Jew

I woke up at 7.00 with a dry mouth. I started packing my things and getting prepared nervously. I chose carefully my clothes. «What should I wear? How is the weather in Crete? They told me that it’s hot but I had checked in Meteo.com that it would be rather cloudy. Which bag should I prefer? Will I walk comfortably with the red shoes or should I choose the other pair of shoes, the pink one?»

I put my Moomin notebook, my Canon camera and my mobile charger in my little grey suitcase. I thought that if people in the check of the airport saw that my tiny suitcase contains only these three things, they would mock me!

I got out of the house and I walked towards the subway which took me directly to the Athens International airport. Ι took the blue seat in the window and some minutes later the sun came directly in my eyes. I opened my black handbag to wear my pink — black sunglasses just to realize that another pain of sunglasses had just been broken. “Oh no, not again! When am I going to take care of my things?” Just a minor detail like this, could destroy my whole day. But not that day! That day should go fine. That day meant a lot to me. That day, I was ready to get out of my comfort zone. I dreamt that day. Many days ago, I had checked every detail. How I will get to the airport, how I will move to the city of Chania, which is the exact timetable of the buses and which equipment have to bring with me.

Although I had conducted many interviews for my blog in Huffington Post, that interview was a bit different. I was registered in the Master of Arts in Religion in Peace and Conflict. During the second semester, I attended a course “Biography, Autobiography and Life story”. In the last part of the course, we should interview someone with active experience in religion, activism, human rights defense or anything else which could fit in the framework of our program and of our interests.

We had almost one month to find someone and interview him or her and to write our story. Two days after the announcement of our professor, I took the decision to sit down and write names that I found interesting. I was in my bed wearing my pink pyjamas with my laptop and I opened my gmail. I wrote there my thoughts: Sabiha Suleiman (a Roma woman who empowers the Roma population of the Western Thrace and battles the religious extremism of Muslim radicalists), Maria Papadaki who founded the Greek branch of the Salvation Army or Angeliki Ziaka, a professor of world religions who founded the first department for Muslim studies in the northern part of Greece?

However, the second name that I wrote down was a name of someone who had died recently. His name was Nicholas Daniel Hannan Stavroulakis,born in 1932. I had first heard his name some years ago when I started studying the history of Jewish communities in Greece, their past and their present. He was the Director of Jewish Museums in Athens and in Thessaloniki and he had gone to Chania in Crete Island to restore an old Jewish synagogue. He wanted to restore a synagogue in a place where that was no Jew left, except for…..him.

Through all these years, I watched some of his interviews and I admired how he gave meaning to this place. How he united people, Jews and non-Jews in a community with hope, mutual respect and feeling of family. How did he do it? Why did he do it? I wondered. It was his life that I wanted to interview. It was his life that I would like to learn and deepen. It was his life that I would like to find common characteristic with mine. But he was dead. And I was alive.

Katerina’s place

I took the bus from Chania airport. I looked at my blue watch. 11.45. “I hope that I will not be late.” I looked again and again our email that we exchanged to be sure for the hours and the address. I opened my gps. Thanks God! It is only 5 minutes walking distance. My feet were shaking. What am I going to ask them? How will they welcome me? What if my questions are nonsenses? What if they look at me like I am an alien? Will I ever make it? The nightmare of low self-esteem was once again back.

I started walking towards the synagogue. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. I dreamt that I come here, years and months ago and now this small project and interview brought me in this place. I stood outside the synagogue looking at the sign of Etz Hayyim Synagogue. An Albanian worker from the hotel on the other side asked me “Are you looking for someone girl?” “Thank you! No, I just found it”, I smiled.

I entered the courtyard. Christophe, the Austrian intern was there, sitting in a wooden chair, ready to light his cigarette. He wore a brown jacket and white trousers He had these big blue eyes and he was only 19 years old. I knew about him from the newsletter and the website of the synagogue. He was there because he chose this alternative instead of military service back in Austria. He stood up and came to greet me. “Are you Georgia?” “Do you want coffee?”, “Oh yes”, I said. “I am going in the kitchen to make it. Go into the office. Katerina is waiting for you.”

Spring had already arrived. Smells from the blossoming trees were into my nose and into my mind and heart. Katerina was in the old, dark secretarial office room. I saw her sitting at her desk and smiling at me. “What a typical Cretan figure”, I thought. A beautiful, warm woman with a big smile and heart.

“Welcome, come in. Have a seat.” Katerina was a PhD researcher in the University of Crete. She was especially interested in the subject of collective memory and in Etz Hayyim synagogue. Here she found a place where both collective memory and individual memory had been perished for many decades. She helps the synagogue with her research work and with administrative tasks.

She started talking me about a workshop for teachers that they are preparing for the next month. “Teachers from Athens and Crete will gather here. We will teach them how to teach primary school students about the life of Cretan Jews and about the Holocaust in some way.”Also, in the beginning of June, we are organizing a commemoration event for the Jewish community. It would be great if you could come”, she told me. I felt sorry that I could not reassure her that I would be able to come. Time and money are unpredictable factors, unfortunately!

Katerina informed me that the synagogue has a cultural center and produces a great scientific work for Cretan Judaism and Sephardi Judaism. “The center hosts many cultural events, lectures, concerts etc. But remains of course a place of prayer and reconciliation as Nikos had designed.

Antja and Marianne will be here soon to ask whatever you want! But tell me, how did you learn about Etz Hayyim and Nikos?” “Oh Nikos”, I thought. So, I have to call him Nikos and not Mr Stavroulakis. When I prepared my questions, I wondered how I should call him. I said Nikos because he is a familiar figure. Because I can imagine that if I could meet him, he would urge me to call him Nikos and not Mr Stavroulakis. But he was born in 1932. I should call him Mr Stavroulakis.

A picture of Nikos above the office of Katerina gave me the answer. He was a close friend of all those who entered this place. His blue eyes and his smile gave me the answer. Sometimes, when I felt alone I imagine that an old man with blue eyes and big smiles like his, comes, hugs me and reliefs me. Nikos was this figure.

I have been knowing Etz Hayyim and Nikos for many years now. I am interested in the Jewish history in the Greek space and this synagogue has a very distinctive character. I feel terribly sorry that I did not come when he was alive.”

We are so happy that someone finally knows for this synagogue. Indeed, you are right. Nikos restored this synagogue because it was ready to collapse. His initial intention was just to restore this building because it was the only thing that remained after the destruction of the Jewish community here. However, this synagogue became a haven for Jews, non-Jews, atheists, Muslims everyone. He was a pioneer in building an inclusive community. But, I am here only for two years and I cannot tell you many things about Nikos. Antja and Marianne will tell you more about him. They were very intimate friends. But we can walk around the synagogue and explain you each part of this place.”

Christof brought me my coffee in a white mug and asked me about my research. At that time he prepared a report and a paper for the mikveh of the synagogue and its role in the femininity. “You know, water, feminine and impurity are very closely connected to Judaism. I try to highlight this connection in comparison with the paganist traditions for women and water.” The sun was shining and we got out in the courtyard.

Katerina asked me if I want her to show me the various parts of the synagogue. I accepted immediately. “Take your coffee and let’s go. Now, the synagogue is under renovation. It is a Romaniote Jewish synagogue. This means that Cretan Jews spoke the Greek language and not the Ladino, this Sephardi dialect.”

We walked around and she explained me the history of the synagogue. “After the Jewish community was perished, the synagogue was vandalized and later, the state completely abandoned the building. Until 1954, four Christian Orthodox families lived here and shared the building as apartments. After they left, no one took care of the building. We have a testimony from a very rich Cretan man who confessed us that “in the late 50s I had the opportunity to buy this property from the state. But it was a sacred space. I was afraid of God and of God’s anger.

We kept walking in the synagogue and I kept asking about the history Jews and how they left their neighborhood. “Here was the office of Nikos. We keep many archives, material and artifacts here. Nikos was a great artist. He was an expert in Islamic art.”

We moved to the mikveh. Katerina showed me a poster. “This poster was the first move of Nikos when he decided to restore the building. It is the poster with the 100 most endangered cultural sites all over the world. He managed to include the synagogue in this list after a speech he gave to New York in 1995.

All of a sudden, Marianne appeared. I noticed immediately her sparkling blue green eyes and her green shirt that was in complete harmony with her eyes and with her green earrings. I saw her standing at the door and greeting me with warmness. “Let’s sit inside the synagogue and talk. Have you prepared any questions?” “Of course! Many questions for you, to be honest”. I walked behind her and followed her steps totally hypnotized.

The night before our interview, I sat down and wrote clearly my questions. In total, I counted twenty three main questions. So many questions for her, for the synagogue and for Nikos. Will these questions be good enough? My big anxiety was how to choose questions. What did I want to show through this interview? I chose to select, gather and read some material for Nikos and for the synagogue one week before the interview. I printed the newsletter/jottings that Etz Hayyim synagogue sent out in September 2017, after the death of Nikos in May 2017. The newsletter included letters of Nikos friends from all over the world. I printed interviews of Nikos and articles from his friends and colleagues. Additionally, I found and printed information about the past and the present of the synagogue. Based on this material, I formulated my questions.

What I wanted to learn and was closely connected with my future Thesis was how an individual takes the decision to abandon his life and do something completely alone, without anyone else’s support. Where does someone find the courage to be a pioneer? Which are these qualities, experiences or background that made him dare? I started formulating questions with the hope that I could find some common characteristics with my own personality. I thought that if I found these common features, I would be more courageous.

My pages were full of yellow highlight marking and all these highlighted points struggled to become questions. I decided to divide the questions into three categories: 1) questions regarding Marianne’s own life and path in the synagogue, 2)questions about Nikos and his personality and actions and finally questions about the synagogue and the local community.

Marianne Vinther

I had visited the island of Samos in the last ten days of February. My husband is an army officer in this border line with Turkey and we had decided to spend some days together. The weather was rainy and windy. I remember raining all the time and we saw just some rays of sun on a rare Saturday morning.

That Saturday we got out of the house and we went to a café to drink my Moroccan mint tea and eat my favorite chicken nuggets. “I need to work a little bit. I will take my laptop to send some e-mails. Why don’t you take your own laptop to work a bit on the lightroom program?” Jim was an expert on photo shooting stars and nature and he learnt a new program for editing photos. We wore our warmest clothes and got out of the house. I opened my Gmail and started writing my email. I was afraid that I will never receive a reply. “Who is going to spare time with a master student with no previous experience? I wrote an email which took me about an hour. I said that I am going to send it and if their reply is negative, I will reconstruct my written speech and I will check what I did wrong.

I had to persuade them that Nikos and his work was very important for me and my academic work. I explained them my objectives and I gave them more incentives such as an additional article in my columns and my personal blogs in case that they would not accept immediately. I sent the email and we left the place for a walk in the port until the rain starts again.

Two days later and after a follow up phone call from a cafe, I received a positive email reply. They were eager to help me in any possible way. Marianne Vinther, President of the Board of Trustees of the synagogue and Antja Zuckmantel, Historian, both intimate friends of Nikos want to meet me whenever I am available. They proposed me to go there and meet them in person instead of a Skype interview.

I immediately booked my flight tickets for 14th March. “Too late” I thought but I will finally make it and I will meet my deadlines.

Antja has a lot of workload today. We are preparing a map with the Jewish presence in Crete and she is in constant communication with our fundraisers and with Jews who can provide us with related material.” Marianne told me and looked at me apologetically.

I was ready to listen to her words, feeling that she will paint a hagiographical portrait of her friend Nikos. Or not? In the recent newsletter of Etz Hayyim synagogue where she wrote the editorial, I read her sentence “…we can give this talented, intelligent, free-thinking man and it might be said, sometimes difficult man..”. A difficult man?

Ι decided start with questions for her. She fell in love with a man from Crete and she left Denmark. “The sea and the sun. This is what made me stay here.” Marianne is not a Jew. “I met Nikos many many years ago. I started helping him with the synagogue staff and I volunteered a lot. I was here almost every day. We had same interests with Nikos, especially the Ottoman art.” Marianne volunteered a lot in the synagogue. “For about 10 years, I guided people, I got involved in the fundraising and I became a part of this synagogue and of our community.” “What each one of us brought from his country, we brought it here.”

Checking regularly the activities of the synagogue, I had seen people from all over the world to belong in mind and in heart, in this synagogue and in this community. I felt that people need to feel welcome, need to open their hearts and their minds in order to become a part of this community.

I am not a Jew. Actually, I do not believe in God. But I am here to support all those Jews who find a place of peace and connection with God here. And those who are not Jews but find the same things here.”

The table of the courtyard that me and Marianne had our coffee and our conversation. The time I visited the synagogue was under reconstruction and workers came in the synagogue all the time.

Marianne was very careful with each word she used. She did not want to send out a wrong message. She was very sure for the message that she wants to send me. I saw in her eyes a very confident woman with a great commitment to her goals. Her words did not let me any doubt for the past and the future of the community.

“If you ask me if our interaction with Nikos made me a better person, I would tell you NO. Here, we all have our own personality and he could not change us”. “Wow”, I thought. Nikos had friends with strong personality. This is how I explain the success of this place. Each one could take the burden to lead the synagogue and do it successfully”.

Reading in the past months about moral leadership and activism, I had created a picture of a moral leader of him. A tall man with white hair and a walking stick, with strong speech who would be the first in the line and he would inspire everyone to try more and more. A man who spoke to people and they started taking action and breaking the barriers. A man who could unify people from all walks of life. This was the picture that I drew from the letters of Nikos friends after his death.

“Hahaha, no! Nikos was NOT a leader! Nikos was a normal person who had a lot of fears and blasted all the time!” I could not imagine him blasting or offending others. Last month I was in an exhibition for shared sacred spaces in Thessaloniki. The Etz Hayyim synagogue and a video of Nikos was there to surprise the visitors. A French film producer had visited them two years a year ago and made a short documentary for their story. When I heard his voice, I thought that a man in his age would be very persistent and courageous[1].

“Nikos should retire much earlier and leave space for the younger to take the responsibility of the synagogue. He could not understand that we need to expand and develop our activities. He was very strict with himself and with others.” But how could he create and sustain this community if he had these negative aspects? Sometimes, I feel that I am very strict with other people. If someone makes something, he must be a kind of super hero or he should be close to Dalai Lama perhaps. My friends accuse me of being very severe with the weakness of the human nature!

Georgia, what I am trying to tell you is that Nikos did not create this community. People who came here founded this community. Nikos was just here to welcome them, discuss with them all kind of subjects and share with them knowledge and experience. People who come here are people who feel that they cannot fit in somewhere else. Here they are free to share thoughts and feelings.” Ι started getting impressed by her sincerity. A cat with red hair came close to us. She stared at us and she climbed in our table. She nestled up and I was afraid that I will start drinking my water with her hair inside!

Nikos loved animals. I think, this is what I think..that animals were his antidote to loneliness.” How loneliness does might be felt, I wondered?

Our community

You know Georgia, many people focus on this community aspect. Nikos first and foremost, would like restore the building and revive the history of Jews in Crete. The matter of community emerged much later.”

Which were the features that made him be the center of the synagogue? I kept asking my questions as exactly I had written them in my notebook. I had decided not to record it. I kept my handwritten notes. I wrote only what I found especially interesting with key words. I wrote so quickly that I was afraid that later I will not be able to read clearly my own letters.

“Nikos was a very well educated man and he travelled a lot in his life. He knew very well what he wanted to create He was very sure for his steps and he had a lot of confidence. Ηe questioned everything and he discussed a lot”.

Some hour ago,Katerina had told me that in the beginning Nikos had to deal with many difficulties. Marianne confirmed me the same “The Central Greek Jewish Board and all the other Jewish communities did not help him in the beginning. They thought that he is crazy. Where is he going? There is no Jewish community there. He is the only one Jew and will we spend money only for one Jew?

In the inauguration day, representatives from all Jewish communities in Greece were there to honor the synagogue and Nikos effort. I tried to imagine how Nikos might have felt that day. If I were him, I would feel proud but at the same time I would feel like a stranger. Someone who made too much noise and attracts attention. I am not sure if he wanted to attract attention!

“The next day after the inauguration, Nikos came to the synagogue and prayed. Step by step, we made it and every Friday night we have the usual service prayer. In this way, with people knocking on the door and coming inside for talking with Nikos, a havurah as Nikos mentioned was created.”

Marianne would continue with the emphasis of Nikos on the interfaith dialogue. “Nikos was interfaith. He traveled a lot, he met many cultures and religions and he wanted the pluralism. He brought features of each religion in this synagogue, such as Buddhism. But he would like to make it a uniquely Jewish place open also to other religions.” I will never forget my enthusiasm when I realized that in 2017 the Etz Hayyim synagogue published an Interfaith calendar with the major holidays of the Abrahamic religions. “Oh, yes! Nikos was exclusively responsible for each details of this calendar. It was an innovative action.”

Marianne talked a lot. I did not interrupt her. I felt that she had a deep need to express all her thoughts about Nikos and about the synagogue now. I felt that she had been waiting for this time for many years. She insisted on the positive characteristic of Nikos but she put emphasis as well on his negative aspects. “He could be very offensive sometimes. But he was brilliant! If he wanted to do something, he would do it no matter what! He was a stubborn man.

Since reading the material for him, I wondered how he became a Jew. He was raised in a Greek orthodox family and he attended a Catholic boarding school. “That’s a difficult question. Nobody knows about this. Nikos was a very slinky man. The common story says that his mother, Anna Pinha was of Jewish origin from Istanbul. He converted to Judaism when he was young, 24 or 25 perhaps but nobody knows how and why. But Nikos was not observant or deeply religious.”

What impressed me more was how a non-observant man re-founded a synagogue and entered this place with lot of spirituality and love.

At some extent, this point reminded me. I was neither observant, nor religious. I am a Christian Orthodox but I do not trust this organized religion of my country. I am open to all religions and I could find peace whenever I am. When I first met my husband, he had asked me “If you do not believe or you do not attend regularly, how you have been interested in religions? Isn’t it contradictory?” “No, it’s not.”, I replied smiling.

After two hours of conversation, I asked her permission to visit the restroom. I heard her laughing as she guided me to the restroom. Getting back, I had some more questions. I believe that she got disappointed. She could stay there with me until night, going for lunch or for a walk later on.

“Did he admire anyone?” I asked her. “Admire?” she asked me back. I did not hesitate! Yes, someone such as Gandhi. Gandhi had been my alter ego for all these months of my master. “Oh, yes, he admired Gandhi. But Nikos actually did not admire anyone. He felt very proud to say that he admires someone

I have not been waiting for this reply. I noticed that she was thinking of something. “Mmm, but he admired only two people. Two very close friends from his university years. The first one was Kamal, a very close friend who was a lawyer in Bangladesh. He was responsible for the creation of the New Constitution and he suffered a lot from persecutions and jailing. He was a very passionate human rights activist.” I immediately thought that my views on friendships may be true. Your friends circle may have a great influence on you and your dreams and actions.

The second one was David. They had been also met in the university. David later became a priest and he went to Africa as a missionary. He was in touch with them. He asked them for their opinion and I think that he trusted them a lot. They followed each other.”

The time went by and we both started getting tired as the weather was getting crazy. For one second we felt hot under the sun and the next second it became windy and moody. The most important questions for me were the followings. In January and February 2010, some people put fire in the synagogue and destroyed a great part of the building and artifacts, books and material of great value. How did he feel and what did he do it? Did he ever forgive them?

“Nikos took it very personally. He was a romantic man and he was a visionary. He wondered “What did they do it to me?” I tried to persuade him that it was not personal. He could not set this border line between the personal and the synagogue. Synagogue was him.”

And what about forgiveness? “In the last two years, he said that it was an old story and he does not want to remember it. Of course he forgave them. What he did not forgive was that all these people that police found never went to court. And Georgia, I have to be honest with you. Both the local society and the local Metropolis did not want the synagogue here.”

Intriguing. I asked for his relations with other faith leaders and the Greek Orthodox Church. She laughed. “Nikos should be here and talk to you about this.” When I first entered the synagogue and I talked with Katerina, she told me about his relations with the Greek Orthodox Church. “You will find in the Municipal Library articles from our local newspapers, written by the Bishop Eirinaios or other priests who “cursed” the synagogue. They wrote about the “invasion” of Jews and in the inauguration, nobody came from the Orthodox Church as a representative. Even leftist politicians went side by side with the Orthodox Church.”

I was not shocked. It would be a traditional reaction of our Church. “Our?” Who am I and where do I belong? In my papers, I am a Christian Orthodox. But now I was here and I felt that I was a part of the synagogue. Should we put labels on people, especially when we have to specify their connection with God? Was I there as a foreigner, as a non-member of a Jewish community or as a friend?

Nikos had very close relations with other faith leaders. For example, he had many friends who were Orthodox monks or priests and he was invited to go to their monasteries and give lectures about the Abrahamic roots of religions. Also, he had very very close relations with the Catholic Church who is some meters away. You can visit the church later, if you wish. He was very close friend with a German lady who was Catholic and she brought him in contact with the Church. The Church invited him in the holidays or major events and vice versa. Let alone that he invited Muslims in the synagogue and had conversations about spirituality and art!”

Closing with the questions, I would like to learn if the local community has been changed through the presence of the synagogue here and the openness of Nikos. “Of course! People have changed. People know that here they can find a safe haven and they will not be judged. If the isolation of the fear is not a social transformation, then what is it?”

The interior part of the synagogue. In the end of the place, the door leads to the back courtyard, to the mikveh and to the office of Nikos.

I got up and I thanked her a lot. She got dressed and left quickly. Before she left, she went to the office to check if the staff needs anything. “If you need anything, please send me an email! We will wait for you in June, for the commemoration event for Cretan Jews And do not forger. What Nikos wanted was to turn down the boundaries even if he did not plan the next step. You know, the step after the boundaries!” I helped Katerina with our glasses and mugs and she came with me in the exit. “I can show you the Jewish neighborhood, if you wish”. We walked through the paths and she invited me to write an article for the synagogue. “It could help us to sustain the fundraisers that Nikos approached.”

I greeted her and thanked her for everything. I went to find my friend Michael and go for lunch. In three hours I had to go back to the airport. I walked and started thinking all these questions “Why this story should be heard?” Why? Because people have to learn that our societies have many identities. Because people have to see that any one of us can make a difference. You should not be rich, courageous or a super hero. I remember Marianne to tell me “Nikos had a lot of fears. He was afraid of everything. Especially of death.”

End note

Etz Hayyim depends on donors for its function and its brighter future. Marianne was very positive for the future of the synagogue and she and the whole staff of the synagogue will struggle hard to keep alive the vision and the mission of Nikos. If you wish to donor, or you know someone who wished to donor, you will find below the details: http://www.etz-hayyim-hania.org/ & http://www.etz-hayyim-hania.org/donations/

Additionally, you can find more details about the synagogue and Nikos work in the following links:

· http://jewish-heritage-europe.eu/2017/05/22/nikos-stavroulakis-zl

· http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/The-last-Renaissance-man-500803

· https://www.jta.org/2017/05/22/news-opinion/world/nikos-stavroulakis-activist-promoting-jewish-life-and-heritage-in-greece-dies

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