Telluride Inside... And Out On Crete: Meeting Nikos

IMGP2073 Telluride Inside… and Out's travels are as much about the people we meet as the places we see. And among the most interesting of the interesting we've encountered so far on our Greek adventure is Nikos Stavroulakis.

Jenny, the concierge at our hotel, Casa Delfino – fabulous, but more on that later – suggested Etz-Hayyim Synagogue and the old Jewish quarter as interesting stops on our tour of Chania's Old Town. She also mentioned that since her husband Alex worked at Etz Hayyim, perhaps he could arrange a meeting with the man responsible for Phoenix-like resurrection of the former house of worship. The interview with Nikos was scheduled for 5 p.m. yesterday.

The history of the Jews on Crete dates back to the 4th century B.C., just after the conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great,. The story comes to an unhappy end in 1944, when the Nazis deported the entire remaining population (somewhere between 265 and 500 men, women and children, our sources differ) onto a ship headed for Auschwitz. When the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine, everyone on board perished at sea. Since Etz Hayyim, once a 15th century Venetian  church, was all that remained of a 2400-year-old Jewish history on this island, Nikos felt  that the place had to be restored to snatch the last word from the Nazis.

Nikos's father was Cretan; his mother, Turkish from Istanbul. As a boy, he was educated at a Catholic boarding school in Wisconsin before going on to attend Notre Dame. So Nikos is fluent in Greek, Turkish and English (at least). 

For years, Nikos earned a living primarily as a painter and lithographer (Jacob Rothschild, a former classmate and chum, became one of his collectors and a patron of Etz Hayyim.) But Nikos is also an art and socio-political historian, who became a sought-after scholar on the lecture circuit on a wide range of subjects from Byzantine icons to Jewish history.

 In 1995, Nikos was invited to New York to speak at a conference on endangered Jewish monuments. In the audience were Ronald Lauder and a representative of the World Monument Fund. The latter wound up putting the synagogue on its list of endangered monuments, ensuring the preservation of the site. The former wrote a check for half the cost of the renovation.

Just after the temple reopened its doors in October 2000, Nikos reports exiting the place following his prayers and sensing a presence on his heels. He turned to see three stooped, aged women, dressed in black and carrying candles. When he asked why they were there, they explained that as young girls they had played in the temple courtyard with their Jewish friends. They wanted to light candles in their memory.

In the absence of a congregation, Nikos' vision for Etz Hayyim includes a kind of community center where Cretans can come for lectures and where Cretan Jews (he mentioned there are now about 12 on the island), Christians, and Muslims can come together to worship and talk. And such meetings have already begun on a small scale.

IMGP2077 Later that night at dinner, which included his younger brother Dori (a retired Olympic pilot), Nikos gave us a gift of a cookbook he had written, "Western Cretan Cooking."  Dori and Clint talked flying (Clint flew temporarily for Olympic in 1972, so they had a lot to talk about), while Nikos and I talked art history. Turns out Nikos is flirting with the idea of writing a story comparing the Byzantine courtesan-turned-empress Theodora with Eva Peron. According to him, their legends overlap in strange and interesting ways. He also debunked much of what is written and told about the Minoan culture, which he said was virtually destroyed by the Greeks, who have put a nail in the coffin with their revisionist history.

The opportunity to meet someone like Nikos alone was worth the trip to Chania, but the town has other treasures. To date we have visited the Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine Museum, the Naval Museum and the Maritime Museum, which houses an exact replica of a Minoan vessels created using the exact materials (cyprus) and tools used thousands of years ago. We also – again thanks to Jenny – purchased a book written by an eccentric local, Tony "Fenny" Fennymore, whom Jenny described as "the local Hemingway," and followed his walking tour. Among Fenny's highlights, a stop at Etz Hayyim.

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