The Star Austrian Poet’s Tragic and Forgotten Jewish “Muse”

Only at the gates of Auschwitz did 'vivacious brunette' Hedwig Bernhard let go of the gift she received from Rainer Maria Rilke...

“...a friendship developed in walks along narrow trails through the forest…" Composite image of the Burgbach Waterfall near Bad Rippoldsau, where Bernhard and Rilke first met, and the only known photo of the couple (Sources: Alexander Migl [CC-BY-SA 4.0] / Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany)

An early disciple of Sigmund Freud, Dr. Max Eitingon founded the first psychoanalytic institute and clinic in Berlin. Following his death in 1943, most of Eitingon’s renowned collection of books came to the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) in Jerusalem, where he had fled following the Nazi rise to power.

Dr. Max Eitingon in Jerusalem, ca. 1930s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

One of these books, Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Images), was one of several works in Eitingon’s collection by Rainer Maria Rilke, a major celebrity of his day and one of the 20th century’s most popular poets.

Eitingon’s path crossed with Rilke’s after the poet’s erstwhile lover and lifelong mentor, the Russian-born writer Lou Andreas-Salomé, attended  a gathering of the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1911. She went on to study with Freud, soon began to practice analysis herself, and brought Rilke with her to the following psychoanalytic congress two years later. But Rilke – despite his recurring bouts of depression – rebuffed her entreaties to be analyzed.

Some three decades later, a copy of Das Buch der Bilder was found at the gates of Auschwitz. It had an inscription from Rilke to another woman, who had been a patient of Eitingon’s. The book was picked up by a guard and its postwar discovery caused a stir, yet little attention was paid to the woman’s own tragic story.


A vivacious, melancholy brunette

Hedwig Bernhard, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Berlin, was mentally unstable enough for her parents to engage a companion-cum-minder.

Shortly before her 25th birthday, Hedwig Bernhard and her chaperone checked into the same hotel that Rilke was patronizing to overcome his own chronic depression and writer’s block.

Rilke and Bernhard had both taken to the waters at Bad Rippoldsau in the Black Forest to help assuage their ailments.

Bad Rippoldsau, early 20th century (Public domain)

According to Rilke’s biographer Ralph Freedman, she was “a vivacious brunette with a flush of youth but with a kind of searching introspection and sensibility that anxiously reached out to him.” Her self-introduction as an actress “on holiday from her work with the Luisentheater in Berlin” appears throughout the vast number of works on Rilke. She presents herself as an actress in a 1935 letter sent to Martin Buber, yet there is little to no other evidence of her playing on any professional stage.

These rare archival materials appear online here for the first time:

Letter and newspaper clipping featuring a photo of Bernhard, which she sent to Martin Buber, 1935. From the Martin Buber Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click images to enlarge

The Berlin-born physician Theodor Zondek, whose mother was Bernhard’s “lifelong friend,” would reminisce delicately that Bernhard “studied to be an actress but did not follow this career for various reasons” and “decided after an illness to visit a spa.”


A fateful encounter

According to Rilke’s biography:

“…a friendship developed in walks along narrow trails through the forest… In her diary Bernhard became eloquent about his soft, melodic voice, his small, fragile figure, his high forehead, and especially his eyes, which she compared to ‘two large, clear blue lakes’.”

Rilke scholars have debated whether Bernhard was for him one of numerous “muses,” or no more than a Kurschatten (spa shadow) – an ephemeral liaison so common at the time that it was “recognized as promoting the cure.”

Rilke and Bernhard at Rippoldsau railroad station on July 5, 1913. The photo was taken with her camera. (Courtesy: Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany)

During their last night together, Rilke inscribed two volumes of his poetry to Hedwig, adding new, handwritten poems that progressed in intimacy from “Sie” to “Du“.  On their walks, Bernhard had taken several excellent photos of Rilke. When he saw her off at the railway station, she apparently asked a less adept bystander to take a picture of them together. The resulting blurry photo is one of the only surviving images of Bernhard.


War and waning affection

Rilke wrote to her for several months – even asking her for copies of the photos to give away to others. But his interest waned. In May 1914, with Bernhard not (yet) willing to undergo analysis, Max wrote to his wife Mirra:

die Bernhard is melancholy…  I have to find a way to get [her] moving somehow.”

That August, World War I broke out.

Rilke’s publisher rushed a Kriegsalmanach for 1915 into print and it became an instant bestseller, featuring five new “chants” by Rilke, “invoking the Kriegs-Gott and calling for a banner of jubilant suffering to be raised.”

Depiction of the “Kriegs-Gott” (“God of War”) appearing in the 1915 Kriegsalmanach. From the National Library of Israel collection

Eitingon, an Austrian citizen like Rilke, had volunteered as a medical officer, and Bernhard sent him a copy (“how friendly of her!” he wrote to his wife Mirra). Unfortunately, it was ruined by stains from the holiday fruitcake that she packed in the same parcel.

Believing Rilke’s affection would last, she surprised him at another spa. But he was already involved with the next of his many “muses,” and stopped writing to her.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900. According to Max Eitingon, Rilke “understood the great, boundless lovers among women so well” (Public domain)

Hedwig’s mental state deteriorated and she called on Mirra to inquire about Max, who was away at war.

A letter Bernhard wrote to him still reflected Rilke’s attitude to Freudianism: Max reported indignantly to Mirra that Bernhard asked “whether in my wartime medical activity I had not learned to think differently about [psycho]analysis!” The question touched a sore spot for Eitingon, who had found no scope for analysis while treating battlefield injuries in his field hospital. But Hedwig soon sent “a disguised apology for her question,” which Max gallantly accepted: “of course I know well enough the expressions of ‘resistance’ [to analysis].”

He could but lament Bernhard’s “regrets that now, when she has become ripe for analysis, the doctor is not there.” As all military mail was reviewed by the censors, he added discreetly, “…the hopelessness of her relationship with R— e compounds Miss B’s condition.”

Hedwig regularly visited Mirra Eitingon, who could not but have felt some empathy. Seven years earlier, her own promising career as an actress in Russia and her previous marriage had been derailed by a doomed affair with a famous writer.

Mirra Eitingon as a young woman (Enhanced image / Public domain)

It had plunged her into depression, for which she was referred to Dr. Eitingon. A passionate romance at another Black Forest spa soon developed between Max and Mirra.

Now Max “agreed entirely” with his wife’s intuitive ideas of how to support Bernhard. “Mirrinka,” he lapsed into their common Russian mother tongue, “follow the course of your heart, always tell her when something warm swells up in you while facing her. She is so receptive to it!”

Still, Eitingon could not bring himself to blame Rilke for Bernhard’s plight:

“This wonderful person… understood the great, boundless lovers among women so well… he must be powerless against such great hardship [as Bernhard’s], and must suffer painfully himself.”

A few weeks later, Mirra joined Max at the front as a volunteer nurse.  Whether or not the Eitingons might have helped Bernhard overcome her fixation on Rilke, she never emerged from the obsessive neurosis that Max diagnosed (remotely) as “a cage, of which the iron bars grow inward through the prisoner.”

Mirra Eitingon as a volunteer nurse in the Austro-Hungarian Red Cross during World War I (Enhanced image; original photo courtesy of Prof. Maria Mikhailova, Moscow)

Bernhard ended her diary upon Rilke’s death in 1926, and published some of it in an Austrian newspaper on what would have been his 57th birthday.

In the July 1976 issue of the Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain’s newsletter, her friend’s son, Dr. Zondek, recalled that:

“Hedwig Bernhard was a personality whom it is very difficult to forget… She often told us about these meetings [with Rilke] in her impressive way… She produced a box which contained a large number of letters from Rilke… they were her greatest treasure.”

Nearly a decade after Rilke’s death, in her 1935 letter to Martin Buber, she asks for the famous philosopher’s help promoting her oration classes, especially following the rise of the Nazis to power. At the end of the letter, she mentions that it was Rilke who introduced her to Buber’s work.

Little is know of her “theatrical career” or the rest of her life beyond an August 1936 advertisement in the Berlin-based Jewish paper, Jüdische Kulturbund Monatsblatter:

“Hedwig Bernhard, actress and excellent speaker, gives courses in breathing technique and elocution at her home.”

Before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1944, Bernhard entrusted to a non-Jewish friend the letters, diary and Rilke’s gift of a silk scarf.

She kept the books Rilke dedicated to her on her person until the threshold of the gas chamber. Together with some of his letters to her, they wound up in the German Literature Archive at Marbach.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Remembering Babi Yar When Others Didn’t

For two decades, one of the worst massacres of the Holocaust was all but forgotten

Early efforts in the 1960s to locate and identify remains at Babi Yar, where some 100,000 people were murdered just twenty years before. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Archive, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider).

On September 29-30, 1941, the Nazis and their collaborators committed one of the Holocaust’s largest massacres, murdering nearly 35,000 Jews in just two days at the Babi Yar (sometimes written “Babyn Yar”) ravine, which was then just outside of Kyiv, and which is now located within the modern Ukrainian city. More than 100,000 people total were murdered there in just two years.

The Babi Yar ravine. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click image to enlarge

Yet for years the memory of Babi Yar was in many ways forgotten – the result of efforts to erase and re-write history, as well as the fact that the role and images of the death camps often overshadowed the centrality that other mass murders, like Babi Yar, played in the story of the Holocaust.

In the 1960s this began to change.

In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem, “Babi Yar“, was published. An original manuscript of it has been safeguarded among the National Library of Israel’s collections since shortly thereafter.

Five years later, Anatoly Kuznetsov’s book of the same name came out, and a broader movement led by young local Jews interested in their own heritage and history continued to grow. The personal archive of one of the leaders of this movement, an engineer named Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant, recently came to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Babi Yar, 1966. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click image to enlarge

In 1966, on the 25th anniversary of the massacre, an unofficial memorial sign was hung at the Babi Yar site, which on subsequent anniversaries drew thousands of local Jews and would become a central force in the awakening of Soviet Jewry.

Grassroots efforts also began around that time to locate the mass graves in the area, something else which was certainly not a priority for the Soviet authorities.

Early efforts to locate and identify remains at Babi Yar, 1966. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click image to enlarge

Some of these activities were captured on film by Joseph Schneider, a Holocaust survivor, Red Army veteran, anti-Soviet dissident and Zionist activist whose archive also recently came to the CAHJP.

Joseph Schneider, 1960. From the Joseph Schneider Archive, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

These photos reveal the grisly yet critical early efforts to better understand the legacy of Babi Yar and remember its victims.

Early efforts to locate and identify remains at Babi Yar, 1966. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click images to enlarge

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People recently signed an agreement with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center to share information and resources about Jewish life in Ukraine before the Holocaust, a collaboration which will significantly help scholars better understand the stories of those murdered at Babi Yar.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Jewish Model from Tunisia

A rabbi, a moneychanger and a goldsmith meet in a German photography studio in the early 20th century. No, this is not the opening line of a joke. It is the beginning of a mystery, since all three characters are in fact the same person

It all started in 1903 when a German photographer named Rudolf Franz Lehnert arrived in Tunisia. Besides being a gifted photographer, Lehnert was also a bit of an adventurer. After crossing the entire continent of Europe on foot, he arrived in Tunisia, where he chanced to meet another European photographer named Ernest Heinrich Landrock. The two became enamored with Tunisia and the charm of North Africa and decided to set up a photography studio together called Lehnert & Landrock.

Lehnert crisscrossed the deserts, capturing with his camera the landscapes, sights and people, especially the women, of North Africa. The printed photographs in various techniques made their way from North Africa to places around the world. And the world, it seems, fell under the exotic charm of Tunisia. Later, because of World War II, the two moved to Egypt and documented it as well, before eventually returning to their beloved Tunisia.

Lehnert (left) and Landrock (right)

This article focuses on a number of these postcards which have ended up in the collections of the National Library of Israel.

While documenting the sights of Tunisia, Lehnert also encountered local Jews, whose different dress and unusual customs must have fascinated him and his clientele. He immortalized Tunisian Jewry with his camera, particularly the community’s customs and its women. However, a closer look reveals that one endearing Jew starred in many of the photos, becoming a sort of “in-house model” for the studio.

In a postcard from 1904 featuring the title “Rabbi,” we see the man photographed for the first time in the guise of a rabbi carefully studying the page of a book (possibly a Talmud):

Click to view in the National Library catalog

The next year, the studio produced another postcard, also titled “Rabbi.”

Click to view in the National Library catalog

Here he is again, this time wrapped in a tallit and tefillin reciting the morning prayers in a postcard labeled “Rabbi praying.”

Click to view in the National Library catalog

Another postcard from 1905 adds a twist to the plot: the “rabbi” has suddenly become a Tunisian moneychanger.

Click to view in the National Library catalog

And here again as the familiar figure of the old rabbi.  This time he looks straight at the camera.

Click to view in the National Library catalog

Perhaps our rabbi /moneychanger is in fact a goldsmith?

So who is the mysterious Jewish model in all these photographs, whom the two European photographers obviously found so appealing?

After this article was originally published in Hebrew, one of our Facebook followers, Victor Cohen, told us that this mysterious man is none other than Rabbi Yehuda Zeitoun from the city of Monastir in Tunisia. Cohen, a great-grandson of Rabbi Zeitoun, says that among his many occupations, the rabbi was also a goldsmith, merchant, mohel and a reciter of liturgical poetry. If so, it turns out, the various photographs simply document the rabbi’s varied pursuits. Cohen notes that Rabbi Zeitoun’s son, Rabbi Hai ben Yehuda Zeitoun, was the chief rabbi of the city of Sfax and was even awarded a medal for his work from the ruler of Tunisia.

In any case, the face of this accomplished multi-talented person became a representation of the figure of the North African Jew across large parts of the world.

Resurrecting One of the World’s Oldest Jewish Communities

After decades in ruins, Nikos Stavroulakis set out to revitalize Jewish life on the Greek island of Crete

Composite image of paintings by Nikos Stavroulakis appearing in front of a photograph he took of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue ruins in Hania, Crete, prior to the restoration efforts he led (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

Jews first arrived in Crete from Egypt some 2,300 years ago, perhaps as part of Egyptian military campaigns. A century or two later, they came from the Land of Israel during the Maccabean Revolt.

At the time, Hellenized, Greek-speaking Jews were establishing communities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, considered to be some of the oldest known Jewish diaspora communities.

Their descendants came to be known as “Romaniote Jews,” over time developing a distinct culture including liturgical traditions and songs, and speaking “Yevanic”, a Judeo-Greek dialect infused with Hebrew loanwords and written in Hebrew script.

A manuscript of Romaniote piyyutim (liturgical poems), 1853. From the National Library of Israel collection

Romaniote synagogues even have a distinct interior layout that differs from Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues.

Through ancient inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and other written and archaeological sources, we can trace some of the history of Cretan Jewry, which thrived under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman control, before being nearly extinguished under German occupation in 1944.

Today, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania is practically the only remaining testament on the island to the rich Cretan Jewish heritage, which spanned two millennia.


Ancient sources

Jewish communities on Crete are first referenced in 4th century BCE epitaph inscriptions from Kassanoi and Kissamos where, in the city of Kissamos, a “Sophia of Gortyna, an elder and leader of the synagogue” attests to the leading role of women in diaspora communities.

A community in Gortyna is described in the First Book of Maccabees (15:23) dating to around 142 BCE, when Gortyna was the most prosperous city in Crete. Although only fragmentary inscriptions remain in Crete, inscriptions dating to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE from an ancient synagogue on the island of Delos honor two citizens of the Cretan cities of Heraklion and Knossos, providing evidence of the existence of a Jewish community on the island during that period, as well.

Greek receipt for payment of Jewish tax, 30 August 110 CE (Archaeological Museum of Kraków / Public domain). Click image to enlarge

By the time of the Roman conquest of Crete in the 1st century BCE, Jewish communities were thriving in most of the major cities, including Gortyna, Kissamos, Hania, Rethymnon, Knossos and Sitia.

According to the renowned Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the larger Greek islands, including Crete, were “full of Jewish settlements” (Legatione ad Gaium, 282).

Jewish communities in Crete are also referenced in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles (2:11) as having been present at Pentecost (Shavuot) in Jerusalem, as well as in the Epistle of Paul to Titus (1-9:16) in which Paul describes the “Jewish Christians” in Crete. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE, Roman rule continued in the eastern part of the empire, later termed the Byzantine Empire, where its citizens continued to view themselves as “Romans”, a term that would eventually be associated with the Greek-speaking Jews, the Romaniotes.

Mosaic floor of a Romaniote synagogue in Aegina, ca. 300 CE (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

At the time, Crete was one of the 64 provinces of the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople. Jews are not explicitly mentioned in extant historical accounts from the short-lived “Emirate of Crete” (825-961 CE), established following the Andalusian Arab conquest of the island, but they certainly remained.

During the late Byzantine period (961-1204 CE), historical sources indicate that Jewish communities were not permitted to live within the island’s walled cities, but were instead required to live outside the walls as close as possible to the main city gates which offered protection in times of danger.


Into and outside the Ghetto

In 1204, after the sacking of Constantinople as part of the 4th Crusade, which led to the temporary dissolution of the Byzantine Empire, Crete became a Venetian colony called the “Kingdom of Kandia” with Heraklion (Kandia) as the island’s capital. According to Venetian accounts, Crete’s Jewish population grew significantly in the 14th and 15th centuries due to the influx of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula following the exodus of 1391, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and again after the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. It seems that these and other immigrant families were absorbed into the indigenous Romaniote communities through the adoption of the local language, culture and religious customs, along with intermarriage.

Map of Crete during the Venetian period, 1571. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

By the 16th century, the three main Cretan cities, Heraklion (Kandia), Rethymnon (Retimo) and Hania (La Canea) were flourishing under Venetian rule, their populations steadily growing and the economy thriving due to trade and shipping.

At this time, Cretan Jews maintained already-established communities in the three major cities, though they were required to live in segregated ghettos or quarters called “Zudecca“, where they worked as grocers, artisans, tanners, butchers, money lenders and traders of silk, metals, dyes and leather. They were also active in intellectual pursuits including philosophy and theology and many individuals travelled widely, especially to places like Padua and Mantova in Italy, where they trained as doctors, lawyers and rabbis.

The Jewish ghetto of Hania as it appears on a 17th century Venetian map (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana – Venezia / Public domain)

Alongside these urban communities were rural Jewish settlements, which produced kosher cheeses, wines, grains and citrons for both export and local use. By the end of the 16th century, there were approximately 1600 Jews in Crete who worshipped in up to nine synagogues around the island. At that time, Heraklion was the largest community with four synagogues. Hania had two: Beth Shalom (Sephardic) and Etz Hayyim (Romaniote), both of them located in the historic Jewish neighborhood of Evraiki.

The period of Ottoman rule in Crete (1669-1898), particularly in later years, brought economic hardship to the island’s general population, and as a result the Jewish communities in Heraklion and Rethymnon diminished.

Ottoman cannonball found in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue wall (Photo: Anastasios Skikos)

Many wealthy Jewish families moved to Hania, the new Ottoman capital of the island, and farther afield to Venice and elsewhere in Italy and to other Mediterranean port cities like Gibraltar, Istanbul and Salonika. Yet, Ottoman authority was also favorable to Crete’s Jewish communities, which were afforded some degree of religious autonomy, just like their Christian Orthodox neighbors, under the Ottoman millet system.

In towns like Hania, the former ghettos were opened and Jews were allowed to settle in neighbouring quarters where they were permitted to buy and legally inherit property for the first time.

This in particular may be what enticed Sephardic immigrants from North Africa and Izmir to the city at the time. However, by the 19th century, sporadic violent revolts against Ottoman rule in Crete led many Jews to emigrate elsewhere.

It is estimated that in 1817, there were 150 Jewish families divided between Heraklion and Hania; in 1858, there were 907 Jews on the island; by 1881, there were only 647 Jews in Crete, with the majority residing in Hania.


German occupation

The German occupation of Greece began in April 1941 and lasted until 1945. Following the failed Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940, Germany assisted its Italian and Bulgarian allies in their expansionist aspirations and invaded the country.

Crete itself was invaded by the Germans in May 1941 through a major airborne campaign, and the three main cities of Hania, Rethymnon and Heraklion were badly bombed. The Germans were met by fierce resistance from the local population and by the Allied forces, but they eventually prevailed and established their occupation regime in June 1941.

British troops in Crete prior to the German victory, 1940 (The Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

From this time onwards, most of Crete’s Jews, numbering only about 350 members, were residing in Hania where they increasingly faced restrictions imposed upon their daily lives. Some individuals managed to escape Crete for Athens during the occupation. Some survived there in hiding, while others were eventually arrested and sent to the extermination camps.

It was not until 1944 that the Hania community was to be deported to Auschwitz.

On May 20th of that year, the Cretan Jewish community was arrested and taken to a local prison for two weeks before being transported to Heraklion, where they boarded a German steamship, the Tánaïs, together with Italian prisoners of war and Cretan resistance fighters. The ship was to sail to Athens and the Jewish prisoners were then to be transported by train to the death camps in Poland. Due to the ongoing naval war in the Mediterranean, however, the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine not long after departing Heraklion and it sank with all of its prisoners in the early hours of June 9, 1944.

A British V-Class submarine, like the type that torpedoed the Tánaïs (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

Once the community had been deported, Hania’s Jewish neighbourhood was ransacked by the Nazis who also stripped the Etz Hayyim Synagogue – the island’s last remaining Jewish house of prayer – of its religious artifacts, books and the centuries-old community archive.

Etz Hayyim stood abandoned from then until the 1990s, when Hania resident Nikos Stavroulakis (an artist, art historian and founding director of the Jewish Museum of Greece) decided to rebuild and revive the synagogue.


Reviving Etz Hayyim and the Cretan Jewish tradition

Almost 50 years after the end of WWII, the fortunes of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue were to change thanks to Nikos, who managed to garner significant interest and funding to fully restore the synagogue in just a few short years.

Heading the work under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE), Nikos secured support from leading European Jewish philanthropists – including the Rothschilds and the Lauders – as well as numerous other foundations, agencies and individuals.

A drawing of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue by Nikos Stavroulakis (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

On October 10, 1999 the synagogue was officially rededicated by Rabbis Jacob Arar and Isaak Mizan of Athens, and Rabbi Yacob Dayan of Salonika. Approximately 350 people attended, with members of the various Greek Jewish communities, representatives from the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Hania, along with local and international dignitaries, including the German ambassador to Greece.


Etz Hayyim today

Since 2010, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue has been operated by a non-profit organization in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE). The organization is registered as a charity in Greece and – because Etz Hayyim does not receive any public funding – it raises funds for the maintenance and preservation of the synagogue and for the various religious and cultural events held there.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue interior (Photo: Manousos Daskalogiannis). Click image to enlarge

Today, Etz Hayyim is both an active place of worship where a small multinational and multi-faith group called the “Havurah” share communal experiences, as well as a vibrant community and cultural center that hosts exhibitions, lectures, readings, films and concerts.

Its small team of dedicated staff undertake ongoing research into the history of the Cretan Jewish community, while engaging both local and international school groups and teachers as part of the synagogue’s ongoing educational outreach program. The synagogue welcomes Jews of all different backgrounds and non-Jewish visitors, who can take a guided tour of the synagogue and learn about Cretan Jewish history and traditions, or attend regular Kabbalat Shabbat and High Holiday services.

Nikos Stavroulakis with Rabbi Gabriel Negrin from Athens (© Etz Hayyim Synagogue)

Two decades after its rededication, Etz Hayyim has once again become a fixture in the religious and socio-cultural life of Hania as a place of prayer, study, recollection and reconciliation.


Remembering Nikos

Nikos Stavroulakis, founding director of the new Etz Hayyim Synagogue and legendary figure in Greek Jewish life, passed away in 2017. The Etz Hayyim staff is currently cataloguing Nikos’ private collection of artifacts, books, documents and other items. The Nikos Stavroulakis Collection will eventually be made available to researchers and the general public.

If you have any materials (photos, letters, documents, etc.) relating to Nikos or his work, please email the Etz Hayyim staff: [email protected].


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.