ROME (JTA) — The vandals who torched the historic Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania, an ancient port on the Greek island of Crete, left no doubt about their motives.
After breaking into the building on the night of Jan. 5 and setting its interior alight, they threw a bar of soap against its outer wall.
A bar of soap? That’s because, explains the synagogue’s director, Nikos Stavroulakis, “I’ll make you into a bar of soap” is a common anti-Semitic taunt in Greece. Since the Holocaust, there has been a persistent belief that the Nazis made soap from Jewish corpses.
Even though scholars have disproved the idea, bars of soap have been buried reverently in some European Jewish cemeteries under solemn memorials.
“In this place lie the remains of Jewish martyrs exterminated by German fascists and turned into soap,” reads the inscription on an obelisk in Piatra Neamt, Romania.
The power of this belief was examined in “The Soap Myth,” a play by Jeff Cohen that ran last summer in New York. Based on a true story, the play focused on the efforts of an elderly Holocaust survivor “on a one-man mission to get the ‘soap myth’ reclassified as fact,” Marissa Brostoff wrote in Tablet magazine.
But at the heart of the story was something much more.
What was at stake, Brostoff wrote, was “the way we choose to see the past, a struggle between a dispassionate approach relying on facts and figures and another, much more subjective one that holds survivors’ testimonies to be unarguably true and ultimately sacred.”
Anti-Semitic violence is anything but dispassionate.
The bar of soap hurled against the desecrated synagogue in Hania was a diabolically mixed metaphor: Soap usually symbolizes purity and godliness, but in this twisted context it spelled hatred and death.
The attack on the Hania synagogue was not just an assault on a building. It was an assault on the ideals that had transformed the structure from a wrecked relic of Holocaust destruction to a new symbol of community and compassion.
(A week-and-a-half after the Jan. 5 attack, Etz Hayyim may have been victimized by another arson. A fire early Saturday morning destroyed the wooden roof of the building as well as scores of books, four computers, and 300 CDs and cassette tapes of Jewish music. The damage was estimated at $43,000. The fire brigade investigating the cause has not ruled out arson.)
This transformation was accomplished largely through the efforts of Stavroulakis, a remarkable man who has devoted much of the past two decades to restoring a Jewish presence to a city made “Judenrein” by the Nazis.
I met Stavroulakis when I visited Hania in 1996. An artist, author and scholar who had co-founded and directed the Jewish Museum in Athens, Stavroulakis had returned to live in his family’s rambling house in Hania after many years away.
The synagogue, which dates back to the 15th century, was in ruin. But over the next three years Stavroulakis made it his mission to raise funds and, with the help of the World Monuments Fund and other donors, oversee the building’s rebirth. His aim was to make it a living spiritual presence, not simply a restored reminder of the past.
The synagogue now functions as a museum, and it hosts exhibitions and cultural events.
It’s also an active house of worship. A small Havurah community whose members include Christians and some Muslims — as well as Jews of all persuasions — regularly assembles there to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Stavroulakis himself leads daily prayers each morning, whether a minyan is present or not.
Prayers were held as usual at 9 a.m. Jan. 6, the morning after the arson attack. The fire had gutted a stairway, wreaked havoc on the synagogue library, and covered walls and precious furnishings with a thick layer of soot.
“Fortunately,” Stavroulakis said, “the fabric of the synagogue was and is intact.”
He was referring to the physical structure of the building, but I think he also meant that the symbolic identity of the synagogue also had survived — and would be maintained.
“We must be angry over what has happened to our synagogue,” he told the small group of worshipers gathered for prayers amid the soot. “If we were not, it would be an indication that we were either indifferent or morally numb.”
But, Stavroulakis asked, just where should the anger be directed? Local indifference and the ignorance that promotes racism had to be addressed.
“We have tried at Etz Hayyim to be a small presence in the midst of what is at times almost aggressive ignorance,” he wrote on the synagogue blog. “We have done this to such a degree that our doors are open from early in the morning until late in the day so that the synagogue assumes its role as a place of prayer, recollection and reconciliation.”
There is, Stavroulakis wrote, little if any sign of overt security.
“This character of the synagogue must not change and the doors must remain open,” he wrote. If not, that means “we have given in to the ignorance that has perpetrated this desecration.”
A week after the attack, the Etz Hayyim blog posted pictures showing that thanks in large part to volunteers, the walls of the sanctuary already had been painted and other clean-up work was well under way.
“The impact of this [attack] will be wider than simply an act of terrorism against Jews,” Stavroulakis told me. “Already it is being seen in a much wider social context that has to do with civic responsibility and care.”
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)