We are deeply saddened by the death of our longtime friend Nikos Stavroulakis, an artist and scholar who was the co-founder and former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens and the driving force behind the restoration of the Etz Hayyim synagogue in the ancient port city of Chania, Crete.
Nikos, who was born in 1932, had been in failing health for some time. His death was announced May 19 on the web site of the Etz Hayyim synagogue, where he had led a pluralistic Havurah-like community for nearly two decades and where a memorial service will be held at a date to be determined.
Tributes to him poured in from around the world (see below).
“The world of Greek Jewry owes Nikos so much,” Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director of Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum in New York, wrote on Facebook. “He will be dearly missed.”
Nikos was the son of a Greek Orthodox father from Crete and a Jewish mother. Educated in England, the U.S., and Israel, he was a Renaissance man whose expertise encompassed subjects ranging from landscape design and horticulture to Jewish cuisine. His books included a history of the Jews of Salonika as well as a Guidebook to Jewish Greece and a Greek Jewish cookbook.
Nikos co-founded the Jewish Museum in Athens in 1977 and served as its director until 1993. He then moved to Chania where he lived in his family home and and took charge of efforts to restore the Etz Hayyim synagogue, the only surviving Jewish monument on the island.
The synagogue was originally a church, built in the 15th century by the Venetians and dedicated to St Catherine. Conversion of the building took place in the 17th century, re-using parts of the older building and adding a barrel-vaulted mikveh. Prominent rabbis are buried in stone sepulchres around the courtyard.
The synagogue remained in use until 1944, when the Nazis deported the community’s 263 Jews. The ship on which they were carried, which was presumably en route to a death camp, was torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine, killing all its passengers. The synagogue was desecrated shortly afterwards and stood ruined for decades, even used as a public toilet.
After fifty years of neglect, Etz Hayyim was in 1996 placed by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) on its first “Watch List” of 100 endangered sites across the world, and also targeted as an initial project of WMF’s Jewish Heritage Program.
Nikos spearheaded fundraising for the project and oversaw the the building’s conservation, and the synagogue was rededicated in 1999. Since then, it has been developed as a religious and cultural center, including a reference library, and is also used for worship — by a community that Nikos himself said “accommodates Jews of every variety of self identity as well as non-Jews.”
After arsonists targeted Etz Hayyim in January 2010, he wrote on the synagogue’s blog:
“…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.”
“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.”
May his soul be bound in the bond of life — may his memory be a blessing!
MEMORIES AND TRIBUTES
We asked several people who knew Nikos to share memories or reflect on his life and influence:
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Samuel D. Gruber, President of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and founding director in the late 1980s of the WMF Jewish Heritage Council:
Nikos was a Renaissance man. He knew so much about so many different subjects – art, cooking, Judaism, the Ottoman Empire, and Greece – and had done so many things. He had a magnetic personality, his voice was mesmerizing, and he was such a raconteur. Even his letters, which were long typed single spaced recitations and meditations, were somewhat hypnotic. When I began work at the World Monuments fund in 1989 I immediately began to correspond with Nikos. He was founder of the Jewish Museum in Greece, and had documented (with Tim DeVinney) the synagogues of Greece, which they published in 1992. Nikos spoke at the Future of Jewish Monuments conference in New York in 1990. He led off the first session and of course there was no stopping him at 20 minutes … and no one wanted him to stop. From that came, a few years later, the WMF project to restore the Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania. Nikos did most of the important work on that project, but it was a thrill to work with him for a few years to raise the money, establish the scope of work, and promote the restoration which at the time was a rare undertaking not just for Greece, but for Europe. Eventually Nikos moved back to Chania, and over the years he greatly expanded the original scope of work to create a unique and vibrant multi-cultural, ecumenical and international center that still had its roots in Crete’s ancient Jewish history – very much like Nikos himself.
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Krzysztof Czyzewski, Director of the Borderland Foundation, in Sejny, Poland
A great man of the borderland is gone. Philosopher, museum-man, artist, writer, storyteller, and the best chef in the Mediterranean region….Once I asked Nikos what ‘ethos of dialog’ means for him. As his wont, he smiled wryly, and answered: “I came back and rebuilt a synagogue because I couldn’t get in peace with this story about a sunken ship of Jews from Chania. And beside that a ruined synagogue is an open wound for Crete, which by itself is a bridge between East and West — and being a guardian of that bridge is what I understand to be a Cretan. And when the synagogue was rebuilt, a group of old women knocked on its doors, three orthodox Greek women, dressed in black, asking if they can pray inside. I would not say I was passionately interested in intercultural dialog but I could not say “no” to them. After this, it was a kind of natural thing that I invited also some Turkish Muslims to cross a synagogue’s threshold. But later on somebody wanted to blow the synagogue up, and another time somebody set fire to it … And I had to fundraise again for the restoration of Etz Hayyim. This is how I became a man of dialog, although it would be more adequate to say: I am living in a fire of dialog!”
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Journalist Liam Hoare, who wrote about Nikos Stavroulakis for EJewish Philanthropy in 2014:
Everything about his biography suggested determination and tremendous vision, but the man I met also possessed a fierce intellect, a passion for and deep and broad knowledge of Jewish and Cretan history and culture, and a sentimental attachment to the island he made his home in the final years of his life. The mission of the synagogue he brought back to life—rooted in history and open to everyone, encapsulating the very best of Diaspora values—is as best a lasting testament as any man could hope to have. I feel privileged to have met Stavroulakis and wounded to think that Etz Hayyim must find its way without him. Greek Jewry and indeed Greece as a whole is in his debt.
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Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director of Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum in New York:
I first met Nikos Stavroulakis when he was in the process of creating the Jewish Museum of Greece, when the collection of artifacts were being stored in the synagogue in Athens. I had started my research on the Jews of Greece and was visiting Jewish communities throughout the country to learn more about what had happened to my own family in Salonika. I was fulfilling a promise I had made to my Nona Marika to find out what had happened to our large family from Salonika who had disappeared in the concentration camps. I heard about this man, Nikos Stavroulakis, who was collecting artifacts of Greek Jews from all over Greece. I had naively hoped that he might have something of my Errera and Russo families. It was not to be, but this is when I first became an admirer of Nikos. He […] showed me how important and powerful remembering can be.
Nikos and I went on to become friends […]. Probably, my most endearing memories of Nikos came from my visits to Hania, first shortly after he was successful in having Etz Hayyim nominated to the World Monument Fund as “One of the Most Endangered Sites in the World” in 1996 and, then, repeated visits as Nikos’ vision of the restoration became a reality. It was during one of those visits that I approached Nikos to help me apply to the World Monument Fund for Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes. I had learned during a visit in 1997, when approached by the then President of the Jewish Community of Rhodes, Alberto Kovos, that the synagogue was caving in due to dampness in the porous stone. Everyone told me that I did not have a chance, that Kahal Shalom looked “too good” to be considered. This is when I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life. Nikos said to me, “Marcia, what have you got to lose? All they can say is no. If you do not dream, nothing will happen.” I took my dream of restoring Kahal Shalom to the World Monument Fund and, fostered by the words of Nikos Stavroulakis, proposed Kahal Shalom to become “One of the Most Endangered Sites in the World” for 1999. We succeeded and the oldest still-functioning synagogue in Greece was saved from destruction.
During this time, I was fortunate to be treated to Nikos’ cooking and to marvel at his library but, by far, the most important gifts Nikos gave to me were his encouragement and the knowledge that you have to be a little crazy and very obsessed to do what we do. Thank you Nikos. May your memory be Eternal.
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