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Closure on Crete

Ari Z. Zivotofsky & Ari Greenspan

It was back-to-roots bar mitzvah on the Greek island of Crete, where an idealistic rabbi united Crete’s last Jew with his tradition. How could we pass up an invitation to such an unusual affair?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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ROOTS AND WINGS Iossif Ventura was thrilled that Rabbi Negrin took charge, bringing authentic Greek nusach to his back-to roots celebration. We were happy to join the festivities (Photos: Ari Z. Zivotofsky & Ari Greenspan)

Although we’d never met the bar mitzvah boys or their parents before, we were thrilled to receive an invitation to what was surely one of the most memorable affairs we’d ever attended. The bar mitzvah boys were first cousins — one from Israel and the other from New York — and the venue was a 500-year-old restored but barely-used shul on the Greek island of Crete. 

This was the birthplace of the boys’ grandfather, and it was the first bar mitzvah on Crete since World War II. A historic synagogue, a meeting of family from two ends of the world, and a young rabbi from Athens pulling it all together was a combination we couldn’t resist. What other secrets would we discover on this once Jewishly vibrant island with nary a witness to its former glory?

The Last Survivor

While geographically distant from any Jewish community, this affair was run in typical bar mitzvah style — held on a Monday so that all the friends and relatives could gather and be able to take pictures. As is true of the overwhelming majority of Greek Jewry today, this family too is not regularly observant, but Greece’s chief rabbi, 27-year-old Athens-born Rabbi Gabriel Negrin had come prepared. He brought enough sets of tefillin for the two bar mitzvah boys, their fathers, and grandfathers, and assisted all who were interested in putting them on. The rabbi wore his special Greek rabbinic vestments under his tallis, and led a melodious Shacharis service — undeterred by the stifling heat (there was no air conditioning) and the people all around fanning themselves.

Rabbi Negrin, who spent several years in a Jerusalem yeshivah training for communal leadership before returning to Greece as the Jews’ spiritual mentor, read the first aliyah in the unique Greek nusach, and each of the boys then read an aliyah as well — which Rabbi Negrin taught them via Skype.

While we and all the guests enjoyed the bar mitzvah, by far the biggest smile was on the face of maternal grandfather Sifi (Iossif) Ventura, who initiated the idea for the celebration. At 77 years, he is possibly the last surviving Jew of the pre-war Crete Jewish community that was eradicated by the Nazis.

By the time the Nazis occupied the island in 1941, most of the Jews of Crete — which had Jewish presence all the way back to the time of the Second Temple — had either moved to the mainland cities of Athens and Salonika or left Greece altogether. But the Germans ordered a census of the remaining Jews and found 314 Jews in the town of Hania and 26 in the capital Heraklion. At first, the Nazis made a relatively benign decree — the collection of all shechitah knives. Then the Jews of Crete seem to have been forgotten about — until May 1944, when all those who had not fled were rounded up and loaded into the hold of the Nazi steamer Tanais together with Greek and Italian prisoners. They were headed for Auschwitz, but met their fate even sooner. The Tanais was spotted by a British submarine that launched two torpedoes and sank the ship within 15 minutes. No Jews survived. Among the victims were Rabbi Elias Osmos — the last rabbi of Crete — and 88 children of Hania.

Two other grandfathers came to share in the festivities — and the rabbi made sure to bring enough sets of talleisim and tefillin for everyone

Iossif and his family survived the war because his father got the entire Ventura family safely to Athens. Both Iossif’s parents were from families who had lived on Crete for generations, but in 1942 a Christian friend of his father who was working as an interpreter for the Gestapo hinted to him what was in store and implored him to flee. Abandoning everything, they stowed away on a caique, a traditional fishing boat carrying carobs. After a harrowing ten-day journey, the family arrived in Athens where they split up; Iossif spent the remainder of the war with a non-Jewish family, living next door to a German military camp.

Iossif clearly had a very limited Jewish education, but throughout the years has made attempts to study and try to learn more about his Jewish heritage. He’s a proud Jew, and even assumed the role of president of the Athens Jewish community. Iossif and his wife Rita raised their two daughters in Athens. Both girls eventually made their way to Israel, where Bianca met and married Dr. Robert Goldman and moved to New York, and Berry married Ran Lev and settled in Petach Tikvah. Their respective sons — Eitan and Benyo, who are three months apart — were reaching bar mitzvah age and Iossif thought it would be meaningful to have his grandsons celebrate together in the shul on the island of Crete, where he was born back in 1938.

Years of Plenty

Today there are just a few individual Jews on Crete and no organized Jewish community. But that was not always the situation. Known for its pastoral beaches, high mountain range, rivers, and waterfalls, Crete has actually had a Jewish presence for over 2,100 years. Located about 600 miles from the coast of Eretz Yisrael, traders plied those tranquil Mediterranean waters from the earliest days of civilization. There is even a letter from Shimon the Maccabee sent to the ruler of Crete in 142 BCE expressing support for the local Jews. Josephus, the famous historian from the end of the Second Temple period, married a Jewish Cretan. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 654)

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