Saturday, July 9, 2022

In Chania, Crete, a Ship-Shaped Memorial and the Tragic Event it Commemorates

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

In Chania, Crete, a Ship-Shaped Memorial and the Tragic Event it Commemorates

by Samuel D. Gruber

This Sunday, July 9, 2022, there will be a commemorative event in Chania, Crete, to remember the  sinking of the Tanais on June 9, 1944 and the complete destruction of the historic Jewish community of Chania. The annual Tanais memorial service will be held at the Tanais Monument at Akti Miaouli, Chania, at 7:00 p.m. with memorial prayers by Gabriel Negrin, Chief Rabbi of Athens; His Eminence the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Kydonia and Apokoronos, Damaskinos; and Reverend Lucus Romani from the Catholic Church of Chania. After the memorial service Rabbi Negrin will lead another service at the Etz Hayyim Synagogue for the Cretan Jewish community which perished on the sinking ship.

The monument is not a great work of commemorative art and despite its prominent siting, it is easy to overlook. It does not announce itself in either size or form, but it is good that it is there. It provides a neutral space where Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Roman Catholics, can all join outdoors to remember the lives and deaths of more than 500 people - possibly much closer to 1000 - in June 1944. This is a case when a monument does its work - or some of it - when it is activated by a commemorative or other event.

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. The monument would work better if some bold lettering and meaningful message were inscribed on the base, instead of leaving it blank for graffiti. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

In mid-May I visited Chania. My main goal was to spend some quality time at the Etz Hayyim Synagogue, with which I’ve had a long association. I spent a lot time with  Anja Zückmantel who is charge of a small staff and a band of volunteers that keeps the synagogue open for tourists, but also help to maintain a weekly prayer schedule. There is no well-defined Jewish community, but the synagogue is regularly used by Jewish visitors as well as a community of sympathetic supporters who find spiritual and communal strength in its continuing operations. Together, for more than 20 years, they have created a Havurah, Some are resident, some are transient. Some like rabbi, professor, and distinguished scholar Nicolas de Lange come regularly to lead services for Jewish holidays. The synagogue looks good, and there is a lot of educational programming for locals and visitors. 

I’ll be writing more about the history of the building, and the restoration, as well as offering my two cents worth of advice on how this rare place and organization can continue to thrive – being many things to many people. 

Tánaïs sinking monument 

Now, however, I want to present the memorial monument in Chania that will be the site of Sunday's memorial service.  I was not aware of this monument until my visit. 

There is also a small memorial shrine in the synagogue which lists the names of the Jewiswh victims, but the Tanais monument is a public memorial, erected by the municipality and the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece.

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. From this angle the sculpture resembles a giant anchor. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

The monument commemorates all those killed when the Greek-owned, but German operated ship Tánaïs was sunk. The entire Jewish community of Chania was on board, on the second leg of their deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were headed to death but found it sooner than even their German captors expected. Also killed with them were hundreds of Cretan resistance fighters and Italian prisoners of war. the monument was dedicated in October 2013 to commemorate all the victims of the sinking. 

The memorial monument was created under the aegis of The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) and the Municipality of Chania and sponsored by the the Jewish community of Thessaloniki during the presidency of David Saltiel and by Mr Sabby Mionis. I was told in Chania that Dona-Lilian (Lily) Kapon, whose family had moved from Chania to Athens in the 1930s, was a leading force behind the creation of the memorial. The work is signed by Μ. Παπαστερπου (M. Papasterpou), but I have not yet been able to find out anything about this artist, or how he/she was chosen for the commission. 

The monument is located just outside the eastern walls of the old town of Chania in the Koum Kapu neighborhood. It consists of three parts. First, there is a large triangular concrete base with rounded corners that occupies a good part of the site at the fork of the two roads, one of which runs to the left along the edge of the port, and the other the runs along the line of the old town walls. The platform mimics the shape of the land plot, and the curved front reminds one of a ship’s prow. The front half is a platform that carries the sculptural monument. The rear part of this concrete base is wider and serves as a giant planter filled with greenery. The sides of this base were covered with graffiti when I was there. Leaving the space blank was an invitation - and also a missed opportunity. That low base wall is prime commemorative real estate. Some kind of bold inscription - or even something decorative or symbolic - could have filled that space and made the whole site more eye-catching.

The second part is the sculptural monument itself, which from the water side approximates the form of a sailing ship, but from other angles appears more abstract. From head on, the metal parts look something like a giant anchor. Metal lattice work on the right side resembles ship's rigging, and on this the artist has installed a flock of metal doves who seem to ascend upward - presumably these are the souls of the dead. The ship-specific form and symbolism in the monument only comes out slowly. One sees the form of a hull, an anchor, and ship’s rigging. 

Memorial monuments for shipwrecks are common in coastal towns and port cities. Sometimes, as in the Maine monument in New York City, they are given pride of place for memorial and propaganda purposes. For the Maine monument, the reality of the sailor's deaths is entirely forgotten in the bombastic classism of the work. Despite it shortcomings, fortunately the Tánaïs memorial errs on the side of modesty.

New York, NY. USS Maine National Monument, Columbus Circle. The Maine exploded in Havana harbor and sank on February 15, 1898, killing 268 sailors. The monument was dedicated in New York City in 1913.

But nearby in Chania, there is another monument to a shipwreck (of a terrible ferry sinking in 1966) on the other side of the port. I passed as I walked to the site of the destroyed Jewish cemetery. The monument is much more obvious - and I think more effective in making its commemorative point. The form itself is simple and bold, and the inclusion of an arm raised from the depths immediately informs the viewer that this memorial is about human suffering and loss. That pain is not felt at the Tánaïs memorial.

The third part of the memorial, and perhaps the most important, is a pair of small bronze rectangular plaques with commemorative inscriptions. Unfortunately, these are nearly hidden behind the sculptural monument. They are set low on the base and far from the edges, and thus very hard to read. One is in Greek and the other in English. Given their small size and their location, they are hard to see, and nearly impossible to read in bright sunlight. I had to climb onto the base and around the sculpture to get a good look!

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.  

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

  The English text reads:

In Memory

·       Of the Greek Jews of Crete
Men, women and children

·       Of the Christian members of the resistance

·       Of the Italian antifascist servicemen

Who died tragically in the sinking of

SS Tanais on June 9th 1944 during World War II

·       The Municipality of Hania

·       The Central Board of Jewish

Communities in Greece

Sponsored by

·       The Jewish community of Thessaloniki

during the presidency of David Saltiel                                                                 

·       Mr Sabby Mionis

                                    October 14, 2012

Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022
It  is good that there is a monument to this tragic event, and as an indirect reminder of the Jewish history of the city which is supplemented and amplified by the presence of the restored synagogue. The design of the monument, however, and especially the way it is sited and landscaped in this very visible site, could be much better. Even at its present size, the monument could be made more visible and to seem bigger. The explanatory and commemorative information could be much more prominent and explicit.  From a distance – and even close – there is little sense that this is any different from any other piece of contemporary abstract art.

This is not just a memorial to the Jewish victims, so it cannot be overtly Jewish, but when I first saw it I was immediately struck by strong Christian iconography. Ships and doves CAN be Jewish – they both figure in important Jewish Biblical stories, but Jewish artists have generally shied away from these themes since they were incorporated into the depictions of Jonah, and of Christ and his disciples, already in Early Christian and Byzantine art (the story of Jonah rarely appears in Jewish art). 

Perhaps a viewer less familiar with art history will see  the imagery from a fresher perspective – and if desired, from a Jewish one. In any case, for a memorial to the victims of the Tánaïs, a ship can be just a ship. The doves on the other hand must be read as the souls of the dead.
Chania (Crete), Greece. Tánaïs sinking memorial, 2013. Artist's signature. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022


Ryan Ver Berkmoes said...

Thank you for your post. I was writing about the Chania synagogue tonight and was researching Crete's Jewish community and found this post and its details about the memorial. I added it to Google maps, which would have alerted me to its existence if it had been in there when I was in Crete in August. Thank you.

Samuel Gruber said...

Ryan Ver Berkmoes, see this, too.