The Jewish presence on the Island of Crete is rather ancient, with records of a Jewish community in Crete going as far back as the early Roman Empire.
Living under the rule of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), the Jews were frequently persecuted. It is interesting to note that many believe that these persecutions led the Jews of Crete to fall under the sway of a false Messiah who called himself Moses (440-470 CE) and promised to lead the Jews back to the Promised Land, on dry ground through the Mediterranean Sea. Many sold their homes and business and, according to Socrates of Constantinople, followed him to the seaside and jumped off a cliff into the sea expecting it to part before them. It did not. Many perished, and Moses was never seen again.
Crete changed hands numerous times. In the 9th century, it was under the Saracens and then was back as part of Byzantium years later. In 1204, the Island of Crete was given to the Venetian Republic, and, as in Venice itself, the Cretan Jews were eventually moved into ghettos (ciudeccas). Similar to many other European communities, the Jews of Venetian Crete faltered or flourished depending on the particular ruler.
By the 16th century, the rising Turkish power took new interest in Crete (which they finally conquered in 1669). During one particular war, in 1538, the Jews of the Cretan city of Candia were accused of hiding Turks. The Greek population of Candia gathered to attack the Jews for this supposed act of treachery. Rabbi Eliyahu Capsali sought help from the Venetians, who intervened and prevented a massacre. Thereafter, the 18th of Tammuz (today) was observed as the Purim of Candia.
The Ottomans remained in control of Crete until it gained independence in 1898. In 1941, the Nazis invaded, sadly sealing the fate for this small, ancient Jewish community. In June 1944, the Jews of Crete were forced onto a ship, which was sunk as it left the harbor. Only seven Cretan Jews survived the Holocaust and the community has never been rebuilt, although the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in the city of Hania was renovated in the 1990s with the help of the World Monument Fund.
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