“A Study on Trauma, Memory and Loss: Greek Jews Survivors of the Holocaust”, exhibition as part of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018, Thessaloniki Concert Hall (28/1/2018 – 28/2/2018).
The title of Artemis Alcalay’s exhibition,“A Study on Trauma, Memory and Loss: Greek Jews Survivors of the Holocaust” tackles the overused concepts of ‘memory’ and ‘trauma’ in an immediately effective, palpable and precise manner, removing them from the realm of theory and giving them substance and specific content. This was made possible thanks to the fact the artist, Artemis Alcalay, who studied under Yiannis Moralis and Dimitris Mytaras, evolved from painting to a form of artistic creation encompassing visual media, photography and constructions with a variety of other materials, aiming to highlight stories of persecution, pain and uprooting through the faces of the people who went through extreme experiences: the loss of their homes, wandering, exile, internment in refugee and extermination camps. This particular exhibition is dedicated to Holocaust survivors.
I believe that, of all the arts, there are two which can best demonstrate the above-mentioned experiences: literature and the art of the image. In both cases, through both words and images, artists draw on their tools to compose a narrative, to reconstruct for us the inhumane and painful aspects of history as reflected on the faces of its victims. Indeed, we have come to know the Holocaust through books, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, and exceptional authors such as the Thessaloniki-born George Ioannou and Nikos Bakolas, as well as Nina Kokkalidou-Nahmia, among others, who wrote eyewitness accounts of the persecution of the Jews, making us feel bewilderment, empathy and compassion for these persecuted and tormented individuals. The characters in their stories experience tragedy in the milieu of their hometowns, where their lives are inextricably bound with their homes, the places where they were born and lived and which they abandoned without hope of ever returning.
Indeed, I place Artemis Alcalay’s photographs alongside these literary works, and would even suggest that they complement the latter precisely because the artist, like the aforementioned authors, uses her lens to recreate not just the faces of the Auschwitz survivors but also their residences or homes, turned here into visual motifs and symbols, unique for each individual, made of various materials such as paper, cardboard, fabric, loom woven cloth, wood and rope. By virtue of this combination of portraits and artworks, the artist doesn’t simply display their faces but also spins a narrative centred on the notion of home. Thus, she compels us to take an interest in their stories and journeys all the way to the present, when the now elderly survivors are photographed in their new homes, those places which shelter them and keep the nightmares at bay.
Undoubtedly, photography is a very powerful medium. Photographs confirm the past and convey it to the present. We look at a face in a photograph and feel as if it talks to us not only about its past but also about its present and, for that matter, our present. Photos become the meeting point par excellence of spectators with history through the faces and eyes of others. When you look someone in the eye with your own eyes wide open, you feel a secret bond connecting you with your fellow humans. As the Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes, you feel responsible for the Other. It is precisely this bond that anti-Semitism and all types of racism attempt to destroy and turn into hate, effectively deadening the moral centre that is the source of compassion for the suffering of others, our mourning in the face of their death, our guilt for being unable to help them.
I would also like to remind you that the enormous anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda machinery under Minister Goebbels was built upon the effort to undermine and misrepresent the real faces of the Jews and transform them into grotesque, repulsive figures in the German imagination, filling documents, posters and books with caricatures sketched by employees of the persecution apparatus. They printed and put up posters everywhere, depicting Jews with hooked noses and evil expressions in an attempt to convince people that the Jews were an inferior race who had no right to exist in Germany and Europe due to the fact they were contaminating the superior, ‘pure’ German race.
Photographs of Holocaust victims hold a prominent place at large Jewish museums in Europe and America. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has a special section, The Tower of Faces, displaying about 1,500 photographs of Nazi persecution victims up a long, steep, narrow corridor. Visitors are unnerved by the sight of history, confronted with the faces in these old, black and white photographs, reviving the past, destruction and loss.
Artemis’ photographs are completely different. They are dedicated to those who survived. They are recent and the subjects are now elderly, ranging from 74 to 104 years old. They are survivors, men and women from Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Arta, Kastoria, Corfu, Chalkis, Trikala and Rhodes. Many of them now live in Athens or Tel Aviv, some in Los Angeles. Artemis sought them out through acquaintances and Jewish communities in various towns in Greece, in their homes, nursing homes or workplaces. She visited them, talked to them, listened to their stories, built a relationship of intimacy, and then, with their cooperation, photographed them, these images becoming part of that affinity and connection.
The faces in these photographs belong to the realm of memory but also survival. Here, mourning is also linked to hope, denial of death, affirmation of life. And this affirmation is tantamount to the preservation of memory. Each face embodies the recollection of the members of an exterminated family, an annihilated community.
Artemis began this artistic project years ago. Her first exhibition at the Diaspora Museum a.k.a. the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv in 2014 featured only 21 portraits. Two years later, at a large exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes in Athens there were already 44 faces on display. And here, for the first time, she presents 64 portraits. The 34 individuals in the interior panel are from Thessaloniki; 13 of them were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp in Poland. Their distinguishing mark is the number tattooed on their arms. However, next to or behind them is the symbolic house Artemis made, a different one for each person. Essentially, the photograph forms part of a collage in which reality coexists with fantasy, history with fiction, fact with sentiment. The artist bring them together them and colours them with affection, by virtue of the visual symbol, the little house with the chimney. Collage, an innovative technique which flourished in Europe during the interwar period, is particularly effective here; it captures our gaze, fills us with surprise and curiosity, at once moves and perplexes us. We gaze at the face and then the little house, then both together. We see the survivors framed within this other reality, the reality of the artist’s imagination, seeking the ‘Miracle’, the joy of life, relief and liberation from pain, resistance to the darkness of persecution through colour and light.
Photographed beside them are 30 survivors who were taken to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp on German soil, without gas chambers, where death resulted from starvation and hardship. The survivors were saved thanks to the certificates and Spanish passports given to them by the Spanish Consul, Sebastián Romero Radigales (Spain was not occupied by Nazis). In Bergen-Belsen, prisoners were not tattooed and lived under slightly more humane conditions as they awaited transport to Spain. Here, the former prisoners are photographed with the passports and official documents to which they owe their salvation. However, their stories of uprooting are no different from those of the others. Their communities were also erased from the map.
Recalling the experience of taking their photographs, Artemis Alcalay writes: “It’s as if they briefly forgot the past, the present and the future, and became children again. You cannot erase the memory of the little house with the chimney. The archetypal house is understood by all cultures. It was a passport of sorts so I could be admitted into their world. Thanks to this little house, they opened up their hearts to me”. The calming effect of the shape, presence and symbolism of the little ‘home’, akin to a game, helped her avoid the pitfall of stereotypical communication, and led to a series of portraits, like allegories, predicated upon the concept of the geographical, family and spiritual ‘home’. The subjects found themselves in dialogue with their very history.
Significantly, Artemis Alcalay’s exhibition is now also presented at the Thessaloniki Concert Hall, an important artistic and cultural venue lately enjoying something of a Renaissance, boasting a rich variety of events. Particularly for Thessaloniki, a city that was once home to a multi-ethnic population, music is a fitting language, as it has no borders and expresses all the peoples who lived here and gave the city its identity and historical wealth. And it gives me great joy to see the faces of the survivors against the background of the bay of Thermaikos; it’s as if they are returning home.
Thessaloniki, January 2018