“Greek Jews Holocaust Survivors: A Visual Narrative”, Instituto Cervantes (held by the Jewish Museum of Greece and Instituto Cervantes, 20/1/2016 – 20/3/2016).
GREEK JEWS SURVIVORS
“But we’ve lost what was really precious – his form”
C. P. Cavafy, Tomb of Evrion
It is an honour and a pleasure to be part of tonight’s opening of this exhibition by my childhood friend, Artemis Alcalay, and I would like to thank her for inviting me to share a few words. In the past few years, I have been following her artistic work with great interest. It focuses on Greek Jews who were deported to Nazi concentration camps and survived the experience. Hers is a work in progress. She keeps adding new items on a regular basis as more and more survivors agree to be photographed. The thoughts I will share with you tonight focus on how her artistic work intersects historical perspectives. I will attempt a historical reading of her work, so to speak.
Aside from being inherently moving, her visual narrative, with its 44 portraits of survivors, also paves the road to knowledge as it sheds light on the individual stories and the ordeal Greek Jews experienced when deported to Nazi concentration camps during the occupation. These survivors were mainly young people who were not sent directly to the gas chambers because they were deemed able-bodied enough to work. Some were held at the Bergen-Belsen camp, where there were no gas chambers and deaths were the result of hardship.
Their diverse places of origin (the exhibition is structured on the basis of communities) helps remind us how many Jewish communities existed in Greece before 83% of the Greek Jewish population was exterminated. It features names of cities, such as Arta, Preveza, Chalkida and Kastoria, where there is no longer a Jewish community at all. It also features towns where communities were re-established, though in considerably lower numbers: only a few dozen returned to Ioannina (home to the largest Romaniote Jewish community before the war) and Corfu.
Thessaloniki boasted a community of 48,000 members prior to the war. Only 2,000 of them survived; half were camp survivors and the other half escaped deportation, either by going into hiding or by joining the Resistance. During the years of Nazi persecution (1943-1944), the city of Thessaloniki lost all traces of Jewish culture. Being the largest Sephardi Community in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, the city’s Jewish community became a hub of activity during the 16th century. The community experienced a golden era under the Ottoman Empire following the arrival of the Jews that were persecuted in Spain. Sephardi Jews found a welcoming refuge in the Greek city, their arrival playing an instrumental role in its modernisation during the 19th century. The extermination in Thessaloniki was almost total (let me remind you that a horrific 96% of the population died). Hence, the faces that we see captured by Artemis’ lens tonight are pure exceptions. They are the fortunate ones who experienced the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, yet managed to survive and return home.
Nonetheless, they did not always return to their places of origin. The new places where they settled shaped the map of post-war survivor diaspora. Although some individuals from Ioannina and Thessaloniki returned to their birthplace, others settled in Athens, where the largest population of Jewish origin in Greece converged after the war. Others headed to more distant lands, where they formed communities that drew survivors from every corner of the world, such as the state of Israel, recognised in 1948. Survivors from Rhodes did not return; the post-war community in Rhodes arose from the relocation of Greek Jews from other cities in the 1950s. The more cosmopolitan among them (notably, Rhodes was reunited with Greece as late as 1948), those with ties to Italy, chose Rome and Milan, and other cities such as Brussels, or even cities on the other side of the Atlantic, New York or Los Angeles, joining the vast number of Jewish immigrants from Europe who flocked to those cities as early as the 19th century. This exhibition also serves as a history of migration. The Jewish genocide no doubt precipitated a new diaspora and led to the migration of survivors. This exhibition also takes up the thread of post-war migration.
THE CAMPS – THE DEPORTATIONS
An intermediate but decisive stopping point between the two locations – the place of origin and place of settlement – was the concentration camp; each deported individual passed through it. This passage would leave an indelible mark on each person and become a permanent part of their identity. Most survivors came from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, a forced labour camp and the preeminent ‘final solution’ camp. This was the destination for 18 of 19 transports that left the Thessaloniki railway station between March and August 1943, as well as for transports from Athens and the rest of Greece (except Macedonia) in March 1944. This was also the site of extermination for the overwhelming majority, including middle-aged and elderly people, men and women, young pregnant women, children, infants, teenagers, and the sick and infirm. Only a few thousand young men and women deemed useful for work were not sent directly to the gas chambers. Many of them were sent later, in the selections, or lost their lives in any number of ways due to the terrible conditions in the camp or during the death marches to other concentration camps. The 10 individuals from Thessaloniki shown in the photographs are among approximately 950 Sephardi Jews in the city who survived the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was the foremost extermination camp for the Jewish Holocaust, as 960,000 Jews died there; 60,000 of them were Greek Jews. Many transports from other cities, except those from Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, ended up there.
The other concentration camp where 11 of the portrayed survivors were held is Bergen-Belsen. Instead of an extermination camp, this was a unique type of Nazi concentration camp in that it had no gas chambers. Bergen-Belsen was a privileged place of displacement where very few fortunate Sephardis who were Spanish citizens were taken under the protection of the Spanish state (that is why they are depicted showing us the valuable documents that saved them). The country that had banished Jews and Muslims in 1492 with a decree issued by Catholic monarchs wishing to preserve Catholicism in Spain ultimately saved 520 Sephardi Jews of Greece in 1943 by granting them Spanish citizenship (365 were from Thessaloniki and 155 from Athens). This did not happen because Franco’s Spain had really taken an interest in them – after all Spain was neutral during the war. It happened at the initiative and thanks to the perseverance of the Consul-General of Spain in Athens, Sebastián Romero Radigales, who, by engaging in tough negotiations, personally managed to delay the deportation of Spanish Jews. They were ultimately transported on 2 August 1943 to Bergen-Belsen, along with members of the Jewish Council, the Rabbi of Thessaloniki and their families. The exhibition includes photographs of two children from these families who, had they reached Auschwitz, would have been sent directly to the gas chambers as all children were. Again, thanks to his intervention, Spanish Thessalonians arrived on Spanish soil in February 1944 and remained in Barcelona until July 1944, when they were forced to leave for Palestine. Aside from two people, the rest survived. Those from Thessaloniki immigrated to Palestine, while those from Athens moved mainly to Paris and Brussels. Very few chose to return to Greece after the war. In February 2014 (70 years later), Yad Vashem awarded Radigales posthumously with the honorific “Righteous Among the Nations” thanks to the persistent efforts of survivors such as Thessalonian French Jew Isaac Revah, a child at the time, whose life was spared thanks to his deportation to Bergen-Belsen.
Only one concentration camp is missing from this exhibition because no survivors returned from it. However, the absence of survivors does not equal silence. I would like to remind you that the first deportations in Greece started in early March 1943 at the Bulgarian occupation zone (Alexandroupoli, Komotini, Kavala, Xanthi, Serres and Drama) and their destination was the extermination camp in Treblinka, Poland. Of the approximately 4,500 people deported there, not a single one returned.
In closing, I would like to emphasise the significance of the faces that Artemis Alcalay captured through her lens. Their portraits are accompanied by a small house and their stories are incorporated into her own narrative. Thus, she manages to create a space of micro-history, where historical subjects obtain names and faces. Today, on the cusp of an era bereft of witnesses, our need to preserve these faces, their words and testimony has increased in inverse proportion to their steadily dwindling numbers. The figure of the survivor as a witness is more than ever an essential and invaluable point of reference. Their stories, whether written, oral or filmed, are now a vast corpus representing the living archive of the Memory of the Shoah.
Aware of just how soon we may no longer have the physical presence of these witnesses, who experienced the ultimate horror, historians, journalists, filmmakers and visual artists take great pains to preserve of them as much as they can. Artemis Alcalay has preserved “what was really precious – their form”, as Cavafy said, before it is lost forever.
And for this we are deeply grateful to her.
January 2016, Instituto Cervantes
Odette Varon-Vassard, Historian, Jewish Museum of Greece
Artemis Alcalay exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes, “Greek Jews Holocaust Survivors: A Visual Narrative”
“The life of others, as it comes to us in so-called reality, is not a movie but still photography. That is to say, we cannot grasp the action it involves, only a few of its erratically recorded fragments. All we have is the shared moments of presence with others, whose life we think we understand – either when they talk about themselves, or when they tell us what has happened to them or when they project before us what they intend to do. In the end there is a photograph album, with static instants. Never do we get to see the future appear before us, the step from yesterday to today, the first prick of forgetfulness as it spears into memory.”
Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch
Today, the Instituto Cervantes auditorium takes the form of a polysemous visual inscription to recount the lives of Greek Jews who survived the Holocaust with great sensitivity.
Visual artist Artemis Alcalay has turned her gaze into the piercing depths of the human soul to create yet again – perhaps unconsciously – a complex carpet woven from the red thread found in her works. But I dare say that the artist here has taken it a step further; she has woven herself into this collective carpet.
These photographs could be fragments of a powerful story. But art here is called upon to bring cohesion where life has experienced horror in all of its manifestations. Thanks to art, the inarticulate cry becomes word, a word that is deeply human.
Paradoxical though as it may seem, each individual story becomes universal, exceeding its own limitations to become part of a collective narrative that seeks to assign meaning and justice.
Artemis Alcalay has woven a universal song on an invisible loom that comes through every image in a subtle manner.
Dear visitor, we invite you to open your heart and hear the story that lies hidden in each photograph.
Marta Silvia Dios Sanz