German-Greek Museum Collaboration Touching memories
“History is not a prison – history must be a school.” This statement by the Foreign Minister of Greece, Nikos Kotzias, gets to the heart of a current exhibition by the Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki. A number of institutions worked together on this Greek-German collaboration that reveals moving memories.
The large-scale show Divided Memories 1940-1950. Between History and Experience being held at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Thessaloniki outlines two courses of time between 1940 and 1950. There is the harrowing story of the Jewish community, which had about 50,000 members when the city was invaded by the Wehrmacht in 1941 that was decimated to 1,900 people by 1944 by deportations to concentration camps. Then there is the vicious period of the Greek civil wars, which began shortly after the end of the world war and led to the 1949 victory of the conservative Greek army, supported by Great Britain and the USA, over the leftist people’s front.
“This period of civil war is not a time for poetry,” writes the poet and painter Nikos Engonopoulos in 1948 in a poem that can be read at the MMCA. Next to it hangs an excerpt of his vital creative output, which, as the exhibition shows using the example of many of the artists of the time, was by no means hindered by repression, terror and poverty. The highly expressive painting by Engonopoulos is called Civil War. In bold colours it shows two half-naked women, one of which is pierced through with a spear. Close by are the glowing, intense black-and-white pictures by Life photographer Dmitri Kessel, who came to Athens with British troops at the end of 1944 to document misery and departure before moving on to Northern Greece to meet with partisans. “Civil War Breaks Out in Greece” is the name of Kessel’s photo essay that shows how the German occupiers previously systematically plundered, starved and humiliated the country.
“Divided Memories 1940-1950. Between History and Experience” grapples with the occupation and civil war in Greece. | © Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki / George Kogias
A living contribution to coming to terms with historyThe exhibition was opened by the foreign ministers of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Greece, Nikos Kotzias with over 200 invited guests. The two have known each other since their days as students in Germany. In his speech, Steinmeier directly addressed the occupation, saying, “We know what traces it left behind (...). We must never allow alienation or hostilities between our peoples again.” In the meantime, in front of the MMCA building demonstrators had peacefully unrolled banners demanding that Germany make financial reparations for its war guilt.
“We at the Goethe-Institut regard this exhibition as a living and tangible contribution to coming to terms with German as well as Greek history,” explains Peter Panes, head of the Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki, on a tour of the exhibition. The role of the Goethe-Institut as an intermediary, bridge builder and initiator between the Jewish Museum Thessaloniki, the MMCA and the German Historical Museum in Berlin (DHM), represented by Monika Flacke, was exciting and challenging. In the northern Greek metropolis, the collaboration between the two local museums is a creative premiere. The starting point for the exhibition was the concept of Myths of the Nations. Arena of Remembrance, which was shown at the DHM in 2005.
The curator of the MMCA, Denys Zacharopoulos, guides guests through the exhibition. | © Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki / George Kogias
“Every exhibit here is a narrative in itself”The curator of the MMCA, Denys Zacharopoulos, describes the orientation of the present show, which is neither strictly didactic nor theoretically instructive, but addresses the visitors’ sensitivities, saying, “We want to create a little space here between history and experience. This exhibition is not just about history between 1940 and 1950 in Greece, but about art and history. Every exhibit here is a narrative in itself.” It is a haunting presentation that follows a pathway along emotions and facts, along misery and hope. “We have only recently begun grappling with the past in Greece,” explains Zacharopoulos. “We want to enlighten here.”
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier holds the opening address. | © Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki / George Kogias As curator, Evangelos Hekimoglou from the Jewish Museum vividly and harshly depicts the fates of the mostly Sephardic Jews of Thessaloniki. After the invasion by the German armed forces in April 1941, the Nazis immediately banned the local Jewish press, confiscated hospitals, dwellings and schools, and imprisoned prominent members of the community of about 50,000 people, the majority of whom were destitute. Photographs at the MMCA testify to these demeaned people’s will to survive. They also suffered immensely during the Greek famine in the winter of 1941/42, which was triggered by German looting and a British sea blockade.
From March 1943 and after all Jewish assets were confiscated, the deportations began. By the end of June 1943, 17 transports to Bergen-Belsen and 16 to Auschwitz-Birkenau had left the old train station of Thessaloniki. Crowded onto the trains, the Jews lost their homeland and headed to their cruel deaths.
Providing answers and asking questionsThe local Jewish community has now named Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier an honorary member, which the latter considers “a miracle of reconciliation.” After the exhibition opening at the MMCA, the SPD politician visited Monastiriotis Synagogue where he was distinguished for his contribution to combating anti-Semitism.
The last German occupiers left Thessaloniki in October 1944. By April 1945, 1,900 Jews returned to the city. They had escaped the extermination camps, had hidden in southern Greece or had gone to the surrounding mountains to join the partisans there. A photo installation at the MMCA shows touching pictures of the people who returned to take part in the first free elections after the war in 1946.
“To whom should we tell all this? Where will we talk about it? Who will listen to it? Where should we portray all that we have seen?” asks Iakovos Kambanellis in his book Mauthausen. An excerpt from it is hung in the exhibition Divided Memories 1940-1950. Between History and Experience. It is an earnest attempt, supported by the Goethe-Institut, to provide answers in Thessaloniki – and to ask further questions.
By Harriet Wolff