Letter from Thessaloniki

August 15th, 2014  |  Published in *, Summer 2014

Cynthia Kukla’s photograph of the famous White Tower, a symbol of Thessaloniki

In April and May of this year, during my second art research trip to Greece, I had many long discussions about art and politics with my good friend, fellow artist and professor Xenis Sachinis. When he told me of the special circumstances of his poignant print series, Traces and Memory, and that he donated one of them to Aristotle University for the commemoration of the death of Thessalonikian Jews in World War II, I knew that I must ask him to write about this commemoration for Aeqai.  The dedication took place on May 1, 2014.

Kukla’s photographs of several Greek Orthodox Church interiors in Thessaloniki

 

Kukla’s photographs of several Greek Orthodox Church interiors in Thessaloniki

Sachinis has experimented with the nature of fine art prints and printmaking all his long career.  I especially note his use of the cut (into the plate) and its correlation to wound, trace and memory, as in the work of Lucio Fontana. The use of metal instead of paper as a print surface was a brilliant choice for Traces and Memory.  The marks/wounds of the arc welder cutting the metal plates is a powerful metaphor for Jewish suffering and death.  Onto each plate, he printed the color-coded sign for the specific inferior race, yellow for Jews, red for Gypsies, and so on. European critic and fine art print specialist Richard Noyce has written extensively about Sachinis’ art works. His recent book “Critical Mass: Printmaking Beyond the Edge” includes a Sachinis print on the cover. It is typical of Xenis Sachinis to mull over disturbing and timely events in his history and to continue to find ways to make poignant contemporary images that address his unwavering political and humanist worldview.

 

ART AND MEMORY

 

Professor Sachinis at dedication of his art work.

I strongly believe, and fortunately I am not the only one, that Art is one of the major means by which the values of memory are preserved and protected. Well kept in our memory are historical events that we can program and use to benefit our future. Memory operates on the personal level on one hand and on the social level on the other. The behavior of the society as a whole is formed by the personal behavior of each and every one of us. That is how the collective social behavior acquires its special characteristics, those that will keep the collective memory alive and hopefully will prevent humanity from making the same mistakes again.

Art always played the role of memory’s ally. Art directly or indirectly observes, criticizes and documents the events of the social and political life. This is normal because for me, artists are the most sensitive members of the society (I am referring to both visual and all other creative artists as well). The documentation of the present (that will quickly become the past) is done through the rules of artistic creation; the rules of aesthetics and those of the equivalent artistic realization also appear in music, literature, theater, or the visual arts in general. So besides the historians, artists are contributing to the preservation of the personal and the collective memory that concern historical momentum.

Sachinis’ art work at dedication

I live in Thessaloniki, in the Northern part of Greece, a city that now has a population of over 1,100,000 people. Back in the nineteen-forties its population was around 400,000 inhabitants. It was and it is the second largest city of Greece. In the beginning of the twentieth century the city had a multicultural society, situated at end of Thermaikos Gulf. Its beauty, its geographical location and its diverse society were always the strong points of the city. It is the south gate of the Balkans.  In April, 1941 Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany. That’s one of the most difficult and at the same time most paradoxical times in the long history of Greece. Difficult as it was for the whole Greek population, it was most difficult for the Greek citizens of Jewish birth.

In 1941 Thessaloniki had a flourishing Jewish community of about 55,000 people, poor and rich. The Nazis applied their tyrannical, racist rules for the final solution for the JUDEN FRAGEN (the Jewish question) to all Greek Citizens of Jewish birth. In March, 1943 the train transport of the Thessaloniki Jewish population began, to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland. The largest Jewish cemetery of Europe is located in Thessaloniki. When the Germans arrived they destroyed it and this how a large piece of land was “dejewficated” and it was “free” for use. The war ended and a handful of my Jewish fellow citizens survived The Holocaust. Thessaloniki is not the same any more. One of the most energetic elements of its society has vanished. The survivors began their trip and a new life in Israel or they chose to stay in Thessaloniki and rebuilt their community and their future.

This is the major historical event that provoked the creation of a series of art works named Traces and Memory, which I began in 1994. It can be easily seen that the artist, writer of this text, is very much interested in the modern history of Europe. He still tries to understand how human beings under the influence of extreme political systems can turn themselves into heartless beasts. The survivors give answers but still the scale of The Holocaust is so enormous that the question is still tormenting the writer. The series-Traces and Memory – is dedicated to all social groups who suffered under the Nazi rule and of course to the group that suffered more: the European citizens of Jewish birth.

The works were created on metal plates by the use of arc light that changed the substance of the metal and can be resistant to time. These scars of the arc light are the traces of the memory. The use of color is only indicative and they show us the different colors and shapes (triangles and the star of David) that the prisoners, those forced to die from forced labor and/or the crematoria or gas chambers, had to wear on what was left of their clothing. The arc light trace on the metal plate surface is a direct reference to the tattoo number etched on the inner forearm of the prisoners. The tattoo resists time as the traces on the metal plate resist until oblivion, since the wounds provoked on the metal plate surface will never be healed, just as the wounds of humanity’s dignity concerning The Holocaust will never be healed…and never should be forgotten.

After the liberation from the Nazis, the ground of the destroyed Thessaloniki Jewish cemetery was given to Aristotle University of Thessaloniki to build its new infrastructures, as it became the largest University of the Balkans. A dispute arose between the Greek State and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. Finally in 2014 the two parts compromised and the dispute was solved. The commemorative wall monument was erected in the entrance hall of the main ceremony hall of the Aristotle University. It was a perfect gesture because the new buildings of the Aristotle University were constructed over the grounds of the destroyed Jewish cemetery.

The Rector of the Aristotle University, Professor John Mylopoulos, met with a leader of the Thessaloniki Jewish Community, Mr. David Saltiel, and they decided to put one of the Traces and Memory artworks as a commemorative monument for The Holocaust in the entranceway. And it was put also to honor the memory of the Jewish cemetery that was so brutally savaged by the barbarians. A wall of small red bricks was built as reminder of the red bricks of Auschwitz. Traces and Memory metal plate containing the yellow Star of David was also hung on this wall. On the base of the wall the artist found and put spare parts from the cattle boxcars that were used to transport Jews to the camps in Poland. The monument was inaugurated during a visit from the Deputy Foreign Minister of the State of Israel, Zeev Merkel, and the Ambassador from Israel in Athens, Arye Elkin. The artist offered the work to the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki as a small offering to the memory of his fellow citizens who were so brutally hunted and massacred. It is a small contribution to the collective memory of his beloved city and a promise for the future that Aristotle University and the city will always be places not only of tolerance but places where different cultures can contribute to the conception and realization of a better life: a life based on the ideal of reason, The LOGOS in Greek.

Professor Xenophon Sachinis
Dean of the Fine Arts: Visual and Applied Arts, Cinema, Theater, Music

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

 

Cynthia Kukla is a painter living in Illinois who also writes about art.

Thessaloniki, Derveni Krater, 4th century BC. One of the most ancient important finds, housed in the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

 

 

 

 

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