Make Jewish life normal again in Greece

Thessaloniki’s identity is embedded in its unique history as a multi-cultural city with long enduring prolific co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, the oldest in Europe, was present in the city for 2,000 years and was the largest ethnic community of the city between the years 1492 and 1912. The fire of 1917 destroyed many of the Jewish buildings of Thessaloniki. After Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire, it made Jews full citizens of the country in the 1920s. During World War II, the Nazi Germans occupied Greece in 1941, and started to systematically persecute the Jews as they had in other parts of Europe. In 1943 they forced the Jews in Thessaloniki into a ghetto near the rail lines, and started deporting them to concentration camps (KZ)  and so called labor camps, where most of the nearly 69,000 deported were killed or died horribly as a result of the deportation. This resulted in the near-extermination of the community. The extermination of the Jewish community during the German occupation of World War II erased much of the city’s Jewish fabric. Only 1200 Jews live in the city today. Another sad chapter in the history of the city is the lack of support provided by the episcopat of Thessaloniki, which, in contrast to the archbishop of Athens, was not committed to their fellow Jewish citizens.

After a turbulent history, under the mayor Jannis Boutaris the city has resumed its responsibilities and established close contacts with the people of Turkey, Israel and especially the Jewish world population. Especially in difficult Turkish, Greek and European times, the close contact for freedom, peace and prosperity is necessary and conducive.

In particular, David Saltiel, the president of the religious community, had a dream and made a prominent contribution to the new development of Jewish life.  A recommendation and a must when visiting the city is definitely the 2001 founded Jewish Museum in the heart of the old town. Following discussions with Gaiose SA, the organization that manages the real estate property of the Railway Organization of Greece, and the Municipality of Thessaloniki, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki signed end of 2013, a Memorandum of understanding for the development of a Memorial Center on Holocaust Education Remembrance and Research.

For the German government, it should be a special obligation, honour and only a small helping hand, to successfully support the establishment and maintenance of this planned memorial site and cultural center. At the same time, the funds promised to Saltiel by the German government and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation have led to controversy within the community, since many people do not want to end the catastrophic chapter of the mass murder of the Thessalian Jews with a relatively modest donation. It is to be hoped that both Saltiel’s commitment and the legitimate demand for further work can finally progress. It is estimated that the project will cost a total of almost 30 million euros. The cultural foundation of the Greek ship-owner Niarchos wants to contribute ten million euros. Millions more are to come from American and French clubs. And the German Bundestag decided to promote the construction project with another ten million euros. Half of this has already been paid out.

By offering the city of Thessaloniki a new public monument, the proposed Holocaust Memorial & Human Rights Educational Center seeks to commemorate the devastating fate of the Jewish community, but also to recount its cultural history and rejuvenation after World War II, and to host an open forum for multi-cultural education and forward-looking dialogs between various identity groups.

Cultural Scene – Greece

Almost forty years after the fall of the dictatorship Greece is a blossoming democratic state, member of the EU, has already experienced his first immigration wave and now tries to find his new role on the map of the world. Also the contemporary art has profited from this situation and blossoms for about twenty years increasingly. The absence of an intelligent and well structured policy for the promotion of contemporary art, the financially poor public promotion, the lack of institutions and of necessarily infrastructure for contemporary art has isolated living culture of Greece and artists long time from the international mainstream. Still before a very short time one understood the visual arts (and culture generally) as a kind of tradition which was, however, closed in itself and ethnocentric and in which academic axioms like "Hellenism" and the admiration of the antiquity took a high value.
Against it one saw "advanced" Greek art almost only abroad (from artists like Kounellis, Samara or Takis), at home hold it an edge existence. Only in the very last time the knowledge asserts itself with difficulty that art is a must for cultures identity, exactly in relation while it based on experiences which itself will get to know directly.

The today's Greek society has assimilated mediterrane and oriental influence as well as western lifestyle and western consumer behaviour. In spite of traditional traditions, more narrowly family connections and a conservative mighty orthodox church Greece is already a country oriented absolutely to the west. During the last years a lot has done, in particular thanks to private initiative and privately financial support. New showrooms, galleries and artist's initiatives, and two state museums in Athens and Thessaloniki, the two biggest Greek cities in which all most the artistic activities concentrate for contemporary art, were established. The growing cultural scene is determined, above all, by the big collectors, private museums and a germinating gallery scene and is anew animated. Even the artfair of Athens (Art Athina), the yearly shop-window of local art trade with increasing international participation, was brought to life in 1994 from a private initiative of engaged gallery owners.

Another leading figure in the art scene was his former multi-billionaire's colleague Dimitris Pieridis also coming from Cyprus, his activities, nevertheless, reach from the antiquity up to rather less supported contemporary Greek art. Vlassis Frissiras is one of the 10 most significant art collectors of the world and a profilic promoter of contemporary art. His museum shows important works of Greek art and more than 3000 examples of international contemporary art like of Peter Blake, Frank Auerbach, David Hockney, to Paola Rego, Jean Rustin, Pat Andrea, Valerio Adami, Mimo Paladino, Antonio Segui u.v.a. Farther significant collections and private institutes are the Lambrakis Research Foundation and the Basil and Elis Goulandris Foundation.

In comparison to Athens the artscene of Thessaloniki is less spectacularly, without a jet set character. But on the other side, here in the centre of the South-east European cultures and economic movements the people are related more to substance and look more to their own cultural identity. This was maybe one reason, why the incomparable collection with works of Russian avant-garde artists of the Greek George Costakis (1913-1990), formerly resident of Moscow and one of the most significant collectors of the 20th century, came to Thessaloniki. Art Forum Culture Foundation is hosted since 1996 in Thessaloniki as well.  The Museum of Modern art, inside the fair ground of Helexpo, holds a huge collection of international and Greek art, supported from the private collection of Alexander Iolas.

Just in spider of the Southeast, in Thessaloniki, the resumption of cultural priority and a suitable promotion can carry on not only the economic development, but also be a guarantor for an international common language. Outgoing from the knowledge that blossoming cultures and growing national economies cause itself mutually,  the missing or otherwise used official support is of course still a not satisfactory brake moment.

At the moment originate some fine collections with international and Greek contemporary art. Thus The Thessaloniki Museum of Photography is just the only museum devoted to this prospering medium in Greece - and one of just a few of its kind in Europe. From determining influence in this region and further on is also the gallery-conglomerate Tsatsis Projects / Artforum, one of the most significant Galleries generally in Greece. The narrow co-operation to Artforum Culture Foundation enables in common strain to be involved in central area of contemporary culture. Pantelis Tsatsis founded as well 2016 the now leading artfair of Greece: Art Thessaloniki.

Also the audience grows bit by bit for contemporary art, however, the market for such works is still small. It corresponds to an order of logic that on the opening to contemporary culture in the country itself, in the end, will follow also the interest abroad. Besides, the extension of the art understanding will contribute to the self-esteem also of the Greeks and the people of the greater area all over the world. Besides, stylistic questions are, actually, of secondary nature, it is determining which contents are transported. It would be to be thought absurd that an equalised art that means an art calls to western measurements would have future. Forms and colours may pass in a global world without shade, but spiritual penetration of life can arise always only from the own culture and landscape and will develop in confrontation to the unknown.
Kounellis formulated this in his charta, published 1995 in Milan, as follows: To make art is a need, then you find a language with which to construct an image, every age identifies with a new image, that nevertheless contains the past as imaginary and as language, albeit essentially reformed.