Traces of the German occupation between 1941-1944 can be found all over Greece. It is estimated that half a million people perished, and the large Jewish community in the northern Greek metropolis of Thessaloniki, a city long known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, has been almost completely wiped out. The trail of destruction left by Hitler’s Wehrmacht led to the bloody civil war of 1946-1949, which divides the country ideologically even today.
Here in Germany, very little is known about the suffering Greece had to endure during WWII. A 2016 exhibition in Thessaloniki attempted to change that. Entitled “Divided Memories 1940-1950: Between History and Experience”, it was organized by the local Goethe Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Thessaloniki (MOMus), the Jewish City Museum and the NS Documentation Center of Cologne.
The “Divided Memories” exhibition in Thessaloniki in 2016
The exhibition was due to pass through Cologne in 2021. But the coronavirus forced the organizers to create a virtual scaled-down version of the physical event, comprising a dense network of everyday objects, historical documents, texts, biographies and documents. works of art that have been specially digitized for the occasion.
Visitors online can click their way through 21 different exhibition halls – spanning the Greco-Italian War of 1940-41 until the resistance and liberation from German occupation, to the history of the Jewish community of Greece and the civil war.
The mass of expertly organized information that visitors can access shows just how brutal the German occupation was. Through a kaleidoscope of snapshots depicting the darkest chapter in German-Greek history, visitors have the opportunity not only to observe past events, but also to feel them.
New ways to commemorate
From her office at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, art historian Thouli Misirloglou takes a look at Liberty Square. There, in July 1942, German troops rounded up some 9,000 Jewish men and tortured and humiliated them. Through her window, she can almost make out the Holocaust memorial in the distance. It commemorates the extermination of the city’s Jewish community. In total, 96% of the city’s 50,000 Jews were murdered in Hitler’s death camps.
Curator Thouli Misirloglou: Words of contemporary artists “long in silence”
Misirloglou heads the experimental art department of the museum and, together with his colleague Danny Zacharopoulos, organized the exhibition, which was not an easy task given the difficult subject matter. Anger still overflows among many of his compatriots at the lack of interest of post-war Germany in what happened.
But Greece is also struggling to understand its history. Its own nationalism leaves little room for the Jewish victims of the German occupation.
Through the eyes of artists
For Misirloglou, it is the subtitle of the exhibition: “Between history and experience” that it is about. The exhibition, she says, is about the personal and aesthetic experiences and approach to art and the fate of artists during the period of occupation and civil war. “The words of these people were shrouded in silence for a long time,” she explains.
Greece’s own ideological struggle between left and right, which culminated in civil war, continues to define the country’s public and political discourse to this day. Voices that do not fit into this speech have so far been largely ignored.
Painting by Yannis Tsarouchis titled ‘The Arrest of Three Communists’ from 1944
Misirloglou hopes that by approaching the subject in a scientific and aesthetic way, a process will begin which will permeate the prevailing ideological and political views and allow for a constructive debate.
The exhibition is not about collective mourning, but about individual experience; not on the statistics, the victims or the heroes, but on the voices of contemporary witnesses who have not been heard until now. Their perspectives aim to expand prior knowledge and shed light on collective trauma through the examples of individual people.
Small focus on Judaism
The city’s Jewish Museum is just 10 minutes from the port of Thessaloniki. It does not focus on the extermination of the Jews in Greece, but on their history and how they helped shape life there for over 2,000 years. It was its director, Evangelos Chekimoglou, who opened the virtual ball. But he is anything but happy with the title of the exhibition: “For us there is no shared memory. It is simply a fact that 45,000 of the city’s Jews were murdered at Auschwitz.”
Illustration from the Greek weekly ‘Ethnos’ showing German soldiers deporting Greek Jews
Chekimoglou says he finds it hard to really identify with the exhibit: “The Jewish Museum contributed only part of it. We have nothing to do with the rest. He is disappointed that more attention is not being paid to Jewish history in Greece. After the extermination of the Jews in Thessaloniki, the subject was not discussed in Greece for decades, he explains. It is only recently that people are starting to remember.
Germans also have gaps in their knowledge
German historian Annemone Christians-Bernsee of the Nazi Documentation Center in Cologne has repeatedly learned that the process of remembering and understanding is far from over, even more than 70 years after the end of the war: ‘I’ studied the history of the Third Reich and the intensive persecution of European Jews, ”she told DW,“ but the size and terrible name given to Thessaloniki as ‘City of Extermination’ was previously unknown to me.
A work by Greek surrealist painter Nikos Engonopoulos titled ‘Souvenir de l’Occupation’
The crimes of the SS and the Wehrmacht in Greece are a niche topic for German historians, and ordinary Germans know little about this period. “German historians only started studying the subject of Nazi involvement in Greece between 2000 and 2010,” Christians-Bernsee told DW. The “Divided Memories” exhibit is one of the first attempts to address the issue, she said.
What is new here is the emphasis on Thessaloniki and the depiction of the Greek Civil War as a consequence of the Nazi occupation through a combination of art, biographies and historical data: “This is of how people at the time experienced these crimes, the persecution of Jews, the withdrawal of the German Wehrmacht and the civil war that followed, “Christians-Bernsee said.
This story was originally written in German.