Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Greece: The Ambiguous Holocaust Memorial Monument at Komotini

Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022. 
Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.
Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.
Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

Greece: The Ambiguous Holocaust Memorial Monument at Komotini

by Samuel D. Gruber 

I’ve recently written about Holocaust memorial monuments in the Greek cities of Thessaloniki, Chania, Volos, Larissa, and Drama. Not far from Drama is the town of Komotini. It has a similar history to Drama, but had a large Jewish population in 1942. Here, too, there is a Holocaust memorial monument in a town park. Sculpted in 2001 by Antonis Myrodias (b. 1963) and installed in 2004, today it is almost all that informs the populace and visitors that there was once a thriving Jewish community in the town. 

On the other side of town are the foundations of the synagogue which have been excavated near the Byzantine wall. This notable building was demolished in 1993. The mayor stated last spring that he would like to rebuild it, but this is likely just wishful thinking. But it does suggest that there may be more of the Jewish history of Komotini publicly acknowledged and presented in the future than there is now. 

Komotini, Greece. Remains of former synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

The Holocaust memorial monument is a tall, wide white marble structure set on a concrete base, with inserted bronze reliefs attached on each wide side. Carved lines are incised into much of the large marble block of the monument, intended to suggest masonry, and this broad monument thus stands as a wall with building blocks of different sizes; some with a smooth white surface and some that are roughened.  Actual walls or evocations of walls are common for Holocaust memorials elsewhere, but not so much in Greece which has favored sculptural monuments. For comparison, here is a 2019 wall type monument I saw a few weeks later in is a Košice, Slovakia. The Komotini memorial is both sculptural - there are carved figures - but it is also architectural.

Košice, Slovakia. Brick wall monument (2019) near site of brickworks where Jews were detained before deportation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022.

Deeply carved cubist and expressive figures are on each narrow side. One stands with hands overhead and recalls an atlas or caryatid figure; the other is crouched within the stone, and also seems to support it like another type of atlas figure. These figure seem self-referential, and unrelated to the events and people to be remembered.  On the north side of the monument there are no carved inscriptions, but there is a carved menorah. 

Rising from the ground on the south side is a separate raised stone plaque that gives the purpose of the monument:

In the memory of the Jews / of Komotini / who were exterminated in / 1943 / the year of the Holocaust / by the / German-Bulgarian / occupying forces

Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022

I’ll have to do some more research on this, but the monument may not even have been intended to recall the fate of Komotini’s Jewish population. In the 2000s sculptor Antonis Myrodias was competing for commissions for monuments for every sort of event. His c.v labels the Komotimi competition of 2000 in which he placed first as “Competition for the «Monument for the Communities of Komotini», Komotini.” Was this meant to be “Jewish Communities,” or did the purpose of the monument – but not its essential form and iconography – change between 2000 and the installation in 2004? 

What strikes me here, as it has in describing other Greek Holocaust memorials, is that the norm was to employ contemporary Greek sculptors, but not to seek out Jewish artists, or artists who had personal ties to the Holocaust. The Menorah on Fire memorial in Thessaloniki by Nandor Glid is the rare exception.

Greek town centers and parks are awash in sculptural memorials and monuments. A deeper look at Greek Holocaust memorial monuments needs to put them in this broader context. I will address this topic more when I write about the new Holocasut memorial in Xanthi, another Eastern Macedonian town near Drama and Komotini. 

In Komotini, the Holocaust monument is situated at a corner of Agia Paraskevi (S. Paraskevi) park, near junction of Andrianoupoleos Street and Dim. Mpletsa. It should be noted, however, that at a corner of the park further north on Dim. Mpletsa is the town’s giant “Sword” (Spathi) Monument, a 14 m. high marble stele that has a huge bronze relief of a giant sword. Ostensibly this commemorates Greece's victims of World War II, but because the monument was erected in 1970 during the period of Greece’s Dictatorship of the Colonels, it is also associated with that regime, and has been controversial for the past half century.

Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022










Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2022








Komotini, Greece. Holocaust memorial monument, 2004. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2004.
Komotini, Greece. Sword Monument, 1970. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2020.


Komotini and the Holocaust 

Komotini was occupied by the Bulgarians in April 1941, beginning a period of oppression for the Jewish community. The synagogue was used as a stable. About 400 people escaped in 1942 through Turkey to the neighboring islands of Limnos, Lesbos and to other regions. 

On the night of March 3rd and 4th 1943, however, 819 Jews were arrested and imprisoned in the synagogue. Three days later they were transferred to Drama, and from there taken by train to Lom in Bulgaria, from where they were put on river ships to Vienna of which one immediately sank, drowning a third of Komotini’s Jewish population. The survivors were finally taken to Treblinka in Poland where they were immediately murdered. Of the 819 Jews deported, only 28 returned. These later settled in other communities. 

The war destroyed the Jewish community of Komotini. It also left the architecturally distinctive synagogue in ruins, and it was torn down in 1993. The Jewish community of Komotini was officially dissolved in 1958. KIS in cooperation with the municipality erected the monument to the Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust in the city park of S. Paraskevi. The monument was unveiled on May 30, 2004.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

impressive research!